Three fundamental myths have underpinned governance in Singapore since World War II: the myths of vulnerability, meritocracy, and development.

The myth of vulnerability argues that Singapore’s survival is never assured, since the country is small, susceptible to external threats and currents, and composed of a volatile mix of ethnicities and religions.

The myth of meritocracy argues that anyone can rise to leadership in Singapore based on their ability, regardless of their lineage, social connections, race, or religion.[1]

The myth of development defines government legitimacy in terms of economic performance, such as by using narrow economic criteria, such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Taken together, the myths form a compelling image of a Singapore beset by potential enemies within and without, but succeeding at material development because the best and the brightest rise to leadership. These myths, in turn, have been routinely cited as the basis for policy – in virtually every President’s speech opening Parliament since independence.[2]

A careful reading of history … illustrates the fundamental continuities that underpin the governance through the post-World War II period to the present day.

Deconstructing these myths allows us a better understanding of the nature of governance in contemporary Singapore. To what extent are they accurate reflections of Singapore’s historical context and circumstance? A careful reading of history based on the British archives and contemporary vernacular sources helps us to unravel the myths and better understand the historical roots of Singapore’s governance. In particular, it illustrates the fundamental continuities that underpin the governance through the post-World War II period to the present day. This understanding helps us better understand our present and make better decisions about our future.


Mythmaking in Post-War Singapore

A complete interrogation of these myths requires understanding the historical contexts within which the British colonial regime and subsequently the People’s Action Party (PAP) government operated, and why they deemed it crucial to deploy these myths. Of course, PAP governance differs from the colonial precedent in a crucial way: while the British sought to exploit the strategic and economic value of the colony of Singapore to serve their interests, the PAP was a popularly elected party that was, and remains, committed to national development.[3] Undeniably, the PAP’s economic and social policies have succeeded in large part, with positive consequences both for the nation-state and the majority of the people. However, British and PAP governance both relied upon vital elements of political, social and cultural control to pursue their goals.

To ensure that their interests would be protected after the transfer of power, they sought to leave behind a population that identified as British …To achieve this, the British embarked on social engineering of the population on a massive scale.

By the end of World War II, the British had become reconciled to the inevitability of decolonisation in Singapore. To ensure that their interests would be protected after the transfer of power, they sought to leave behind a population that identified as British, or at minimum, political leaders who identified their interests with British interests. To achieve this, the British embarked on social engineering of the population on a massive scale. This often required coercion and the use of violence. The British subordinated individual rights to the needs of the state, crippled institutional restraints on state power, and suspended laws safeguarding individual liberty against state oppression.[4]

The Malayan Emergency – a period of martial law between 1948 and 60 – was imposed in Singapore for ostensibly security grounds to combat the threat of communism. However, the British also saw the Emergency as a ‘glorious opportunity’ to impose a new economic, social, and cultural order on the country.[5] Legislation was thus passed to allow the policing of the media, intervention into schools, arrest and detention of ‘subversives’ without trial, breaking up of legitimate labour strikes and denying workers’ rights, seizing of land and evicting the occupants, and the dissolution of anti-colonial mass associations (trade unions, students’ unions, old boys’ associations, and rural associations, for instance).[6] All these forms of social and political activism challenged the colonial desire to monopolise Malayan identity.

The British also influenced the outcomes of elections, first by limiting the franchise to British subjects. In 1957 at the suggestion of Lee Kuan Yew, the infamous ‘subversives clause’ further banned anyone detained for subversion from running in the 1959 elections, thus barring popular leftist leaders who were then detained without trial.[7] Such laws ensured a cooperative legislature under the control of a reliably pro-Western ally that would continue legitimising these regulations. By passing illiberal legislation through the form, but not the substance, of British parliamentary democracy, the colonial authorities could legitimate their actions and claim the existence of the “rule of law”.[8] This facilitated the process of cultural and societal transformation of Singapore in the 1950s that the British sought.

…a group of foreign imperialists thus imposed themselves as the sole authority on the Malayan identity and of what constituted subversion.

