Analysing Singapore as a Pragmatic State

In this paper, I will argue that the government is hoping to move towards an ideal state that it thinks is objectively beneficial to the country on a macroscopic level, using common economic indicators such as standard of living, GDP per capita and equity. They have often referred to this style of governance as ‘pragmatism’. For the most part, this style of governance has brought forth a lot of economic prosperity- at the cost of individual freedom. This line of thinking may lead to a divergence between the government’s plan and the people’s desires.


Singapore is clearly a cohesive-capitalist state since our government plays a huge role in directing our resources for maximum output[1]. The government mapped out our industrialization[2] in the sixties and continues to direct the economy till today. Moreover, government-linked corporations (GLCs) today account for 60% of all growth[3], making the state somewhat neo-patrimonial since the distinction between private and public resources can be significantly blurred. This isn’t coincidental; many of these GLCs have directors and board members instated by the government, and thus the government has a large stake in the decision making process[4]. However, it is also important to note that the government understands the line between public and private resources, as evidenced from the potential transition of SMRT back to government ownership[5], as opposed to leaving it as a private institution. This makes it wrong to say that the Singapore is completely neo-patrimonial, since Kohli clearly states that neo-patrimonial states ‘intervene heavily in the economy but with disastrous results’ or a ‘weak private sector’[6]. In Singapore’s case, the government is deeply embedded in the private sector and it is clearly flourishing. This makes ‘cohesive-capitalist’ a better description of the Singapore state.

There has been some subtle changes in the structure of power in Singapore. The Singaporean government was a lot more autonomous under Lee Kuan Yew (LKY)[7], but has transitioned to a more embedded and inclusive under his successors, Goh Chok Tong (GCT) and Lee Hsien Loong (LHL). LKY sought to bring about rapid and radical changes to the state, and many times, this was met with soft rebellion. Besides the obvious political turmoil among the elites during Operation Coldstore[8] and Spectrum[9], there was a lot of anger surrounding his and Dr. Goh Keng Swee’s decision to choose trade with multinational corporations over home-grown SMEs[10]. The relation of the government to the people was in line with Weber’s bureaucracy, somewhat insulated from what people wanted and hence free of the rent-seeking usually associated with a neo-utilitarian model. However this has changed with his successors, with GCT often being described as ‘consultive’[11] with the people, and LHL going further with establishing continuity with the people[12]. LHL’s administration has backtracked on the Population White Paper (although the importing of high skilled foreign workers is increasing). Moreover, the restrictions for speech at the Speakers’ Corner have been loosened[13]. This is in line with Evan’s embedded autonomy[14], where members of parliament are interacting more with the public and “embedded in a concrete set of social ties.” The PAP still retains a lot of autonomy, but it listens to the public[15], or at least pretends to, to ensure maximum effectiveness of its policies. This, however, does not necessarily mean that the PAP can better empathize with the public. (My professor said that this was a good observation)


While it is a given that the government will act within socially custodian capacity like most states worldwide, it primarily plays the role of husbandry with regards to the economy. The government has to have some form of control simply because we cannot afford to be a free market in international trade. As a country without natural resources, the early PAP government recognised that we weren’t a sustainable economy in autarky, and that certain rules had to be implemented if we were to avoid exploitation from bigger countries in trade[16]. It combines this husbandry with some level of midwifery. While it may not have played a heavy midwifery role in its inception, today it has pumped significant resources into the IT[17] and biotechnology[18] sectors to help keep our economy relevant. It can be tempting to say the state has been demiurgic, especially given its past, but the state has been very libertarian toward the private market. Somewhat paradoxically, we are ranked amongst the freest markets in the world[19], because of the ease of starting a business in the country today. The problem isn’t that the PAP currently discourages entrepreneurship, but that risk-aversion is ingrained into the public psyche through the education and meritocratic system[20]. Perhaps it could also be the discouragement of SMEs in our earlier development. The paper chase is evidence that Singaporeans rarely look for an alternative path to (financial) success besides getting a degree. As such, it would be a fallacy to call the state demiurgic. The government has been actively encouraging alternative career paths and has been accommodating to new businesses.


In its search for macroeconomic prosperity, it has often placed the state’s needs before the individuals. And to some extent, that may be a good thing. As explored in Durkheim’s Suicide; the individual is often asking for more than the optimal amount of resources he needs[21]. In economics, we refer to this phenomenon as the tragedy of the commons, when individuals aren’t aware that their selfish desires come at the expense of others’, resulting in social inefficiency.  Having an authoritarian government step in to dictate social actions can result in a more efficient allocation of resources, even if the individual doesn’t observe it. This has been the PAP’s go-to definition of ‘pragmatism’[22], since it firmly believes it knows better than the public. Having an embedded autonomy allows the PAP maximum efficiency in carrying out its policies, much faster than liberal governments in the West which often have to wrestle with lobbies, opposition parties or the electorate to carry out policies.


