Singapore Table of Contents
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.
Data as of December 1989