Friday, October 06, 2006

The Charade Of Meritocracy

Reproduced from FEER for my own record.

The Charade Of Meritocracy
October 2006

By Michael D. Barr

The legitimacy of the Singaporean government is predicated on the idea of a meritocratic technocracy. A tiny number of career civil servants play a leading role in setting policy within their ministries and other government-linked bureaucracies, leading both an elite corps of senior bureaucrats, and a much larger group of ordinary civil servants. Virtually all of the elite members of this hierarchy are “scholars,” which in Singapore parlance means they won competitive, bonded government scholarships—the established route into the country’s elite.

Scholars not only lead the Administrative Service, but also the military’s officer corps, as well as the executive ranks of statutory boards and government-linked companies (GLCs). Movement between these four groups is fluid, with even the military officers routinely doing stints in the civilian civil service. Together with their political masters, most of whom are also scholars, they make up the software for the entity commonly known as “Singapore Inc.”—a labyrinth of GLCs, statutory boards and ministries that own or manage around 60% of Singapore’s economy.

The basis of the scholars’ mandate to govern is not merely their performance on the job, but also the integrity of the process that selected them. The educational system is designed to cultivate competition, requiring top students to prove themselves every step of the way. Singapore’s schools first stream students into elite classes after Primary 3 and 4. They then compete for entry into special secondary schools and junior colleges, before vying for government and government-linked scholarships to attend the most prestigious universities around the world.

These scholarships typically require several years of government service after graduation, and the scholars are drafted into the Administrative Service, the officer corps of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), or the career track of a statutory board or GLC. The government insists that all Singaporeans have equal opportunities to excel in the system, and that everyone who has made it to the top did so purely by academic talent and hard work. Other factors such as gender, socioeconomic background and race supposedly play no more than a marginal role, if they are acknowledged as factors at all.

On the point of race, the Singapore government has long prided itself on having instituted a system of multiracialism that fosters cultural diversity under an umbrella of national unity. This is explicitly supposed to protect the 23% of the population who belong to minority races (mainly ethnic Malays and Indians) from discrimination by the Chinese majority.

But this system conceals several unacknowledged agendas. In our forthcoming book, Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-Building Project, Zlatko Skrbiš and I present evidence that the playing field is hardly level. In fact, Singapore’s system of promotion disguises and even facilitates tremendous biases against women, the poor and non-Chinese. Singapore’s administrative and its political elites—especially the younger ones who have come through school in the last 20 or so years—are not the cream of Singapore’s talent as they claim, but are merely a dominant social class, resting on systemic biases to perpetuate regime regeneration based on gender, class and race.

At the peak of the system is the network of prestigious government scholarships. Since independence in 1965, the technique of using government scholarships to recruit cohorts of scholars into the administrative and ruling elite has moved from the periphery of Singaporean society to center stage. Even before independence, a makeshift system of government and Colombo Plan scholarships sent a few outstanding scholars overseas before putting them into government service, including most notably former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. Yet as late as 1975 this system had contributed only two out of 14 members of Singapore’s cabinet. Even by 1985, only four out of 12 cabinet ministers were former government scholars.

By 1994, however, the situation had changed beyond recognition, with eight out of 14 cabinet ministers being ex-scholars, including Prime Minister Goh. By 2005 there were 12 ex-scholars in a Cabinet of 19. Of these, five had been SAF scholars, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. A perusal of the upper echelons of the ruling elite taken more broadly tells a similar story. In 1994, 12 of the 17 permanent secretaries were scholars, as were 137 of the 210 in the administrative-officer class of the Administrative Service.

The government scholarship system claims to act as a meritocratic sieve—the just reward for young adults with talent and academic dedication. If there is a racial or other bias in the outcomes, then this can only be the result of the uneven distribution of talent and academic application in the community. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong put it when he spoke on national television in May 2005, “We are a multiracial society. We must have tolerance, harmony. … And you must have meritocracy … so everybody feels it is fair….” His father, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, was making the same point when, in 1989, he told Singapore’s Malay community that they “must learn to compete with everyone else” in the education system.

Yet if Singapore’s meritocracy is truly a level playing field, as the Lees assert, then the Chinese must be much smarter and harder working than the minority Indians and Malays. Consider the distribution of the top jobs in various arms of the Singapore government service in the 1990s (based on research conducted by Ross Worthington in the early 2000s):

• Of the top 30 GLCs only two (6.7%) were chaired by non-Chinese in 1991 (and neither of the non-Chinese was a Malay).

