Social Engineering the World's Freest Economy: Neo-liberal capitalism and Neo-liberal Governmentality in Singapore

Soek-Fang Sim

I have often been accused of interfering with private lives... I say without the slightest of remorse... we would not have made economic progress if we did not intervene on very personal matters - who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think. That's another problem. — Lee Kwan Yew, First PM and "Father" of Singapore, National Day Rally, 1986.


There is no necessary correspondence between neo-liberal capitalism and neo-liberal governmentality. Theoretically, there is no consensus on their relationship; some argue for their affinity while others argue for the perpetual or contingent relevance of other forms of governmentality. Empirically, the case of Singapore, touted as the world's best model of neo-liberal capitalism, shows that its social engineering projects rely as much on neo-liberal governmentality as on other governmentalities. Finally, while governments may gravitate towards neo-liberal governmentality, it should be noted that this mode of governance is popular among all types of governments - whether neo-liberal or communist, democratic or authoritarian - which indicates a lack of correspondence between political economy and governmentality. Together, these arguments suggest that "neo-liberal" governmentality is a misnomer and that its popularity with contemporary governments must be explained alternatively.

Without compromise: Singapore as a model of neo-liberal governance

[1] As the world's freest economy, Singapore presents an important case for thinking about neo-liberal governance. The People's Action Party (PAP), Singapore's one-party government, makes no apologies about its social engineering projects to ensure the survival and competitiveness of the national economy. To this end, Singapore's success is indisputable. At the signing of a Free Trade Agreement in 2003, President Bush highlighted Singapore as "an example for ... the world of the transforming power of economic freedom and open markets." [1] Bush is by no means the only world leader who is impressed by what the one-party government has achieved. Its unique combination of openness and regulation has been studied and praised by Chinese Premiers Deng and Jiang, while the British opposition leader at the time, Tony Blair, highlighted Singapore as the best illustration of the parallel achievements of economic success and social cohesion (Financial Times, 10 Jan 1996).

[2] What the PAP has achieved in Singapore is no less than a double feat that corresponds to two key features of neo-liberalism. Economically, neo-liberalism denotes a mode of global market capitalism based upon free trade; essentially, the fewer hindrances (e.g., protectionism of domestic labor or commodities), the closer an economy can be said to be enshrining neo-liberal values. Singapore's first feat is its ability to sustain a version of capitalism that is relatively pure and uncompromised by communitarian or welfare demands. Politically, neo-liberalism refers to the project of "embedding market values and structures not just within economic, but also within social and political life; its objective is a reshaping of power relations" (Rodan 2004: 1). This is precisely Singapore's second feat: sustaining neo-liberal capitalism through the subtle project of social engineering, rather than through coercion.

[3] To appreciate the first feat, it is necessary to understand the challenges or contradictions of late-capitalism. Prosperity creates tremendous inequality and triggers demands for social welfare, often propelling countries towards "third way" solutions that involve the weakening of capitalistic instincts and the installation of protectionist policies (Giddens 1994:27-41). Elsewhere in the world, societies in the stage of advanced capitalism have had to give in to these contradictions, such as through providing social security in the United States or welfare in Europe.

[4] These pressures exist in Singapore and have been termed by the PAP as "the price of success." The challenge of governing advanced capitalism, in PAP's own words, is the question of how "to maintain social cohesion and manage growing income differences between the highly educated ... and those who are less skilled and less mobile" (The Straits Times, 7 June 1997). In resolving this contradiction, the "Western" path of compromise was seen as unacceptable because the PAP's legitimacy depended on the economic growth generated by foreign investments, which could be secured only if Singapore remained extremely capital-friendly and non-protectionist of labor. Instead, the "Asian" value of filial piety was invoked to argue that welfare should be provided by families, not by corporations or the state, and to legitimize the "Parents Maintenance Bill" that obligated children to support their aged retired parents. (This bill was immediately copied by China and Taiwan). Elsewhere (Sim 2001), I argued that this model of Asian Capitalism constituted a "superior" response to the contradictions of late-capitalism, ensuring that those who needed welfare received it (from their family) while allowing the logic of capitalism to remain relatively undiluted in Singapore.

[5] To appreciate the second feat, it is important to anticipate that a neo-liberal society can be achieved in many ways (e.g., coercion, ideology). What makes Singapore "a model for the world" is the PAP's success at engineering a system of values and practices that is suited to the perpetuation of neo-liberal capitalism. The PAP's success can be seen in many instances. Firstly, an economic order that is sustained by coercion would never be able to generate the "miraculous" annual growth of 8.9% (from 1965-2000), thereby outperforming the other Asian tiger economies, nor create the worker mentality or infrastructure necessary to help it to clinch the titles of the world's busiest port and best airlines. Secondly, the hegemony of neo-liberal values is most visible when contrasted with the reactions of other Asian societies to the recent Asian Economic Crisis. In Malaysia, Thailand and South Korea, strong anti-globalization discourses and movements compelled governments to dilute neo-liberal impulses and introduce some degree of protectionism. Among countries that were more reluctant to compromise neo-liberal principles such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, officials facing workers' protest at home have expressed envy that the PAP was able to get its citizens to "tighten their belts" and accept austere policies - such as wage freezes, retrenchment, and welcoming foreign talents to compete for domestic jobs - aimed at making the economy more competitive.

