Calibrated coercion in Singapore

This is a short except of an essay written by Dr Cherian George, published in his blog. He is one of my few Singapore Idols, those who are truly interested in Singapore politics in a purely (ha!) academic sense. Here are three introductory paragraphs to his essay, just to add a taste of a delicious morsel that is Singapore politics itself.

Studies of hegemonic domination, even in authoritarian states, have tended to focus on ideology and consensus, treating coercion as straightforward matter that does not need to be problematised. This essay attempts to redress the balance, arguing that states have a range of repressive tools at their disposal, which they need to use intelligently if they are to maintain their hegemony. Self-restrained, calibrated coercion is that which represses challengers with minimum political cost. Calibrated coercion is illustrated through an in-depth case study of press controls in Singapore, where one of the world’s most successful hegemonic parties has governed continuously for four decades.

Few instances of authoritarian rule demand deeper analysis than Singapore. Although the city state is tiny, with a population of less than five million, it provides an exceptionally instructive case study. Simply put, no existing regime can match its record of political stability combined with socio-economic development. It has had no changeover of ruling party since 1959, and virtually no violent encounters between state and society for decades. Its upward mobility in socio-economic terms has been equally uninterrupted. Today, Singapore enjoys First World standards of living in most respects, while the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) shows no hint of weakening its hold on political power. This achievement has reportedly attracted the attention of officials from China, Vietnam and other states who, unwilling to accept the liberal prescription that market liberalisation can only be successful if accompanied by political competition, find in Singapore a model for having one’s cake and eating it too. Singapore is also worthy of examination as a single-case study because the longevity of the regime allows one to analyse changes over time. As will be shown, Singapore’s political stability belies important shifts in coercive strategy, which may help account for the endurance of the PAP.

Looking in particular at the way it has managed the press, this essay will argue that part of the PAP’s success formula has been its ability to choose the right tools of repression for the right job. This is not to deny the importance of two other pillars of PAP hegemony – sound economic policy-making, and a compelling ideology of nation-building – about which much has already been written (see, for example, Chua 1995 and George 2000). It is not argued here that calibrated coercion is a sufficient explanation of PAP hegemony, but that it is a necessary and hitherto poorly specified aspect of the total picture. Although hegemony in the Gramscian sense is understood to comprise both coercion as well as consent (Anderson 1976), disproportionate attention has been paid to the processes of forging ideological consensus. Coercion is rarely problematised.

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