Anatomy of This Series of Blog Posts
This series of blog posts are collectively my book reflection on Understanding Singapore Politics, a book authored by Prof. Bilveer Singh. The series will be structured according to the flow of the book, sectionalised by myself based on my individual preference. As much as possible, they will be sectionalised based on the chapters in the book. As a general rule, every blog post will cover each chapter in the book. In every blog post, I will produce comment responses and learning points. In essence, this whole series of blog posts will be a structured collection of my comment responses and learning points throughout the book – hence, making this series of blog post collectively my reflection of this book.
Key Determinants of Singapore Politics
In the very first chapter of this book, Prof. Singh explained, in a very structured and textbook manner, the five key determinants of Singapore’s politics: Geography, demography, economy, political experience and heritage, and external environment. These are factors that undeniably shaped the politics of Singapore in the past, however, their relevance may be different in today’s context. It is therefore my intention in this blog post to critically analyse the relevance of these factors in today’s context, while primarily seeking to learn and formulate opinions on Singapore’s politics along the way.
Content Summary (Based on the 5 Key Determinants):
- Geography (Economic Strategies)
- Geography (Foreign and Military Policies)
- Geography (Conclusion)
- Demography (Housing Policies)
- Demography (Ethnic Policies)
- Demography (Military Policies)
- Demography (Security Policies)
- Demography (Civil Society)
- Demography (Conclusion)
- Economy Determinant (Economic Policies)
- A Rebuttal to Prof. Singh’s Assertation
- Political Experience & Heritage (Political Psyche and Hegemony)
- External Environment (Foreign policies)
Geography Determinant (Economic Strategies)
In terms of trade, Singapore is geographically blessed. It provided Singapore a comparative advantage in the shipping industry. This set the precedent for the Singapore’s government to expand the economic strategy of making Singapore the gateway of maritime trade to making Singapore the nexus of marinetime trade, aviation travel, information and finance. Government’s efforts have made Singapore “the leading communication hub and gateway to the region for air travellers while maintaining its dominance over both local and international shipping” and, I shall add, the “world’s third best financial centre” according to a global index reported by Straits Time last year. However, the continuous advancement of technology is eroding Singapore’s geographical value over time. The geography determinant in Singapore’s economy may hence become decreasingly relevant. Nonetheless, this advantage in the past shaping Singapore’s economic specialisation has deterministically spilled forward in history. With the infrastructure, reputation and expertise built in these sectors over the decades, firm foundations – which acts as intact comparative advantage – were established. The comparative advantage in shipping may diminish, but the comparative advantages that were built through these foundations will continue to remain intact. Hence, it is to my understanding that the geography determinant in the economic dimension of Singapore’s politics will become decreasingly relevant, but it has a base value that will not be eroded by technological advancement. This ensures the geography determinant’s continued relevance in Singapore’s politics, albeit its depreciation.
Geography Determinant (Foreign and Military Policies)
First and foremost, Singapore’s geography dictates that its military policy is directed against its immediate neighbours of Malaysia and Indonesia, primarily Malaysia. On the same note, Singapore is analogous to an island of chinese-majority in a sea of malay-majority countries. This permanent fault line between Singapore and its neighbours creates a fundamentally similar dynamic between Israel and the Arab countries in the Middle East – something which Prof. Singh did not point out. Justifiably, we can use the Israeli situation as a hypothetical reference to what Singapore will face should it mismanage its diplomatic relationship with its immediate neighbours. Singapore’s precarious geography has necessitated 2 levels of strategies: Diplomacy and deterrence. This combination may be a no-brainer for foreign policy but it can be acutely rationalised in the context of Singapore. Singapore may admire Israel’s ability to survive in a hostile environment but it does not desire its situation. A hostile environment isn’t conducive to economic prosperity and trade is the lifeblood of Singapore. As such, diplomacy is a cornerstone of Singapore’s foreign policy. Nonetheless, Singapore recognizes the fault line that exists between itself and its Malay neighbours. Here’s a track record to prove the confrontational dynamic between Singapore and its neighbours:
- Konfrontasi by Indonesia, leading to a de facto terrorist attack against Singapore in the Macdonald House bombing incident
- Historical animosity between PAP and UMNO – both of which are still incumbent in their own country – that culminated in the separation in 1965
- Malaysia and Indonesia’s military provocation during Singapore’s 1991 National Day: Operation Total Wipeout which Singapore retaliated with Operation Trojan
- Pedra Branca dispute between Singapore and Malaysia, with Malaysia now challenging a previous ICJ’s ruling that awarded Singapore the piece of rock.