[6] Having understood why Singapore's achievements are considered feats, we now have the conceptual tools to grasp the significance of the praises heaped upon it. What world leaders identify as "social cohesion" is the product of hard political work to inculcate neo-liberal discipline into the populace. To the extent that Singapore is considered an exemplary model of neo-liberal capitalism, a case study of Singapore can throw much light on the topic of neo-liberal governance.

[7] The goals of this essay can be variously stated. Its broadest aim is to contribute to the study of the relationship between political economy and mode of governance. Its specific goal is to examine one particular mode of political economy - neo-liberal capitalism - and to consider whether its disciplinary needs are better served by any particular style of governance or "governmentality." Drawing upon the Foucauldian distinction of governmentalities (based on the object of governance) - the governance of all aspect of life or "police rationality," the governance of society or "liberal governmentality," and the governance of the soul or "neo-liberal governmentality" - this essay investigates whether there is an affinity between neo-liberal capitalism and neo-liberal governmentality. If so, what is the basis of this affinity; if not, is neo-liberal capitalism better served by any singular or combination of governmentalities? In the case of the latter, do the co-existence of governmentalities serve to reinforce or undermine each other's effectiveness?

[8] Given the intricacies of concepts involved, I first outline the dominant thesis (that there is an affinity between neo-liberal capitalism and neo-liberal governmentality) and its categories before turning to the case study of Singapore. Arguing that Singapore's existence has always been tied to the principles of neo-liberal capitalism, I examine the governmentalities that were dominant in different stages of its economic development. Tying together insights from Singapore and from other theories, I conclude that there is a) no correspondence between neo-liberal governmentality and neo-liberal capitalism; the needs of neo-liberal capitalism can as well be served by other governmentalities and that b) different governmentalities can work together without undermining each other's effectiveness because they operate in different zones or impact different types of subjects, e.g., compulsion for the resistant subject, support for the willing subject.

Neo-liberal governmentality and its relationship to neo-liberal capitalism: some unanswered questions

[9] As a concept, neo-liberal governmentality refers to a mode of governance that emerged in response to a crisis of liberal governmentality, another mode of governance which in turn emerged in response to an earlier crisis of pre-modern forms of governmenality based on police rationality. Given their interweaving relationship, it would be futile to offer a contained definition of any mode. As such I will briefly describe the crises and resultant governmentalities that emerged, highlighting the distinctive features and the conditions of emergence of each mode.

[10] The Eighteenth century European science of policing was one of "endless lists and classifications" (Gordon 1991:10), where all (territory and inhabitants) was to be known, noted, enumerated and documented. With no limits to power, this early modern governmentality "sought to govern, ..., in toto, down to the minutiae of existence" (Barry, Osborne, Rose 1996:9).

[11] This "megalomaniac fantasy" (Rose 1996:43) subsided with the emergence of a new social order and philosophy of the state, namely that of modern capitalism and liberalism. Frustrated by attempts of the Stuart monarchy in England to impose absolute rule and ecclesiastical authority and to re-establish the claims of divine right, men of property (including the newly emerging bourgeoisie) became attracted to an ideology that argued in favor of the breakdown of traditional social hierarchies and that envisioned a socio-political order based on liberty, competition, individual freedom, with limited state intervention and organized around private enterprise (Eccleshall in Hall 1984:38). Eschewing the idea of the state as a unitary entity, the philosophies of Locke and Ferguson postulated the state as a man-made entity and contrasted it with society - a construct that was seen as natural, autonomous and as having its own logic and law (Gordon 1991: 10). This fragmentation of the state into natural (civil society and the market) and unnatural (government or political society) placed a limit on what the government can know or do and produced a crisis of governance that needed an urgent answer to the question of "how a necessary market freedom can be reconciled with the unlimited exercise of political sovereignty" (Burchell 1996:21).

[12] The solution to this crisis was to be found in the contradictions between the two tenets of liberalism: freedom versus equality. For Hall (1986:41), the recurring contradiction is that freedom is interpreted as the freedom to pursue and create inequality. Since "all cannot succeed... inevitably some must lose in order for some to win. From its inception, classical liberalism was identified with the free market and opposed any intervention by the state to remedy the unequal consequences of market competition... It is an inherently inegalitarian position." [2]

[13] In attempting to balance equality and freedom, what has come to be known as classical liberalism emerged as a response to problems of unrestrained market capitalism. As an open, competitive, free market increasingly gave way to corporate and quasi-monopolistic markets, support for a laissez-faire or minimal state became increasingly eroded and "opened the floodgates" to more collectivistic discourses (Hall 1986:64). Within liberal collectivism, the new duty of the state was to create those conditions in which the self-fulfillment of individuals could occur.

[14] This new responsibility is closely associated with what Foucauldians consider "liberal governmentality." Given that the crisis of governmentality was triggered by the designation of certain spheres as natural and thus outside the purview of the unnatural state, the solution to reinventing state legitimacy was to simultaneously limit the spheres that the state could govern and to bolster its legitimacy through gaining expertise not about individuals but about "society." This imperative precipitated, with the help of sociology, demography and population studies (Foucault 1991), the articulation of a sphere (outside the market and civil society) termed "the social" and the recoding of the problems confronting industrial society as social (rather than personal) problems (Rose 1996:46). From this point onward, the purpose of the state was to "tame the undesirable consequences of industrial life, wage labor and urban existence in the name of society" (Rose 1996:39-40).

