The economics of Singapore’s future politics

By Celluloid Reality(s)

Singapore’s existence since 1965 has been an exercise in idealism underpinned by a ideology of pragmatism, brought about by a keen sense of sober realism in the days following the expulsion from Malaysia and realizing that this nation had to survive on whatever it had.

Pragmatism in the Singaporean context has often been defined to be a realist outlook in terms of how both domestic and foreign policy has been crafted to suit the needs of Singapore as a socio-political entity at any given point in time.

It is certainly not too fancy to claim that economics and the goal of economic success and development play a very influential and undeniable role in the growth of this nation, both as a society, and as a state.

Can we separate the economic from the political?

To put it in context, the economic growth experienced by Singapore, and her current prosperity relative to her neighbours and the world is by far the most compelling evidence for the legitimacy of the PAP government today. Her trading figures in 2002 amounted to 341.5 percent of her GDP, which was 13 times that of the United States. This volume of trade cements Singapore’s status as a trading and economic hub no less.

Can we separate the economic from the political in Singapore? It is frankly, a tall order as I shall explain further.

Economic growth has formed the dominant narrative in the discourse of state evolution, and the role of the PAP in ensuring electoral dominance through the delivery of economic prosperity in the form of a social compact between the state and the citizens. This will create a basis for understanding if Maslow’s hierarchies of needs will apply in the case of Singapore’s evolution or whether this fails to take root entirely here due to factors unique to Singapore. This is key to understanding whether the political challenges facing Singapore in the next ten years may be sufficiently abridged from the economic challenges.

The mere mention of Singapore in any discourse within political science or without, brings about immediate notions of a dominant one-party state, or more commonly, and not always accurate, an authoritarian state where a paternalistic government often cajoles it’s citizens to toe the line set by the former.

It is also partnered with a simultaneous impression of our nation as an efficient, prosperous and multi-cultural state where meritocracy allows for any Singaporean to succeed if he or she works hard.

Politics at the mercy of our economics

A great deal of ambivalence towards participatory politics amongst the population exists, probably due to signals sent out directly and indirectly by the government that economic success should be our primary focus, and it is plausible to suggest that economic success has been by far the main underpinning for Singapore’s sovereign existence.

There is some interesting role-play here, as on the stage of sovereignty, our political existence and independence seem to be at the mercy of our economy, because of our small size and lack of natural resources that hinder a development, much less growth, in Singaporean geopolitics.

This seems to me a posture that is essentially realist, because our political survival is not based on the success of any particular political ideology, but rather, an economic ideology that takes a front seat to any consequent political agenda that will support this economic thesis. The field is open and it lacks the traditional notion that political goals will always be supreme.

Therefore, one may also argue that since economic realism is the basic foundation of the Singaporean survival discourse, the focus should be on the politics that sustain this. The basic premise is the sustainability for conditions.

Pragmatism at work

The next decade for Singapore may be characterized by issues on both international and national levels. With the pace of globalization rapidly advancing, a small city-state like Singapore may find it advantageous because of the relatively open nature of her economy and strong government support for foreign investment in areas which are considered to be springtime industries.

Sectors like biomedical science have been set up and since 2004, copious amounts of funding amounting to $2billion have been allocated to research and development; in a move which has seen Alan Colman (right), a geneticist who was part of the famous Dolly cloning team in Edinburgh, relocate to Singapore, partly attributable to the surprisingly liberal bioethical regulation regime as compared to the United States, where therapeutic human cloning is prohibited, as opposed to Singapore, Israel, Korea and the United Kingdom who are amongst the nations that are seen by members of the biomedical science sector as more progressive in this area.

I believe this is pragmatism at work, aiding the cause of economic progress. This belief in economic primacy has brought about substantial benefits for Singapore, with state activism and intervention as the key pushing force in the post-independence years of the 1960s till the 1980s, using the Winsemius UN report to gauge and develop a roadmap for industrialization based on multinational corporations (MNCs) who would set up factories in the newly industralised region of Jurong.