- Water supply issue between Singapore and Malaysia
- Singapore’s land reclamation drawing protest from Malaysia and disapproval from Indonesia
These confrontations prove that the fault lines exist and the threshold for hostility is only right around the corner should Singapore and its neighbours deteriorate their diplomatic relationships. It is therefore an imperative for Singapore to engage in a second level of strategy: deterrence. Singapore pursues deterrence diplomatically and militarily. It seeks a robust relationship with the global peacekeeping power, the United States, and also as many other great powers as possible – especially China and the European countries. This effectively deters against Singapore’s neighbours as diplomatic backlash from these countries is a cost to be calculated in a decision to be hostile against Singapore. Singapore also spends unsparingly on its military asset to compensate for its manpower deficit. Ironically, this has sparked arms races in the region which compromised Singapore’s first level of strategy: diplomacy. Nevertheless, both deterrence and diplomacy as a two-pronged approach is still necessary because we should not be too complacent as a micro-nation that isn’t meant to survive in a Thucydidean geopolitical reality. And make no mistake, the geopolitical landscape is still fundamentally Thucydidean in nature. Economic interdependency may have increased due to globalisation, making war increasingly obsolete, but size still matters in terms of geopolitical consequences (see Ukraine & Qatar). Hence, it is in the best interest of the government to continuously tread on a thin line of optimum balance where deterrence and diplomacy can both produce the maximum effect of peaceful diplomatic relationship between Singapore and its neighbours – with deterrence and diplomacy increasing the calculated cost and opportunity cost of inflicting geopolitical damage on Singapore respectively. Evidently, Singapore’s geography moulds its own geopolitical reality, essentially dictating its foreign policy of high military spending and diplomatic cordiality. This determinant on Singapore’s foreign policy will likely continue to play a crucial part in the long-term as demographic differences and geography are highly permanent. A paradigm shift in governmental approach to foreign policies is also unlikely as PAP’s grip onto power remains firm and steady – not to mention that there is a bipartisan support of Singapore’s current approach to foreign policy in the parliament.
As an additional point, Prof. Singh also explains how Singapore’s geography is increasingly posing a threat to Singapore in the context of islamic extremism. As an eyesore for being a predominantly chinese island in the sea of malay-majority countries, Singapore is a high-value target for islamic extremism. This, however, affects Singapore’s domestic security policies rather than foreign policies – which I will cover separately under the demography determinant.
Geography Determinant (Conclusion)
Singapore’s geography is both a blessing and a curse – an economic blessing but a geopolitical curse. However, it would seem like it is going to increasingly become more of a curse than a blessing due to the decreasing relevance of the economic blessing that Singapore receives from its geographical location while its geopolitical reality remains a firm cross that it has to bear. Overall, considering Singapore’s geography as a determinant of Singapore’s politics on two dimensions, it was indeed a key determinant and it will remain to be so. However, it will be more of a key determinant in shaping Singapore’s foreign policies instead of economic ones. This is a subtle shift in dynamic that deserves consideration when making and analysing relevant policies.
Demography Determinant (Housing Policies)
Singapore is a multi-ethnic society categorised into Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others (CMIO). However, demography alone isn’t enough to explain Singapore’s housing policy. There are also two other factors at play here: PAP’s ideology and history of ethnic riots in the region. PAP’s ideology is multiracialism which contrasts with UMNO’s malay-based communalism. As the ancestral ruling party, PAP’s ideology shaped Singapore’s housing policy from the onset. The following are ethnic-based riots that serve as both an impetus and affirmation of Singapore’s approach to not just housing policies, but also security, military, ethnic and civil societal policies:
- Maria Hertogh Riot in 1950
- Racial Riot in 1964
- Malaysia’s Racial Riot in 1969
- Indonesia’s Riot against Indonesian Chinese in 1998
In terms of housing policies, the combination of multi-ethnic demography, PAP’s multiracial ideology and series of ethnic riots culminated in Singapore’s cornerstone in housing policies: the Ethnic Integration Policy; ethnic enclaves became virtually impossible under this policy. This policy is borne out of the government’s belief that ethnic enclaves create segregation, which perpetuate misunderstandings and ethnic tension, ultimately leading to racial riots. I know that this is a train of thoughts officially adopted by PAP because it is a familiar reasoning taught through the National Education subject of Social Studies. Demography as a determinant in shaping Singapore’s housing policy is indeed present, but not integral. Singapore doesn’t have a relatively equal composition of every race in CMIO, it has a distinct chinese-majority. It is only due to PAP’s multiracial ideology that Singapore is framed as a multi-ethnic society more than a predominantly chinese one. If we are to look at the demographic statistics objectively, the latter description of our society is a more instinctive one than the former. This is a kind of subjective euphemism that is necessitated by a collective belief in an ideology. The demography factor is therefore conditioned upon PAP’s ideology in shaping Singapore’s housing policies. The ethnic riots serve as a sustaining and legitimizing factor to justify the housing policies. Evidently, the demography determinant isn’t very “key” in shaping Singapore’s politics after all. However, housing policies remain a very small part of governance, which is a subset of Singapore’s politics.
Demography Determinant (Ethnic policies)
Similar to the housing policies, Singapore’s ethnic policies cannot be explained by demography alone. Another factor to consider would be geography. As explained above, Singapore is an island of Chinese-majority in a sea of malay-majority countries. A more apt analogy for this case would be that Singapore is a chinese nut held by a nutcracker, with both handles of the nutcracker being metaphorically Malaysia and Indonesia. This meant that Singapore must adopt a careful ethnic approach that ensures that the Malays in Singapore are not seen as being ill-treated. Such a perception would give Singapore’s neighbours a justification to infringe on Singapore’s sovereignty on an ethnic basis. The plausibility of such a development can be seen in the Tudung Controversy in 2002 which drew anti-malay and anti-islamic accusations from groups in Malaysia against the Singapore’s government. Not to mention, Malaysia had openly condemned Aung San Suu Kyi for her inaction against the persecutions of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. The possible situation other than the one-off incident of the Tudung Controversy in Singapore that can draw such diplomatic backlash from its neighbours is the fact that Malays in Singapore often dominate the lower stratum of society. I do not profess to know the reason for this phenomenon, but it is a fact. That is why policies such as Tertiary Tuition Fee Subsidy (TTFS) for Malays and the recent amendment to the Elected Presidency were manifested. This may go against Singapore’s multiracial ideology but it is a pragmatic choice to make. If the government doesn’t help lift the Malays out of its low-income trend, it will set a dangerous precedent for diplomatic backlashes from its neighbours. Other than this set of pro-malay policies, other ethnic policies remain firmly multiracial in nature. However, only the pro-malay policies are caused, to a large extent, by Singapore’s Chinese-majority demography. Evidently, demography isn’t the sole factor in determining Singapore’s ethnic policies. Another strong factor is geography and also PAP’s ideology of multiracialism. Thus it isn’t as “key” as argued by Prof. Singh if we only consider the ethnic policy dimension of Singapore’s politics.
Demography Determinant (Internal Military Policies)
It is a well-known fact that the Singapore’s military is directed towards its neighbours, primarily Malaysia. After all, there isn’t another country that poses as much of a military threat to Singapore as Malaysia. This, however, is due to geography. The demography determinant comes in when we talk about Singapore’s internal military policies. Since Malaysia is the primary threat, the Singapore government justifiably doubts the loyalty of Singaporean Malays when crafting military strategies. Our late founding father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, had admitted that “he does not trust a Malay officer to be in command of a machine gun crew just as his son, Lee Hsien Loong, the current Prime Minister, had claimed that he does not want a Malay to be put in a position of difficulty due to his religion.” (taken from the book itself) These explicit doubts were translated into military policy when National Service was introduced in 1967. The official reason given was the lack of manpower. However, that wasn’t the full story. Another reason was that LKY’s government wanted to replace the then existing predominantly-malay army assembled by the British (Because the British favored the Malays in public and uniformed services). Malays were then consistently excluded from serving National Service from its inception till 1984. Of course, it goes further than that. In the military, there also exists a clearance system where every military personnel, based on his or her background, will have various clearance levels. Let’s say Personnel A holds double citizenships, including a Singapore citizenship; his clearance level is henceforth drastically lowered. These people are usually vocationed as, say, BMT sergeants and Oofficers due to the low strategic values that their roles possess. For Malay personnel, they have a permanent reduction in clearance level, especially when it involves key assets & vocations that pack the punch against Malaysia should war happen. I will not specify which vocations have this regulation but the majority of those who served National Service is well-aware of this implicit discrimination. That’s because, when you are in certain parts of the military and you become aware of the glaring absence of a particular race around you, you will start to question why. And it isn’t hard to piece the puzzles together. I only found it amusing that National Service is officially proclaimed by the government as a platform for promoting inter-racial camaraderie and bonds. Beyond that, however, there isn’t much of a problem with this policy because it is a pragmatic consideration. Malaysia, after all, will conceivably wage war against Singapore along ethnic line, fanning pro-malay sentiments to raise morale and war justification. For a Singaporean malay to fight an enemy that shows support and compassion for his own race would be a huge dilemma to undertake. Singapore, a city-state that is already lacking the strategic depth, cannot afford disloyalty if it hopes to survive in a war. That aside, it is evident that the combination of geography and demography determinants plays a part in shaping Singapore’s internal military policies.
Demography Determinant (Security Policies)
Singapore is a small country with a Malay minority. Against the backdrop of Islamic terrorism, this demographic fact alone inflates Singapore’s value as a target for terrorism. The reason for this is that attacking a country with a Malay minority can easily result in the majority oppressing the Malay minority out of fear. This would weaken the solidarity of the targeted society and drive the Malay minority towards their cause. This has evidently happened in Europe and America, where they are repeatedly attacked for this reason in combination with their geopolitical clout. Being a small country, Singapore only satisfies the former but not the latter condition. Nonetheless, it remains a target with an inflated value. Besides the demography determinant, the history of ethnic conflict also convinced the government that Singapore’s racial harmony is fragile. Being cognizant of this, the Singapore government adopts a set of ultra-vigilant security policies. The SGSecure movement, politician’s recurring marketing slogan of “not a matter of if, but a matter of when”, and its military’s orientation towards anti-terrorism are examples of such policies. Evidently, Singapore’s demography, along with a history of ethnic conflicts in the region, acutely shapes Singapore’s security policies. Needless to say, being one out of the two reasons diminishes its credibility as a key determinant of Singapore’s politics.
