Interview: Chua Beng Huat has been Director of Research on the Housing and Development Board (HDB) in the 80’s and is now Head of the Department of Sociology at National University of Singapore. Jelis Bosse and Helle Asbjørn Sørensen question how Singapore owes it success to a communitarian ideology giving collective welfare precedence over individual rights.
In less than 50 years, Singapore has evolved from a poor, colonial outpost without natural resources to an economically successful hub of international trade. Today, 5.4 million people reside in the city-state and with a tenfold rise in GDP per capita, the average Singaporean is now wealthier than the average American or German. The success of Singapore is often ascribed to a political system that combines economic rationality and communitarian ideology, exemplified by a comprehensive Housing Program. The governing party, People’s Action Party (PAP), has ruled since 1959 and are both admired and critiqued for their governing methods.
“The way I see it, there are actually serious contradictions between democracy and liberalism”
Can you explain how you see the communitarian ideology as the foundation for the political system in Singapore?
Chua Beng Huat: In Singapore, the government is consciously, loudly and unapologetically anti-liberal. It tries to develop a different ideological basis for the organization of society – namely, on the communitarian ideology. In Singapore, the understanding is that the individual wellbeing is dependent on the collective wellbeing. Thus, the emphasis will always be on the collective wellbeing.
You have previously argued that liberalism and democracy does not have to go hand in hand. Can you elaborate on that?
Chua Beng Huat: The way I see it, there are actually serious contradictions between democracy and liberalism. In liberalism, especially in the American version, the emphasis is always on the individual. The individual has the rights to do everything he or she chooses to do, as long as he does not hurt another person. So in that sense, the individual has all the rights, whereas the social has no rights – the social is merely a constraint and is negatively stated. However, the individual is theoretically dependent on others. And in a democracy – even though it is ‘one person, one vote’ in terms of the electoral process – there is still a reassertion of the social after the elections. Or to put it in another way: When a government is elected, although it only received 50 % of the votes, it is now the government of the whole nation. It is not only the government for those who voted for it. It cannot punish the 50 % who did not vote for it. And that is why I mean that a democracy still needs a notion of the collective. It needs the notion that the national population must be taken into consideration as a whole unit. It cannot isolate and punish some, while privileging others. Thus, one can argue that strict liberalism, and the lack of emphasis on the social, is actually contradictory to a democratic society – which is still evident in the US today.
Do you think that the Singaporean political system shares similarities with the democratic system in some European countries?
Chua Beng Huat: In Europe, socialism and democracy is not contradictory, as it is in America. Americans call President Barack Obama a socialist and a communist. But in fact, liberalism and democracy need not belong together: Democracy is a political process of election and leadership, and it can be combined with any other kind of idea on how the society and the economy are to be organized. In that regard, Singapore has some similarity with Europe. Welfare is being provided, although the Singaporean government refuses to use the word ‘welfare’. From their viewpoint, ‘welfare’ has a very negative connotation of dependence and entitlement. And in Singapore, citizens don’t have entitlements – you still have to be able to pay. Housing, for instance, is subsidized, but it is not free. And education is free up until the secondary school, but the university is not free – the state only pays part of your cost. So, contrary to the European welfare state, the emphasis is always on co-payment between the society and the individual. In that sense, even though Singapore has welfare in terms of distribution, it refuses to call itself that because it is afraid of a sort of ‘total dependency syndrome’.
TQT: According to the basic definition of a democracy, it must consist of free and fair elections with some level of contestation – is this the case in Singapore?
Chua Beng Huat: Any political party in power will use the rules of election to their own advantage. Singapore’s elections are very clean. You have an opposition. There is no cheating with the voting process and there is consistently at least 25 % who vote against the PAP – in the last election the number was 40 %. In Singapore, voting is compulsory. Of course the rules can always be used to make competition unequal. It happens everywhere.
But in a true democracy – if the rules are used in favor of unequal competition, one would expect protests?
Chua Beng Huat: In Singapore, the opposition can say what it wants. If you come to Singapore during the election there will be a lot of people listening to the opposition’s politicians. You will not go to jail for being in opposition. They might not get elected – but they have a voice. So what you say is true to the extent that you need contestation in a democracy – but Singapore is simply a country where the majority of the people support the local government. There is a very significant consensus among the population, which means the contestation is not loud and noisy. If you look around the region, everyone wants to live in Singapore. There is not a single government that is as clean, economically rational and concerned about the social as the government of Singapore. I am quite happy with the government and the politicians. For instance, the current Minister for Defense and Minister for Environment were both formerly top surgeons and the President was chairman of the Singaporean Bank.
It sounds like you see it as a positive thing that all politicians belong to the elite in Singapore?