• Of the 38 people who were represented on the most GLC boards in 1998, only two (5.3%) were non-Chinese (and neither of the non-Chinese was a Malay).

• Of the 78 “core people” on statutory boards and GLCs in 1998, seven (9%) were non-Chinese (and one of the non-Chinese was a Malay).

A similar outcome is revealed in the pattern of government scholarships awarded after matriculation from school. Of the 200 winners of Singapore’s most prestigious scholarship, the President’s Scholarship, from 1966-2005 only 14 (6.4%) were not Chinese. But this was not a consistent proportion throughout the period. If we take 1980 as the divider, we find that there were 10 non-Chinese President’s Scholars out of 114 from 1966-80, or 8%, but in the period from 1981-2005 this figure had dropped to four out of 106, or 3.8%. Since independence, the President’s Scholarship has been awarded to only one Malay, in 1968. There has been only one non-Chinese President’s Scholar in the 18 years from 1987 to 2005 (a boy called Mikail Kalimuddin) and he is actually half Chinese, studied in Chinese schools (Chinese High School and Hwa Chong Junior College), and took the Higher Chinese course as his mother tongue. If we broaden our focus to encompass broader constructions of ethnicity, we find that since independence, the President’s Scholarship has been won by only two Muslims (1968 and 2005).

If we consider Singapore’s second-ranked scholarship—the Ministry of Defence’s Singapore Armed Forces Overseas Scholarship (SAFOS)—we find a comparable pattern. The Ministry of Defence did not respond to my request for a list of recipients of SAF scholarships, but using newspaper accounts and information provided by the Ministry of Defence Scholarship Centre and Public Service Commission Scholarship Centre Web sites, I was able to identify 140 (56%) of the 250 SAFOS winners up to 2005.

Although only indicative, this table clearly suggests the Chinese dominance in SAFOS stakes: 98% of SAFOS winners in this sample were Chinese, and about 2% were non-Chinese (counting Mikail Kalimuddin in 2005 as non-Chinese). Furthermore I found not a single Malay recipient and only one Muslim winner (Mikail Kalimuddin). A similar picture emerges in the lower status Singapore Armed Forces Merit Scholarship winners: 71 (25.6%) of 277 (as of late 2005) scholars identified, with 69 (97%) Chinese winners to only two non-Chinese—though there was a Malay recipient in 2004, and one reliable scholar maintains that there have been others.

The position of the non-Chinese in the educational stakes has clearly deteriorated since the beginning of the 1980s. According to the logic of meritocracy, that means the Chinese have been getting smarter, at least compared to the non-Chinese.

Yet the selection of scholars does not depend purely on objective results like exam scores. In the internal processes of awarding scholarships after matriculation results are released, there are plenty of opportunities to exercise subtle forms of discrimination. Extracurricular activities (as recorded in one’s school record), “character” and performance in an interview are also considered. This makes the selection process much more subjective than one would expect in a system that claims to be a meritocracy, and it creates ample opportunity for racial and other prejudices to operate with relative freedom.

Is there evidence that such biases operate at this level? Unsurprisingly, the answer to this question is “yes.” Take for instance a 2004 promotional supplement in the country’s main newspaper used to recruit applicants for scholarships. The advertorial articles accompanying the paid advertisements featured only one non-Chinese scholar (a Malay on a lowly “local” scholarship) amongst 28 Chinese on prestigious overseas scholarships. Even more disturbing for what they reveal about the prejudices of those offering the scholarships were the paid advertisements placed by government ministries, statutory boards and GLCs. Of the 30 scholars who were both prominent and can be racially identified by their photographs or their names without any doubt as to accuracy, every one of them was Chinese. This leaves not a shadow of a doubt that those people granting government and government-linked scholarships presume that the vast majority of high-level winners will be Chinese.

The absence of Malays from the SAFOS scholarships and their near-absence from the SAF Merit Scholarships deserves special mention because this is an extension of discrimination against the admission of Malays into senior and sensitive positions in the SAF that is officially sanctioned. The discrimination against Malays has been discussed in parliament and the media, and is justified by the assertion that the loyalty of Malays cannot be assumed, both because they are Muslim and because they have a racial and ethnic affinity with the Malays in Malaysia and Indonesia. Current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has historically been a vocal defender of this policy.

