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  • A Review of Authoritarian Rule of Law:Legislation, Discourse and Legitimacy in Singapore by Jothie Rajah
  • Sophia Wilson

Jothie Rajah’s Authoritarian Rule of Law: Legislation, Discourse and Legitimacy in Singapore1 is a comprehensive account of a state’s ability to suppress dissent through the manipulation of legality and public discourse. The work presents an in-depth look at the ways through which the state methodically extinguished core civil rights and liberties in Singapore while promoting its legitimacy on a national scale and maintaining its appearance as a Westminster-model democracy within the international arena. It is precisely the paradox of the coexistence of rights suppression and state legitimacy that is the focus of Rajah’s attention. The book presents a rigorous examination of the state’s ability to justify corporal punishment for vandalism, suppression of the press, and the repression of civil society associations and leadership through a study of Singapore’s legislation and state discourse in the postcolonial era, as well as more recent cases in the 1990s and 2000s. Rajah offers a rather depressing narrative of the corrosive effects of colonial legacies, which provided local political elites with ample skills in the suppression of dissent. Unfortunately, this suppression did not dissipate under the flourishing market economy in the years following colonial rule. Rather, as Rajah describes, it continued under the pretense of chasing communist ghosts with the suppression of leftist opposition in the 1960s and, later, with the modern state asserting itself as the protector against Western chaos and immorality.

The work provides a number of theoretical contributions to scholarly literature. First, it presents yet another challenge to the assumption that economic prosperity runs hand in hand with democratization. While a number of scholars have refuted the correlation, Rajah provides [End Page 297] a closer look at how the state may exploit the success of a market economy to promote its hold on power. Second, the work underlines the vital importance of public discourse in the protection of individual rights. Rajah argues that, in the case of Singapore, the state’s adeptness at presenting itself as a protector of public order through legality preempts a public outcry over disproportionate and degrading punishmenst2 and control of the media.3 Rajah’s work provides a rich and insightful account of the state’s construction of national goals and its claim to achieve those goals, which, according to the state, justify the erosion of civil liberties.

One of the most vital goals evoked by the Singapore state is national survival, which they allege is threatened by the “nationalistic countries of Indonesia and Malaysia,”4 the power politics of the Cold War, Singapore’s potential susceptibility to ethnic and religious clashes,5 and its susceptibility to “Western” immorality.6 In its alleged pursuit of protecting the nation, the state insists on legal exceptionalism, including the promotion of violent punishment. Thus, in the 1960s, the state claimed it was shielding the nation from “marginalizing and demonizing Communism” through the Vandalism Act, which authorized severe corporal punishments for offenses, such as tearing identification cards and putting up anti-American slogans, as performed by the leftist opposition.7 In later decades, “hostile foreign interests” and Western culture, with its “permissiveness in sex, drugs and dress-styles,”8 became one of the most important alleged “threats.”9 Rajah describes how the state’s claim to protect the people from moral corruption was invoked to justify restrictions placed on mass media in the 1960s, as well as control of foreign media’s circulation in the 1980s.10 The state claimed that “slanted and divisive reporting” caused “instability and strife.”11 Newspapers were also accused of conducting “calculated campaigns” to provoke ethnic violence, which necessitated state interference to prevent the media from “misle[ading] the people.”12 [End Page 298]

In fact, the Othering of the people (i.e., claiming their inability to deal with complexity or engage in making their own assessments)13 is yet another commonly used justification of the Singapore state’s authoritarianism. Rajah demonstrates that the construct of “the people” is “in striking continuity with colonial constructions of ‘natives’ as people of inferior ability.”14 Thus, the colonial legacy manifested itself...


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pp. 297-301
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