To shape how people thought about politics, the British sought control over the propagation of information, media, and culture. They asserted their intellectual and moral superiority, presenting themselves as both the source and arbiter of the nation’s values. In this way, a group of foreign imperialists thus imposed themselves as the sole authority on the Malayan identity and of what constituted subversion.[9] Alternative conceptions of Malayan identity were a strong challenge to this authority, and had to be suppressed. In particular, the British sought to destroy the Chinese linguistic and political sphere, which was – by virtue of its language and financial backing by the Chinese business community – autonomous and beyond the control of the British.[10]

Making English the official language enabled the British to monopolise public discourse. They unilaterally imposed arbitrary definitions on all terms that favoured British policy: only they were allowed to interpret what was “responsible”, or “moderate”, or “constructive” politics. Colonial documents – in particular, Special Branch reports but also reports on socio-cultural life – thus paint a comprehensive story of subversion in coded language that Ranajit Guha memorably termed “the prose of counter-insurgency”.[11]

In the documents, Singapore’s anticolonial activists are inevitably presented as manipulated by external, anti-national, and illegal actors, usually the Malayan Communist Party or left-wing revolutionary elements in their ancestral homelands. Little distinction, if any, is made between attempts to seek redress for genuine grievances, and subversion by external forces. Singapore’s people were not just stripped of their agency by colonial control, but also depicted in colonial documents as inherently lacking agency. Their inability to think for themselves meant that the government would have to think for them.[12] If the people could not think for themselves, then control was therefore necessary.

In 1959, the PAP won the elections for internal self-government. The PAP was originally an alliance between a small Lee Kuan Yew-led group of English-educated professionals and a larger group of left-wing trade union activists. The party was initially popular and successful.

By 1960-61, however, it ran into difficulties. Lee declined to honour key election pledges, in particular to support the labour movement, repeal colonial laws that authorised detention without trial, and release leftist political detainees. The PAP declined in popularity, losing two crucial by-elections in 1961. A majority of the party resigned when its leadership refused to alter the policies. Defeat in the 1963 elections appeared imminent. The party leadership was faced with a choice of accepting the will of the people or suppressing it to consolidate their grip on power. The PAP leadership chose the latter. They rejected the democratic route and instead returned to colonial policies seeking control of physical and intellectual space. This included the arrest and detention without trial of over 130 opposition politicians, activists, and trade union leaders in Operation Coldstore in February 1963.[13]

Post-separation from Malaysia, the PAP sought to continue colonial practices in new guises. The government normalised the subordination of individual rights, the lack of institutional restraints on state power, and the suspension of laws that safeguard individual liberty against state oppression.[14] Particularly from the 1980s, state resources, such as funding and administrative planning, were diverted towards creating and demonstrating the superiority of the ruling elite via selective educational programmes and scholarships. This created a self-reinforcing cycle of elitist governance.[15] The illiberalism of colonial rule was celebrated as a positive force in Singapore (for example, by retaining the statue and legacy of Stamford Raffles), and from the 1990s folded into a new national narrative that emphasised the role of the PAP in the nation’s development, and asserted the superiority of the PAP leadership.[16]

The PAP’s legislative dominance was used to legitimise regulatory control of the public sphere. Over time, the media was brought under state control and a monopoly was asserted over public political discourse. Colonial policies of intellectual control were implemented, reintroduced, or expanded upon, including the subordination of the vernacular languages to English and the assertion that only the government had the right to define the national identity. The colonial aim of destroying or controlling vernacular education was fulfilled in the 1980s with the ending of vernacular education and the forced merging of Nanyang University with the University of Singapore.[17]

Reinforcing the colonial constitution it inherited, the PAP has also further elaborated on and exceeded the oppressive practices of the colonial state.

Reinforcing the colonial constitution it inherited, the PAP has also further elaborated on and exceeded the oppressive practices of the colonial state. The PAP went far beyond the colonial state, discarding principles of democracy, accountability, and human rights that even the British had accepted as inalienable. For example, the 1966 Vandalism Act ignored the principle that the punishment should be appropriate to the crime, instead highlighting the use of humiliating punishment to break opposition grassroots organisation. The 1974 Newspaper and Printing Presses Act exceeded colonial policing of the media by further curtailing freedom of expression, imposing a new two-tier structure of news ownership and, later, gazetting the foreign press. The 1986 Legal Profession (Amendment) Act also removed the independent ability of the Law Society to comment on legislation.[18] The 1991 Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act sharply curtailed freedom of religion, expression, and movement by sharply defining any challenge to government policy as disrupting religious harmony.[19]

Political obstacles have also been thrown up in front of even moderate opposition parties, including the alteration of the electoral system with the creation of the Group Representative Constituencies (1988) and the Elected Presidency (1991), the formation of Town Councils (1986) to punish constituencies which elect opposition candidates, and the return of the colonial practice of Nominated Members of Parliament (1990). The freedom to speak in Parliament has been curtailed with limitations on the time legislators can speak (limited to 1 hour in 1964 and then reduced to half an hour in 1987) and the ability of the Speaker to summarily punish MPs without reference to a select committee (1986). Ostensibly public agencies (such as People’s Association, Resident’s Committees, and Citizens’ Consultative Committees) are used for party-political purposes. Independent civil society associations can only contribute to public discourse on the government’s terms.[20] Housing and education policy has been used to further cement control of citizens and the public discourse on social matters.[21]

In recent years, new legislation has expanded the power of the government to regulate speech and arbitrarily curtail freedom of expression, including the Public Order Bill of 2009, the Protection against Harassment Act 2013, amendments to the Government Proceedings Act, amendments to the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notifications of 2013 and the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act of 2014, and the Protection of Justice (Administration) Act 2016. All these laws increase the arbitrary power of the executive branch of government and/or make it more difficult for its decisions to be challenged.