[15] At this point, it is important to note that although liberal governmentality (governance of society) emerged in the context of a particular variant of liberalism (liberal collectivism), there is no necessary correspondence between governmentality and political economy. In nineteenth and twentieth century Europe, liberal governmentality was hijacked by a combination of democracy and socialism (Burchell 1996:28). In the context of democratic societies where citizens were invested with rights to a certain minimal economic and social condition, European states found themselves obligated to provide state welfare (Rose 1996:39). The contingent nature of this fusion of liberal governmentality with welfare is emphasized by Rose (1996:48-49). It is one thing for the state to create knowledge and information about society and to construct issues as "social problems," it is quite another for these social problems to be seen as needing social solutions (requiring state interventions, e.g., welfare) rather than individual solutions (e.g., social work which deals with poverty on a case-by-case basis) as in the case of authoritarian societies where discourses of rights and egalitarianism were weak.

[16] However, even this scaling back of the state (from total state to the social state) was seen as problematic, and a new crisis of governmentality developed. The crisis of liberal governmentality came in the form of criticism of the "anti-competitive effects of society" (Gordon 1991:42) and an attempt to re-articulate liberalism to favor freedom and de-legitimize egalitarianism. This variant of liberalism has been called neo-liberalism and its difference from earlier branches of liberalism is most stark in Thatcher's articulation:

I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation. [3]

[17] While liberal and neo-liberal philosophy continued to subscribe to the ontology of natural spheres (market and civil society) and unnatural spheres (government) and argued that the government should respect the laws of nature, there emerged the awareness that state intervention was necessary to produce optimal market relations and behavior, although the object of governance in neo-liberal capitalism was no longer "society" but the soul or will of subjects. The emergence of neo-liberal governmentality then was not about "rolling back the state" but about reinventing new strategies of governance that would create "the legal, institutional and cultural conditions that will enable an artificial competitive game of entrepreneurial conduct to be played to best effect" (Burchell 1996:27). The project now was the production of motivated, "responsibilized" selves seeking self-fulfillment and who, with help of new experts of the soul, would interpret their former dependency on welfare as practices of "learned helplessness" and "self-victimization" (Rose 1996:54, 59).

[18] We now have the necessary perspective to distinguish between the various governmentalities. While police rationality governs individuals as bodies, liberal governmentality - dubbed as social governance or the governance of society - seeks to leave individuals' market behavior alone; what is governed is society, or rather "the interface of society and the state" (Burchell 1996: 25). While the subject of liberal governmentality is "the homo economicus whose activity must remain forever untouched by government, the neo-liberal homo economicus is manipulable man" (Gordon 1991:43, italics in original). But this manipulation differs from that of police rationality, which also targeted the individual as its unit of governance. Police rationality sought to produce docile subjects while neo-liberal governmentality sought to produce "the necessary (voluntary) partner or accomplice government" and "to produce the subjective conditions, the forms of self-mastery, self-regulation and self-control, necessary to govern a nation now made up of free and "civilized" citizens" (Rose 1996:23, 44). The unit of governance is no longer the self, family or social institutions but the will. To this end, indicators of successful neo-liberal governmentality is not docility but subjects who "organized themselves into their own associations, contesting the powers of expertise, protesting against relations that now appear patronizing and demeaning of their autonomy, demanding increased resources for their particular conditions and claiming a say in the decisions that affect their lives" (Rose 1996:52).

[19] Rather than governing individuals or society directly, the goal now is to govern through the choices of the people, e.g., by making available soul experts and life coaches who can help them make the right choice and achieve self-fulfillment (Rose 1996:54). This mode of governance - dubbed governance of the soul - is a tantamount to a "de-governmentalization of the state" though not a de-governmentalization per se because neo-liberal governmentality does not abandon "the will to govern" but seeks to govern better by inventing new ways to influence how people use their freedom (Rose 1996:40-41, 53, italics in original).

[20] In this schema, scholars documenting the genealogy of neo-liberal governmentality make no expressed statements about the relationship between neo-liberal capitalism and governmentality, although I would argue that that link is implied. The relationship is implied firstly by terminology - "governance of the soul" is an accurate, concise and sufficient term; its other name of "neo-liberal governmentality" is superfluous. To choose to denote this mode with a word so obviously linked to political economy is to imply some meaningful relationship between political economy and governmentality. Secondly and more importantly, these scholars do trace the emergence of neo-liberal governmentality as an answer to the question of how to create/improve neo-liberal capitalism, to the neo-liberal imperative of how to make society more competitive.

[21] While the relationship between neo-liberal capitalism and neo-liberal govermentality is only tacitly stated, the relationship between different governmentalities is a topic that is more overtly debated. The more common perspective is that governmentalities coexist rather than replace each other, although it is unclear whether they coexist in a way that reinforces or undermines one another. Foucault (1991: 102) argued that, "we need to see things not in terms of replacement of a society of sovereignty by a disciplinary society, by a society of government; in reality one has a triangle, sovereignty-discipline-government." Similarly, Burchell (1996:19) stated that, "there may be interconnections and continuities between these different forms of government and, in particular, between local and diverse forms of government existing at the level of interpersonal relations or institutions dispersed throughout society on the one hand, and political government as the exercise of a central, unified form of State sovereignty on the other, or between forms of government existing within micro-settings like the family or the school and the macropolitical activities of government directed towards individuals as members of a population, society or nation."

