Liberalism Lite

Is Singapore a liberal democracy or a social democracy?

Amos Yee, a nineteen-year-old Singaporean citizen, was granted political asylum in the United States at the end of September 2017. A video blogger and occasional provocateur, Yee found himself jailed in the city-state for two months in 2015 and two weeks in 2016. Yee has produced video segments in which, by his own admission, he has “bash[ed] the Singapore government” on one ideological point or another. The videos that have caused, not merely condemnation, but arrest have been diatribes against religion. An avowed non-believer, Yee has poked fun at the most popular faiths in Singapore, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. One memorable video shows the young Yee “humping the Koran” in protest against some of the text’s more violent strictures.

Arguing that Yee had a “well-founded fear” of political persecution if returned to Singapore, his attorneys successfully made the case to the US Board of Immigration Appeals that he be granted political asylum. For the US, a precocious rant on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram is blasé stuff these days — not to mention squarely protected under the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Any modern liberal democratic regime worth its name would have shrugged off the teenager’s online activity.

Though some of us tetchier adults might murmur that Yee’s commentary was in poor taste, those acts all fit squarely within the freedoms outlined within political liberalism. Yet, what might have been passed over for another teenager exploring and commenting on his understanding of the world about him ended up being considered an affront to the political harmony of Singapore. For the regime, the youth’s commentary on religion, society and politics was enough to place him under state detention.

Amos Yee’s recent turmoil may be a useful test case for deciphering Singaporean political society beyond the usual liberal, and somewhat lazy, critique that the city-state is “authoritarian”. To say that Singapore is not a liberal democracy — that Singapore is patently illiberal on some axiomatic elements of modernity — is easy enough. What is more challenging is to describe clearly the Singaporean regime, whilst not ignoring or belittling the fact that an absolute majority of Singaporeans over the last half century have continued to approve of a government that nakedly “disavows” classical liberalism.

Singapore has not always been against liberalism. Indeed, those liberal components that do survive within Singapore, particularly in how the island trades and communicates with the rest of the world, can be traced backed to its colonial history since 1819 as an important trading depot under the British. After independence in 1963, the island merged with Malaya to form Malaysia, only to opt out of the newly formed country a couple of years later to go it alone. The 1950s–60s brought unemployment between 10 and 12 per cent, along with threats of civil unrest, an attack by the Indonesian military and forced reintegration into Malaysia ever looming.

During these coeval exigencies, the People’s Action Party (PAP) was formed in 1954 with Lee Kuan Yew in a leadership role. The PAP consolidated earlier wins at the ballot box in the 1950s by gaining over 80 per cent of the vote in 1968. With varying, though continued, PAP success, Lee Kuan Yew held the prime minister’s office until 1990, embarking on a modernisation that propelled the city-state into becoming one of the highest GDP per capita nations in the twenty-first century. Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP were always practical in their modernisation plans, never fearing to be openly dismissive of political liberalism whenever it went against policy. Fifty years later, the PAP still reigns. For many liberal commenters today, Singapore is a “de facto one party-state” with the PAP as continued steward of illiberal governance.

Chua Beng Huat’s Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore is an informative and nuanced publication on this question of liberalism’s place in contemporary Singapore. The publication serves as a useful text on both the city-state’s peculiar politics and the nature of liberalism itself as it is actualised — or rejected — in the modern world.

Most fascinatingly, Chua’s exposition of what he terms the Singaporean regime’s commitment to “communitarianism” may lead one to reconsider the meaning of “social” in “social democracy”. After reading this book, one may even be tempted to argue that Singapore is — because of its rejection of many liberal tenets — not just a wayward example, but rather the best and purest example, of social democracy in the contemporary era… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Mekong Review by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit at top of this re-post is a screenshot from Episode 6 of 宇宙よりも遠い場所 via reviewer Guan Zhen Tan at Mothership.sg. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

 

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