I BELIEVE the Socialist road is the only road for our people,” stated David Marshall, the English-educated Jewish lawyer who became Singapore’s first elected chief minister in 1955. “Our unique position as a heavily populated entrepot port without natural resources calls for considerable adaptation of socialist methods while maintaining socialist ideals.” Scholar Carl Trocki writes in Singapore: Wealth, Power, and the Culture of Control that in the 1950s and 1960s, “it seemed almost certain that Singapore would adopt a socialist if not a communist form of government” and that “except for a small group of conservative lawyers and businessmen backed by British firepower, there seemed to be no serious obstacle to such an outcome.”
How then did Singapore over just one generation become the capitalist metropolis one sees today? The multiracial, managed, middle-class society is, indeed, an adaptation of socialist ideals to Singapore’s unique position, as well as an adapted product of the polity’s negotiations for independence and of Lee Kuan Yew’s drive for control, reform, and implementation of what scholar John Clammer describes as “quasi-Marxist materialism.”
Colonial Britain, as it prepared to exit Malaya, weakened and humiliated by the swift, easy, and complete Japanese victory over their forces in 1942, had arranged for Singapore to remain a crown colony for an indefinite period, while Malaya would become independent. Yet independence in Malaysia was put on hold due to Malay opposition to Britain’s Malayan Union scheme, which would have given all citizens equal status. Eventually the British helped put in place a system of racial domination under the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party in favor of its erstwhile colonial clients/allies that assured the Malays their ethnic domination over the Chinese, Indians, and other constituents.
Meanwhile, in Singapore, as parties prepared for the first time for free elections under the British, the People’s Action Party (PAP), the party of Lee Kuan Yew that since 1959 has governed Singapore, articulated a much more radical stance than the other parties, proposing immediate independence and a democratic socialist system. According to Trocki, they seemed almost as far left as the communists, who were not allowed to participate in the elections, but who supported the PAP. As the PAP developed alliances with the left and prominent Chinese labor union leaders filled their ranks, Lee Kuan Yew emerged as an effective legal defender of workers’ and students’ rights. Later, after he had arrested them, Lee would boast that these left-wing activists and organizers were the ones who had originally brought the PAP into power.
Once in office thanks to the left’s grassroots organizing in favor of the PAP’s democratic socialist platform and “open united front” with the communists, the PAP made no room for the left nor for an independent labor movement both in Singapore and within the party’s own ranks. Lee Kuan Yew’s clique used its legislative domination to outmaneuver and isolate the left, and formulated a more conservative economic policy that stressed the need for “industrial peace” in order to execute industrial expansion. As Trocki recounts, Operation Cold Storage took place on February 3, 1963—security forces, in the middle of the night, arbitrarily detained almost 150 student leaders, labor activists, opposition politicians, and journalists; they held no trials, filed no charges, and in many cases didn’t even acknowledge the detention. Kept in jail for many years under inhumane conditions, the PAP even subjected some detainees to torture. However, the path for PAP domination of mainstream politics was now cleared, and the party dominated politics when Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965.
Without a single opposition member in Parliament over 1965-1983 (and only nominal opposition position holders thereafter), with opposing voices within the party relentlessly silenced and marginalized, local media strictly controlled, the formation of alternative political organizations hindered through legislation mandating deliberately impossible financial requirements, and all forms of civil society coopted or enervated, Lee Kuan Yew had a free hand to act upon what he saw as a tabula rasa. From a small island with no natural resources, high unemployment, and fewer than two million people, he and his right-hand men in the PAP built the Singapore we know today. The cost was high—the deracination of civil society and destruction of true democracy, full freedom of speech, plural discourse, and political participation—but the results are real. Even in the realm of foreign policy, as Trocki notes, Sinnathamby Rajaratnam steered a brilliant course, forming military alliance with Israel that afforded Singapore world-class advice and training and international positioning among the contingent of pro-US, anti-communist countries without making Singapore directly reliant on military and security aid from the US itself.
Lee Kuan Yew effected his managerial, technocratic vision of governance through deep meritocracy, employing a corporate model of headhunting. Strict screening, psychological and academic, preceded party membership, and those who could not live up to Lee Kuan Yew’s exacting, rigorous standards of performance were immediately dismissed. What this ultimately meant was that a strictly professional technocratic elite came to power that did not represent the people governed, but instead a positivist commitment to “rationality” and “professionalism.” In Trocki’s words, “they represented no one but themselves and their own ever-changing interpretation of those standards of which they were the sole custodians.”
Lee Kuan Yew was an outright elitist; he had little faith in the masses of the population whom he considered mere “digits,” and even practiced a kind of eugenics. Believing that talent was genetic, he organized weekend retreat gatherings through the Social Development Unit to encourage marriageable university graduates to meet and mix, while instructing them in dance classes and social skills. Yet, Trocki notes that Lee was influenced by Fabian socialist ideas when he studied at Cambridge, and indeed the PAP adopted Fabianism’s paternalistic and managerial ethos.
Singapore now boasts free education, a self-funded pension plan, and a self-funded public housing program (over 1 million people have moved from substandard housing to clean, new, high-rise apartments). The PAP argued that the goal of economic growth required central planning and control, and assumed that the people could not be trusted to make decisions. Trocki writes: “This paternalism pervaded the social order and was reproduced in the bureaucracy, education, public enterprises and community centers. It has been sustained by the provision of material rewards and technocracy, with the primary goods being economic in nature.” This, in total, is the PAP’s quasi-Marxist materialism.
As Trocki summarizes, the city has reached full employment, eradicated poverty, solved its housing shortage, and maintained one of the lowest crime rates in the world, and few governments can match the Singaporean government’s reputation for honesty and integrity. Yet, besides the costs previously mentioned, there is also the cultural, intellectual, and social malaise, the stifling of initiative (entrepreneurial as well as artistic), and the ill treatment of migrant workers as non-citizens with few protections and few rights.
Viewing Singapore from the Philippines, this kind of “benevolent dictatorship” often seems deeply attractive, but Singapore is idiosyncratic, and the road to its creation was contingent, and could have been so easily undermined or corrupted at each turn. It has taken an extreme path that has yielded extreme results, good and bad. Singapore is a model of good governance and prosperity in Southeast Asia, particularly for the Philippines, but it is a complicated one.
Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Student in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University.