[22] However, there are also arguments about their antagonistic co-existence. Elsewhere, Burchell (1996:21) stated that different governmentalities were "not necessarily harmonious or mutually reinforcing." Indeed, the very definition of governmentalities begs the question of conflict between them. If the inculcation of neo-liberal governmentality crucially depends on free subjects who are motivated by desires for self-fulfillment, can this governmentality emerge and thrive in a context of coercion or intense regulation; can will be coerced or produced through surveillance? In addressing these questions, Singapore - with its authoritarian fame - is an especially pertinent case study. Do the descriptions of Singapore as "soft" or "hegemonic authoritarianism" (Diamond 2002) and "popular dictatorship" suggest that the PAP might have been able to combine these unlikely governmentalities in a synergistic manner?

The lack of correspondence between governmentality and political economy: Social engineering in neo-liberal Singapore

[23] For centuries, the existence of Singapore as an independent entity has always been tied to its global competitiveness - a fate sealed in part by its tiny size, lack of natural resources and excellent geographical location. From its inception in 1819 as an entrepot (free trade) port under colonial rule, Singapore's survival in the global economy has always been tied to its status as an international port and regional hub, and, since 1986, Singapore has been the world's busiest port. [4]

"For me it is a moment of anguish. All my life, my whole adult life, I have believed in merger and unity of the two territories..."
"It broke everything we stood for." — Lee Kwan Yew, First PM and "Father" of Singapore. The Straits Times, Aug 9, 1965.

[24] This pegging of the sense of national self to the global economy helps us understand the seemingly bizarre reactions of its statesmen. In 1963, amidst the fierce struggles for independence by third world colonies, Singapore sought to avoid independence through a merger with the then Malaysia. The image associated with the nation's birth is a black and white picture of the PM in tears as he made the announcement that Malaysia had declined Singapore's merger proposal and that Singapore was forced in 1965, overnight, to become an independent nation.

[25] To this day, ex-PM Lee continues to tout the idea of a re-merger with Malaysia. In both cases, the rationale was the doubt that Singapore would be able to survive in the global economy. Because Singapore's survival has always been imagined as being tied solely to its global competitiveness, it is my argument that its economy and society have always been closely organized along neo-liberal principles.

[26] This argument is vital to my overall argument: to the extent that readers accept that Singapore has always been neo-liberal, then it becomes possible to translate the observation that Singapore uses different governmentalities at different phases of national development into the argument that there is no special correspondence between neo-liberal capitalism and neo-liberal governmentality.

[27] In the following subsections, I will describe the PAP's imagination of the ideal subject for particular phases of neo-liberal economic development, and identify the relevant mode of of governmentality(s) for each phase. In studies of governmentality, the common methodology is to focus on a particular technology. This is not possible in an essay that seeks to map shifts in governmentalities because the PAP uses different technologies (e.g., surveillance versus campaigns) to create different governmentalities.

Making a stakeholders' society: from fishermen to docile workers

[28] The Singapore that the British left behind in 1955 was one where there was no conception of nation. The indigenous population (primarily of Malay descent) was predominately involved in agriculture and fishing and did not have a mindset that was attuned to the national economy while indentured laborers from China and India considered Singapore a temporary sojourn, many planning to return to their homeland. The challenge for the PAP was to fundamentally transform these mentalities and relationships to the land, and to integrate these groups into "the national economy." With a vision of a stakeholders' society in mind, the PAP sought to transform subjects' relationship to the land from one of subsistence into dependency on a centralized state system.

[29] While there may be a variety of ways of creating stakeholders' societies, the strategy adopted by the PAP was chiefly one of coercion and compulsion, with very little attempt to instill self-governance. The most important practice was perhaps the Land Acquisition Act (1966). Inherited from British colonial rule, the Act empowered the state to acquire any land deemed necessary for national development at a rate of compensation determined by the state (Chua 1995:130). For those unconvinced by the rhetoric of national development, trickery and coercion were used. Tremewan (1994: 47) noted that state demolition teams were often accompanied by police who quelled riots and resisters and that extended periods of passive resistances invited "fires of convenience." [5]

[30] The practice of seizing land was not sufficient for the production of docile workers for the national economy; it only produced vagabonds who might seek greener pastures. Much work remained to be done to integrate the populace into the national economy. To this end, the public housing policy (which houses 85% of the population and which is internationally acclaimed) was vital in instilling economic discipline into subjects.

[31] The public housing program of forced resettlement accomplished several goals of economic discipline. It destroyed traditional communities, networks of support and land-based subsistence, all of which accorded subjects autonomy from the state. Additionally, by inflicting housing debts, the scheme compelled many to sell their labor in order to have a home. Besides transforming autonomous subjects into proletariats, the Housing Development Board also shaped social organization through flat allocation. Through building units that favored nuclear families and imposing a racial quota (that required each block to approximate to the racial ratio of the nation), alternative networks (e.g., extended family, villages, clans) were destroyed and subjects were forced to rebuild community with multiracial strangers with whom the only bond was nationality.