Chua Beng Huat: My point is that the absence of corruption is absolutely crucial. In Singapore, the politicians’ motivation is different because they are not motivated by money. It takes a long time to convince them to go into politics because they will lose a lot of money, but once they are convinced, they will not be corrupt. Do you want to have a system in which an ordinary person with very little education can become a minister? I do not! Usually, it is disastrous. I will rather have a banker to be the Finance Minister rather than someone who knows nothing of economics.
Many regard Singapore as very controlling of its citizens like this. Do you agree and does it have any human costs?
Chua Beng Huat: My students in Singapore say that they cannot speak freely for fear of arrest. I say: “Look, you are nobody. What makes you think that you have enough opinion for the government to arrest you?” There are not very many people in Singapore there has such a radical position that require government attention. No one is controlling how you think. You can control people’s movement, but not how they think. The whole problem is that people still carry fear from the Cold War’s repression. Lee Kuan Yew Lee [First Prime Minister in Singapore, seated from 1959 to 1990, ed.] used to be repressive, but this is no longer Singapore in the 60’s. The current government is not repressive. Because Singapore is such a small country and so globally integrated in the capitalist market, it cannot afford to have negative sanctions and be oppressive. If Americans impose sanctions on Singapore, we are finished. In other words: In a world where other peoples’ opinion about you matters, you cannot be repressive.
Do you see any disadvantages with the Singaporean system?
Chua Beng Huat: One disadvantage is that Singapore has grown far beyond its boundaries. The biggest problem for the Singaporeans is that their ambitions are bigger then what Singapore can offer. The island has become too small. It is very frustrating even for the government.
In a comparative perspective, can you then imagine the Singaporean model applied in other countries as they see a growing middle class?
Chua Beng Huat: First of all, I think the historical context, in which the political system develops, is very important. And Singapore is very particular, because the PAP leadership itself is very particular. It has no class interest. It does not stem from either upper or lower political class. Rather, it consists of highly educated, highly rational and highly professional politicians. The way the PAP runs the country is based on an instrumental rationality: They know that in order to stay in power, they need to be non-corrupt as well as politically and economically efficient. So other countries do have a lot to learn – if they want to learn. But you cannot teach those who do not want to learn. Perhaps it will happen. China is trying – quite seriously – to learn from Singapore. Nanyang University in Singapore has an annual program aimed for Chinese officials alone. They come to Singapore and do a master’s degree in public policies. The program has been running for ten years now, and every year about 100 to 150 Chinese officials come to study the Singaporean system. And then they go back – knowing now the rational thing to do and how to manage a city – but it cannot be applied because the Chinese system is different. And China is not alone with these aspirations. A lot of small countries say they want to be like Singapore. Take the leader of Crimea, for instance. He said: “We are going to run the country like Singapore. We are going to take Huan Lee’s book, brush it off and apply it”. It happens all the time. Before he died, Arafat said that Palestine will develop aligned with the Singaporean model in the future. But none has succeeded so far, because the political and historical conditions are different from one another. You cannot import a system from the outside without organic growth and local support. Perhaps one should look towards Indonesia. Jokowi Widodo [newly elected head of state in Indonesia, ed.] might apply elements from the Singaporean system. I see many similarities. Jokowi started as a mayor in Solo, a smaller city near central Java, where he cleaned up the streets and put all the hawkers [outdoor street vendors, ed.] in centers – just like in Singapore. Jokowi meets the people regularly to find out about their anxieties and complaints – just like the PAP’s MPs meet the people every week. And Jokowi is very clean like the PAP – he has no former political affiliations and no capitalist or military backing. If he gets elected, it will still be interesting to see if he will run the country with inspiration from Singapore.
So if you were to advice Jokowi or another politician – what is the short cut to copying Singapore’s success?
Chua Beng Huat: When PAP came into power and had very little money, it spent all the money on two important things: Education and housing. The PAP has a very serious commitment to formal socialism. After building schools and housing, it developed state-owned companies. Today, the government owns about 50 % of the national economy. In that sense, the Singaporean model defies the capitalist idea that the state should sell everything and not take part of the economy. No one in Singapore ever complains about the state being in the economy, because the profit from the state-owned companies is fed into the national budget.
Do you see Singapore influencing the region in the future – perhaps with ASEAN as an arena?
Chua Beng Huat: Singapore’s position in ASEAN is very tricky because Singapore doesn’t want to make too much noise – we keep quiet, because our success reveals other countries’ fails. Think of Indonesia – it has so many resources and we have none – but Singapore has been successful with investing in our resources. Other countries might be jealous. So Singapore’s influence is more directed towards China and India than ASEAN, because it allows us to interact without them being jealous or angry. Singapore is a member of ASEAN, but we will never take the lead because we will never be allowed to dictate anything.
This interview was first published in The Question Today.