Analysing Singapore as a Pragmatic State

Analysing Singapore as a Pragmatic State

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.

 

References

[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, http://www.heritage.org/index/ranking

[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”

Comparing Weber and Marx

Comparing Weber and Marx

What is Weber’s response to Marx? Discuss the ways in which Weber endeavors to build upon Marx’s work both in his methodological approach and in his critique of capitalist modernity. Of the two, which model of social thought are you more inclined to follow, and why?

The German philosopher Karl Löwith famously remarked that “Marx proposes a therapy while Weber has only a ‘diagnosis’ to offer”. This is a crude but succinct summary of the two men’s ideas- both had different reactions to modern capitalism, even if both had the same underlying belief that modern capitalism undermines individual freedom. For Marx, the industrial world brought about a worrying trend of segregation and inequality, whilst for Weber, this was the inevitable result of rationalization in society. Weber had a diametrically opposite view with Marx on how this capitalism started, and how Marx posited his value judgement as an objective account of the world. Weber also comes to the same negative conclusion about this modernity, because of the iron cage that results.

Weber would have disagreed with the way Marx arrived at the conclusion of capitalism being a product of the bourgeoisie’s exploitation of the proletariat. Weber argues that culture influences the economy- which led to capitalism, the exact opposite of Marx’s ideology (that economy affects culture). Marx suggests that industrialization radically changed the economy with the introduction of machines and factories, thereby changing the perception of the labourer- an individual without the means of production who is forced into a social contract with the bourgeoisie, by trading his wage-hours for survival. Thus, for Marx, the relationship between the bourgeoisie and proletariat is a product of the changes to individual’s economic status brought about by the introduction of machinery, or other means to production. Marx did not see a link between religion and capitalism, even remarking that “religion is the opium of the people”, or a man-made construct to alleviate the difficulties faced by the proletariat in this world. This is diametrically opposite for Weber, who saw the changes of the economy as products of changes in religious thinking, or shifts towards Calvinism. In Weber’s thought process, differences in economic status were due to differences in the individuals’ cultural beliefs. Raised by a Calvinist mother himself, Weber separated European society into Catholicism and Calvinism, saying that the former “places more value on a life which is as secure as possible, even if this should be on a smaller income.” On the other hand, “business leaders and owners of capital… tend to be predominantly Protestant”. This is the basis of his argument in The Protestant Ethic, insisting that divergences from Catholicism brought about a religious link with between Calvinism and economic prosperity by inculcating values of economic efficiency and rationality into their life; the Calvinists constantly live in fear of being accepted by God, and tirelessly work as efficiently as possible as a token of esteem to Him. This led to accumulation of capital among the Calvinists, who continued to find ways to be more productive, and brought their ideas around the world during Reformation and discovery of the Americas. For Weber, this is how capitalist modernism began. Thus, Weber’s theory that cultural differences affected the economy stands in direct contrast with Marx’s theory of capitalism.

Another issue Weber had with Marx was his empathy and his method of sociology. Weber insisted that the sociology (or science, as he refers to in Science As A Vocation) should be bereft of value judgements. This can also be observed from the differing ideas the two men had on the start of capitalist modernity. As one may have already inferred from Marx’s works, Marx has started off from the assumption that capitalism is a negative economic force. Marx immediately antagonizes the upper class, or the bourgeoisie, without being neutral to either party to inquire on the beginnings of capitalist modernity. Weber argues that Marxism is not objective, even if Marx presented his ideas as such (interestingly Marx rejected Hegel’s theory of idealism, imposing his own materialist views on Hegel’s idea of dialectic history). Going further into his argument, Weber sets the limitations of science, saying that it cannot dictate values for individuals, and that the individual sets out his own values. This links back to the previous point on Weber’s fundamental difference of opinion with Marx, as it explains why Weber chose to empathize with the individuals and see their values, not imposing his own value judgement as Marx did with communism. As such, Weber said that Marx’s science is prejudiced and imposing the wrong value judgement on capitalism because it is subjective in its origin.

The irony in this differences of opinions on the inception of capitalist modernity is that Weber does reach the same negative conclusion on capitalism. To understand this, one can compare Weber’s iron cage with Marx’s perception of power in the capitalist modernity. The iron cage is a paradox inherent in Weber’s account of rationalism and depicts the entrapment of individuals into a rigid, bureaucratic system in which the individual is a cog on the wheel, and has no option of leaving the system. This is caused by the irrationality of capitalism- to make more money for the sake of making money. This is paradoxical in nature because capitalism started out on rational ideas; to make money to secure one’s standard of living (or entry to heaven) is considered rational; it was a means towards a religious end. As society rationalizes itself, a bureaucracy is the natural outcome, because the bureaucracy is completely rational and works towards set goals. The stronger the bureaucracy and its influence on the state, the more efficient the state becomes in improving the welfare of its people. However, this is exactly what Marx predicts; that political and economic power would be concentrated in a shrinking group of elite who have the means to exploit the proletariat. Weber also has the same sentiments of such a bureaucracy, referring to it as the iron cage because anyone born into this system must adhere to the rules set by a bureaucracy as per social contract, or be punished by the laws of the state. This leads to a system bereft of individuality, where “specialists [are] without spirit, sensualists [are] without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.” This would also build upon the idea of alienation in Marxism, which entails that the “worker does not affirm himself in his work but denies himself, feels miserable and unhappy” Weber uses the idea of rationality to explain how we have come to this state of capitalism today, and reaches the same conclusion as Marx did with alienation. The individual thus loses his freedom to an irrational system, and Weber characteristically offers no solution to that.

As mentioned at the start of the essay, Marx offers a solution to the ills of the modern capitalist world- albeit one that hasn’t been successfully acted out, whilst Weber only laments the loss of freedom for the individual in an irrational modernity. I would personally lean towards Marx’s conception of capitalist modernity. The main reason for this is that Marx’s idea of a segregation of two distinct classes is a universal concept that can be constantly reinterpreted to fit different cultures and societies across the world, as shown in world systems theory, which suggests that whole countries now take the title of proletariat against bigger, richer countries that resemble the bourgeoisie. In contrast, Weber’s segregation of Catholics and Protestants is far too narrow and ethnocentric, ignoring factors such as literacy rates and geopolitics. As with Durkheim, Weber uses a static point in history as his evidence, while Marx, while acknowledging the Industrial Revolution as a point of critical juncture in the history of capitalism, bases his ideas on the evolution of history, an idea he borrowed from Hegel. In other words, Marx’s theory is dynamic in its nature, and does not confine itself to a certain country or specific era. This is because Marx bases his theory on economy, or power, as the cause, and its impact on culture, as the effect. Unlike culture, the dynamics of power and economics are universal and hard to find fault with. Weber’s basis on culture, ironically leads to many questions regarding how he defined culture and how he could prove that all Protestants adhered to the same doctrine. Perhaps this is why Marx has an entire school of thought ascribed to his philosophy, while Weber’s most significant contribution to the world is his concept of the iron cage.


The last of my short essays for SC3101. Got an A- even though I spent a lot less time on this. It’s been a strangely pleasant journey on this module, with me getting some of my best grades in essays for a discipline I generally disagree with. I did, however, learn about Marx in detail for the first time and he’s been such a huge influence on the way I currently think about the world and politics (though that doesn’t mean I support Sanders). And at least the teachers for this module are clear on their rubrics for essays, unlike the flimsy, whimsical grades I get for EU1101E. Fuck you, History department.