[32] These policies did not create docile workers but angry workers, whose protests were often met with police violence. In this very beginning stage of economic discipline, the PAP relied chiefly on police rationality and coercion. Rather than governing the will, the PAP sought to classify and regulate subjects as bodies (into races and nuclear families). Rather than allowing subjects to manage their own lives and possessions, the PAP created schemes to micro-manage the minutiae of subjects' existence, from where they would live to who their neighbors should be.

[33] That this early phase of neo-liberal discipline was strongly affiliated with police rationality raises the question of whether police rationality has any particular affinity with (the early phases of) neo-liberal capitalism? While it may be intuitive to imagine that people would be unwilling to surrender land (from which their subsistence and autonomy derives) and thus, that coercion and police rationality might be the only effective mode for achieving the goal of re-organizing land, this intuition is challenged by two considerations. Firstly, the imperative of re-organizing land and property is not specific to capitalist societies and applies to socialist societies alike. As such, it might be more accurate to say that police rationality is more likely at the early phase of the creation of a particular mode of political economy. Secondly, it is possible to imagine that this imperative could be achieved through tremendous ideological work or through intense tutelage of subjects so as to bring about the willing surrender of land and property. Although difficult, the possibility of this alternative mode suggests that there is no inevitable relationship between (early establishment of a particular) political economy with any particular mode of governmentality.

Greed and the Singapore Dream: From docile workers to ambitious careerists

[34] In this second stage, the PAP sought to instill basic skills, like language. The languages that were selected for national development were not market Malay or Chinese dialects, which were the dominant language in post-independent Singapore, but rather English and Mandarin. The motivation behind this selection was national competitiveness; these languages were identified as the language of commerce and thus necessary for national survival.

[35] The project to transform subjects' relations to languages was an ambitious project. In 1979, the time when the PAP began to intervene, English remained a non-native colonial tongue while Mandarin was spoken in 1% of public places (Ministry of Communications and Information 1989:57). Besides the problem of entrenched linguistic habits, the PAP encountered an additional obstacle in language choice, especially in private places, a terrain that was almost impossible to regulate. This led to the awareness of the need for a new type of governance; one that would not only imposed changes, but also stimulated subjects' will to change.

[36] In this phase, the PAP was not ready to relinquish the trusted mode of compulsion for the less certain mode of inspiring the will. As such, this phase was characterized not by the substitution of one style for another, but by the simultaneous deployment of different technologies to achieve different governmentalities.

[37] Education and language policy were the chief vehicles for instilling linguistic discipline. English was made the first language of the national education system and citizens' mother tongue (defined by father's ethnicity, which was in turn defined by the state's rigid racial categories) was to be a compulsory second language. To ensure that these institutions were taken seriously, many schools gave students demerit points for speaking the wrong language. More importantly, doing well in these languages was made vital for entry into high school and university.

[38] The PAP understood the limits of regulation and that mastery, especially of an "alien" language like Mandarin, could only take place in a total learning environment, i.e., it would have to govern not only the will of students, but also the will of those around them. This was precisely the goal of the Speak Mandarin Campaign, which sought to encourage the learning of Mandarin by associating it with Chinese-ness and to help those willing to learn by creating a vocabulary for everyday items (Kuo 1984:33).

[39] This global campaign to change the will of society in general did not work well. By 1983, four years after the launch of the Speak Mandarin Campaign, then PM Lee decided to target a specific social group: the family. Acknowledging the emotional cost of language change, he appealed to parents and grandparents to sacrifice themselves "for the sake of our children." As far as I know, this is the first time the PAP explicitly sought the complicity of subjects to govern themselves and others.

[40] This appeal for sacrifice is incomplete. Without the provision of a vision of what rewards await at the end of these sacrifices, the project of producing willing subjects is unlikely to succeed. As such, the most important social engineering project in this phase (and possibly in the entire history of contemporary Singapore) is the Singapore Dream project to fuse national dreams with personal aspirations. The Singapore Dream is historically important not only because it succeeded in instilling a materialism that endures to this day, but also because it created the will in subjects to embrace all sorts of neo-liberal discipline, unlike the more localized Speak Mandarin Campaign, which only sought to instill the will for language change.

[41] The Singapore Dream is a difficult project to pinpoint. It was largely a media blitz that articulated the Dream in a catchy jingle of the "5 Cs": cash, condominium, car, country club and credit card. A primetime soap serial was also produced, centered on middle-class families and their struggle for material success. Despite the apparent absence of government involvement, the project coincided with the government's argument that "greed is not evil... greed gives you the will and motivation to succeed" and that progress was "walking in $200 shoes French or Italian-made high-heeled shoes instead of inexpensive locally-made shoes" (Tamney 1996: 27).

[42] By the 1990s, it would appear that the attempt to engineer materialistic desire succeeded beyond the PAP's own expectation. In popular discourse, the caricature of Mr. Kiasu (Mr. Afraid-To-Miss-Out) emerged, capturing the popular sentiment that Singaporeans have become too competitive. In official discourse, the hyper-competitiveness of Singaporeans (and their unwillingness to care for the aged and have children) became constructed as social problems, spawning the emergence of yet another style of governance. Additionally, increasingly rigid social stratification made the prestige goods associated with the Singapore Dream unattainable to the masses who had learnt to desire them. This translated into the end of the PAP's parliamentary monopoly in the 1988 elections, which prompted much PAP reflection as to what really constituted the ideal subject of neo-liberal capitalism and what strategies were needed to engineer it into being.

