Liberalism lite

T.F. Rhoden

Amos Yee. Photo: YouTube

Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore
Chua Beng Huat
NUS Press: 2017

Amos Yee, a nineteen-year-old Singaporean citizen, was granted political asylum in the United States at the end of September 2017. A video blogger and occasional provocateur, Yee found himself jailed in the city-state for two months in 2015 and two weeks in 2016. Yee has produced video segments in which, by his own admission, he has “bash[ed] the Singapore government” on one ideological point or another. The videos that have caused, not merely condemnation, but arrest have been diatribes against religion. An avowed non-believer, Yee has poked fun at the most popular faiths in Singapore, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. One memorable video shows the young Yee “humping the Koran” in protest against some of the text’s more violent strictures.

Arguing that Yee had a “well-founded fear” of political persecution if returned to Singapore, his attorneys successfully made the case to the US Board of Immigration Appeals that he be granted political asylum. For the US, a precocious rant on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram is blasé stuff these days — not to mention squarely protected under the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Any modern liberal democratic regime worth its name would have shrugged off the teenager’s online activity.

Though some of us tetchier adults might murmur that Yee’s commentary was in poor taste, those acts all fit squarely within the freedoms outlined within political liberalism. Yet, what might have been passed over for another teenager exploring and commenting on his understanding of the world about him ended up being considered an affront to the political harmony of Singapore. For the regime, the youth’s commentary on religion, society and politics was enough to place him under state detention.

Amos Yee’s recent turmoil may be a useful test case for deciphering Singaporean political society beyond the usual liberal, and somewhat lazy, critique that the city-state is “authoritarian”. To say that Singapore is not a liberal democracy — that Singapore is patently illiberal on some axiomatic elements of modernity — is easy enough. What is more challenging is to describe clearly the Singaporean regime, whilst not ignoring or belittling the fact that an absolute majority of Singaporeans over the last half century have continued to approve of a government that nakedly “disavows” classical liberalism.

Singapore has not always been against liberalism. Indeed, those liberal components that do survive within Singapore, particularly in how the island trades and communicates with the rest of the world, can be traced backed to its colonial history since 1819 as an important trading depot under the British. After independence in 1963, the island merged with Malaya to form Malaysia, only to opt out of the newly formed country a couple of years later to go it alone. The 1950s–60s brought unemployment between 10 and 12 per cent, along with threats of civil unrest, an attack by the Indonesian military and forced reintegration into Malaysia ever looming.

During these coeval exigencies, the People’s Action Party (PAP) was formed in 1954 with Lee Kuan Yew in a leadership role. The PAP consolidated earlier wins at the ballot box in the 1950s by gaining over 80 per cent of the vote in 1968. With varying, though continued, PAP success, Lee Kuan Yew held the prime minister’s office until 1990, embarking on a modernisation that propelled the city-state into becoming one of the highest GDP per capita nations in the twenty-first century. Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP were always practical in their modernisation plans, never fearing to be openly dismissive of political liberalism whenever it went against policy. Fifty years later, the PAP still reigns. For many liberal commenters today, Singapore is a “de facto one party-state” with the PAP as continued steward of illiberal governance.

Chua Beng Huat’s Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore is an informative and nuanced publication on this question of liberalism’s place in contemporary Singapore. The publication serves as a useful text on both the city-state’s peculiar politics and the nature of liberalism itself as it is actualised — or rejected — in the modern world.

Most fascinatingly, Chua’s exposition of what he terms the Singaporean regime’s commitment to “communitarianism” may lead one to reconsider the meaning of “social” in “social democracy”. After reading this book, one may even be tempted to argue that Singapore is — because of its rejection of many liberal tenets — not just a wayward example, but rather the best and purest example, of social democracy in the contemporary era.

These words are admittedly confusing. Classical liberalism? Communitarianism? Social democracy? State capitalism? They mean various things in various places.

These concepts are mangled to fit one normative commitment or another — regardless of whether that norm reflects a more liberal or more social bias. In the mouth of one political analyst, “liberalism” is a laudative, in the mouth of another a pejorative. And “neoliberalism” might be the scariest of all for the milksop, left-leaning academic.

Fortunately, Chua realises that these terms can be confounding. Befitting a book that has as its front cover the Singaporean skyline hovered over by the iconography of John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith (though no John Locke), the initial chapter defines a common understanding of political liberalism, in which the right to property, freedom of religion, rule of law, consent of the ruled and individualism are paramount. If any of these qualities have produced an “antipathy to liberalism” for Singapore’s ruling PAP over the last fifty years, it is the facet of individualism in its US form that haunts the most.

Chua notes that the PAP’s discounting of individualism was organic at first. This rejection was a historical contingency because “unlike other governments the PAP’s rejection of liberalism is not ideologically opportunistic. The party was founded as a social democratic party in the generally left-infused atmosphere of post-World War II anti-colonialism. The first generation PAP political leaders had their ideological misgivings about liberalism in general and excessive individualism in particular, from the very beginning … Given its expressed abhorrence for ‘ideology’, its communitarianism may be said to be a beguiling simple formula — ‘society above individual’ — in the governing of the economy, polity and social life.”

One truism of Singaporean “society” is its multiracial character. Multiracialism — as opposed to some liberal hoodwinking of multiculturalism — is the vehicle whereby “group rights” are ascribed the ultimate importance. Very much against the “natural” or “inalienable” rights of liberalism, these societal-type rights are opportunistically mapped onto ethnic Chinese (75 per cent), “Malays” (17 per cent), South Asians (7 per cent) and the “rest”, including some locally born Europeans. As Chua describes, “Everyone was racialized, without exception. Ethnic cultural differences among the citizenry were radically simplified to four racial groups — Chinese, Malays, Indian and Others (colloquially abbreviated as CMIO).”