Demography Determinant (Civil Society)
As explained above, the combination of Singapore’s demography and history of ethnic conflicts in the region convinced the government of the fragility of Singapore’s racial harmony. This gives rise to an existential fear of ethnic conflicts in Singapore. The degree of such a fear produced policies that curtail the civil society. Laws such as the Sedition Act, Internal Security Act (ISA) and Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) are officially justified on this very basis. These laws effectively curtail civil society by creating an Out of Bound (OB) Marker in public discourse and also a mild climate of fear. Resultantly, Singapore’s civil society remains highly underdeveloped, especially with the government’s tendency to use such laws to silence political dissent. Operation Spectrum and the lawful persecution of Amos Yee are conceivably examples of such usage. Of course, the visceral fear that resulted in these policies is justified to a reasonable extent. After all, ethnic conflicts are capable of destroying societies; one can never be too careful in ensuring ethnic peace. However, the lack of a developed civil society can also stagnate, and therefore destroy Singapore in the long-term. The government, due to an educated populace and advancement in information technology, no longer has a monopoly over wisdom and expertise in governance. As a developed country, the Singapore government can no longer stick to trialed-and-tested methods. It must reinvent the wheel to move forward and that requires the dynamism provided by an active and vibrant civil society. As of now, demography and history of ethnic conflicts in the region is shaping Singapore’s government reserved approach towards the civil society. It is, as I digress, my hope that there is at least an ongoing change in this approach so that the government does not destroy Singapore in the process of protecting it. There are in fact some indications that the Singapore government has already acknowledged its overbearing approach to the civil society. This recognition perhaps occurred as early as 1990 when Mr Goh Chok Tong took over as the second Prime Minister and promised a more consultative approach. A more consultative government did manifest, but only to a minor degree. The Speaker’s Corner where legitimate civil protests can be held manifested but it is heavily subjected to government’s approval. The government still maintains a strong grip on the civil society. The recent National Arts Council’s (NAC) withdrawal of grant from the author of State of Emergency due to alleged deviation of content from NAC’s requirement is one such example. Legally, the withdrawal is legitimate because it is a breach of agreement. However, one should question what kind of requirements were present; indeed, are these requirements deliberately made to limit the civil-political content of the books that NAC funds? Admittedly, the government today is less authoritarian than the days of LKY; changes are gradual, as it should be because liberalising the civil society too quickly will provide chaos and gaps for foreign influences to invade and alter our way of lives here. This is, in fact, a very real threat. The cases of LKYSPP Professor Huang Jing being gazetted as a foreign agent of influence to influence Singapore’s foreign policy, of foreign interference in elections and sociopolitical arena in US and Australia respectively prove the relevancy of such fear. This is also why the government banned foreigners from funding or attending the Pink Dot Campaign this year. Nonetheless, are the changes to the government’s cautious or heavy-handed approach implemented too slowly? Can we afford to prune the Banyan Tree of Singapore more generously? George Yeo posited that we need to prune the Banyan Tree judiciously in order to let the civil society grow, but how do we know how much is “judicious”? The civil society is an important engine of progress for Singapore. A country has 3 dimensions that are interconnected to a large degree: economic, political and social. And within these dimensions, there are multiple sectors. Within the economic realm, there are export, industrial, service, financial sectors etc. In the political realm where we deal with policies, resource distributions and fairness, we have the judicial system, the parliament, the public service etc. Finally, in the social realm, we have the family-units, the workplace environment, the public spaces, and also the civil society where the political and social realms intersect. A country is only as strong as its weakest link. Singapore’s political and economic realms are arguably stable and prosperous, of course, they will always be work-in-progress. Its social realm, however, is terribly underdeveloped. Just as Fook Kwang had stated before, the “people sector” is what the government should work on. The urgency of accelerating the growth of the civil society cannot be emphasized enough against the backdrop of a gradually stagnating Singapore – Yes, Singapore is decelerating. It is no longer able to solve problems as efficiently as before, which is why “chronic” problems are emerging. This isn’t because LKY is longer in the helm, far from it. Rather, it is because of a paradigm shift into a different phase of growth for Singapore. A different paradigm meant a different set of problems such as income inequality and ageing population. In this new paradigm, excellent political leadership can no longer suffice for the government to superman-carry the whole of Singapore to a greater height. As I’ve stated earlier, but in different words, everyone must work together to bring Singapore to a greater height. Our collective wisdom, facilitated by a vibrant civil society, will make Singapore progress once more. It is, after all, our pledge to Singapore that we must work together “as one united people…to achieve…progress for our nation.” I urge the government to seriously consider more generous efforts to develop the civil society without, of course, creating too much chaos. Alas, it would seem like I’ve severely but productively digressed.