Asian Values, Asian Capitalism: From ambitious careerists to filial families and loyal institutions

[43] The social and political crisis that developed in the late 1980s prompted the PAP to re-evaluate its vision of the ideal subject. While greed and competitiveness created willing and compliant subjects, it also created a host of new problems: decreased fertility, abandoned elderly, an impoverished working class and an increasingly mischievous media and civil society. Rejecting state welfare and liberal democracy as options that would compromise Singapore's social cohesion and competitiveness, the PAP refined its vision of the ideal neo-liberal subject as one that combines competitiveness and communitarianism.

[44] Yet, if the solution is obvious - to remind subjects of their responsibility to each other and to remind institutions of their responsibility to the national development (as defined by the PAP) - its operationalization was extremely difficult. Communitarianism had to be inculcated in select and limited spheres (so as to not blunt "good competitiveness") while the entities that needed governing had become extremely complex.

[45] The PAP's response to the social and political crisis came in the form of Asian Values. In 1991, a White Paper was tabled in Parliament identifying the Asian value of communitarianism as a national value. [6] This response has been described by scholars as inadequate. Hill and Lian (1995:129) called it a "pure ideological project" while Clammer (1993:42) considered it a "disembodied, un-institutionalizable ideology." Within the theoretical framework of governmentality, these claims suggest that Asian Values was an ideology that was not translated into technologies of discipline.

[46] I disagree with this analysis. If governance in this phase is less visible, it is because the entities that were being governed were no longer individuals (bodies or will) but the relationships between entities, specifically, the relationship between members of the family and of racial communities, and the relationship between the state and the so-called relatively autonomous institutions of civil society and the media.

[47] The first two sets of relationships were disciplined through the discourse of Asian (non-welfare) Capitalism. The "Asian" values of filial piety and communitarianism were invoked to make subjects uphold their social (family and ethnic) responsibilities. In the name of Asian Values, the "Parents Maintenance Bill" obligated working children to support their aged parents while another regulation made for the automatic deduction of a small sum from workers' monthly salary for donation to his/her ethnic community's self-help organization (Chua 1995:34). Together, these ensured that Singapore's labor costs remained competitive by ensuring that those who needed welfare got it, but without burdening the state or corporations. [7]

[48] The last set of state-society (civil society and media) relationships was disciplined by the discourse of Asian (non-adversarial) Society. Through a series of regional conferences and highly publicized discussions, Southeast Asian journalists and civil society groups were exposed to arguments against Western models and encouraged to envision Asian models of journalism and civil society based on the principles of "nation-building" rather than the principles of "checks and balances." For instance, a PAP minister argued that "conflict for the sake of a civil society will not do; the result, in fact, will be most uncivil" (The Straits Times 25 June 1991) while Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir (1985) argued that media are not elected but privately owned and thus had no business criticizing the government. While no policies were institutionalised, what is clear is that as a project, the goal of Asian Values is to create a society with institutions that will govern themselves in a manner co-operative with the state and its goals of national development.

[49] There are mixed signals as to whether the Asian Values project succeeded in instilling social discipline. It certainly instilled pride within certain sectors of academia and led to the creation of entire fields of knowledge (such as "Asian Journalism" and "Asian Democracy"). Looking at the groups that were actually targeted, such as citizens and journalists, the picture is more complex.

[50] In the field of popular discourse, there is evidence of the PAP's success in redefining what is commonsensical/mainstream and even what is "cool" in popular culture. Since the Asian Values campaign, previously unthinkable phrases have emerged and even acquired a moral authority. One example is the term "banana," a derogatory term referring to a Chinese/Asian who is yellow outside but white (Westernized) inside. An interviewee told me how, in her early teens, she used to be called "china" [pronounced "chee-na"], another derogatory term referring to a country bumpkin, and was laughed at for not speaking English well. When asked why she did not call them "bananas" or "well-colonized," she explained that these labels didn't exist then. Back when there were no other (sub-cultural) standards for measuring modernity and success, she had no means of defending herself; she genuinely felt inadequate and was silenced by her shame. Today, the cultural terrain has so altered that it has become possible for her to "shame" those Westernized citizens as "well-colonized" "bananas."

[51] In the arena of journalism, researchers of "Asian Journalism" argue that it does not exist. For instance, Natarajan and Hao (2000) argued that the Singapore owned Channel News Asia did not differ significantly from CNN in terms of coverage. I would argue that such analyses miss the point because they misunderstand the level at which the PAP sought to govern. The Asian Journalism project was never about producing an Asian perspective; it was about producing a self-disciplining media that would support nation-building goals and de-legitimize resistance to neo-liberal capitalism. To this end, there are hints of success. By 1995, Asian Values appears to have so legitimized nation-building journalism that the local Chinese press could occupy the moral highground to criticize the local English press for "suffering a psychological burden of needing to be critical to be seen as credible or professional" (Fernandez and Leong 1995). This suggests successful neo-liberal discipline four years into the Asian Values project and that a certain (non-adversarial "Asian") state-society formation has already been securely engineered into existence. It also indicates that the PAP has successfully added a new technology - liberal governmentality or the governance of society - to its repertoire of the art of government.