This synoptic sketch of 70 years of Singapore’s history outlines the fundamental continuity of governance from the colonial to independent period. In particular, it uncovers the steady encroachment of government into the lives of Singapore’s people and control the physical and human landscape of Singapore; the marginalisation or destruction of traditional or community sources of socio-political organisation; attempts to monopolising the intellectual and cultural landscape of Singapore through control of the media and education; and the concentration of arbitrary power in the hands of the executive.

To justify the state’s control of the physical and mental lives of their subjects, both the British and the PAP relied chiefly upon the three central myths of vulnerability, development, and meritocracy.


Vulnerability

As the centre of regional and global intellectual and transport networks, colonial Singapore was a place where competing ideologies and politics jostled with one another. It was also the lynchpin of British defence of territories in Southeast Asia and in Australia and New Zealand. The Indian mutiny of 1915, juxtaposed against the burgeoning Indian anticolonial movement, highlighted Singapore’s openness to foreign politics and its potential vulnerability. From this, the ‘basic or ur-text of the security threat to Singapore’ was formed: that the ‘threat to Singapore was external, emanating from outside agencies with the agenda of displacing colonial power,’[22] and the ‘central tenet of internal security planners that seditious actions were nearly always the result of external machinations.’[23] By definition, the source of discontent was not caused by colonial (mis)governance; instead, the threat was regarded as foreign, seditious, and deadly. This provided the lens through which subsequent protests against the government would be interpreted, including labour activism, nationalism, communism, socialism, and anticolonialism from the 1930s to 1960s. In the independence period, too, the discontent arising from the economic crises of the 1970s and unpopular government policies in the 1980s onwards were similarly attributed to external causes.[24]

During the Malayan Emergency, this interpretation of threats provided the justification for martial law, which entailed the suspension of the rule of law, habeas corpus, and due process. Rising labour unrest, born out of the socio-economic effects of the Japanese occupation, the reimposition of British imperialism, and the growth of Malayan anticolonialism, threatened political stability and capitalist profitability. Despite a lack of any evidence of a comprehensive conspiracy by the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), the colonial government decided to ban the party in July 1948, ‘not because they had irrefutable proof of a communist plot nor because they had an interest in concocting one, but as an attempt to restore confidence in the colonial regime’. [25]

The MCP was irrelevant to the lives of the majority of Singaporeans, except as a bogeyman trotted out by colonial officials who wanted to instil fear in the population.

In Singapore, Special Branch documents show that the MCP never actually had a significant foothold (as opposed to the rest of Malaya). Nor did the communists have any real control of their leftist allies, who were driven by a wide variety of interests and largely autonomous of the party. Hounded by the Special Branch, the Singapore MCP was decimated and reduced to irrelevance by 1950.[26] The MCP was irrelevant to the lives of the majority of Singaporeans, except as a bogeyman trotted out by colonial officials who wanted to instil fear in the population.

As MCP influence shrank in Singapore, progressively broader portraits of communist subversion had to be employed to continue to justify the growing social and political control by the colonial state. The scope of behaviour categorised as subversive and deadly was correspondingly expanded. In September 1956, seeking to justify action against the expanding anticolonial movement, Special Branch Director Alan Blades and Chief Secretary William Goode redefined communism as any form of resistance to government authority. They argued that by encouraging the spirit of revolt, resistance weakened government authority and thereby supported communist aims. Blades concluded by recommending the arrest of anyone who behaved like a communist:

Until such time as a natural resistance can be built up an extension of repressive measures to include detention or banishment of all who act in a Communist manner, whether connected with the MCP or not, is urgently essential. Triad is totally banned by law [sic]. Communist is just as ruthless and far more dangerous [sic]. Communist behaviour should also be totally banned.[27]

Thus armed, the colonial government proceeded to arrest and detain without trial over 300 people for alleged subversion between September and December 1956. These arrests were then taken as evidence that a conspiracy existed, necessitating further acts of oppression in the future. Likewise, Operation Coldstore was publicly justified on security grounds. Again, British documents prior to Coldstore revealed that there was never any evidence of communist conspiracy or illegality. Nor did post-arrest investigations provide any evidence of conspiracy to subvert the state.[28]

The PAP leadership actively collaborated with the British and Federation of Malaya governments in Operation Coldstore, elaborating on the British myth of an imminent threat to Singapore. Communist subversion continued to be used to justify detention without trial after Coldstore. Arrests peaked before General Elections in 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, and 1988. Each time, the arrest were justified as being necessary to stop seditious actions that were the result of external machinations, such the arrests in 1987 being ostensibly due to a ‘Marxist conspiracy’ orchestrated from London.[29] No evidence has ever been produced to support these detentions nor have any of these detainees been charged in court.