This discrimination hits Malay men hard, first because it deprives many of promising careers in the army, and second—and more pertinent for our study of the elite—it all but completely excludes potentially high-flying Malays of a chance of entering the scholar class through the SAF. A Chinese woman has a much better chance of winning an SAF scholarship than a Malay man.

Yet even before the scholarship stage, the education system has stacked the deck in favor of Chinese, starting in preschool. Here is the heart of Singapore’s systemic discrimination against non-Chinese. Since the end of the 1970s, the principles of “meritocracy” and “multiracialism” have been subverted by a form of government-driven Chinese chauvinism that has marginalized the minorities. It was not known to the public at the time, but as early as 1978, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had begun referring to Singapore as a “Confucian society” in his dealings with foreign dignitaries. This proved to be the beginning of a shift from his record as a defender of a communally neutral form of multiracialism toward a policy of actively promoting a Chinese-dominated Singapore.

The early outward signs of the Sinicization program were the privileging of Chinese education, Chinese language and selectively chosen “Chinese values” in an overt and successful effort to create a Mandarin- and English-speaking elite who would dominate public life. Two of the most important planks of this campaign were decided in 1979: the annual “Speak Mandarin Campaign” and the decision to preserve and foster a collection of elite Chinese-medium schools, known as Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools.

The SAP schools are explicitly designed to have a Chinese ambience, right down to Chinese gardens, windows shaped like plum blossoms, Chinese orchestra and drama, and exchange programs with mainland China and Taiwan. Over the years the children in SAP schools have been given multiple advantages over those in ordinary schools, including exclusive preschool programs and special consideration for preuniversity scholarships.

For instance, in the early 1980s, when there was a serious shortage of graduate English teachers in schools, the Ministry of Education ensured there were enough allocated to SAP schools “to help improve standards of English among the Chinese-medium students, in the hope that they will be able to make it to university”—a target brought closer by the granting of two O-level bonus points exclusively to SAP school students when they applied to enter junior college. By contrast, neither Indians nor Malays received any special help, let alone schools of their own to address their special needs. They were not only left to fend for themselves, but were sometimes subjected to wanton neglect: inadequately trained teachers, substandard facilities and resources and the “knowledge” that they are not as good as the Chinese.

This account of discrimination against non-Chinese might lead the reader to assume that the quarter of Singaporeans who are not Chinese must form a festering and perhaps even revolutionary mass of resentment. Such an assumption would, however, be a long way from the mark. Non-Chinese might be largely excluded from the highest levels of the administrative elite, but just below these rarefied heights there plenty of positions open to intelligent and hardworking non-Chinese—certainly enough to ensure that non-Chinese communities have much to gain by enthusiastically buying into the system, even after the glass ceilings and racial barriers are taken into account. There are many grievances and resentments in these levels of society but the grievances are muted and balanced by an appreciation of the relative comforts and prosperity they enjoy. For most, any tendency to complain is subdued also by knowledge that it could be worse, and the widespread assumption among members of minority communities that it will be if they seriously pursue their grievances. As long as the Singapore system continues to deal such people a satisfactory hand, if not a fair one, it should be able to cope with some quiet rumblings in the ranks.

While this discrimination is not sparking a reaction that threatens the regime in the short term, the resulting injustices are certainly undermining the myth that the regime operates on meritocratic principles. This is worrying in the longer term because this myth, along with the capacity to deliver peace and prosperity, is one of the primary rationales by which Singaporeans reluctantly accept the many unpopular aspects of the regime, such as the lack of freedom and democracy, the intrusion of government into most aspects of private life, the pressure-cooker lifestyle and the high cost of living.

The rhetoric of meritocracy has given Singaporeans the consolation of believing that their ruling elite are the best of the best and can therefore be trusted almost blindly on important matters, even if they are highhanded and lack the common touch. As this illusion gradually falls away—and today it is already heavily undermined—the trust that Singaporeans have for their government is becoming increasingly qualified. It remains to be seen how long the regime can avert the logical consequences of the contradictions between the myth and the reality.

Mr. Barr is a lecturer at the University of Queensland and author of Lee Kuan Yew: The Beliefs Behind the Man (Routledge, 2000) and Cultural Politics and Asian Values: The Tepid War (Routledge, 2002).

