by Tan Wah Piow
Singapore’s opposition and critics are in despair. The PAP appears invincible. Our collective blind spot has prevented us from recognising the real character of the PAP. A small elite core of bureaucrat capitalists commands and controls the PAP, using the party as the vehicle to serve their exclusive interests. They are the Bureaucrat Capitalist Oligarchy.
My thesis is the Oligarchy derives their wealth from the legal expropriation of the public chests. Their control of all levers of government and determination of public policies, laws and the judiciary empower them to protect and grow their capital. Such privilege is unique only to this class of capitalist, and their interests lie in the protection of this privilege.
The Oligarchy was an ancient form of governance defined as a rule by a small group whose claim to legitimacy is by a nobility from birth, wealth, education, corporate, religious, political or military control. It was practised in Italy at the height of the Renaissance, in Florence during the 15th Century AD. Lee Hsien Loong’s use of the term ‘natural aristocracy’ in an interview in 2015 showed his ideological familiarity and approval of the ancient feudal self-serving practice of rule by the elites.
Lee Kuan Yew’s extreme sense of destiny and belief in eugenics set him on the path towards Oligarchy. He believed that his intellectual excellence entitled him to claim ownership and political control of Singapore. His destiny was Singapore’s destiny; threats to him were threats to national security.
Democracy was anathema to Lee Kuan Yew not because, as he would argue, it would open the floodgate for the communists’ subversion. Democracy was anathema to the man’s elitist impulse and an obstacle to his quest for absolute power
To illustrate how this oligarchic rule of a minority entrenches itself in Singapore despite the outer semblance of a democratic state, I turn to the excellent study by Michael Barr The Ruling Elite of Singapore (Published 2014) for the necessary evidence.
Lee Kuan Yew placed himself at the centre of the Network of Family, the position now held by Lee Hsien Loong. According to Barr, beyond the immediate family are old family friends and close friends. Beyond that layer is “an elite network that is the product of the complex interaction of personal favouritism, academic meritocracy, and willingness and capacity to be socialised into the elite.”
The “inner circles consist mainly of political and administrative leaders (Cabinet Ministers, Permanent Secretaries, SAF officers, CEOs and Managing Directors) in a selection of key ministries, a few key GLCs…” Further down the food chain is the “mid-range circles of power and influence straddle a wide range of government and government-linked institutions such as ministries, important statutory boards and most GLCs…”. The “outer networks” which are important for political control but not so central to the elite’s institutional power base “include ethnic communities, trade unions, universities and businesses.”
Such a network extends beyond the realm of legitimate control by politicians in a democracy.
The difference between Oligarchs elsewhere and Singapore is this. The wealth of a Russian Oligarch oozes from the ground. The Russian oligarchs use political office, and extra-economic means to gain great wealth by claiming ownership to the oil pumped out of the land.
By dint of their positions in lucrative public offices, the Oligarchs and their supporting aristocrats receive handsome salaries, large enough to transform once civil servants or MPs into capitalists.
Singapore is a small island. Except for real estate, there is otherwise little to squeeze out of the internal circulation of goods. The phase of international capitalism in the 1980s benefited Singapore as a financial hub. The political Oligarchs in Singapore were well equipped to reap the benefits, following the American footsteps. The finiancialisation of capitalism was politically destructive enough for the IMF chief economist Simon Johnson to warn Americans in 2010 that “increased power and influence of financial services sector had endangered representative democracy through undue influence on the political system and regulatory capture by the financial oligarchy”. The takeover of the Oligarchy on the island was long over by the time the American sounded the alarms about their own Financial Oligarchs.
Opposition MPs has not raise any issue about the silent coup partly because of the blind spot, and also because their attention are diverted to estate management, which ought to be the work of local councils. By transforming parliamentarians who ought to be legislators into estate managers, the Oligarchy deliberately distracts them from scrutinising big issues.
The silent coup by bureaucrat capitalists has yet to be publicly explored by the critics or the opposition parties. In my case, it was a blind spot because I had disproportionately focused my attention on narratives of social control and economic disparity without making a serious attempt to examine the political economy and power structure of Singapore. The Singaporeans’ despair over the “lack of alternative” is a consequence of the blind spot
The alternative to Oligarchy — the political control by a small, self-serving class of bureaucrat capitalists — is a return to democracy.
Only through popular control of Parliament can the people wrestle power from the parasitic Bureaucrat Capitalist Oligarchy. This struggle is winnable because the PAP’s betrayal of the National Pledge is indefensible.
But before we start our journey into the History of Tomorrow, let us unlearn our history, and rekindle the spirit of yesterday.
‘In the forefront – Commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Singapore Barisan Sosialis’, a book launched on the 20 January 2021, is a collection of political statements and speeches from left-wing Barisan Sosialis, organisations and leaders in Singapore from the late 1950s till the 1970s.
In the Forefront serves as a valuable time-capsule of the 1960s., preserving the actors’ raw sentiments. There were disagreements between the left and Lee Kuan Yew over the release of political detainees, the terms of the merger with Malaysia, party democracy, self-government, freedom of press, free speech, assembly, the pace of the anti-colonial struggle, and trade union organisations.
In the Forefront’s documents provide ample evidence of mature politicians rationally advocating policies, with depths richer than today’s Parliament. I am not suggesting that the Barisan policies were necessarily better. The critical point is to realise that we were once a people with a rich political culture, and we need to recover of heritage.
This existential struggle of the people against the bureaucratic capitalist Oligarchy is as winnable now as when the Singapore people led by the Chinese-speaking masses won independence from the British in the 1960s.
In conclusion, I share the words of George Bernard Shaw who more than a hundred years ago was also fighting the Oligarchs of his time. Bernard Shaw was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925 for work on ‘idealism and humanity’.
“I now want to give the common man weapons against the intellectual man. I love the common people. I want to arm them against the lawyer, the doctor, the priest, the literary man, the professor, the artist, and the politician, who, once in authority, are the most dangerous, disastrous and tyrannical of all the fools, rascals, and impostors. I want a democratic power strong enough to force the intellectual Oligarchy to use its genius for the general good or else perish.”