A Zizekian View of Singapore

Given enough time, a bunch of monkeys hitting a typewriter would come up with the text of Hamlet. So the Davos jet-setter inflight magazine The Economist came up with a Zizekian description of the state of Singapore, which I will soon leave after just over four years as a resident (in two stints).

I’d like to think I know Singapore politics and economics pretty well: not only I wrote about them, I spent the last year as essentially the only reporter who covered the local parliament, a permanent source of extreme wonder and acute boredom: I know I was the only one because I sat alone in the media room 90% of the time. And I find much to agree with in The Economist’s perspective, for a change.

The magazine starts by summarizing that the city-state offers “much to admire but little to emulate,” which could encapsulate Slavoj Zizek’s oft-repeated, cautious views on “capitalism with Asian values,” a formulation crafted by Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew and only later enthusiastically embraced by China. This is to indicate that those, especially in the U.S. right, that want to copy bits of Singapore’s economic and political model, including the health care system, may be in for a nasty surprise:

However, Singapore’s system also features far more coercion and government intervention than Americans would plausibly accept. Most hospitals are state-run. Most hospices and nursing homes are private but government-funded. The government heavily subsidises acute care. It promotes competition by publishing hospital bills; American health-care providers, by contrast, make their prices as opaque as possible to discourage shopping around. The government compels Singaporeans to divert up to 10.5% of their wages into “Medisave” accounts (employers contribute, too). It also subsidises “cost-effective and essential” drugs; unapproved drugs, if available, can be prohibitively expensive.

This is a good example of the Singaporean “government-managed laissez-faire” approach to things. In Singapore, capitalism reigns supreme and the freedom of money is not to be disturbed, but still the government finds ways to tinker with pretty much everything.

The particular nature of the local version of social conservatism is another obvious example of Singapore’s un-Western approach to things. Both Republican-leaning libertarians and Zizek’s “Occupy Wall Street” fans would be equally horrified if they use this handy database of Singapore parliament debates too much.

Take such an innocuous issue as tattoos; they have often cited in recent debates by the honorable member Suktiandi Sapaat, a well-connected economist that I met last year: here there’s a curious exchange on how the issue of tattoo removal may affect school attendance; here an impassioned plea for stronger oversight of tattoo parlors, which includes this wonderful government response: “the Police will continue to take a tough enforcement stance against unlawful gangs” involved in the tatoo business.

This exchange here, for example, illustrates how homosexuality remains illegal in Singapore, even though police hasn’t enforced the law on most circumstances for many years.

I’m not trying to shame Singapore here, in the usual European style, as insufficiently progressive. There are good historical, demographic and practical reasons why Singapore, an example of a post-colonial mess that was brilliantly solved by the locals after the British ran away, is the way it is (*). Those explain why it’s very naive to assume that a place like Singapore will ever become a San Francisco-on-Southeast Asia.

The Zizekian point here is: capitalism doesn’t necessarily lead to emancipation, in the larger sense. Now, this is not bad for Singapore, which is a brilliantly-run country where citizens have a large degree of freedom despite some political and social constraints (which are not, on the whole, significantly larger than those in many Western European democracies that just can’t see the beam in their own eye), but it’s a reality worth keeping in mind when thinking of other countries.

In The Parallax View, Zizek has this to say, in defense of Alain Badiou’s anti-capitalist thesis; Singapore’s model is not mentioned, but could be presented as a very example of what is being described:

“What prevents the radical questioning of capitalism itself is precisely belief in the democratic form of the struggle against capitalism. Lenin’s stance against “economism” as well as against “pure” politics is crucial today, apropos of the split attitude toward the economy in (what remains of) the Left: on the one hand, the “pure politicians” who abandon the economy as the site of struggle and intervention; on the other the “economists,” fascinated by the functioning of today’s global economy,who preclude any possibility of a political intervention proper. With regard to this split, today, more than ever, we should return to Lenin: yes, the economy is the key domain, the battle will be decided there, we have to break the spell of global capitalism—but the intervention should be properly political, not economic. Today, when everyone is “anticapitalist,” right up to Hollywood “socio-critical” conspiracy movies (from Enemy of the State to The Insider) in which the enemy is the big corporations with their ruthless pursuit of profit, the signifier “anticapitalism” has lost its subversive sting. What we should problematize is the self-evident opposite of this “anticapitalism”: trust in the democratic substance of honest Americans to break up the conspiracy. This is the hard kernel of today’s global capitalist universe, its true Master-Signifier: democracy.”

For years after 1989, the progressive myth was that Western-style democracy and capitalism came together. That always looked dubious but the evidence is piling up against: China here presents a Hegelian response to this Lenin Vs the Economists debate, having followed the Singaporean model closely every since a famous tour of the city-state by then-leader Deng Xiaoping in 1978.