Singapore’s Founding Myths vs. Freedom

Reproduced from FEER for my own record.

Singapore’s Founding Myths vs. Freedom
October 2006

By Garry Rodan

The Singapore government hoped for significant returns when it invested approximately $85 million to host the September 2006 meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. And this seemed like a reasonable expectation. After all, the 16,000 delegates represented a captive audience to promote the Singapore’s finance and tourism industries.

What transpired, however, was a public-relations disaster for the ruling People’s Action Party. Singapore’s extensive curbs on political expression were to consume much of the international media attention before and during the meetings.

Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng warned that public protests may “attract severe punishment, including caning and imprisonment.” Under Singapore’s Public Entertainment and Meetings Act, a security permit from police is required for more than four people to gather in a public place. Authorities claimed that outdoor protests would disrupt local residents and could be exploited by terrorists.

Far from winning new admirers by hosting the meetings, Singapore’s authorities managed to alienate existing ones. Leading American neocon Paul Wolfowitz, now president of the World Bank, slammed immigration restrictions on activists as “authoritarian.” Mr. Wolfowitz accused Singapore authorities of reneging on a 2003 agreement to allow attendance of accredited activists, adding: “Enormous damage has been done and a lot of that damage has been done to Singapore, and it’s self-inflicted.” Belated approvals for 22 of the 27 banned activists to enter Singapore limited—but didn’t undo—the damage.

Many international NGOs conducted their activities from the nearby Indonesian island of Batam. Meanwhile, international media attention turned to the attempted illegal march and rally by Singapore Democratic Party leader, Chee Soon Juan, and six others to highlight curbs on freedom of speech, association and assembly. Encircled by 30 police, the protesters were physically prevented from even beginning their march from a city park. Without taking a single step they had proven their point and the government’s contempt for voices of protest was vividly projected to the world.

Additional limits to political expression in Singapore are imposed through stringent media regulation and frequent litigation by government leaders. None of this is abating. Indeed, this publication was recently banned in Singapore, as editor Hugo Restall explains in this edition. But why does the ruling PAP persist with such tight controls over expression given that it enjoys widespread political support inside and outside Singapore? How can we understand the sorts of pr disasters described above?

Any attempt to answer these questions needs to grasp that suppression of dissent in Singapore is discriminating. The PAP has over the last four decades displayed special anxiety toward certain criticisms and scrutiny, while it is less severe in its reactions to others. In particular, it reacts robustly to questioning of the PAP’s governance virtues and the integrity of the political, legal and bureaucratic institutions it has crafted. It is especially protective of two foundational myths of the PAP, which provide the rationale for the ruling party’s monopoly of power.

The first myth is that public institutions are autonomous, efficient and administered by a meritocracy. In this construction, the integrity of any institution is directly linked to the character of its officials and vice versa. The second posits that unless all politics is channeled through clearly defined and regulated formal political institutions then Singapore’s social and political stability will be at risk. This concept of politics is a compartmentalized and highly regulated one.

However, the veracity of such defining stories about the essence of the regime’s character and purpose are impossible to fully ascertain given the constraints on inquiry and debate into them. This is not by accident, since if these myths could not hold up to scrutiny then the rationale of the de facto one-party state would be undermined. Insulating these myths from scrutiny may reflect a lack of confidence in the ability of Singaporeans to assess competing claims about key institutions. It might also reflect a lack of confidence in the ability of the institutions to withstand critical scrutiny. Whatever the case, reinforcing foundational myths involves continual vigilance in monitoring and restricting public debate on PAP governance and institutions.

Paradoxically, dissent itself can actually be functional for the promotion and reinforcement of these myths. For instance, the high-profile defamation suits against critics not only impair or punish government opponents. These trials also avail the ruling party of opportunities to articulate the proclaimed attributes and qualities of the governance system. This explains what otherwise appears to be an inordinate scale of resources and political investment devoted by the PAP to such trials.

Similarly, the extensive system of licenses and regulations pertaining to any form of political expression enables authorities to do more than just limit such activities. It provides opportunities for authorities to echo political leaders’ notions about threats to social and political order posed by civil society activism, public rallies, Internet Web blogs and other independent political expressions.

