The Singapore Research Nexus at NUS Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) launched a new book titled Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore on 14 August at the National Library. Authored by NUS Sociology Provost’s Chair Professor Chua Beng Huat and published by NUS Press, the book examines the evolution of the communitarian ideology in Singapore, with a focus on public housing, multiracialism and state capitalism.
On his motivation for the book, Prof Chua said that he found the constant use of the label neoliberalism — characterised by a free market, minimal state intervention and emphasis on individual responsibility and resilience — to describe Singapore’s political environment problematic, since Singapore has an extremely extensive state.
Similarly, falling back on an authoritarianism critique is equally problematic since it ignores the fact that more than six decades of economic development has spawned an expanding middle class that is increasingly educated and constantly exposed to global developments, and who have learnt how to use their votes to assert their values.
“Against this background of loose critique of neoliberalism and authoritarianism in the face of a politically, economically, culturally and socially complex Singapore, I attempt in this book to explain the longevity of the People’s Action Party (PAP) in parliamentary power through its — by now seldom mentioned, if not completely forgotten or unknown to the younger Singaporeans — social democratic beginnings and the institutionalisation of some elements of the social democratic values in contemporary Singapore,” explained Prof Chua.
“I argue that these three institutions — public housing, state capitalism and multiracialism — have been, and will continue to be, the essential stable pillars of the PAP government, amid changing demands and desires of an increasingly better educated Singaporean population to which the PAP government must constantly respond and accommodate,” he said, adding that it would be foolish of any incumbent government to remove these pillars without undermining its own legitimacy.
Professor Chan Heng Chee, Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and NUS Trustee, followed up with a critical commentary on the book.
While agreeing with the book’s main theses, Prof Chan stressed that the origins of the Singapore model and the parliamentary rise of the PAP must be examined in terms of the circumstances and reality of the times. She also said that while the three pillars could not be removed entirely, there would be gradual opening up.
“Singapore has sought to be different. It has invented its own model to fit the circumstances. It is about good governance and making the Singapore economy and society work, given the constraints of its existence and societal characteristics. It is not as if Singapore has so many options in what it can do as an island state with no resources…Singapore is radical, innovative and reinventing itself all the time, and others have come to study this model,” commented Prof Chan.
On Prof Chua’s book, she said it was “one of the most interesting conceptual analyses integrating Singapore’s political, economic and social systems in a long while. He provides new insight for our understanding of Singapore.”
The event concluded with a lively Question and Answer session, chaired by Professor Vineeta Sinha, Head of NUS Sociology and the South Asian Studies Programme at FASS, where audience members engaged Prof Chua and Prof Chan in discussions on topics such as the definition of Singapore’s political economy vis-à-vis other countries, as well as the impact of social media.
See media coverage.