On the PAP’s myth of Singapore’s vulnerability to military aggression, the Japanese Occupation is regularly cited as incontrovertible proof. Yet Singapore’s fall was only a shock precisely because Singapore had not been greatly vulnerable. Instead, as the impregnable and fortified linchpin of British military force in Southeast Asia, it was the least vulnerable of Britain’s possessions. It took the massive Japanese war machine – which destroyed Pearl Harbour, and conquered large swathes of China and Southeast Asia, defeated the British, French, and Dutch colonial forces, and fought the Americans to a stalemate for six months – to conquer Singapore, and not without elements of good fortune.

It is debatable if Singapore remains militarily vulnerable. After the Japanese Occupation and even for some time after independence, Singapore’s security continued to be underwritten by Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. Their combined forces fought in the Malayan Emergency and the Confrontation with Indonesia in the early 1960s, keeping over 63,000 servicemen, two aircraft carriers, 80 warships, and 20 squadrons of aircraft in Singapore during this time. The increasing American involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s saw an export boom in Singapore’s economy to South Vietnam. The Americans stayed in Southeast Asia long afterward, acting as a bulwark against Communism, and today continue to operate ships out of Singapore.

In this context, it can only be argued that Singapore is no more or less vulnerable than the rest of Southeast Asia. It may even be the least vulnerable place in Southeast Asia.

Finally – and perhaps most significantly – the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has military capability far beyond Singapore’s small size. Analysts have called it ‘the militarily most proficient, even powerful, in Southeast Asia’ and ‘the most sophisticated in Southeast Asia’, while noting that neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia perceive the SAF as a threat, not as a deterrent.[30]In this context, it can only be argued that Singapore is no more or less vulnerable than the rest of Southeast Asia. It may even be the least vulnerable place in Southeast Asia.


Development

In contrast to the anxiety underlining the fears of subversion, a self-congratulatory narrative on economic matters emerged throughout British memoranda from the late 19th century onwards. The narrative argued that enlightened British rule had developed Singapore, brought prosperity, peace, and stability, and by 1950, transformed an insignificant fishing village into a vibrant global metropolis.

By 1930, Singapore was the richest country in Asia, “outwardly one of the most prosperous cities in the British Empire”.

This was, to a great extent, true, although not necessarily in the way the British depicted. When Raffles walked up the beach in 1819, Singapore lived in the shadow of former glory.[31] Partly with the aid of Bugis and Chinese traders, Singapore grew quickly throughout the 1800s, fuelled by trade in opium and indentured slaves.[32] Governor Sir John Anderson’s report in 1904 boldly declared that Malaya possessed more of the ‘usual adjuncts of administration and comforts and amenities of civilisation than any of the Crown Colonies in the Empire’.[33] By 1930, Singapore was the richest country in Asia, “outwardly one of the most prosperous cities in the British Empire”.[34] It was famous then for many of the same things it remains famous for today: tall, glittering, modern buildings; massive department stores; cutting edge technology; a cosmopolitan upper class; a high standard of living; and trade.

Singapore quickly recovered from the ravages of the Japanese Occupation, and by 1950 was again the most important commercial, transportation, and communications centre in the Far East, the biggest market in the world for natural rubber and tin, a specialised commodities futures market, and a major world oil distribution centre. Singapore’s small European and Asian elites became fantastically wealthy from its trade. It had the cleanest drinking water in Asia, and more motorcars per capita than any other country in Asia. This rich metropolis had a per capita income of about $1,200, higher than any other country in Asia, second only to metropolitan Tokyo.[35]

British officials felt that Singapore’s people ought to be grateful to the British. In 1957, Governor Black complained about the ingratitude of voters towards ‘the very solid achievements of the City Council over the past 10 years.’[36] But voters saw the City Council, which was a form of elected local government introduced by the British in the 1950s, as corrupt and inefficient, a bureaucracy which only served to enhance European and class privilege.[37] Similarly, the Director of Education David McLellan complained that the public never acknowledged the hard work of his department’s officials – the same officials responsible for trying to control Chinese language education, closing down Chinese-language schools, and obstructing Nanyang University, the first Chinese-language university in Southeast Asia, established in 1956 through a popular fundraising campaign in the teeth of government resistance.[38] The British establishment believed that colonial rule had been good for Malaya, and that Malaya’s future depended on its people accepting British plans for decolonisation. By opposing British plans, they argued, the anti-colonial movement led by the socialist left threatened to wreck British accomplishments and jeopardise Malaya’s future.

