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Reviewed by:
  • On Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore by Chua Beng Huat
  • Review essays by Garry Rodan and John R. Clammer, with a response from Chua Beng Huat.

Singapore, communitarianism, state capitalism, inequality, social democracy, liberalism

On Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore by Chua Beng Huat. Singapore: NUS Press, 2017.

Review Essay I: Garry Rodan

This book is a major intervention in the debate about how to understand Singapore's political regime, as it powerfully exposes the limitations of ascendant liberal pluralist critiques of authoritarianism. Those critiques have been heavily weighted towards documenting and lamenting the liberal democratic shortfalls of Singapore's political regime. Chua Beng Huat, too, is critical of authoritarianism, but challenges the ideological conceptions of liberal individualism and market capitalism as the basis of so many critiques. Culturalist approaches rationalizing authoritarianism are also emphatically rejected. Instead, Chua analyses the interrelated historical, ideological and social bases of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP). He harnesses this approach to highlight and explain what he depicts as the PAP's systematic aversion to both liberal individualism and free market capitalism, and to argue that social democracy remains integral to the political success of the PAP.

There is no previous book with quite this focus and argument, even though Chua is not the first—and this is not his first work—to [End Page 185] challenge liberal political and economic accounts of Singapore's development. However, Chua's argument is far more concerted and detailed in exposing and challenging the assumptions of liberal pluralist approaches to understanding the nature of the political regime in Singapore and its durability. Agree or disagree with Chua's argument, the depth and coherence of his analysis compels engagement with it. It is an essential starting point for any serious debate over the foundations and forces driving the Singapore political regime.

Liberalism Disavowed starts with two chapters situating Singapore both in the global ideational and structural contexts of capitalist development during and after the Cold War. These chapters tell of struggles between liberal individualism and collectivism, both in Singapore and the West, as capitalism evolved. Chua's point is that Lee Kuan Yew and colleagues understood that market forces alone would not address the problems of Singapore's development. According to Chua, hostility to liberalism was, from the outset, married to an alternative conception of social and economic governance that reflected some of the objectives and values of social democratic collectivism subscribed to by purged opponents of Lee.

Subsequent chapters analyse the unfolding dynamics and tensions of this political project. In essence, they argue that social democratic aspects of the Singapore development model have underscored the PAP's political legitimacy and electoral success, while departures from these aspects have generated an electoral backlash. Especially important and distinctive to this account is the way that Chua documents and analyses the challenges of reconciling social democracy with authoritarian rule and capitalist development. The very meaning and forms of social democracy, he argues, are subject to revision by the PAP over time. Contradictions emerge, as between ideologies of 'meritocracy' rationalizing political elitism and egalitarianism usually championed under social democracy elsewhere. Chua offers a rich and insightful account about this process, one that fits squarely with his central thesis of the PAP's antipathy towards liberalism. [End Page 186]

Chua shows how social spending and social welfare do not just rises as the PAP attempts to shore up its political legitimacy but are also defined by assorted strategies of social engineering. Moreover, he explains how the capacity to do this is structurally facilitated by the resources generated through state capitalism. This is most detailed in the material on public housing, for which Chua is already well known. Public housing has recently confronted major challenges in the face of rapid immigration and other pressures though. Chua therefore substantially updates and elaborates on his earlier work on this aspect of state capitalism. Separate coverage of the internationalization of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and sovereign wealth funds complements this analysis.

Chua has previously written on multiculturalism in Singapore, but not quite in such a disciplined and systematic account of how the PAP state blunts liberal...


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pp. 185-206
Launched on MUSE
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