Demography Determinant (Conclusion)
As demonstrated, there is a trend that the demography determinant plays a subsidiary role in multiple aspects of Singapore’s politics. It is a factor that is usually melded with other factors such as PAP’s multiracialism, history of ethnic conflicts in the region or geography to make sense in shaping Singapore’s politics. In essence, it doesn’t have the depth that can give it the credibility of being a key determinant. However, what it lacks in-depth, it compensates with breadth. One can argue that the demography determinant is pervasive throughout the multiple dimensions of Singapore’s politics, arguably making it a key determinant of Singapore’s politics. In today’s context, the backlash against the government’s Population White Paper and its subsequent reduction to importation of foreigner makes it hard for me to see Singapore’s demography change drastically in the long-term. Hence, even in today’s context, the demography determinant remains relevant and key in shaping Singapore’s politics.
Economy Determinant (Economic Policies)
Singapore’s economy is first and foremost defined by its severe lack of natural resources and hinterland. This immediately limits Singapore to the one option of adopting an extremely trade-reliant model. Being an entrepot since the era of Stamford Raffles, it made even more economic sense to carry on with this economic paradigm. And so, Singapore’s external trade became at least three times the volume of its own GDP. This is done through bilateral trade agreements with as many countries as possible. Doing so also complements a pillar of Singapore’s foreign policy, diplomacy, as bilateral trade agreements increases economic interdependency and thus increasing the opportunity cost of hostility. Singapore’s lack of resources also created an acute sense of prudence in the government. This prudence translates to extremely forward-looking economic policies. Two examples would be Singapore’s budget and its central bank strategies. Singapore is the only country with such a consistent record of budget surpluses, consequently accumulating itself one of the highest (probably the highest) government reserves. The reason for such a degree of prudence is the that Singapore’s extensive external trade volume meant that it is vulnerable to external economic crises. The reserves are then to be used as a safety net in times of such crises. On top of that, the government also set up investment arms such as Temasek Holdings and GIC to produce dividend returns that co-funds the budget every time. This further entrenched the healthy status of Singapore’s budget and thus continuously grows the reserves. As for Singapore’s central bank policy, it is macro-economically sound. Singapore’s central bank (MAS) doesn’t have any control over interest rates as it chose to forgone sovereign monetary policy within the framework of the impossible trinity. Against this backdrop, the government adopts sound macroeconomic policies to accumulate huge foreign reserves. The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) then uses the foreign reserves as ammunitions to keep SGD strong and stable. This is highly beneficial as Singapore’s economy is ultra-import-dependent due to its lack of natural resources. Being import-dependent, a strong SGD would help the government to keep inflation under control, making goods and services affordable. Evidently, the nature of Singapore’s economy – lack of natural resources and trade-orientation– deterministically shapes its economic policies. This factor will continue to be highly relevant in shaping Singapore’s politics, especially because PAP’s legitimacy is pegged onto Singapore’s economic performance. However, this link between PAP’s legitimacy and Singapore’s economic performance, in my opinion, is an unsustainable model because I do not believe that any person or organisation can be infallible.
A Rebuttal to Prof. Singh’s Assertation
On page 6 of the book, Prof. Singh stated that “The island republic (Singapore)…possesses, as a prized asset, a highly educated and disciplined workforce” I agree that Singapore has a highly educated workforce, but I am skeptical about its discipline and how the workforce is actually a prized asset of Singapore. My skepticism is borne out of one of Han Fook Kwang’s articles – Do S’porean workers deserve their wages? I highly recommend that you read up on his article to fully comprehend his arguments. To put it as succinctly and relevantly as possible, he affirmed a claim that Singapore’s high GDP is due to policies and infrastructures that attracted several MNCs, not because it has a high-quality workforce. So Singapore’s prized asset is actually more likely to be its corporate-friendly policies and infrastructures. He implicitly argued that Singaporean workers do not deserve progress beyond the current stagnating wages. That is because, compared to the workforce in other countries like Switzerland and Germany, Singaporean workers are indeed not as skilled and disciplined. In my opinion, I completely agree. Singapore’s education system may be producing excellent test scorers as proven time and time again through the Pisa test, but lack the skills and experience that truly matters in the industries. Singaporeans may look good on paper, but they recurringly disappoint when the interviews are conducted or when the job performances prevail themselves. Currently, the education system is not producing a workforce that possesses practical skills and experience to be as competitive and high quality as it should be. The government is probably aware of this, which was why it sought the quick and foolproof solution of extensively importing Foreign Talents (FTs) through the Population White Paper. This is, without a doubt, a policy to spur economic growth at the expense of Singaporeans. Deservingly, this drew a strong political backlash from we Singaporeans in the 2011 General Election, also because of the very same awareness. We Singaporeans are aware that we cannot compete against the FTs due to our own lack of skills and preparedness, that’s why we have the genuine fear of foreigners taking away our jobs. If we are as confident of our own abilities as Prof. Singh had claimed, then why are we fearful of competition? Of course, the official justification is that we should maintain the purity of our identity, but that is just a smokescreen for our inadequacy that we refuse to admit even to ourselves. Make no mistake, however, it’s not our fault that the education system focuses on the wrong things.