The goal of the colonial project was to enrich Britain… Singapore was very rich, but it was also very discriminatory and unequal.

This argument was, of course, a fiction. The goal of the colonial project was to enrich Britain. Development was pursued as necessary to further this. The vast majority of the impoverished working class population were exploited to generate wealth, and the welfare of Singapore’s people was subordinate to its relationship to global capital.[39] The colonial state neglected or avoided social welfare until it became necessary for the maintenance of colonial policy after the war. Singapore was very rich, but it was also very discriminatory and unequal.

The PAP’s myth of development sought to supplant the British myth by claiming credit for Singapore’s development. It argued that before independence, Singapore was a poor country and that the PAP’s great achievement was to make it rich. From the very beginning of his tenure as prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew tried to claim the credit. With his government barely a year old, he boasted in 1960 that, because of their policies, Singapore had the ‘highest average income in Asia –  $1,200 per capita per annum’.[40]

Singaporean workers had few labour rights and protections under colonial rule, and even the few rights they did have were frequently breached.

This figure stemmed not from good economic policy but colonial exploitation of labour. Singaporean wages were held artificially low. Singapore’s mean income in 1957 was $1,200, but the modal (most common) wage of male workers in regular employment was about $100-120 per month – the same as the poverty line for a family of four ($101.85 per month), and less than a tenth of the mean (average) wage of $1,200 per month.[41] Singaporean workers had few labour rights and protections under colonial rule, and even the few rights they did have were frequently breached. The cost of living was high: housing, healthcare, and transport were all expensive. Non-English educated Singaporeans suffered systematic discrimination, as access to education, civil bureaucracy, and public sector jobs all required English-language certificates.

From 1959, the PAP initially worked to break this systemic discrimination. It implemented progressive policies which protected workers from exploitation, expanded educational opportunities, and guaranteed equality of language. The PAP laid extensive plans for extending social welfare, introduced a highly subsidised healthcare system, and supported Nanyang University. The government understood that people work best when they are paid a fair wage, and are empowered, free from worrying about access to healthcare, education, and housing. However, these policies did not last.

The PAP’s success did not, as popularly assumed, stem from enriching and developing Singapore. Singapore was rich and developed long before the PAP was formed. Rather, the PAP’s reputation of good governance arises from the policies promoting social justice and opportunity, protecting and preserving citizens’ rights, allowing citizens to share in the gains of economic growth, to earn equitable wages, and attain a livelihood commensurate with the effort they put into building Singapore.[42] These reforms, generally instituted during the first decade of PAP rule, continue to underpin the success of Singapore today. However, they have been steadily undercut by the neoliberal turn of the government from the late 1970s, including the withdrawal of welfare and corporatisation of public services.


Meritocracy

The myth of meritocracy has deep roots in Singapore. The Malayan Civil Service (MCS), which governed all of Malaya and was headquartered in Singapore until World War II, was a highly elitist, racist, and sexist institution. It insisted on recruiting only “gentlemen” of the correct backgrounds, who were all male Europeans. The problem was that the expatriates posted to the MCS did not consider it a desirable posting. The branches of government favoured by the graduates of the “best” schools and Oxbridge Colleges were the Foreign Office, Home Civil Service, and the Sudan and India Civil Services. Far Eastern Cadetships, which included those sent to Singapore, came quite far down the list. Even among the Far Eastern Cadets, Ceylon was the favourite posting, followed by Hong Kong. Far from being the best, those who were sent to join the MCS were the scrapings off the bottom of the barrel, often people who had opted unsuccessfully for another service or colony.

Over time, the MCS decided that what was important for the postings was not academic achievement, but social standing. Social, not academic, standing became a precondition for the MCS. They wanted people from a narrow sliver of upper British society who knew how to think and speak and behave properly.[43]In 1899, High Commissioner Sir Charles Mitchell told the Colonial Office that what was needed for the MCS was a number of “young men of good physique and (an) energetic and fearless disposition, of moderate attainments, and if possible well brought up. High scholarship (was) unnecessary.” [44]

This approach created a homogeneous governing class formed of people with elevated social class, but who were academically untalented.

