Chapter 4. Government Unlimited: The Ideology of State Primacy
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Government Unlimited: The Ideology of State Primacy 71 71 4 C H A P T E R Government Unlimited: The Ideology of State Primacy For the People’s Action Party, winning the battle for power has never been enough. It has needed to believe that it has won the intellectual argument as well. The result is a paradox. On the one hand, the state routinely forecloses debate on a wide range of issues, claiming the unilateral right to declare when the time for decision has arrived and when further contention is not in the national interest. On the other hand — and unlike most authoritarian governments, which prefer to bark less and let their bite do the talking — spokesmen for the Singapore way seem incapable of keeping a low profile in debates about democracy and freedom. This is one reason why Singapore has achieved such iconic status in such discussions. It is not only because, among rich countries, it has the widest gap between its socio-economic and democratic indicators, but also because its ruling elites have not had the grace to stay quiet about it. Many traits of the regime can be traced back to its larger-thanlife founder, Lee Kuan Yew, and this particular PAP habit may be no exception. His background as a lawyer gave him an appetite for argumentation . In addition, having been a victim of colonial condescension, Lee was not going to allow his young independent nation ever again to play the role of the obedient but under-achieving student. “Please remember, we’re not kindergarten pupils,” he shot back when one foreign correspondent questioned Singapore’s press freedom.1 More typical authoritarian leaders chorused the West’s liberal lines even as Chap4 (71-92) 71 Chap4 (71-92) 71 4/2/12 2:53:11 PM 4/2/12 2:53:11 PM 72 Freedom from the Press they acted undemocratically, whereas Lee decided to talk the walk. Having decided on his political system, he would defend it vocally and unapologetically. For Lee, press policy was more than a matter of shaping Singapore’s state-media relations; it was part of an ideological, geopolitical struggle that he dedicated his entire adult life to. He was sensitive to what he perceived as the West’s attitude of cultural supremacy — an attitude that he detected even when the American media praised Asian countries that were democratic. “It is praise with condescension , compliments from a superior culture patting an inferior one on the head,” he said. “And it is this same sense of cultural supremacy which leads the American media to pick on Singapore and beat us up as authoritarian, dictatorial; an over-ruled, over-restricted stifling sterile society. Why? Because we have not complied with their ideas of how we should govern ourselves.”2 A less Lee-centric explanation for the PAP’s insistence on explaining itself is its hegemonic intent. While not shy about using coercion to discipline the minority who stray, it wants the majority to cooperate voluntarily, not out of fear but out of sincere belief that the PAP is right. The government considers it extremely important to attract into public service the most able and accomplished Singaporeans of every cohort. Therefore, even if it cannot convert external critics or opposition supporters, it is helpful to have a coherent and compelling justification for its political system — including its press controls — in order to maintain the loyalty of its supporters and satisfy the conscience of its most intelligent inductees. This chapter reconstructs in detail the ideology around the system, drawing on the public statements of Lee and other government leaders. The approach taken here is to address that ideology at its strongest, making the best possible case for the system, before considering possible counter-arguments. There is no better place to start than the Finnish capital, Helsinki, in June 1971. The International Press Institute (IPI) had invited the prime minister of Singapore to speak to its general assembly. The timing could not have been more sensational. The Singapore government had just crushed three newspapers (see Chapter 2), leading to calls for IPI to protest by withdrawing its invitation.3 IPI kept the door open, if only to expose Lee directly to the opprobrium of 300 editors from across the globe. The chairman of IPI was none other than Sally Aw Sian, a financial backer of the Singapore Herald, one of the papers that Lee had just killed. Any modern-day spin doctor...