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The Singapore Way’

In response to:

The Singapore Way from the October 19, 1995 issue

To the Editors:

Mr. Ian Buruma’s article “The Singapore Way” [NYR, October 19, 1995] quotes a Singaporean saying Singapore “is the most Westernized country in Asia…but also the least free.” Mr. Buruma says his source “lost his job as a journalist for writing something mildly critical of the government;…he is a marked man—I shall not name him.”

I am that nameless entity. If I might, I should like to clarify Mr. Buruma’s report of our conversation. Firstly, his gesture in not naming me is unnecessary. There is nothing I said to him that I and others would not have said openly in Singapore, and indeed have, in print and speech. Critical analyses surface with difficulty in Singapore, but the fact is they frequently do surface.

Secondly, Mr. Buruma’s rehearsal of my credentials is factually inaccurate. I was not an employee of any newspaper. I wrote a column for a Singapore newspaper on a freelance basis. For reasons that remain unexplained, but which were clearly not journalistic, the column was halted.

Thirdly, Mr. Buruma’s quotation of me draws a conclusion from our conversation that is unwarranted. Obviously, it would be absurd to maintain that Singapore is the least free state on a continent that includes North Korea and China. What I said was that though Singapore was the most Westernized among the newly-industrialized countries of East Asia, including Taiwan and South Korea, it was the least open among them.

Predictably, the combination of economic dynamism and political rigidity in Singapore and elsewhere in Asia is usually attributed by Western commentators to a cultural lack in these countries. Mr. Buruma’s account of Singapore, in suggesting that its politics might be explained by the psychology of one man, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, and the sense of cultural inferiority that Singapore’s elite allegedly feels vis-à-vis the West, plays into such views of Asian societies. Though he correctly points out that “the political contest in Asia is not between Asian and Western values,” his insistence that modern Singapore is infected by a cultural inauthenticity nonetheless recycles the preferred Western view of Asian modernity as a parodic version of Western modernity.

But there is nothing parodic about Singapore. What is commonly referred to as an example of a peculiarly Oriental authoritarianism is in fact a system that is thoroughly Western in its rationality and purpose—and not merely in form, as Mr. Buruma argues, but in substance as well. For Singapore is now an economic power-house precisely because its political, legal, and social institutions have been shaped in ways to ensure its assimilation into a global economic system that emanates from the West. The newfound enthusiasm of Singapore’s political leadership for Asian values does not signal a reversal of this assimilation, but rather the necessity of containing the political contradictions that have emerged in the wake of assimilation.

Indeed, “Asian values” in Singapore is best understood as a construct that achieves the same ideological effects as the American right’s appeal to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The effects of both ideological constructs are so similar that it is difficult to tell whether we are witnessing a Westernization of Oriental values or an Orientalization of Western values. In both instances we find an attempt to legitimize strikingly similar political and economic agendas by locating their source in what is offered as the essential identity of a culture. What both have in common is the re-formulation of political choices as cultural choices, and the fashioning of those cultural choices in ways that support the most efficient functioning of capitalism.

Crucially, the claim of differential cultural identities also enables Asian establishments to reject the democratic ethos already present in modern Asian history—from the May Fourth movement in China to the nationalist, anti-colonial struggles in India, Indonesia, and elsewhere—as an aberrant foreign importation. Such erasures of recent Asian history are especially useful in Singapore because the state there is itself the agent of a democratizing process—involving social and economic enfranchisement as well as the ballot box—that it also wishes to contain. The very success of Singapore’s modernity has led the state to formulate a sanitized cultural inheritance to restrain its citizens from demanding rights and responsibilities beyond those already granted to achieve modernity. By misrepresenting, thus, political possibilities within Asian modernity as a choice between Eastern and Western cultural identities, the state can contain the threats to its power that its own success has generated.

Ironically, Western commentators who fail to note that the source of such contradictory political possibilities is Asian modernity itself, and choose instead to regard the contradictions as evidence of a flawed modernity diametrically different from their own, unwittingly confirm the very terms of the debate that Asian establishments seek. When Mr. Buruma says, for instance, that the Singapore government should not be offended by charges of nepotism since nepotism is a part of Confucian culture—and furthermore intimates that the only reason it is offended is that it is not really Western and therefore suffers from an inferiority complex—he repeats, albeit unintentionally, the same rhetorical distinctions between cultures that many Asian governments assert when they reject human rights: namely, human rights are not a part of Eastern culture.

We are not saved from the dizzy circle of such mutually reinforcing ironies when the Singapore government, to protect its citizens from the corrupting influence of democratic movements in Asian countries like South Korea and Taiwan, in turn presents these movements as evidence of the corrupting influence of Western liberals. Is it too much to claim, really, that Asian nationals have agency? that when they seek a more democratic future for themselves it is because democracy is as much a part of their modernity as it is of the West’s?

Janadas Devan
Mountain View, California

Ian Buruma replies:

Janadas Devan is to be commended for wishing to criticize his government openly. This is such a rare occurrence in Singapore that I erred on the side of caution. I agree with most of his other observations. I doubt that many people would even assume that North Korea is freer than Singapore. On the cultural issue, I think there might be a mutual misunderstanding at work. I never suggested that the authoritarianism of the Singapore government was the result of “cultural inauthenticity.” The Singapore system of government is Western in origin. As Janadas himself pointed out to me when we last met, Harold Wilson’s technocratic/socialist vision found its proper home in Singapore. But I’m not sure this is quite the same as “the most efficient functioning of capitalism.” Nor, whatever his faults, did Wilson ever become an autocrat, like Lee Kuan Yew. The difference between Lee and Western right-wing fundamentalists is that Lee has had a virtual monopoly on power in Singapore, whereas the likes of Helms, Robertson, and Buchanan have yet to achieve that in the United States.

I agree that many of the anti-colonial movements in Asia contained democratic ideas, mostly imported from the colonial metropoles. Lee Kuan Yew himself is a good example. He began his struggle as a British-educated social-democrat. Not all were like that. Janadas Devan’s father, ex-President Devan Nair, for example, was a militant Communist.

My point, however, was not that Lee is a fake Westerner, or a fake Asian, but that he betrayed his own democratic principles by eroding the rule of law in the name of “Asian values.” And, by the way, passing on political power from father to son is part of the Confucian tradition. Which is not to say that an East Asian government should act accordingly, or that a more democratic system of succession cannot work in Asian countries. I think it can, and should. Hence my critique of Lee’s cultural propaganda. On that issue, all “political contradictions” notwithstanding, Janadas Devan and I are surely at one.

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