Tue, 09 Aug 1994

S'pore's basic political system unchanged

Today is Singapore's national day. Political scientist Bilveer Singh reflects on both the achievements and the shortcomings of the tiny island republic which became an autonomous Commonwealth state in 1959.

SINGAPORE (JP): Singapore's success in providing a material base for society is unquestionable. It has succeeded in transforming an underdeveloped island into a model state as far as housing, transportation, economic development, medical care and internal security is concerned.

Singapore is one of the few models of achievement where, through its leadership's foresight and single-mindedness, a resource barren state was able to mobilize its meager resources and mix them with the right policies to achieve stability and development, with all its citizens given a direct stake in the maintenance of the system.

With much justice, the system has been described as a golden goose which lays golden eggs.

While no one would challenge the republic on its economic fundamentals, its political fundamentals is another question altogether. As Singapore prepares to face the post-Cold War era and the coming century, will the fundamentals pass the test of changing times?

If there is any single hardcore political realist state in the world, it must be Singapore. Political realism dominates the world view of the republic affecting its state craft and soul craft.

This political philosophy has driven Singapore to be primarily concerned with security and the competition for power. Politics is seen as nothing more than the struggle for power. Survival oriented behavior is the bottom line and modus operandi of a state pursuing this political philosophy.

Morality, legalism and ideologies are seen as luxuries that can be pursued only if they do not endanger the viability and vital interests of the state or the government that speaks for the state.

Despite much progress since 1965, the political leadership continues to be haunted by the problem of security and survival. All other concerns and issues are subordinated to this single overriding goal. In a system of this nature, the fundamentals cannot change and are unlikely to change as long as political realism remains the driving force.

While the realities of geography, demography, economy, strategic environment and the leadership's experience have conditioned a particular sense of vulnerability and an obsession with survival, there appears to be no signs that they will relent or that there will be any change in the state's goal as these would be interpreted as distractions or, worse, as undermining the basic goal of survival.

The twin goals that have guided Singapore have been the quest for political stability and the strength to achieve internal and external security as well as economic prosperity to provide for the basic needs of society thereby strengthening its internal resilience; which is also an important foundation for its external security.

There is much ado about nothing when people argue that Singapore has seen changes in its political goals. This has been spurred by political reforms undertaken since 1984 when the second generation of the People Action Party's leaders became numerically dominant in cabinet.

This saw a number of seemingly liberal and people oriented policies. Examples of these are the attempt to become more consultative through the television broadcasts of parliamentary proceedings, the National Agenda exercise, greater resort to Select Committee Hearings, the establishment of the PAP Youth and Women wings, the establishment of town councils, the establishment of the Government Parliamentary Committees, the inauguration of the Feedback Unit, the reversal of unpopular policies as well as attempts to moderate the growth of a powerful bureaucracy.

However, these measures were more apparent than real. This was because the leadership has remained convinced that what it is doing is right, as proven by its track record since 1959 as well as the fact that it thought long term while most of the populace's grievances tended to be immediate and short term in nature.

Old and new PAP leaders continue to believe that the focus should remains on building economic prosperity as only real wealth can buy real strength. A country that is prosperous and that uses its wealth prudently and wisely, unlike the Kuwaitis, will be able to overcome the challenges to its survival.

Thus, the key driving force of the country's policies is directed towards generating economic growth. Accumulating financial surpluses is pursued with such a vengeance because the political leadership is convinced that this is its only real asset.

While traditionally it was believed that Singapore's geographical location at an international crossroads, its domestic stability and multiracial characteristic were strengths, today it is argued that such features are not the monopoly of Singapore because the Republic's neighbors also possess such advantages.

Rather, the political leadership believes that with financial surpluses and safety nets, the republic will be able to guarantee its strength, security and survival. This will allow it to weather any storms and to purchase whatever is needed to ensure its survival.

Thus, the political system is structured to serve the vital goal of wealth and surplus generation. The political structures and values obtained in the republic at any one time must ensure that a fertile political climate exists that guarantees wealth creation.

All other concerns and policies are secondary and of lesser consequence than the overriding goal of enriching the state's coffers to strengthen the state politically and militarily.

If there are policies which appear to strengthen other dimensions of society other than political, military and economic strength, they are no more than efforts to contain growing dissent and opposition to structures that were established in the 1950s and 1960s as Singapore has remained, without doubt, one of the most tightly organized and controlled societies in the world.

There appears to be much resistance to open up the political system to the masses with the leadership preferring to practice centralism even though this is ostensibly undertaken in the name of democracy. Hence, the tight control over the mass media, political organizations as well as its viciousness towards any form of political challenge from any sector of society.

However, economically it is more akin to the capitalist system in terms of wealth creation even though the guiding hand of the state is everywhere in the economic system.

In this context, even if there are policies exhibiting greater liberalism and consultativeness, they always, without exception, emanate from the top: otherwise they would not have been implemented in the first place.

In Singapore, the political center controls everything. All political reforms have come from the top. All these measures are part of an exercise to serve the existing political system so as to create a political environment for the generation of wealth in a new setting.

If there are reforms and changes they must, as a rule, be controlled by the center. This is a classic top-down system and nothing much can be expected to change as long as this political system remains as strong as it is.

Such a system is in place because Singapore has not been able to overcome its insecurity dilemma. The vulnerability gap remains as wide as ever and there seems to be no confidence that this will ever be narrowed.

If anything, the situation appears to be getting worse as the neighbors get their political, economic and military acts together. In view of this realization, the pervading sense of insecurity and vulnerability of a largely Chinese state in a Malay Sea have dominated and driven all political decisions and actions, and a system such as this is unlikely to opt for new political goals when the basic issue of security has not been overcome.

Thus, while wealth creation, on the one hand, and control, on the other, are seen as the keys to internal and external securities, the political goals of the republic do not appear to have changed. Due to the security and survival problems, the country is still running the same lap, and not much can be expected as far as political development is concerned.

The unchanged political fundamentals will ensure that other political goals will also remain unchanged.

The writer is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Singapore.

Window 1: The key driving force of Singapore's policies is directed towards generating economic growth.

Window 2: Due to the security and survival problems, Singapore is still running the same lap, and not much can be expected as far as political development is concerned.