As the shortcut that the government sought to undertake failed to manifest, it is now directly tackling the root cause of this problem: the un-competitiveness of Singaporean workers. The government adopts a three-pronged approach to up-skill Singaporeans. The first prong is to encourage the uptake of skills trainings through the implementation of the SkillsFuture credit system. The second prong is the reform and extension of universities to encourage lifelong learning. This prong was first manifested in the reformation of SIM University into Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) which provides extensive part-time degree programmes for existing workers to undertake. It then manifested again when the National University of Singapore (NUS) announced its provision of free courses for its alumni and government-subsidised courses for non-alumni. The third and final prong is the long-term reformation of the education system, correcting its flaws and re-orienting it towards the production of a more skill-based workforce. Changes in the education system are gradual – as it should be – starting with the dismantling of features that encourage obsessive competition and paper-chasing. One of these features is the PSLE T-Score system which is in the midst of being replaced by one that is similar to O Level’s point system. This then reduces competition because it is less specific with the scores, diminishing the “who is better than who” dynamic. On top of that, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung also claimed that there is an ongoing change of algorithm in the education system. We ought to see more changes in the educations system in the future, thank god.
As demonstrated, the Singapore’s workforce is inadequate, hence not as disciplined and professional as Prof. Singh had claimed in this book. This is evident not just through Han Fook Kwang’s observations as written in his article, but also highly evident through government’s policies and Singaporeans reactions to them. The government is evidently trying to make up for the workforce’s inadequacy, be it through the importation of FTs or the upskilling of Singaporean workers, and the people possess the kind of fear that confirms it. Thus, the government and the people are aware of our own inadequacy. I am strongly against the kind of assertion that preaches the high-quality of our workforce because we need to be upfront and open about our own flaws before we can hope to correct them. Asserting that Singapore has a high-quality workforce as if it is a well-known fact will only perpetuate denial, then stagnation, and then mediocrity. And finally, as professed by our late founding father, mmediocrity will ultimately sink Singapore into nothingness.
Political Experience and Heritage (Political Psyche and Hegemony)
I prefer to reframe this determinant as political history instead because the stated title isn’t as clear as it should be in my humble opinion. Political experience confines itself to the first generation of leaders, which then makes it obsolete in today’s context. Heritage is tradition borne out of history, which essentially makes Singapore’s history as the root factor. After all, the first line written by Prof. Singh under the heading of this determinant is, “The course of history has a tremendous impact on the development of Singapore’s politics.” As such, I think it is more accurate to rename this determinant as Singapore’s political history.
Singapore did not have a smooth transition into independence. Sporadic racial riots erupted in 1964, Indonesia under Sukarno became hostile against Singapore, Malaysia also became hostile and ultimately thrusted Singapore into a seemingly transient sovereign-existence in 1965. This period marked by instability, violence and neighbouring hostility shaped the political psyche of Singapore. During such times, the PAP leaders developed a siege mentality; they projected this mentality upon the rest of the populace, molding their political psyche after their own. One such manifestation of deliberate projection is PAP’s quick-witted adaptation of an intended insult – little red dot – by an Indonesian President B.J Habibie into a national symbol. Singapore wear the nickname of “little red dot” with a sense of pride because it shows how the country has prospered despite the odds due to its size. Implicitly, however, the politicians often use this very same dear nickname to remind Singaporeans of Singapore’s vulnerability, reinforcing their siege mentalities.
