Author: Michael D. Barr, Flinders University
One of the lingering questions of Singapore politics over the last couple of decades has been how to measure the effectiveness the National Education program introduced to schools in the second half of the 1990s. The program was designed to instil into the next generation a deep sense of gratitude to founding father Lee Kuan Yew and the People’s Action Party (PAP) government that he led for 30 years.
Talking to the youngish products of this system, it has always seemed that they did not have a good word to say about National Education. They complained about its banality and its heavy handedness. Many seemed to be so cynical about their government that one could be forgiven for wondering if National Education had simply produced a generation ready to rebel against authority.
Certainly the government was seriously concerned about the electoral impact of this generation as they grew to adulthood and became more significant politically. Hence the government’s constant expressions of worry over the last decade or more that the generations that never knew the hard and insecure years of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s did not appreciate what had been done for them and would flirt with alternative pathways. This was why it paid so much attention to finding the right balance in managing the internet in recent years: allowing a relatively free flow of ideas in the normal course of events while crushing any blogger or news source whose content or demeanour seriously challenged the government.
Singapore’s general election on 11 September 2015 settled such matters. The internet generation may not love the PAP like their grandparents do, and may delight in jokes at their expense, but they have swallowed their National Education lessons whole. They cannot countenance Singapore without its traditional ruling class — which is epitomised by the Lee family.
This was the major take-away message from the PAP’s overwhelming election victory. The ruling party received 70 per cent of the vote (up from a record low of 60 per cent), reduced the opposition’s share of elected members of parliament from seven to six and came within a few hundred votes of reducing the opposition to a single seat — which is where it started way back in 1981. The opposition has, in fact, been reduced to its core support base of 30 per cent of the vote, despite the government’s performance over the last decade being a litany of missteps and policy errors.
It was a stunning outcome that clearly surprised no one more than the winners. In his post-election press conference, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong — the son of Lee Kuan Yew — made it clear that he had no doubt about the most significant aspect of the victory: the support of the younger voters.
This result means that the longevity of the rule of Singapore’s current elite is all-but assured in the medium-to-long term. No one should look for any great shifts due to generational change on the part of the electorate. The people of Singapore — including young, educated, middle class voters — have overwhelmingly endorsed a form of technocratic authoritarianism and turned their back on any prospect on the development of a two-party democracy. From now on, the main danger to the ruling elite in Singapore is the fruits of its own success: hubris, insular groupthink and arrogance. What was shown on 11 September is that, even with such factors in play, they will still survive comfortably.
This outcome is most important to Singaporeans, but it will also bring solace and comfort to authoritarian regimes more generally. It will particularly comfort the ruling party in China, which models itself to some extent on Singapore’s technocratic, capitalist, authoritarian system (but of course without even the superficial trappings of democracy). Scholarly discussion of so-called ‘hybrid regimes’ that presume a drift towards democratisation as the country becomes better educated and more middle class also needs to take note: the well-educated and the middle class are perfectly capable of endorsing authoritarianism.
Indeed the trade-off of democratic and liberal rights in exchange for a safe and prosperous society should be regarded and accepted as a rational choice, as unpalatable as this formula may be.
Michael D. Barr is an associate professor of international relations at Flinders University and Editor-in-Chief of Asian Studies Review.