The Singaporean Middle Class Impasse

August 11, 2008

Given nearly half a century ago, Isaiah Berlin’s inaugural lecture – Two Concepts of Liberty – as Oxford’s Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory still echoes with relevance for the Singapore condition. In an attempt to untangle elements of coercion from liberation, Berlin introduced the concepts of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ liberty. 

According to Berlin, ‘positive liberty’ – the freedom to achieve certain ends – may legitimise coercion. An individual’s arduous journey towards self-mastery may lead to ‘positive liberty’ whereby the inward triumph of rationalism over desire results in personal liberation qua personal enlightenment. Occasionally, this individual may, according to Berlin, substitute the ‘self’ for ‘society’ or some organic group such as “a tribe, a race, a church, a state, the great society of the living and the dead and the yet unborn”. The individual’s interests becomes the interests of this whole; and lesser individuals who have not experienced the personal triumph of rationalism can and should be coerced into fulfilling these interests for their own good. (This is pretty compatible with Weber’s ‘charismatic’ authority).

In effect, the ‘charismatic’ individual endows himself with the right to speak for others – for their own good. This underlying logic of positive liberty invariably privileges the role of the state, especially Asian ones where respect for authority and hierarchical structures are the norm.

The Singapore government makes no qualms about interventionist leadership. (It has also been described as a “corporatist state” where the managerial superiority of state elites convinces them that their intercessions are necessary for societal betterment, and that the masses are not to be trusted with rational political participation). Indeed it sees it as a hallmark of good governance.  According to former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in his 1986 National Day Rally speech, “I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today” (The Straits Times, 18 August 1986). He went on to assert that economic progress would not have been made if the government had not intervened on very personal matters so much so that one may even argue that the Singapore story is the triump of positive liberty.

The political transition from Lee Kuan Yew to Goh Chok Tong to Lee Hsien Loong is popularly portrayed as the gradual passage towards greater inclusion and liberalisation. The discourse of liberalisation began with the Goh administration’s slogan of a ‘kinder, gentler society’; a discourse accentuated further by Goh’s warmer personality, in contrast to the sterner disposition of Lee Kuan Yew. To be sure, overtures towards this ‘kinder, gentler society’ from Goh was also a political necessity given that emigration figures showed middle class Singaporeans leaving the country in droves. Many emigrants cited the country’s stressful lifestyle, high cost of living and its authoritarian government as reasons for leaving.  Throughout the 1990s, it became increasingly clear to the government that the country’s growing middle class, many of whom were increasingly widely travelled and cosmopolitan in outlook, made it impossible to return to an overtly authoritarian mode of governance. This careful and moderate transition towards liberalisation and inclusion looks to continue under Lee Hsien Loong’s new administration. There are broad hints that the state is willing to loosen its grip over the daily lives of citizens and reduce its presence from the personal sphere. In his inaugural 2004 National Day Rally speech, Lee Hsien Loong spoke about the need to engage the youth of Singapore.

We’ve got to involve them in the community and in national affairs, to take ownership of the country and of the problems. Don’t ask what the Government is going to do… No, get up, do it.  Nike says, “Just Do It”.  Engage your ideals, your ideas, your energies, build a new generation, build tomorrow’s Singapore.  Don’t wait or depend on the Government.  Find your own leaders, organise your own solutions, move.


(Singapore Government Media Release)

The opposite of positive liberty is negative liberty, or freedom from – that is, freedom from external intervention into personal matters or, simply, the absence of imposition. Berlin asserted that the state’s role was to create the public circumstances in which individuals were left alone to do what they want, provided that their actions did not infringe on the liberty of others. The advocate of negative liberty understands that human interests invariably differ and many times come into conflict. Thus the advocate of negative liberty is, by necessity, a pluralist. As the prime minister advocated in the same speech:

But we have to be prepared to accept the diversity of views and to listen to the debate and to have this discussion, always with a view to moving Singapore forward (ibid.).

It is from pluralism and the toleration of differences that arguments for negative liberty draw moral strength though they have been criticised for their penchant for moral relativism and the laissez faire market. And though there are hints of market liberalization and regulatory concessions such as the easing of previously draconian censorship laws, negative liberty remains just beyond the distant horizon.

However, the Singapore government continues to play an influential role in the lives of Singaporeans while the pluralism and diversity promised by Lee Hsien Loong’s administration seems only applicable to selected public issues such as the need to incorporate the youth in the nation-building project and the broadening of education syllabuses.  Meanwhile more contentious issues such as ethnicity, religion, freedom of the press, and the autonomy of trade unions remain out-of-bounds.   

The Singaporean middle class is thus at an impasse. On one hand, there are signs that positive liberty is losing its authorial appeal in light of a higher educated and more cosmopolitan middle class. The incumbent ruling party, in recognising the changing expectations of more widely travelled and well-informed generation, has made overtures towards consultation and consensus. Yet, on the other, the social compact between the middle class and the government, as well as the firm belief of the ruling party that only the government can lead the way, necessarily makes the journey from positive to negative liberty one of disjuncture and incompletion; a pathway suspended in an ideological formaldehyde that freezes the progression towards individual liberty. In other words, the existentialist mindset and independence demanded in any exercise of negative liberty is daunting for a middle class accustomed to the guiding hand of the interventionist state as well as the material rewards won from its political compliance. How does the Singaporean middle class cope with this impasse?


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