Political Dynamics

Singapore Table of Contents

Power Structure

In 1989 political power in Singapore was in the hands of a small group of individuals who had been instrumental in Singapore's gaining independence. The leadership core ruled through a second echelon of potential successors, who tended to be technocrats, administrators, and managers rather than politicians or power brokers. The PAP leaders, convinced that a city-state without natural resources could not afford the luxury of partisan politics, acted after 1965 to "depoliticize" the power structure. Economic growth and political stability would be maintained instead by the paternal guidance of the PAP. Politics, as a result, was only exercised within very narrow limits determined by the PAP. Singapore was thus administered by bureaucrats, not politicians, in a meritocracy in which power was gained through skill, performance, and demonstrated loyalty to the leaders and their policies.

At the top of the hierarchy in 1989 were fifteen cabinet ministers, who were concurrently members of Parliament and the CEC, the PAP's highest policy-making body. Among these ministers was an inner core of perhaps five members. Below this group was a tier of senior civil servants who, in addition to their official duties, filled managerial and supervisory roles as directors of public corporations and statutory bodies. PAP members of Parliament without cabinet or government portfolios also tended to function at this level of the power hierarchy, providing links between the government and the populace.

Rifts within the leadership were rare. Although minor differences over policy may have existed, the top leaders presented a united front once decisions were made. The mode of decision making was consensus, and the style of leadership was collective, but in 1989 Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was by far the first among equals on both counts. The leaders identified themselves with the nation, were convinced that they knew what was best for the nation, and interpreted opposition to themselves or their policies as a threat to the country's survival.

The overwhelming majority of the leadership were not propertied or part of the entrepreneurial class. They did not appear particularly motivated by profit, gained lawfully or through corruption (which was almost nonexistent), or by the perquisites of their office (which although increasing, remained less than could be achieved in the private sector). Their reward, instead, derived from their access to power and their conviction that they were working for the nation and its long-term survival. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his close associates were highly conscious of their roles as founding fathers of the new city-state.

The power structure was extremely centralized. It was characterized by a top-down style, featuring appointment rather than election to most offices; the absence of institutional restraints on the power of the prime minister and cabinet; and more effort devoted to communicating the government's decisions and policies to the public than to soliciting the public's opinion. The high degree of centralization was facilitated by the country's relatively small size and population. Although members of Parliament were elected by the public, they were selected by the core leadership, often ran unopposed, and regarded their positions as due to the favor of the prime minister rather than the will of the voters. At the highest levels, the distinction between the bureaucracy and the political offices of Parliament was only nominal, and many members of Parliament were selected from the upper ranks of the civil service and the public enterprises. Many high-level civil servants had direct access to the prime minister, who consulted them without going through their nominally superior cabinet minister.

Political Culture

Singapore possessed a distinct political culture, which fit into no simple category formulated by political scientists. It was centralized, authoritarian, and statist. It was also pragmatic, rational, and legalistic. In spite of possessing the superficial trappings of British institutions such as parliamentary procedure and bewigged judges, Singapore was, as its leaders kept reiterating, not a Western country with a Western political system. Although elections were held regularly, elections had never led to a change of leadership, and citizens did not expect that political parties would alternate in power. Nor was there a tradition of civil liberties or of limits to state power. The rulers of an excolony with a multiethnic population, and a country independent only by default, assumed no popular consensus on the rules of or limits to political action. Singapore was a city-state where a small group of guardians used their superior knowledge to advance the prosperity of the state and to bring benefits to what they considered a largely ignorant and passive population.

Singapore's leaders were highly articulate and expressed their principles and goals in speeches, books, and interviews. Their highest goal was the survival and prosperity of their small nation. They saw this as an extremely difficult and risk-filled endeavor. Conscious of the vulnerability of their state and aware of many threats to its survival, they justified their policy decisions on the grounds of national survival. They viewed government as an instrument intended to promote national ends and recognized no inherent limits on government concerns or activities. They prized intellectual analysis and rational decision making, and considered their own decisions the best and often the only responses to problems. The senior leadership prided itself on its ability to take the long view and to make hard, unpopular decisions that either responded to immediate dangers or avoided problems that would become apparent one or two decades into the future. They valued activism and will, and tried to devise policies, programs, or campaigns to deal with all problems. In a characteristic expression of Singapore's political culture, the rising young leader Brigadier General (Reserve) Lee Hsien Loong, when discussing the threat to national survival posed by declining birth rates, said "I don't think we should ... passively watch ourselves going extinct." Passivity and extinction were linked and identified as trends the government's policies must counter.

The leadership's conviction of the state's vulnerability to manifold dangers and of the self-evident correctness of its analysis of those dangers resulted in very limited tolerance for opposition and dissent. According to Singapore's leaders, their opponents were either too unintelligent to comprehend the problems, too selfish to sacrifice for the common good, or maliciously intent on destroying the nation. Although by the 1980s Singapore had the highest standard of living in Southeast Asia, its leaders often compared it with generalized Third World countries. They saw such countries suffering from widespread corruption and demagogic politics, both reflecting concentration on immediate payoffs at the expense of long-term prosperity and the common good. For Singapore's leaders, politics connoted disruptive and completely negative activities, characterized by demagoguery, factionalism, and inflammatory appeals to communal, ethnic, or religious passions. When they spoke of "depoliticizing" Singapore's government, they had this view of politics in mind.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress