Country Listing

Singapore Table of Contents


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.

Data as of December 1989