PAP sensitivity to scrutiny of key state institutions goes a long way toward explaining why J.B. Jeyaretnam and Mr. Chee have encountered more difficulties than most opposition politicians. They are depicted as engaging in “gutter politics,” periodically contrasted for the worse with Singapore’s two opposition members of parliament—Mr. Jeyaretnam’s successor at the helm of the Workers’ Party, Low Thia Khiang, and the leader of the Singapore People’s Party, Chiam See Tong.

In recent decades, Messrs. Jeyaretnam and Chee have consistently probed, questioned and criticized various aspects of the governance system, honing in on the processes accompanying bureaucratic, administrative and political decisions. They have each endured a raft of problems with authorities in trying to conduct political organization and communication—including a string of defamation cases awarding massive damages to PAP leaders. These ultimately resulted in the bankruptcy of the opposition politicians and hence their ineligibility to contest elections.

The most recent demonstration of the difficulties in scrutinizing the PAP’s governance claims without being open to defamation allegations by PAP leaders was provided in the run up to the May 2006 general elections. Mr. Chee led an SDP campaign questioning the response time of the government to problems over disclosures and uses of public funds by the multimillion dollar charitable organization, the National Kidney Foundation. Any chance of a robust debate about the performance of the government and state regulatory institutions was blunted following legal suits by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

Questioning the associated meritocracy myth has proved especially hazardous for the international media. Examples of this include responses to articles by the International Herald Tribune in August 1994 and Bloomberg in August 2002, respectively seen to imply nepotism in the political rise of Lee Hsien Loong and in the appointment of Lee Hsien Loong’s wife, Ho Ching, to the executive directorship of the government-linked holding company, Temasek Holdings. The IHT was ordered to pay over $604,000 in total damages, while Bloomberg settled out of court for around $380,000.

Observations about how the governance system treats PAP leaders was at issue in a $555,000 defamation suit against the Hong Kong-based Yazhou Zhoukan for publishing comments in September 1996 by Singapore lawyer Tang Liang Hong. These related to a controversy over a prelaunch discount sale offer of condominium units by Housing Properties Limited taken up by Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Hsien Loong and various other members of the Lee family. One of the directors of HPL was Lee Suan Yew, the elder brother of Lee Kuan Yew.

Then Prime Minister Goh’s instigation of an investigation into the propriety of the offer and the timing of disclosures by HPL to the Stock Exchange of Singapore, conducted by the finance minister and the head of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, cleared the Lees of any impropriety. However, Mr. Tang maintained that an inquiry conducted by either the Commercial Affairs Department or the Corrupt Practice Investigation Bureau would be more convincing since they were more detached from government. Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong sued Yazhou Zhoukan for approximately $555,000 for defamation and extracted an apology from the magazine.

Given the frequency with which Singapore’s courts have been deployed to quell criticism of key institutions, it’s not surprising that questioning the judiciary’s independence is treated most seriously. There is no better illustration of this than in the case against the IHT for a 1994 op-ed article in which Christopher Lingle didn’t even mention Singapore or its courts by name. He referred to the use in the region by some authoritarian regimes of “a compliant judiciary to bankrupt opposition politicians.” Lee Kuan Yew insisted this was an oblique reference to Singapore and sued the IHT and Mr. Lingle. In the prosecution’s determination to prove this point, it documented 76 separate articles from the Straits Times between 1972-94 to establish that government critics had in fact been regularly prosecuted in Singapore’s courts. Likewise, in Annex A of the Aug. 22 court filing against the review, the plaintiffs’ lawyers enumerated 22 of the defamation actions previously taken by Mr. Lee since 1965.

Mr. Lee’s eagerness to draw the world’s attention to such a history and to volunteer that Singapore’s legal system was the premier candidate for Mr. Lingle’s description might appear puzzling. However, the trial provided a stage for Mr. Lee to assert the independence of the judiciary, to sound a stern warning to others who might want to question this, and to reinforce claims important to Singapore’s economic brand, namely that the integrity of the city-state’s governance regimes distinguish it within the region.

Yet this strategy is not without contradictions and it faces challenges from political and economic forces. Ironically, one challenge emanates from the increasing use of the courts by Singapore’s political opponents to question, counter and challenge the PAP’s foundational myths. Mr. Chee used his February Bankruptcy Petition Hearing, for example, to circulate his court documents to the international media, and he outlined how and why he didn’t believe Singapore’s judicial system was independent when dealing with opposition politicians. He was also able to remind the international media of the criticisms leveled at the Singapore judicial system by Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists and the New York Bar Association. Mr. Chee was not intimidated by the prospect, and subsequent reality, of a suit for contempt of court.