I believe I saw this argument somewhere, perhaps from one of Prof. Kenneth Paul Tan’s papers, that the siege mentality is deliberately adopted to entrench PAP’s hegemony. In other words, Singapore’s political history is being used to not just shape Singapore’s political psyche as an end itself, it is a political mean to a hegemonic end. How this work is pretty simple: mild and implicit fear-mongering. The phrase, “A chinese island in a sea of Malay” is the very manifestation of such fear-mongering. By artificially maintaining Singapore’s demography of chinese-majority through tweaks in immigration policies, PAP implicitly frames itself as the guardian of the chinese populace in Singapore against its hostile neighbours. This, in theory, ensures that the majority of the populace remains faithful and loyal to PAP, entrenching its political hegemony. Of course, this line of argument borders on being a conspiracy theory. However, it is indeed conceivable that such tactics are used. After all, history has proven many times that the powerful ones are powerful because they emerged from the natural selection of shrewdness. This doesn’t make PAP immoral because one must attain power before effecting positive changes using the attained power. Limiting oneself with excessively puritanical tendencies make such talks of positive changes mere platitudes. Extremity is almost never good, we must learn to keep a balance and draw the red line at a more appropriate and realistic margin.
Evidently (Yes, I am compulsively abusing this transition), Singapore’s political history has shaped Singapore’s political psyche and hegemony. Even till today, the PAP politicians still religiously project this mentality on the populace, never-failing to remind us that we should not take our prosperity for granted, that we need to be on our toes and keep complacencies at bay – a good thing, I suppose. As such, this determinant will continue to be relevant in shaping Singapore’s politics in the foreseeable future.
External Environment Determinant
The one final determinant stated in Prof. Singh’s book is the external environment. I’ve actually already analysed this in this blog post. Almost all the determinants are jointly explained alongside this determinant, affirming its pervasiveness and its fundamental nature in shaping Singapore’s politics. Here’s why: Singapore is doomed to be hyper-sensitive to the external environment. That’s because small countries had never survived in the traditional model of geopolitical isolation. Before WWII, the technological levels of the world and the pre-Golden Age of Capitalism meant that there was a fixed degree of isolation between countries. Singapore could never survive in that environment because it doesn’t have the resources nor the land to sustain itself. After WWII, globalisation and trades accelerated, making it possible for Singapore to tap on other countries resources to survive. Singapore’s very survival is based on being linked to other countries, thus making it ultra-sensitive to its external environment. Every policies made domestically must take the external impact or possibilities into serious considerations. That is why Singapore’s external environment will be a key determinant of its politics as long as Singapore exists.
In this very first chapter of the book, Understanding Singapore Politics, Prof. Singh outlined 5 key determinants of Singapore’s politics. I’ve attempted to analysed all 5 of them in accordance to my existing knowledge and opinions, and also attempted to rebut against one of Prof. Singh’s assertations. My analysis result is as follows:
In general, all 5 determinants have sustainable justifications to qualify as key determinants of Singapore’s politics. This is mainly because, as I’ve demonstrated, there are severe overlaps between all 5 determinants in explaining Singapore’s politics. They are, as I’ve noticed, intricately linked to each other. Indeed, Prof. Singh is right to have explained these determinants as the ‘gateway’ to understanding Singapore’s politics. Of course, there could be more that Prof. Singh might have omitted but lies outside of my knowledge for now. Nonetheless, the coverage of these 5 determinants is sufficient for the creation of a framework to better understand Singapore’s politics.
I may have confidently rebutted against Prof. Singh statement but I may also very well be wrong as I am admittedly less qualified to talk about politics. Nonetheless, I stand by what I said. After all, I am here to learn and my rebuttal is a productive exercise of argumentation and brainwork. In the process of analysis, I’ve also reflected, formulated and affirmed some opinions on Singapore’s politics.
Overall, this has been very productive given that it is only one chapter of the book. I look forward to analysing the remaining chapters of this book in the rest of this series of blog posts.
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