This approach created a homogeneous governing class formed of people with elevated social class, but who were academically untalented. MCS officials had an overwhelming sense of entitlement without the talent to justify any sort of arrogance. They were born into privilege but appeared to have been selected through a meritocratic process. The British ruling class genuinely believed in its superiority, becoming “its own best propagandist and the chief believer in the myth of its own unique ability to produce leaders of men.”[45]

Following their reoccupation of Malaya, the British demonstrated little humility from their crushing defeat to Japan. They promptly reasserted their racial privilege and the colour bar.[46] But as decolonisation advanced throughout the Empire, such assertions grew increasingly unsustainable and reprehensible. As colonisers, the British could not justify their domination as indigenous or popularly elected rulers. Their authority stemmed instead from treaties signed with Malay rulers and their power came from the barrel of a gun. To justify their retention of Singapore even as India (in 1947), Burma (1948), and the Federation of Malaya (1957) were granted independence, the British asserted a moral and intellectual superiority over Singaporeans that they knew best and their plans for Malaya were the best of all possible worlds.[47] In Singapore, as indeed throughout the Empire, colonial rule was presented as equating with modernity, prosperity, and plurality.[48]

The myth of meritocracy has continued into the PAP’s Singapore. In 1959, the PAP had grounds to justify its claim to meritocracy. A major reason for the PAP’s initial success was the diversity of its initial group of leaders. The PAP was founded in 1954 as a broad coalition of anti-colonial, left-wing forces from a wide variety of educational, linguistic, and professional backgrounds. In the 1959 elections, the PAP proudly marketed itself as representing ordinary Singaporeans. Its candidates included academics, doctors, civil servants, lawyers, accountants, trade unionists, farmers, barbers, carpenters, and a seamstress. The success of the first generation of PAP leadership is testament to how talent can be found from all backgrounds.

But the party leadership grew increasingly authoritarian and elitist, and this tendency drove several splits of the party between 1955 and 1961 as talented members of diverse backgrounds left or were expelled. The remaining leaders turned to people they knew and trusted to fill the depleted ranks. These were primarily people just like themselves in terms of socio-economic background and political ethos. Power became increasingly concentrated in the hands of a narrow elite. By the 1980s, this has meant increasing homogeneity of thought, values, and experience. The political elite today are overwhelmingly male, ethnic Chinese, upper class, graduated from a narrow range of top schools, and who had served in the military as scholar-officers.[49]

Entry into this elite is largely an accident of birth. …The elite are people born into privilege but who believe they are selected through a meritocratic process. They attribute their achievements to their own hard work and do not think that they owe any debt to society for their position.

Entry into this elite is largely an accident of birth. Within this elite, competition is fierce, but Singapore is only meritocratic within this preselected elite. This has created a homogenous governing class which, like the British previously, are drawn from a narrow group. The elite are people born into privilege but who believe they are selected through a meritocratic process. They attribute their achievements to their own hard work and do not think that they owe any debt to society for their position. This makes it difficult for them to empathise with pressing socio-economic issues, such as high costs of living and healthcare, competition for jobs with foreigners, and the adverse effects of the corporatisation of public services.


Conclusion

The myths of vulnerability, development, and meritocracy commonly exhorted by the PAP government are inherited from the colonial regime. Both myths are used for the same purpose: to justify the state’s intervention into the lives of Singapore’s residents; marginalisation of traditional or community sources of socio-political organisation; and expansion of arbitrary executive power. This is not to dispute the numerous achievements of British colonial rule and the PAP administration, but rather to point out that independent Singapore is to a great extent governed with the same flawed and prejudiced values held by British colonial officials in Singapore.

These myths were, and continue to be, based on half-truths and outright fictions. They are powerful, used to justify authoritarian rule, repression, the crippling of institutional restraints, and the curtailment of individual liberty and fundamental human rights. Accordingly, they had been rejected by the PAP before the expulsion of the left wing from the party in 1961. However, when faced with reversals and resistance, the PAP chose to embrace the same myths to justify its authoritarian rule. Consequently, critical values and assumptions which underpinned colonial governance were revived. The PAP has elaborated on and exceeded the oppressive practices of the colonial state.

Properly contextualising the governance of Singapore enhances our ability to analyse, critique, and reform our government for the future. In particular, understanding the continuity of the present government from the British colonial regime – that in some important respects Singapore remains fundamentally colonial in nature – suggests that while the country is physically independent, decolonisation of our intellectual and psychological sphere has yet to take place.

The myths utilised by the British and PAP governments aim to teach and mould the colonised and the coloniser into their respective roles as slave and master.

As Franz Fanon observed, colonialism has serious ramifications for the psyche of the colonised, who are stunted by a deeply implanted sense of degradation and inferiority.[50] The myths utilised by the British and PAP governments aim to teach and mould the colonised and the coloniser into their respective roles as slave and master. Thus the myths help establish a social order in which the colonised collaborate in their own subordination. Thus, in order for Singapore to progress towards a more just and equal society, we must first deconstruct and reject such myths. As Singaporeans grow more self-aware, so will they more fully understand their role in building a more democratic society based on justice and equality.