In short, to be a Singaporean means always to be reminded of one’s “race origin”.

Race, ethnicity and religion, and the participation therein, become the constitutional foundation for rights, not the individual. For better or for worse, this kind of reified communalism is highly antithetical to political liberalism, as it has evolved practically in the West.

Amos Yee’s criminal offence in this political matrix thus make sense. The further Yee forwarded an individual’s critique of cherished group affiliations, the harsher the Singaporean state had to — by its very own constitutional strictures — react against and relieve any communitarian stress felt because of this one person’s actions. In this sense at least, the PAP has done an immaculate job of maintaining the “social” in social democracy in Singapore.

An additional point of common confusion about the city-state is capitalism’s role within its anti-liberal politics. A common appraisal of political liberalism is either that it is a natural outgrowth of a market economy or, the other way around, a market economy is born of political liberalism. Either way, the two go together so splendidly in the contemporary era that many view liberalism as a byword for capitalism and vice versa — hence, the term “neoliberalism” as a mostly pejorative way of referring to their easy cohabitation.

Singapore’s amazing wealth, its citizens enjoying a GDP per capita in the top ten of all nation-states, has caused some to reconsider the nature of both. Due to the city-state’s illiberal politics, do we consider Singapore a bastion of capitalism or not?

The most illiberal element within Singapore capitalism is its lack of property rights. The 1966 Land Acquisition Act empowered the state to do almost anything that was deemed necessary for national development. The result is that the vast majority of Singaporeans do not own property in the form of land — by the end of the twentieth century more than 85 per cent of the population lived in public housing estates. With nearly all land in Singapore nationalised, what individuals owned instead were ninety-nine-year leases on publicly built flats. The market mechanism of capitalism was allowed to function only in as much as Singaporeans traded these leases amongst themselves within certain guidelines.

Chua notes that Singapore did not have a model to emulate of this social democratic ideal of guaranteed housing in 1964, when it embarked on selling public flats. “In fashioning its own system, the sacrosanct liberal value of private property has been displaced by the national interest; the private interest of landowners was sacrificed for the collective wellbeing of the entire nation.”

The disavowal of these two elements, of individualism and private property, points against any critique that Singapore today is “neoliberal”. The city-state may compete on the global stage in a nakedly capitalist fashion against other international corporate entities — whether other nation-states or multinational corporations. But within the state, Singapore is a highly regulated market, one that values the social body over an individual’s liberty.

Given PAP’s aversion to liberty in this sense, there may be a temptation to reference Singapore as an example that counters Francis Fukuyama’s main argument in The End of History and the Last Man that there is no greater symbiosis than capitalism together with political liberalism. But like other nation-states that are ruthlessly capitalist on the global stage yet much more regulated in terms of markets and internal politics — like the oil-rich nations of Brunei, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia — there is a sense that it is living on borrowed time.

One of the strengths of Chua’s analysis is that it highlights for Singapore, as opposed to these other countries, the ability of the ruling party to absorb those demands for growing social liberties and return with greater success during national elections. Rights are still grounded in the social group in Singapore, but the PAP is deft enough to expand liberty in small pockets without breaking the entire system. It is an all too common critique to make light of Singapore’s democratic party politics since it does not operate on as level a playing field as parties in Western liberal democracies. Yet, it is the function of Singapore’s elections, however limited, to institute a fundamental release mechanism for citizen grievances. How much longer this can last is unknown, but Chua argues that it could continue indefinitely.

Against Fukuyama’s thesis is Chua’s acknowledgement that the People’s Republic of China has been courting the idea of developing its giant, billion-peopled nation into a copycat version of Singapore: not just a city-state, but the largest state of our time next to India, where a single party would be the dominate force and liberalism non-existent. Like Singapore, China operates a cutthroat state capitalism outside its territory but is highly regulated internally. Chua warms that “if China is able to successfully transform and institutionalize its state capitalism, despite its lack of democracy, liberal free market capitalism may be said to have met its match”. In short, this would be a future “Singapore writ large”.

An endlessly fascinating aspect of Chua Beng Huat’s analysis is that it forces the reader to re-evaluate what is meant by both liberal democracy and social democracy. The democratic side is easy enough, and Singapore passes the test here: the demos allow an individual or party to command national power. The People’s Action Party continues to satisfy this mark. Now the question becomes, does Singapore lean toward a liberal or a social conception of democratic processes? Chua does well to record all those facets that are not liberal.

However, many readers from the West may be reluctant to grant Singapore the title of “social” democracy. Perhaps this is because many social democratic parties in Western Europe still hold on to some notion of individualism. The social aspects of Singapore — where the welfare state is so empowered as to eat away many cherished liberties — may be too social for them. But this admission only goes to prove the point even further.

As the PAP has been arguing for decades, Singapore may really be the best example of a social democracy in the world today. Indeed, not to realise this as an apparent end point of any regime that disavows core tenets of liberalism says more about the commentator than about the regime itself. Chua Beng Huat’s Liberalism Disavowed is a reminder that, for the classical liberal, one does not need to label Singapore “authoritarian” to evoke opprobrium. As the teenage video blogger Amos Yee has learnt, the true liberal need only point out the “social” foundation of its democracy.

T. F. Rhoden works in international development and can be reached at
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