Lee Kuan Yew has since secured a summary judgment for his defamation case against Mr. Chee and his sister and SDP colleague, Chee Siok Chin, arising out of the last election campaign. However, while the Chees were thus denied their request for a public hearing, their detailed defense of what they regard as fair comment on a matter of public interest was posted on various Web sites. Moreover, they are challenging the decision to award a summary trial as unconstitutional. In effect, the Chees are taking a foundational PAP myth seriously to see where it leads.

Meanwhile, economic globalization is contributing to a growing scrutiny of, and challenge to, Singapore’s governance system. Currently a request for review by the Toronto-based oil and natural gas company, EnerNorth Industries, is pending before the Canadian Supreme Court. It is seeking to overturn a decision by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to abide by a Singapore High Court ruling. This went against EnerNorth in its dispute with Singaporean company Oakwell Engineering and it faces the prospect of having its assets seized under Canadian law to pay for that judgment. However, EnerNorth’s appeal centers round the contention that: “Singapore is ruled by a small oligarchy who control all facets of the Singapore state, including the judiciary, which is utterly politicized.”

There is also increasing international scrutiny of the governance rules and regulations pertaining to Singapore’s domestic market. Already this includes critical attention by the International Monetary Fund and U.S. negotiators involved in the U.S.-Singapore Free Trade Agreement. Concerns have been raised about levels of transparency, possible conflicts of interest pertaining to appointments within the state and the advantages open to government-linked companies by virtue of political networks to which they belong.

The second foundational PAP myth about the threat to political and social order posed by political pluralism has also manifested itself in a range of measures curbing political expression. The most explicit symbol of this myth is to be found in the Societies Act, which bars political activity by groups not specifically registered for this purpose. In effect, this outlaws civil society—both as an alternative to formal politics or as a complement to it.

Whereas in a liberal democracy widespread political engagement by social groups is viewed as functional for the political system, the PAP worries that this opens the door to “hidden agendas” and special interest politics. As Lee Hsien Loong stated in 2001: “It will be very tragic if Singaporeans are divided into many special interest groups and each one asserts its demands, and you’re unable to form a consensus.”

Attempts by political parties to engage with the general public, particularly by the SDP, have been frustrated by administrative and other impediments. Such were the difficulties experienced by the SDP in obtaining permits for public meetings that they have on occasions deliberately violated the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act. This resulted in prosecutions of SDP members and two prison terms in 1999 for Mr. Chee. The SDP has generally been deploying nonviolent civil disobedience to highlight administrative impediments to free speech and collective action.

One of the contemporary challenges for the PAP in the control of political expression has been the Internet. The essence of the government’s response has been to superimpose the spirit of the Societies Act on cyberspace. This includes the requirement for registration with the Singapore Broadcasting Authority of political Web sites and the barring of nonparty political associations from political promotion, advertising or campaigning during elections. As Senior Minister of State Balaji Sadasivan explained: “In a free-for-all Internet environment, where there are no rules, political debate could easily degenerate into an unhealthy, unreliable and dangerous discourse, flush with rumors and distortions to mislead and confuse the public.”

These controls have proved remarkably effective. However, during the May election, individuals defied the government edict barring political blogging and podcasting. There were around 50 Web sites and blogs producing political or semipolitical content during the election, according to the Institute of Policy Studies in Singapore. Among other things, this provided venues for critical analysis and views to be aired by individuals and it enabled videos of sizeable opposition rallies, blanketed in the state-controlled media, to be made available. This is an important development, since it challenges the PAP preference for all forms of political expression to be channeled through state-controlled institutions and the idea that the alternative is dangerous. A more serious challenge, though, would involve the technology’s facilitation of collective political action or mobilization. The PAP’s priority will be to prevent this.

Clearly the PAP’s determination to insulate its foundational myths remains resolute and attempts to challenge these continue to attract a harsh response from Singapore’s authorities. However, because of economic globalization and the use of new technologies, that exercise is likely to require continued refinement and creative energy.

Mr. Rodan is director of the Asia Research Centre and professor of politics at Murdoch University, Perth, Australia.

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