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References

[1] For a further discussion, see ‘Introduction’, in Donald Low and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh (eds.), Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus (Singapore: NUS Press, 2014).

[2] See Parliament of Singapore Official Reports, https://www.parliament.gov.sg/publications-singapore-official-reports.

[3] Of course, the question of who and what the “nation” is, and who has the right to define it, remains contested. The PAP is committed to the development of the “nation” but has repeatedly that this is incompatible with the development of all individuals.

[4] Tim N Harper, “Lim Chin Siong and the ‘Singapore Story’,” in Comet In Our Sky: Lim Chin Siong in History, ed. Soo Kai Poh (Kuala Lumpur: SIRD and Pusat Sejarah Rakyat, 2015).

[5] Kim Wah Yeo, Political Development in Singapore, 1945-55  (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1973), 229.

[6] Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Wars: The End of Britain’s Asian Empire  (London: Allen Lane, 2007), 98.

[7] Conversation Between the Minister for External Affairs and the Chief Minister of Singapore, A1838 TS383/5/3 Part 2, p90-93, National Archives of Australia [Henceforth NAA]; Interview with Lord Boyd, Mss. Eng. C. 3432, Bodleian Library; LAD, 4.3.1959,14.3.1959, 19.3.1959; James Minchin, No Man Is An Island: A Portrait of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew (North Sydney, N.S.W: Allen & Unwin, 1990), p. 84; Tan, Marshall of Singapore, p. 389-90; Lee, The Singapore Story, p. 258-9.

[8] See Jothie Rajah, Authoritarian Rule of Law: Legislation, Discourse, and Legitimacy in Singapore  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 1-53. for discussion on the “rule of law” concepts in colonial and PAP Singapore.

[9] An anti-colonial movement is, by definition, subversion of colonial authority, so the British effectively made anti-colonialism illegal.

[10] Ping Tjin Thum, “Chinese Newspapers in Singapore, 1945-1963 – Mediators of Elite and Popular Tastes in Culture and Politics,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 83, no. 1 (2010).

[11] Ranajit Guha, “The Prose of Counter-Insurgency,” in Selected Subaltern Studies, ed. Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 45-84.

[12] For example, squatters were believed to have poor judgement in how and where to live, and hence the state regarded itself as rightfully decided for them where they should live – See Kah Seng Loh, Squatters into Citizens: The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore (Asian Studies Association of Australia: Southeast Asian Publications Series, 2013). Likewise, domestic and foreign media had to be controlled as Singaporeans are susceptible to influence – See Rajah, Authoritarian Rule of Law, 152.

[13] Ping Tjin Thum, “‘The Fundamental Issue is Anti-colonialism, Not Merger’: Singapore’s “Progressive Left”, Operation Coldstore, and the Creation of Malaysia,” Asia Research Institute Workng Paper Series No 211 (2013).

[14] Rajah, Authoritarian Rule of Law.

[15] Michael Barr, The Ruling Elite of Singapore: Networks of Power and Influence  (London: I.B.Tauris, 2013).

[16] Lysa Hong and Jianli Huang, The Scripting of a National History: Singapore and its Pasts  (NUS Press, 2008).

[17] Thum, Ping Tjin, ‘‘Flesh and Bone Reunite As One Body’: Singapore’s Chinese-speaking and their Perspectives on Merger’, Chinese Southern Disapora Studies, 5 (2011-12), 29-56. A new book on Nanyang University, My Nantah Story: The Rise and Demise of the People’s University by Tan Kok Chiang (Ethos Books: 2017), has been recently published.

[18] See Teo, Soh Lung, “Clampdown of the Law Society in the 1980s: Myth and Reality,” in Living with Myths in Singapore, ed. Loh Kah Seng, Thum Ping Tjin, and Jack Meng-Tat Chia (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2017), 135-146.

[19] Rajah, Authoritarian Rule of Law, 278-79.

[20] Kenneth Paul Tan, ed. Renaissance Singapore? Economy Culture and Politics (Singapore: NUS Press, 2007); E. Kay Gillis, Singapore Civil Society and British Power (Singapore: Talisman, 2005).

[21] Christopher Tremewan, The Political Economy of Social Control in Singapore  (London: Macmillan, 1994), 45-151.

[22] Kah Choon Ban, Absent History: The Untold Story of Special Branch (Singapore: SNP Media Asia, 2001), 7.

[23] Ibid., 24.