In 1998, when I first arrived in Beijing, if you had told me that China would be both a hard dictatorship and wholly capitalist by 2017 I would have said “impossible”; if you now tell me that China will be a capitalist, Western-style democracy in 2036, I will say “in your dreams.” China, with a little help from Singapore and inspiration from Lee Kuan Yew, is crushing Western myths while wildly profiting from them.

Perhaps The Economist’s biggest blunder is to quote Kishore Mahbubani of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, whom I’ve also met, as an authority on the ideology guiding Lee Kuan Yew. I get the impression that Lee admired Ayn Rand much more than Mr. Mahbubani allows; in Lee’s writings, one simply gets the sense that Lee simply did what he could with the post-colonial materials at hand; if the end-result sometimes resembles the globalist dream of a rainbow society working hand in hand to increase profit, this is to a large extent coincidental.

The key here is that it’s a mistake to think that Singapore is Lee’s idea of a perfect country: it’s better to say that it’s Lee’s idea of a perfect Singapore. We’re talking about the founding father of a multirracial country who had this to say in a 2005 interview, apropos of democracy and diversity:

In multiracial societies, you don’t vote in accordance with your economic interests and social interests, you vote in accordance with race and religion.”

Lee, who passed away in 2015, made public statements about political repression and Muslims that were mistaken last year by those of Donald Trump. That’s the problem with that reference to Ayn Rand, since it tries to make the average Economist reader chuckle as he grasps the not-very-subtle message that Singapore is not a right-wing paradise dreamt by your average Republican donor. But of course it isn’t, dear Economist reader: it’s so much worse than that.


* For those in need of illumination on the issue of the post-colonial gestation of Singapore and its estranged sibling state, Malaysia, I recommend — beyond the obvious choice of Lee Kuan Yew’s own memoirs — John Scurr’s “The Malayan Campaign” (a book that shatters the exemplary myth of a smart British counter-insurgency in Malaya, which misled American planners in Iraq and Afghanistan so very much — remember the absurd 2000s recommendation for American troops that they should learn to “eat soup with a knife”? ); “From Malayan Union to Singapore separation” is especially recommended for those really interested to know the nitty-gritty of local politics, like intra-party disputes in Penang in the late 1940s and early 1950s; and the surprisingly informative “Men in White”, an authorized history of Singapore’s wonderfully named ruling People Action’s Party, is the place where one learns things such as that PAP was known as Party Anak Peking among Singaporean Malays before independence: “the Party of Beijing.”

About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
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3 Responses to A Zizekian View of Singapore

  1. Geoffrey Greene says:

    Love this, David. Very even-handed approach, and a great point about how you must judge a state-system in relation to its context: (e.g. Not the best country, but the best Singapore). In my debates about the best United States, I often hold up Singapore as a model for a plausible, right-leaning ideology that still provides for the Commonwealth. Switzerland is similar. But, both evolved in a specific historical and geographic context of necessary cooperation as smaller, neutral countries reliant upon globalization in tumultuous neighborhoods. Because of these path-dependencies, we instead need to think about how, given initial conditions, a state can evolve to become the best potential version of itself at a given time.

    Healthcare in the USA, for example, cannot be radically transformed overnight, because it’s 1/5th of the economy. It could, however, adopt some ideas from Singapore about mandatory/subsidized HSAs and more transparent competition between providers to reduce costs. It could also *evolve* out systems such as Medicare/Medicaid as a plausible public-option for universal care. Alternatively, it could evolve out the private-sector payer model in a more progressive direction with system of progressive subsidy a la Switzerland. In this way, other countries can provide useful analogies for political inspiration.

    I wish that America’s individualist culture didn’t preclude the type of conscientiousness that underlies social models in Sweden, Switzerland, and Singapore alike (what’s with the S-countries being so damn efficient!?), but that’s an initial condition that we need to factor in as well, without discounting the potential for behavior modification over the longer-term (Americans have learned to abhor slavery, drink far less than their colonial ancestors, reduce violent behavior, coexist in a legally desegregated commons, recycle, participate in a “sharing economy,” treat gays as decent fellow citizens, and countless other culture-/behavior-shifts over the decades).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mihilo says:

    I also worked in Singapore. Interesting analysis. I would only add that you might want to mention the glaring reality of the success of Singapore, relative to it’s model being emulated, and that is virtually unlimited access to incredibly cheap regional labor. As well as a well organized and ruthless system to control and manage foreign workers; from bankers to maids.


    • David Roman says:

      Exactly. Ruthless control of borders (not be mistaken with xenophobia in a country where half of the population is foreign-born) is absolutely a key ingredient of Singapore’s success. And the government never makes excuses for putting the needs of its own citizens ahead of foreigners’.


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