Friday, March 18, 2005

Singapore: "This Vile Isle"

There is a new blog here coming out of Singapore. Posting at No Concept Of Liberty has been a bit fitful so far but suggestive of good things to come. There have already been reflections on life in the military, the "Asian Values" debate and the general state of Singapore's politics. Reading these insights also prompted a few thoughts of my own on what No Concept calls "this vile isle" (where, incidentally, I was born).

Modern Singapore has always struck me as embodying the worst of all possible worlds, a small-scale exemplar of authoritarian liberalism. It has a political system, overwhelmingly dominated by the People's Action Party, the forecloses almost any possibility of political dissent through comparatively sophisticated legalistic and cooptive methods of control.
Here is Gary Rodan's take on how Singapore's ruling classs is constantly engaged in the process of change in order to maintain control:
Historically, this included some crude forms of intimidation of political adversaries and critical elements of the media by invoking the Internal Security Act (ISA), under which people can be held indefinitely without trial. However, the more pervasive and definitive features of authoritarianism in Singapore involve a sophisticated and systematic combination of legal limits on independent social and political activities on the one hand, and extensive mechanisms of political cooptation to channel contention through state-controlled institutions on the other. This suppression of a genuine civil society not only fundamentally hampers the PAP's formal political opponents, it generally blunts political pluralism, including interest group politics. The PAP's political monopoly is rationalized through an elitist ideology, which depicts government as a technical process that mst be the preserve of a meritocracy.
Meanwhile, Singapore's economy has always been "open", deeply inserted into successive circuits of global capital – high-end manfacturing, services, information and communications – the broker between the regional economies and the rest of the world. It seems to me that Singapore offers the best possible institutional shell – on behalf of capital – for managing the current tensions and contradictions of the global political economy. It's an amalgam of highly attenuated political freedoms coupled with a regulatory state that promotes all the usual shibboleths for growth (innovation, technology, competitiveness, and the rest). Rodan calls it a model for "profits and censorship".

But this emergent form of authoritarian liberalism is not confined to Singapore alone. Marx famously said that "the country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future". And that is how I think we should read Singapore's long term significance: for countries like China and Vietnam look explicitly to Singapore as a model for managing their own radical transformations. No Concept Of Liberty captures the implications for Singaporeans – or at least those not captivated entirely by the cult of complacency and consumerism – in the following terms:
victims as we are of MINDEATH, a muzzled press and a state that treats us as means and not as ends.
Read some more, as they say.


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