[24] See, for example, the discussion around the control of the media in 1971, 1974, and 1986 where the government insisted that dissenting voices belonged to “communist” or Marxist” threats. Francis Seow, The Media Enthralled: Singapore Revisited (London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998), 66; Rajah, Authoritarian Rule of Law, 152, 214.

[25] A.J. Stockwell, “‘A Widespread and Long-Concocted Plot to Overthrow Government in Malaya’? The Origins of the Malayan Emergency,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 21, no. 3 (1993).

[26] Supplement 4 to Singapore Police Intelligence Journal 1954, August 1954, FCO 141/15951; Supplement to Police Intelligence Journal 5/55, May 1955, FCO 141/15951; Singapore Intelligence Committee Report, 27 July to 9 August 1956, FCO 141/7373; “Communist Front Organisations”, March 1956, FCO 141/14772.

[27] “The Menace of Communism in Singapore”, Annex to CM Paper (56/II)235, 10 August 1956, FCO 141/14772.

[28] Harper, “Lim Chin Siong and the ‘Singapore Story’.”

[29] Ministry of Home Affairs Press Release, 26 May 1987.

[30] Andrew Tan, “Force Modernisation Trends in Southeast Asia”, Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies Working Paper Series, No. 59 (January 2004), p. 7, 10, 17.

[31] John Miksic, Singapore and the Silk Road of the Sea 1300–1800  (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press and National Museum of Singapore, 2013); Archaeological Research on “Forbidden Hill” of Singapore: Excavations at Fort Canning, 1984  (Singapore: National Museum Singapore, 1985).

[32] Carl Trocki, Opium and Empire: Chinese Society in Colonial Singapore, 1800-1910  (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 115-24; “Development of Labour Organisation in Singapore, 1800-1960,” Australian Journal of Politics and History 4, no. 1 (2001); Eric Tagliacozzo, Secret Trades, Porous Borders: Smuggling and States Along a Southeast Asian Frontier, 1865-1915  (London: Yale University Press, 2005); Carl Trocki, Prince of Pirates: The Temenggongs and the Development of Johor and Singapore 1784– 1885  (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2007).

[33] See C. M. Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore, 1819-2005  (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009).

[34] Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire and the War with Japan  (London: Penguin, 2005), 50.

[35] Frederic Benham, The National Income of Singapore 1956  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), 1-9; W. G. Huff, The Economic Growth of Singapore: Trade and Development in the Twentieth Century  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 1-2, 32-33.

[36] Secret 116, Singapore to CO, 27 December 1957, FCO 141/14783.

[37] Nanyang Siang Pao [Henceforth NYSP] and Sin Chew Jit Poh [Henceforth SCJP] 26 to 31 July 1957.

[38] “First impressions of the Draft Reports of the All Party Committee on Chinese Education”, 30 November 1955, FCO 141/15302.

[39] See James Francis Warren, Rickshaw Coolie: A People’s History of Singapore, 1880-1940  (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1986), 103-33; James Dobbs, The Singapore River: A Social History 1819-2002  (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003), 63-81; Trocki, “Development of Labour Organisation in Singapore, 1800-1960,” 115-29.

[40] The Straits Times, 9 April 1960

[41] Singapore, “Report of the Committee on Minimum Standards of Livelihood,” (Singapore Legislative Assembly sessional paper, Cmd. 5 of 1957), 13-26.

[42] Ping Tjin Thum, “The New Normal is the Old Normal,” in Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus, ed. Donald Low and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh (Singapore: NUS Press, 2014).

[43] J. de Vere Allen, “Malayan Civil Service, 1874-1941: Colonial Bureaucracy/Malayan Elite,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 12, no. 2 (1970): 161-63.

[44] Qtd. in ibid., 163.

[45] Ibid., 159.

[46] Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire and the War with Japan  (London: Penguin, 2005).

[47] See Sir Gerald Templar’s remarks as reported in SCJP 24 July 1953; NYSP 25 July 1953, NEP 25 July 1953.

[48] Philip Darby, The Three Faces of Imperialism  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 31.

[49] Barr, Ruling Elite of Singapore.

[50] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (Grove Press, 2004).

 

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This work was first published in “Living with Myths in Singapore” (Ethos Books, 2017). Our thanks to Ethos Books for permission to republish the article.

Thum Ping Tjin

Thum Ping Tjin (“PJ”) is founding director of Project Southeast Asia, an interdisciplinary research centre on Southeast Asia at the University of Oxford. A Rhodes Scholar, Commonwealth Scholar, Olympic athlete, and the only Singaporean to swim the English Channel, his work centres on Southeast Asian governance and politics. His most recent work is Living with Myths in Singapore (Ethos: 2017, co-edited with Loh Kah Seng and Jack Chia). He is creator of “The History of Singapore” podcast, available on iTunes.