Remaking Singapore in the 21st century: From communitarian families to risk-taking entrepreneurs

[52] 1997 marked the beginning of a new era for the global economy and for many Asian economies, a new era of competition that is more intense and more inescapable. Unlike its predecessor the GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs), the WTO (World Trade Organization, formed in 1995) possessed the means to compel its member countries to liberalize. This power was used immediately and successfully by first world countries to press for entry into the lucrative financial and telecommunications markets in Asia, producing the immediate result of the Asian Financial Crisis that devastated many East Asian economies. Besides being one of the many affected countries, 1997 was also the year Singapore was accorded "developed country" status by the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and increasingly found itself having to compete with a different category of rivals on a different footing (e.g., creativity in research, spirit of innovation and enterprise).

[53] This led to a new round of economic restructuring aimed at re-inventing the workforce. What was needed to remain competitive in this stage of neo-liberal capitalism was not docile workers to compete against third world neighbours, nor materialistic and ambitious careerists eager to climb institutionalised ladders, nor filial subjects who would shoulder the cost of social welfare. The subject of the new economy, as outlined by the PM in 2002 (, must have a welcoming attitude to (competition from) international talent, be engaged and committed (to service), realistic and not fussy about work conditions, self-reliant, and entrepreneurial (motivated by an interest in taking risk).

[54] In producing these subjects, persuasion - or in the PAP's own terms, "dialogue" - appeared to be the main disciplinary technology in its Singapore 21 project (to imagine Singapore in the 21st century) and Remaking Singapore projects, which were conducted respectively in 1997-1998 and 2003. Tremendous financial and logistic resources were used towards the organization of extensive forums to collect public opinion from "people from all walks of life" about "what kind of Singapore they want" (The Straits Times 20 Oct 1997). Between 1997-1998 for instance, the Singapore 21 committees talked to 1700 people face-to-face, conducted 70 focus group interviews, commissioned an independent survey involving 2355 respondents and reached many more through its websites and multi-lingual feedback channels. Although the PAP called these sessions "dialogues," they were in reality more a technology of disbursing expert opinions and national concerns (articulated with statistics and an authoritative voice) even as citizens were invited to share their everyday and personal concerns (with the latter often appearing selfish and trivial). What is noteworthy about this technology of communication is that it bears no resemblance to the hard authoritarian style of lecturing; rather the committees of experts appeared to be independent of the PAP; they appeared as understanding individuals who might be in the same position as ordinary citizens, offering advice to them on how to cope with the 21st century.

[55] Dialogue, although dominant, was not the only technology of neo-liberal discipline; it was complemented by policies. However, the policies in this phase were very differently from earlier polices. In both the Singapore 21 and Remaking Singapore projects, efforts were made first to ascertain the "obstacles" that prevented citizens from choosing what the PAP consider "the right path" before policies were decided. While the PAP touted this gesture as indication that it listened to the people, in reality, the PAP did not listen to "the kind of Singapore people want," but why they might be reluctant to endorse the Singapore the PAP wanted, so as to create more effective policy. For example, rather than listening to people's desire for lifelong jobs, the Remaking Singapore project created a $5 billion Lifelong Learning Endowment Fund and several centres devoted to the re-training of workers to make them more competitive.

[56] Besides policies being post-consultation, another distinctive feature about policies in this phase of neo-liberal discipline is that they no longer sought to compel subjects into compliance but offered structures of support to help citizens make the right choices and to enable those with the will to succeed, i.e., the policies were enabling rather than disabling. For example, when Singapore 21 found that people were reluctant to accept foreign postings because of their children, the PAP created "half-way schools" to help overseas students re-adjust to the local education system.

[57] By placing experts in situations where they could help individuals make good decisions, these two projects exhibited two important features that Rose associated with neo-liberal governmentality or soul governance. Firstly, that individuals are governed as free individuals and through their choices, and secondly, that the state distances itself from direct governance.

[58] Although these projects are relatively recent, there are already signs of success. In 2002, the Business Environment Risk Intelligence ranked Singapore first in the world in three categories (legal economic framework, labour productivity, and technical skills of workers) and third in another (worker attitude), suggesting that the Singapore workforce remains one of the world's most competitive.

[59] Additionally, grassroots leaders offer anecdotal evidence that the crisis, by making Singapore's losses very palpable, helped workers to "finally [understand] the meaning of competition" ( The loss of important shipping lines to a Malaysian port - not because Singapore was seen as less efficient but because Malaysia offered non-port incentives - impacted national psychology. Because Singapore's raison d'être as a nation-state had always been centred on its importance in trading routes, this loss is both material and symbolic. This anecdote hints at a very important transformation in the economic subjectivity of Singaporeans. Singaporeans have not only developed a will to succeed, they have also come to realize on a very deep and personal level how national competitiveness can impact their personal opportunities. This suggests that they are likely to be much more sympathetic and responsive to any future suggestions that the PAP might make in the name of the national economy, i.e., that future PAP projects to instil neo-liberal discipline are even more likely to succeed.