What is notable here is that the PAP administration then, rejected the commonly held notion that entry of these MNCs would be a second wave of neo-colonialism, but rather, they worked around the negative aspects of this potential banana skin, which incidentally came true in the form of maquiladoras, viewed in suspicion in states like Guatamala and even Corporate tax holidays for investors in pioneer industries in the Singaporean context were offered by the government to attract American MNCs to relocate here, taking advantage of the massive drive in the United States towards mass production of electronics during the 1960s. In fact, this has often been practiced as policy, even today, with 10 year tax holidays granted to pharmaceutical MNCs who heeded the call for Singapore’s fledging biomedical industry since 2000.

The head of the Genome Institute in Singapore, Dr Edison Liu, mentions that the key factor for many researchers who have agreed to base their operations in Singapore, is the relatively liberal atmosphere for research and development in Singapore, especially in the field of biomedical science.

Social compact

Still, the nature of this liberalization is keeping in line with the overarching realist premise of the PAP administration, because the “social compact” and the legitimacy of their rule depends on deliverance of continued economic prosperity. After all, this is the bargain, so to speak, struck with the electorate since 1959.

The image of the PAP is one of a clean, efficient and successful government in bringing Singapore from a colony without resources to a nation on the verge of being a developed nation in 40 years.

Although this prosperity has not currently ignited Maslow’s stage of self-actualisation and greater activist politics in Singapore, this past success, however, is a probable double-edged sword as people who are accustomed to a good life, do not see kindly to any regression in the standard of living, especially in the next ten years, when the maturity of the blogosphere as a vehicle for alternative news would possibly be in full swing.

Political liberalization as a key issue

The platform of pragmatism as a ruling ideology is ironic, but not alluded to as a failure. Still, there is a possibility that the desire for continued economic growth in the next decade may be intertwined with the possibility of having political liberalization as a key issue to enhance this primary objective.

The cynicism towards the messages put out by the PAP may stem from their perceived “winner-takes-all” mentality of sticking to their ideology at the expense of grooming a broader discourse of national identity.

Prime Minister Lee, when interviewed by Foreign Policy, dismissed the values of liberal rhetoric because they do not fit into the official Singapore paradigm. It is perfectly fine to advocate party ideology. However, the impression that people might get, is that the government is still setting the agenda and ground rules for discourse, as he was speaking as the Deputy Prime Minister then.

An unintended effect

In this globalised world, the very tools that have made Singapore economically prosperous, especially education, have made it possible for more Singaporeans to work abroad or migrate. The economic imperative in the Singaporean, groomed by decades of pragmatism and realism have produced an unintended effect.

This effect has led to some form of a brain drain, where we have approximately 140,000 Singaporeans working and living abroad. We may not know the exact motivations for their doing so, but there is always a possibility that many have left because they feel that there is only one single acceptable political climate in Singapore, and that if they hold different beliefs, they may not matter as much.

With the economy so intertwined with the state, this alienation, if translated to more Singaporeans moving abroad, may prove to be costly. The idea of opening our doors is nothing new, and who can safely say that new Singaporeans are no less global and mobile, much less predict if they will settle down here.

Singapore’s regional role

I would also like to add that globalization and the need for Singapore to play a larger, regional role in security matters may prove to be another challenge other than just in both the economic and political realms.

Our drive for ASEAN integration is also a subset of our realist outlook regarding economic survival, therefore we attempt to address this by creating a ASEAN Common Market to ensure that our neighbours and ourselves may compete on a more level playing field against China in the coming years. This external economic challenge is inevitable, and one might argue that stemming any more talent drain is vital to this task, which brings us back to a situation where some dilution of political hegemony and ideology may be the most pragmatic approach to maintain a playing field that more educated citizens might find inclusive and plural.

Singapore cannot afford to be ideologically bound

Can Singapore take that chance? It might be our best bet. The challenge that we have to face in the coming decade is both political and economic, because as a small nation in a globalised world that is changing rapidly, Singapore cannot afford to risk being ideologically bound, and through political liberalization, we might find the keys to economic and social growth when the national discourse is not heavily influenced by the dominance of a single narrative, though well-meaning, but might unwittingly deny more citizens a voice in nation-building.

Singapore has often been equated with Singapore Inc, therefore it is only apt that we as the stakeholders in this state, feel that there is more dividend to be gained by staying with the company. Pragmatism is best served in it’s basic form, with Singapore’s continued prosperity and growth as the overarching goal.

The author has a blog here.

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