This form of government is not without its pitfalls, of course. With its relative isolation from the public, and hence its parochial view of the individual as a cog in the wheel, there are problems which the PAP may not recognise, like rising inequality (both social[23] and economic[24]). In other words, the government still has blind spots, since it believes it knows best and receives little to no criticism from the people. The PAP has to come forward and be more welcoming to ideas and concerns from the people. They have taken a few steps toward this, but the idea of obedience has still been largely ingrained into the people. Since the PAP has become technocratic, it bases itself on the idea that its members are the most competent in the country, even though this ‘meritocracy’ is usually based on formal academic qualifications or (superficial) military positions[25]. On the flipside, I would like to put forth the further argument that the people have also become too dependent or fearful of the government. The restrictions on public protests and sedition laws make it seem like the government has banned criticism altogether, even though it has now allowed for constructive criticism. With people rarely contributing ideas and a government that plays a socially custodian role, there is a divide between what is observed among the elites and the common man. A good example of this is the PAP’s insistence of pricing and affordability (like buying a house on one grand a month, a staple of LHL’s annual National Day rally). With prices set to go up and rising inequality, this divide is going to be even bigger in the coming years, and I foresee some less than subtle changes within the PAP if it intends to continue remaining in power.


I wrote this for my SC3205 (Sociology of Power: Who Gets to Rule?) module. Professor gave me a B+, even though she said it was a good essay. Marked me down for not talking about the concept of embedded economy, which is frustrating because she gave a word limit of 1000 (which I have already exceeded by a bit here). I wrote another essay on Singapore as a bureaucratic state but I probably wouldn’t publish it here since I don’t think I wrote all too well on that one. I got marked down for supporting our government, HEH. I think this module was a bit of a game changer for me, not because it was a good module but because I ended up re-evaluating a lot of my political stances. At first, I wanted to write positively about our government, just out of spite of all the social justice warriors in my class (my professor included, to some extent). As some of you on Facebook would have realised, writing these essays eventually made me realise the government does a lot of things right. I wouldn’t say I have become a firm PAP supporter, but writing this has made me a lot more grateful for their contributions.



[1] Huck-ju Kwon, 2005, “Transforming the Developmental Welfare State in East Asia”, Palgrage Macmillan, Chapter 4 and 8

[2] Tan Siok Sun, 2007 , “Goh Keng Swee: A portrait”, Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, pp. 78, 93–95

[3] Reiner Heufer, 2013, International Society for Individual Liberty World Conference speech

[4] Chua Beng Huat, 2010, “Disrupting Hegemonic Liberalism in East Asia”, Duke University Press

[5] Christopher Tan, “LTA to buy $1b of SMRT assets under new rail financing framework “, Straits Times, 15 July 2016

[6] Atul Kohli. 2004. State Directed Development: Political Power and Industrialization in the Global Periphery. Cambridge University Press, pg 7

[7] Lee Kuan Yew, Straits Times, 20 April 1987

[8] Jones Matthew, 2008, “Creating Malaysia: Singapore Security, the Borneo Territories, and the Contours of British policy”, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History

[9] “Govt acted to nip communist problem in the bud, says Dhana”, The Straits Times, 2 June 1987

[10] Bilveer Singh, 2012, “Government and Politics Of Singapore”, McGraw Hill 2nd Ed

[11] Bridget Welsh, 2009, “Impressions of the Goh Chok Tong years in Singapore”, NUS Press, pp 6-8

[12] Koh Buck Song, 2011, “Brand Singapore: How Nation Branding Built Asia’s Leading Global City”, page 152

[13] Kok Xing Hui , “Foreign companies need permit to sponsor, promote or participate in Speakers’ Corner events: MHA”, Straits Times, 21 October 2016

[14] Peter Evans, 1995, “Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation”

[15] Francis Law, “Singapore must continue working towards more inclusive society: PM Lee”, Today, 2 December 2015

[16] Paul Krugman, 1987, “Is Free Trade Passé?”, The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 1, No. 2, (Autumn, 1987), pp. 131-144, American Economic Association

[17] Carolyn Khew & Lin Yangchen, “Singapore ‘could be global innovation hub’”, Straits Times, 10 January 2016

[18] Adrienne Selko, “Singapore’s Secret to Attracting Biotech Companies”, Industry Week, 10 April 2015

[19] Economic Freedom Index,

[20] Natalie Turner, “Risk-taking in S’pore: Progress made, but rethink may be needed”, Today, Singapore Press Holdings, March 28, 2014

[21] Emile  Durkheim, 1951, “Suicide : a study in sociology”, The Free Press

[22] Christopher Tremewan, 1996, “The Political Economy of Social Control in Singapore (St. Anthony’s Series)”, Palgrave Macmillan. p. 105.

[23] Liyana Othman, 2016, “Social mobility ‘in trouble’ as social gaps widen: Tharman”, Today, 26 May 2016

[24] Ho Kong Weng, 2007, “Wage equality and intergenerational educational mobility may be in long-term decline in Singapore.”, Ethos — Issue 3, October 2007

[25] Michael Barr, 2009, “The ruling elite of Singapore: Networks of power and influence”


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