An attempt at answers (with some help from other sources)

[60] I will now try to offer some answers to the questions identified in an earlier section. On the question of whether governmentalities coexist or substitute for each other, there is theoretical support about their coexistence and empirical support that they reinforce rather than undermine each other. Theoretically, Gramsci reminds us of the perpetual relevance of other governmentalities. He considered coercion as constitutive of the state; the distinction between domination and hegemony was not whether coercion exists, but whether coercion was buttressed by "an inner ditch" of consensus, especially as represented by civil society, that legitimises coercion (1971:124, 238, 363). Empirically, the case of Singapore, especially the Speak Mandarin Campaign, illustrates that governmentalities can and do coexist harmoniously and even reinforce each other's effectiveness. This may be because different governmentalities target different types of subjects, as Ong's (1999) "zones of graduated sovereignty" suggest. While the zones Ong specifies are based on race, gender, nation and class, the zones or subjects that are differently disciplined in the case of Singapore are based on will, e.g., compulsion for the resisting subject, support for the wiling subject. Because discipline is graduated, different modes of governmentalies (aiming at different aspects of the subject) need not clash; in fact, it is likely that they are not experienced simultaneously by subjects.

[61] As for the central thesis, there appears to be no correspondence between neo-liberal capitalism and neo-liberal governmentality. Singapore has always been subscribed to principles of neo-liberal capitalism and its neo-liberal discipline was achieved through different governmentalities. At earlier stages of neo-liberal development in Singapore, police rationality aimed at producing docile workers appeared to suffice; later, liberal governmentality aimed at producing filial families helped the PAP overcome the contradictions of late-capitalism. The contribution of neo-liberal governmentality to neo-liberal discipline in Singapore is sporadic, rather than consistent or dominant (compared to other governmentalities).

[62] There is, however, a need to explain why the PAP and other governments might gravitate towards neo-liberal governmentality. An educated guess, derived from a close analysis of changes in the PAP's art of government, would be that governmentality might be linked to the criteria upon which economic competition is based. It is because Singapore could no longer compete on the criteria of cheap labour or services (which might be secured through police rationality) and had to compete on the criteria of innovation and entrepreneurship, criteria that cannot be coerced or punished into existence, that the PAP refined its style of governing. The relationship between political economy and governmentality is then less about ideology (e.g., capitalist or socialist) and more about the criteria of competition.

[63] Lest my above argument be read as an argument about the affinity between neo-liberal governmentality and advanced or first world capitalism, let me clarify. While neo-liberal governmentality might exhibit some affinity with advanced capitalism, there are also arguments that advanced capitalism requires governmentalities other than the neo-liberal type. Rodan (2004: 9) argued that the Asian Economic Crisis dealt a blow to the "Washington Consensus" (which subscribed to unregulated market expansion) and consolidated a "Post-Washington Consensus" (that considers governments vital for market expansion). In the Post-Washington Consensus, neo-liberal capitalism is believed to be best served not by less or distant governance (as Rose suggested), but by a return of the state from its erstwhile peripheral role as a passive facilitator of market processes. While it is unclear if the policies espoused by the "Post-Washington Consensus" is tantamount to a return to older governmentalities, it certainly does not echo the spirit of neo-liberal govenrmentality that less (government) is more.

[64] Taking into consideration the case of Singapore and the distinctions made by Gramsci and Rodan, I would conclude that while neo-liberal governmentality might be a mode that is preferred by advanced capitalist societies, whether it becomes dominant over other governmentalities remains to be seen. Given that governmentalities can and do co-exist harmoniously and that neo-liberal capitalism is a entity with many stages and many governmentality needs, I would argue that the implied correspondence between neo-liberal governmentality and capitalism is problematic; the term "neo-liberal" governmentality is a misnomer and it would be more accurate to refer to it by its other label of "governance of the soul."


[1] «»

[2] Hall takes pain to point out that regardless of the variations, liberal camps "rest firmly within the limits of what we might call an individualistic conception of equality. Liberty and equality are always articulated together in liberal discourse, but in ways which systematically privilege liberty over equality" (Hall 1986:41). For instance, he distinguishes between equality before the law, or "formal equality," from substantive equality to highlight that "the law maintained fairness between competing contenders without questioning or interfering with the basic dispositions of wealth and power in society" (Hall 1986:41-42). For Hall, the separation of political equality and economic inequality (e.g., the myth of meritocracy) serves a vital ideological function; by limiting the question of equality to the political sphere rather than the economic sphere, liberalism justifies inequality within a capitalist system.

[3] « »

[4] «»

[5] Huge fires would break out coincidentally at times when few fire engines were available, when water pressure would be low, when firefighting equipment was defective and when firefighters would engage in "odd target selection" (Tremewan 1994: 47).

[6] The PAP's choice of a culturalist response is less an instance of belief in cultural roots than a matter of convenience. Earlier, in its quest to find the "correct" values, the PAP ignored the Confucian disdain for merchantilism, rejected local Buddhist monks' proposals as "impractical and failing to select the desirable national values" and instead hired Western experts to design a curriculum that would present materialism positively (Kuah 1991:32). Rather than as an expression of cultural faith, I would suggest that the Asian Values project embraced a discourse popular in the 1980s and 1990s by Western scholars (Cf. Lodge and Vogel 1987) who attributed the "Asian Renaissance" (and American decline) to the Confucian spirit of capitalism and the Asian value of communitarianism.

[7] Recall Rose's (1996) description of Britain's options of social work or social insurance. In Britain, liberal govermentality (or social governance) emerged alongside a socialist ideology; in Singapore, liberal governmentality emerged alongside a neo-liberal ideology. This allows us to appreciate Rose's rigorous analysis; his reminder of an alternative mode (to Britain), liberal governmentality without socialism, is precisely the mode at work here.

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