Relations Between State and Society

Singapore Table of Contents

By the late 1980s, Singapore's leaders generally agreed that the extensive economic and social transformation achieved after independence required a changed pattern of relations between the government and society. Government policies and practices devised to deal with the much simpler economy and less educated and prosperous citizenry of the 1960s were becoming increasingly ineffective in the 1980s. The major issues were economic, involving debate over the optimal form of government involvement in the economy, and political, centering around highly contentious questions of the limits of government efforts to regulate the lives of citizens and to suppress dissent and criticism.

The Government's Economic Role

Singapore had achieved economic success with an economy that was heavily managed by the government. The state owned, controlled, or regulated the allocation of capital, labor, and land. It controlled many of the market prices on which investors based their investment decisions and was the exclusive provider of social services and infrastructure. The 1985- 86 recession, however, stimulated discussion of impediments to economic performance and of dysfunctional aspects of the government's role in the economy. A 1987 report by the governmentappointed Private Sector Divestment Committee recommended that the state dispose of most of its interest in private companies over a ten-year period. It recommended privatizing forty-one of ninetynine government-controlled companies and investing the proceeds in high-technology companies.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the government controlled wages through the annual wage guidelines set by the National Wages Council, a body in which representatives of employers, trade unions (which were controlled by the PAP), and the government reached a consensus on wage levels for the coming year. The council's wage guidelines were in the form of macroeconomic projections and were applied across the board in all sectors of the economy. In December 1986, the cabinet approved a National Wages Council report calling for a revised wage system that permitted greater flexibility, (the flexi-wage policy) with more use of bonuses and wage increases linked to increases in productivity. It was, however, not clear how the productivity of white-collar workers and civil servants, who constituted an increasing proportion of the work force, was to be measured. The call for wages to reflect the productivity and profitability of particular industries and firms implied more bargaining between workers and employers and a diminished role for the government, which could not impose a single rate on hundreds of distinct firms.

Although there was general agreement on the need for changed economic policies and modes of administration, significant tensions remained between those who favored greater flexibility and liberalization and those who wanted government direction of the economy. For Singapore's leaders, the challenge was to devise more sophisticated means of ensuring overall control while permitting greater autonomy and flexibility at lower levels.

The Limits of Government Control

The highly ordered quality of life in Singapore itself became a political issue. Many citizens felt that they were overregulated , governed by too many laws that were too easy to break. Singapore's leaders attributed the cause of the assumed decline of Western societies to the excessive individualism fostered by Western culture and warned that Singapore would suffer a similar fate unless saved by a national ideology.

The perceived need for an ideology was a phenomenon of the 1980s. Previously, Singapore's leaders had been concerned with physical survival more than cultural survival and had dismissed official ideologies as contrary to Singapore's status as an open port unfettered by conventional wisdom or fashionable orthodoxies. In the 1980s, as peace prevailed in the region, the government shifted its focus to the cultural sphere. Cultural preservation replaced physical survival as the major concern of leaders who feared being overrun by foreign cultures.

Looking ahead, senior leaders identified two major dangers to the nation: the failure of the nation to reproduce itself and the loss of national identity. The first threat was manifested in steadily falling birth rates, particularly among the nation's best educated citizens, many of whom failed even to marry. The second threat, loss of identity, it was feared, would lead to loss of cohesion and hence to the destruction of the nation.

Singapore's leaders addressed these problems by proposing a series of policies intended to encourage citizens to marry and reproduce and to create a distinct Singaporean identity. The programs addressing the population problem included extensive publicity and exhortation, along with material incentives for giving birth to third and fourth children. Women university graduates were singled out for special attention because of their failure, in general, to marry and pass on their supposedly superior genes. The efforts to foster a Singaporean identity involved defending positive traditional Asian values against the perceived threat from Western culture. Both the schools and the society at large emphasized mastering Asian languages, such as Mandarin Chinese, and promoting Confucianism. Such programs, which attempted to modify the personal and intimate behavior of citizens but did not clearly reflect the demands of economic development, aroused a good deal of opposition, especially from younger and better educated citizens. The leadership's paternalistic style and its intolerance of criticism became political issues and were blamed by some observers for the increased vote for opposition candidates in the 1984 and 1988 elections.

Opponents of programs relating to Singapore identity claimed that the leaders' purpose was to shift support for a national ideology into support for the government and the ruling PAP. Promoting Confucianism, for example, was a convenient means of convincing individuals to subordinate their interests to those of society. Others held that the government's real fear was not that Singapore would lose its culture or values but that continued Westernization of the society would mean more pressure for real democracy, more opposition candidates, and the possibility of a change in government.

The electoral vote for the PAP dropped considerably, going from 75.6 percent in 1980 to 62.9 percent in 1984 and by a lesser amount to 61.8 percent in 1988. In 1988 the PAP campaign slogan was "More Good Years" and the opposition had no solid issues with which to attract support. The election resulted in another landslide victory for the PAP and the winning of eighty out of eighty-one parliamentary seats.

The PAP's style of leadership emphasized control by a strong bureaucratic leadership intolerant of political opposition. The PAP mind-set has been traced to its battle for political preeminence with its communist rivals in the 1950s and 1960s. In the late 1980s, Singapore had one of Asia's highest standards of living and was not regarded as fertile ground for a communist insurrection. The PAP maintained that Singapore was too small for a two-party system to work effectively and did not anticipate sharing power. It stymied the development of a legitimate opposition by a range of political tactics, such as using the provision of public services to induce citizens to vote for PAP candidates. Critics also charged that the party controlled the press, preventing the free flow of ideas. Although there was no direct censorship of the press, newspapers were closely monitored and radio and television stations were owned by the government.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress