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Table of Contents
Conceiving culture as an interpretive framework in explaining economic development
Understanding culture with qualitative methodology
A Colonial History of Singapore’s Culture
British classical liberalism in colonial Singapore
The Political Economy of Post-Independence Singapore
The political monopoly of the Singapore government
Economic pragmatism as the answer to Singapore’s survival
Singapore’s Economic Culture
A meritocratic style of governance
How meritocracy colours economic life
Singapore is one of the richest countries in the world today. The city-state is grouped as one of the Four Asian Tiger economies for its economic boom since the rapid industrialisation of the mid-1960s. In just three decades from 1960 to 1990, Singapore’s income per capita increased by a factor of 28 from $427 to $11,864, a rate well above the East Asian & Pacific average in the same time period of $148 to $2598 (World Bank, a). Inflation rates also consistently remained well below world averages, while enjoying relative price stability. Singapore’s economic development has been looked at as an exemplary case study for the ideal developmental process.
To what does Singapore owe its successful developmental growth? The Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman attributed Singapore’s ‘economic miracle’ to its market-friendly policies: low tax rates, relative lack of tariffs, absence of price controls and generally little regulations. Other economists however have disputed such a free market narrative, placing a greater emphasis on state involvement in Singapore’s development (Lim, 1983).
The objective of this thesis does not aim to settle these key disputes in Singapore’s economic development literature. Much effort has been dedicated to studying the underlying institutional framework that Singapore’s developmental story took place within. While an important debate, little emphasis has been placed on the role of culture in this story. This thesis instead looks at the primacy of the prevailing ideas and cultural ethos that underlies Singapore’s post-independence developmental growth. I attempt to provide an explanation for Singapore’s economic success from a cultural viewpoint by exploring the dominant cultural patterns and themes in Singapore society that shaped the ‘spirit’ of modern Singaporean capitalism. The argument in this thesis however is isolated to one such cultural explanation. My contention is this: there is a strong market-friendly meritocratic culture that underscores Singapore’s post-independence economic development. These attitudes are prominent in Singaporean cultural media products and the general rhetoric of the state, as I will show. The modern-day government has to a large extent reinforced this culture of meritocracy that can be traced back to Singapore’s institutional beginnings in its colonial history.
The first section clarifies how I treat culture within an interpretive framework and why I choose a qualitative methodological approach for this thesis. The second and third sections lays the foundation for my main argument in the fourth. The second section surveys Singapore’s relatively laissez-faire economic history under British colonial rule from 1819 to 1965. The third section covers the history of Singapore’s post-independence modern economic development where Singapore saw its unprecedented economic growth. Both colonial and post-colonial periods of history are essential to explaining the main thesis because as I show, Singapore’s present economic culture originated from its colonial era and was largely supported by the modern government’s policies in accordance with the geographic and political circumstances of its times. The fourth section delves into the central thesis of my argument, where I trace and outline the pervasiveness of the meritocratic spirit in Singaporean economic life. I do this by analysing Singaporean society’s dominant cultural and media texts in politics, film and literature. Finally, I conclude.
Conceiving culture as an interpretive framework in explaining economic development
This thesis examines the types of cultural patterns and themes that underlay Singapore’s post-independence economic development. In approaching culture, the methodological approach of this thesis rejects the conventional view of treating culture as a static source of capital by which social phenomena can be causally attributed to, or used to make analyses of comparative advantages between economies. Attaching capital to culture is problematic for a few reasons. Capital is conventionally thought of as a scarce resource. Its accumulation requires sacrificing present benefits in favour of future benefit, and consumption of capital requires sacrificing future gain for present gain. Conceiving culture as capital this way however is misleading because it is clear that culture is not a depletable resource that one can put to use like physical capital. Additionally, culture is not the same as physical capital in that we deliberately and consciously choose to acquire them, as in the case of a frugal consumer choosing to save a portion of his salary (Storr, 2013, p. 50-51). Most of the benefits we enjoy from our sociocultural networks are not a consequence of us having made a past sacrifice to order to have access to; these cultural benefits can be attributed to geographic and socioeconomic circumstances from accidents of birth.
This way of homogenising and generalising culture into a unitary lump of beliefs has an appealing convenience for social scientists. One can easily checklist these unitary categories of cultures to reach easy conclusions, for example, ‘pro-growth versus anti- growth’ or ‘high trust versus low trust’ (for example, see Tabellini, 2010). However, this convenience runs the risk of overlooking that cultures are richly diverse and are interrelated with one another. It obfuscates the heterogeneity of cultures and tries to reduce it down to a homogeneous blob in order to make cross-comparisons (Lavoie & Chamlee-Wright, 2000, p. 62). The result is a ‘thin’ description of culture that fails to go into much detail. But it is highly improbable to say that there can be one homogenous cultural trait within any society’s population matrix.
While there may be certain traits within a society that hinders the activities of economic growth, there will also be traits that are aligned and promote growth. We might be able to say that there is a tendency for a certain nationalistic culture to possess certain similar traits (for instance, trustworthiness), but it must also be recognised that these traits are not universally held, held to varying degrees, are contingent on other beliefs and constantly contested. Whether certain cultural beliefs or attitudes promote or hinder economic growth is dependent on the context by which these beliefs are held. For instance, a collectivist culture that promotes unity and sacrifice for ‘the common good’ may be conducive for economic growth in a small society where division of labour is not highly specialised. However, the same culture will produce opposite economic outcomes in a large society where division of labour has the potential to be more specialised and the collective actions of millions are much harder to coordinate both as a logistic and epistemic matter. As one author puts it:
Problems arise when an attempt is made to jump all the way from generalised cultural characterizations to economic outcomes without taking into account all the intervening variables and the situational contexts. It is thus unscientific to try to draw up a universal list of positive and negative cultural values for economic development. What may be positive in some circumstances can be quite counterproductive under other conditions. (Pye, 2000, p. 254)
Instead, what might be a far more productive endeavour for social scientists in studying culture is to first, acknowledge that every culture carries with its own comparative advantages and disadvantages, second, try and understand the culture within its unique social context. This is the approach that this thesis has attempted to undertake, by treating culture within an interpretive framework so as to better account for its rich diversity. Metaphorically, culture in this sense can be conceived as a set of eyeglasses that individuals make use of to interpret the world around them; it influences and directs our attention toward entrepreneurial opportunities (Lavoie & Chamlee-Wright, 2000, p. 72). In a world of uncertainty and complex social phenomena, culture acts as a funnel by filtering out the appropriate actions we choose to undertake in accordance to achieving our desired ends. Culture determines how ‘individuals identify and conceive of their opportunities and the resources they might utilize in trying to take advantage of those opportunities’ (Storr, 2013, p. 57). Our cultural beliefs render social phenomena intelligible within unique environmental contexts.
Treating culture in this manner fundamentally recognises the limits of objectivist methods and the analytical ground such methods obscure. As Lavoie (2011) details, opening economics up into an interpretive dimension submits the so-called objective facts into question. Lavoie argued that such facts are themselves theory-laden and can be consistent with countless competing theories at any given time. While positivist methods stress the testing of falsifiable theories against the facts, the interpretive approach seeks to test the facts themselves against the theories. In other words, facts themselves should not be treated as an objective data point – they need to be interpreted.
The great sociologist Max Weber conceived of culture in the same interpretive framework. In The Protestant Ethic, he investigated the question of why capitalism was exclusive to the Western world. To answer this question of economic development, Weber sought to understand human behaviour by understanding how Westerners t hought and interpreted the world around them. He aimed at understanding the culture of Western societies that shaped economic behaviour which eventually gave rise to what we now refer to broadly as capitalism. Weber’s eventual answer pointed to the specific types of ethical beliefs and attitudes of the Protestant religion that enabled the birth of capitalism. He argued that the Puritan ethic ‘caused’ Westerners to work hard in the sense that it helped Westerners to interpret work differently in a morally dignified sense (Storr, 2006, p. 295). Therefore, capitalism was exclusive to the West because these cultural traits, Weber argued, were absent in the East.1 Similarly, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz treats culture as an interpretive science:
The concept of culture I espouse... is essentially a semiotic one. Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. (Geertz, 1973, p. 5)
In a now classic paper, Geertz studied the popular cockfighting games in Balinese culture (Ibid, p. 412 – 455). While a superficial observation of Balinese cockfights might come away with a conclusion that Balinese men bet exorbitant amounts of money on a simple gambling game, Geertz found instead that the cockfighting games was a social space where cultural values such as honour, respect and social status were vigorously contested. The Balinese interpreted cockfighting not merely as money gambling, but more importantly of ‘status gambling’. Geertz’s findings were informed through ethnographic work, where he observed how the specific types of informal rules and customs that structured the cockfighting games were interrelated. For instance, a man could never bet against a fighting cock owned by his own community, while he would have a higher obligation to bet for a cock owned his own kinsmen. By situating himself up close into the action of the cockfighting practices, Geertz was able to interpret why it is that Balinese men take the actions they do. This is in line with F. A. Hayek’s insights on economic methodology:
That the objects of economic activity cannot be defined in objective terms but only with reference to a human purpose goes without saying. Neither a "commodity" or an "economic good," nor "food" or "money," can be defined in physical terms but only in terms of views people hold about things. (Hayek, 1952, p. 31)
Working from the premise of subjective value, Hayek understood that explaining economic behaviour required studying how individuals attributed the types of subjective meanings to their goals. Only by diving into the interpretative process of an individual can the researcher shed light on why is it that certain markets function in a particular way.
Markets in an economy are essentially social institutions populated with human actors (Schultz, 2001). These institutions are governed by cultural norms which act as constraints. These constraints bind our actions and shape the rationality of our economic behaviour, as Zelizer (1978) documents a historical change in attitudes toward life insurance. While Adam Smith’s famous butcher-brewer-baker passage places self- interest at the centre of its analysis, Smith never regarded it as the only behavioural trait that channelled market exchange. Hence, The Theory of Moral Sentiments was Smith’s contribution to the various other types of behavioural motivations and patterns that formed the foundation of economic exchange (Ashraf, Camerer, & Loewenstein, 2005). To borrow Max Weber’s metaphor of ‘economic spirits’, I try to uncover an understanding of the types of economic spirits that gives Singapore’s market economy its ‘life-force’. This thesis does not deny that capital and labour inputs and other institutional prerequisites matter for economic development. The focus here however, is on a different aspect of economic development i.e., the primacy of ideas. Indeed, understanding the types of social processes and economic outcomes that unravel requires a serious study of the types of ideologies people subscribe to.
As Deirdre McCloskey (2010) similarly points out, successful economic development requires a cultural explanation for how the institutional framework coexisted with the cultural behaviour of market participants. An essential precursor to economic development is an ethical foundation that has a fundamental appreciation and/or admiration for business dealings and professional life. The liberty to trade must be accompanied by a prestige that dignifies the merchant’s activities. Countries remained poor for long periods of time because such ‘bourgeois’ commerce failed to be dignified, in some cases scorned upon. In summary, this research agenda recognises that there is a link between cultural beliefs and economic development and tries to understand what this link comprises of. Such a connection cannot be understated. Lavoie & Chamlee- Wright puts it eloquently:
If there is a spirit of enterprise, a set of stories or images in the culture that celebrate some form of entrepreneurial creativity, then economic prosperity is more likely. If you want to get a sense of whether a community is apt to grow wealthier, we are suggesting you find out what stories they tell, what myths they believe, what heroes they admire, what metaphors they use. Economic development is, at its heart, a cultural process. (Lavoie & Chamlee-Wright, 2000, p. 53)
Therefore, it follows that every economic story requires its own cultural explanation.
Understanding culture with qualitative methodology
I have defined the way I will treat culture within an interpretive framework in the previous section. In line with this approach, traditional econometric tools are of limited use to getting at the types of cultural beliefs peoples subscribe to. Quantitative statistics provide us with a ‘thin’ aggregate estimation of the phenomena we are trying to explain. Econometric methods isolate one aspect of social phenomena (an explanatory variable) and try to discern a possible relationship against the variable that is being studied. But quantitative approaches are problematic in being able to account for endogenous change that emerges from human interaction under a context of radical uncertainty in the Knightian sense (Knight, 1921). While econometricians certainly do come up with increasingly sophisticated methods to account for endogenous change or problems of collinearity, it cannot fully account for the unpredictability of human action.
In order to get at complex cultural phenomena within an interpretive framework and answer the question of h ow and why such beliefs informs action, qualitative methods are a more appropriate methodological toolset.2 The way I treat culture can be described in the sense that it is fluid and dynamically changing; one’s beliefs are never boxed up in solitary but instead always intersecting with others and rapidly changing. A person who believes that immigrants are honest and hardworking has a positive view of immigration. However, these views might change drastically if he is repeatedly bombarded by news headlines that perpetuate a negative impression of immigrants. Yet, the extent by which his optimistic view of immigrants will quickly become a pessimistic one depends on the kind of positive conflicting messages he is exposed to at the same time, and how it intersects or challenge each other (for example, being in contact with well-behaved immigrants that contradict negative media stories).
The researcher can only understand their subjective interpretations for immigrants when he starts speaking to actual Americans, or reading what they write about, and learning about their experiences, concerns and fears. The proposed method in understanding culture within an interpretive framework here then must allow illumination into this element of human interaction and endogenous change. It is important to note that while such anti-immigrant views might be misinformed, the point is that having access to the mental paradigms of the respondent are what gives the researcher a benchmark for understanding how they coordinate and align their actions in the context of their worldviews. Understanding human action this way is illuminated by interpretation in terms of the webs of meaning in which they are embedded. While ‘thin’ explanations aim at the purposes of macro-comparative research, it is inadequate in fleshing out the particular details of complex phenomena. Qualitative methods allow insight into this interaction in a way that quantitative methods do not.3
Instead, qualitative methods, because they capture verbal expressions – or in Chamlee-Wright’s (2010) words: privileging ‘talk’ – are better equipped to understanding the interpretive processes. Archival-historical studies, ethnography and survey interviews are examples of qualitative methods that can investigate cultural beliefs in richer detail and provide a ‘thick’ account of ideology. By listening to what is being said and the background context by which these thoughts are expressed, the researcher can access the mental constructions of his respondents. This access lets the researcher understand an individual’s beliefs, biases and prejudices (as well as the dynamic interplay between them) that play a crucial role in shaping their interpretative processes of the world and influence action. Through narrative forms of knowledge in qualitative research, the researcher is able to make his own subjective interpretations of the very own interpretations of his respondents (equally subjective) that he attempts to study.4 The researcher is better equipped at understanding the types of ‘internal representations that individual cognitive systems create to interpret the environment’ (Denzau & North, 1994, p. 4) that would be crucial for explaining economic behaviour beyond a standard self- interest model. It is through this fundamental understanding of how his subjects interpret and respond to the world around them that we can provide a cultural explanation for why economic development is successful in some regions and unsuccessful in others.
While quantitative methods provide a ‘thin’ explanation, qualitative methods go beyond and try to offer a ‘thick’ explanation of the research question at hand. Lavoie was a champion of such ‘thick’ explanations in economics when he warned against the obfuscation of insights through excessive formalism in economics. By using only quantitative and econometric tools, the economics profession was locked into asking only questions:
… to which sophisticated econometric tools can be applied… But there is another whole kind of empirical work that is highly regarded outside of economics, ethnography and archival-historical research, which involves very close-up studies of the complex details in their specific contexts. Here, the rich description and interpretation of the context is what is important… And this is, in our view, how you get at culture. It is by way of intimate, detailed, qualitative research, immersed in the complex context of one particular situation, that you can begin to get a handle on culture (Lavoie and Chamlee-Wright 2000: 21–22).
In the same vein, McCloskey (2016) stresses that by looking at the literary products of an era (habits of the lip), we can understand how that influences the way people think and interpret social life (habits of the mind). Looking at the types of literature that people consume tells us a lot about the values that underlie their belief systems (Storr & Butkevich, 2007).
As such, I aim to make my argument for what shapes economic life in Singapore with qualitative methods. Specifically, I will trace narrative forms of knowledge such as historical archival documents and memoirs. I will also do a textual/content analysis of popular literature and films in Singapore. To guard against selective cherry-picking of sources to affirm my argument, I have isolated my analyses to speeches that are made by top political elites, and my content analysis to top-grossing films and popular authors. The intuitive reasoning behind such a safeguard is that because these political messages and media texts are widely consumed, there is more plausibility to believe that it resonates with the societal culture by and large. Media messages with higher exposure tend to have more impact on informing and shaping public opinion. When picking media texts to analyse, surely a top-grossing, domestic-produced film that is synonymous with Singapore has far more explanatory power into its culture than an obscure independent movie flick. To be clear, I do not claim to provide a ‘foolproof’ explanation that can have the same ‘objective’ reasoning – what Richard Wagner (2016) refers to as demonstrative reasoning - as quantitative methods. My interpretation is subjective and can be challenged.
A Colonial History of Singapore’s Culture
In the vein of Boettke, Coyne & Leeson (2008), a crucial determinant on whether the top-down imposition of institutions is successful is the way it intersects and fits with the underlying informal institutions. As I argue later in sections three and four, there exists a strong meritocratic spirit in Singapore’s economic culture. This section surveys Singapore’s history in its colonial period. By doing so, we are in a better position to understand the extent by which this modern culture can be explained by colonial attitudes that have persisted before independence in 1965.
British classical liberalism in colonial Singapore
The earliest origins of Singapore’s colonial history date back to 1819, when Sir Stamford Raffles established its first trading port and marked the beginnings of the British colony of Singapore. Since its earliest beginnings, Singapore has had a relatively laissez- faire economic history. The economic historian W. G. Huff (1994, p. 7) claimed that Singapore’s greatest natural resource, ‘an island of just 225 square miles - was location’. The island is situated at an ideal choke point along the Straits of Malacca, a busy maritime trade routes that connects the Western world with East Asia. Raffles exploited this geographic advantage to its fullest, advertising Singapore’s ports as free of tariffs, imposed minimal port charges and banned customs duties. This was an alternative that proved enormously attractive to most neighbouring ports of the time that were subjected to extortions, unstable laws, heavy duties and other restrictions. The trading settlement also was greatly advantaged by a natural deep-water anchorage that allowed deep-water berthing. Both these factors made the port of Singapore unrivalled by any other in the region in its time.
To Raffles, Singapore was two things: a treasured British colony that thwarted the monopoly of naval trade then held by the Dutch in the eastern seas, and a sanctuary he hoped would one day be ‘the pride of the East’ (Turnbull, 2009, p. 32). His intentions were clear in the very same year that he stepped foot in Singapore, as he wrote in a letter in June 1819: ‘Our object is not territory but trade; a great commercial emporium and a fulcrum whence we may extend our influence politically as circumstances may hereafter require,’ and to develop ‘the utmost possible freedom of trade and equal rights to all, with protection of property and person’ (Ibid, p. 38). Raffles’s bold vision paved the road to officially making Singapore a British possession in 1824.
If the type of leadership colonial Singapore had then were indicative of the type of economic institutions that developed, there is some merit to looking at the kind of intellectual influences its leaders had. Raffles’s leadership,
‘...reflected the most advanced radical, intellectual, and humanitarian thinking of his day. The type of society he aspired to establish in Singapore was in many ways ahead of contemporary England or India… he established in Singapore a free port following the principles of Adam Smith and laissez-faire at a time when Britain was still a protectionist country’ (Ibid, p. 50)
Raffles’s insistence on a laissez-faire port policy were relayed to William Farquhar who headed the helm as First Resident and Commandant of Singapore (1819 - 1823) during his year-long absences. The early Singapore port grew and prospered under Farquhar’s experienced leadership in the Melaka region. This marked the very beginnings where the poor and unknown fishing village started making its most radical transformations. However, Farquhar also went against Raffles’s instructions, legalising gambling dens and sales of opium and alcohol to raise revenue. Coupled with his lax attitude to the slave trade amongst other administrative disagreements, this eventually led to a falling out between the two men, and he was replaced by John Crawfurd in 1823.
Like Farquhar, Crawfurd too was aligned with Raffles’s strong free-market beliefs and advocated his laissez-faire policies likely harder than Raffles would have done so himself. Crawfurd made sure to keep the tariff-free port and also abolished port charges, anchorage, and other fees. Crawfurd also came to a delicate agreement with Raffles who was opposed to the gambling houses. He decided to license gambling but regulate and tax it at the same time. Under his administration of three years, Singapore saw an unprecented increase in trade and revenue.
A no-restriction immigration policy was a critical attribute to Singapore’s early economic growth and success. This policy was championed by both its political leaders and the influential merchant communities. As a result, many Asian immigrants were attracted to the free and bustling trading port of Singapore. From the 1830s to the late 1860s, Singapore’s total population quadrupled. Laissez-faire was the norm and a free economy was ingrained in the institutional context of colonial Singapore. The historian C. M. Turnbull wrote in her magnum opus A History of Modern Singapore:
The principle of free trade was accepted by the East India Company’s Board of Control in London in 1826 and thereafter defended zealously by the Singapore merchants. Free trade became a sacred cardinal principle and any threatened infringement was opposed vehemently as commercial heresy. (Turnbull, 2009, p. 67)
So strong was the influence of laissez-faire that one historian even blames the health problems and social ills of Singapore then on the merchant community, for their strong opposition to any form of taxation or port duties in fear of losing their competitive advantage of free trade (Abshire, 2011, p. 54).
Singapore’s early key institutions of economic freedom transformed it quickly into a central commercial port of the Southeast Asian region in the 19th century. From 1824 to 1869, Singapore’s trade value rose from 11 to 89 million Spanish dollars (Ibid, 2011). Its port became known as the economically-freest in the area and expanded greatly into transhipment and entrepot trade that facilitated international trade between Europe and Asia. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the use of steamships contributed to a large burst in Singapore’s entrepot trade. Toward the end of the 19th century, its economy traded primarily in raw materials such as oil, rubber, tin and sugar. Of rubber and tin, Singapore ‘established itself as the world’s greatest market’ at that time, and ‘boasted the world’s largest and most technically advanced tin smelting enterprise’ (Huff, 1994, p. 22). By 1903, Singapore’s port was the world’s seventh largest, cementing a secure trading position in world trade. Its ever-growing economy depended heavily on policies of free immigration that saw an influx of predominantly Chinese immigrants, along with Malay and Indian migration, making Singapore a cosmopolitan society in its times. Shophouses and street bazaars characterised the fabric of Singapore’s street shopping arena, where hawkers peddled their wares way into the night (Savage, 1992). In A History of Singapore, historians Ernest C.T. Chew and Edwin Lee echoes Turnbull and attributes Singapore’s early success to its policies on free trade and immigration:
‘It (Singapore) succeeded because it was an island enclave of uninhibited private enterprise, open to all races, without any religious or linguistic qualifications. It was also a free port. Except for a short interlude at Penang between 1786 and 1801, the idea of permitting trade without simultaneously taxing it was virtually unknown in the East at this time. Trade in ports under Western colonial rule were either subject to monopolies or higher duties and all kinds of restrictions, while the ports, great and small, under local rule were heavily taxed and were often subjected to all forms of exactions imposed at the whims and fancies of their rulers. Trade sometimes seemed to be tolerated rather than encouraged. Free port status, which attracted both Asian and Western traders, was one of the principal reasons for Singapore’s rapid success.’ (Chew & Lee, 1991, p. 47)
Long before Singapore achieved independence in 1965, the country had a long tradition of economic freedom. Important policy decisions that were undertaken by its colonial leaders were subjected to approval or protests by the larger merchant community (Abshire, 2011, p. 58). The benchmark of whether policy would improve or impede trade flows to Singapore’s port was the central concern that constrained and used to judge the efficacy of policy action. Its unique geographic advantage and already-established commercial port in international trade led Singapore on a path-dependent route where its subsequent economic development was hitched to the same principle.
Singapore then stood out as an anomaly to the typical British colony that existed then. To use the terms of Acemoglu & Robinson (2012), ‘inclusive’ economic institutions that encouraged wealth generation were prevalent in Singapore’s early history. Such inclusive institutions are based on constraining the abuse of political-legal authority i.e., adhering to a rule of law. Inclusive institutions tend to gradually pave the path toward greater inclusiveness by distributing political power democratically, ensuring a more equal distribution of resources and economic opportunity. Such inclusive institutions have persisted over time in Singapore’s history through a ‘virtuous circle’ of positive feedback. This stands in stark contrast to many British colonies (Hong Kong being an exception) as well as ports in the Southeast-Asian region of the time where ‘extractive’ institutions serving to privilege an elite class were the norm.
Singapore’s transformation in the early 19th century from a poor fishing village to an international trade centre stems from Britain’s original vision of building it up toward this purpose. It is hardly an understatement to say that Singapore’s economic origins were steeped in classical liberal ideas of free trade and immigration, entrenching laissez-faire institutions that has continued to influence its economic development today.
The Political Economy of Post-Independence Singapore
This section reviews the history of political economy during Singapore’s post-1965- independence. In this period, I show that the government played a role in reinforcing and supporting the existing market-friendly economic culture, which I elaborate on in the next section. I treat the Singapore government as a fairly monolithic entity with relatively homogeneous goals that is capable of constructing national values against the background of a unique multicultural environment. While this may seem like an unsustainable assumption, I show in this section why this assumption is justified in the case study of Singapore where the political, media and education sectors are monopolised by the ruling party.
However, the notion that the PAP government has easily and successfully implemented such an economic culture is second-guessed by two factors. Firstly, Singapore has enjoyed a relatively laissez-faire economic history in its colonial period (as reviewed in the last section). Deeply entrenched formal and informal institutions in its colonial past have persisted into the modern day. Therefore, the extent to which the meritocratic spirit has been easily ‘installed’ by the PAP government is questionable in light of the fact that a vibrant and commercial culture was already present. In other words, the modern government’s efforts to propagate a meritocratic ideology is to a large extent naturally complementary to Singapore’s existing economic culture, instead of something that was artificially and forcefully implanted.
Secondly, close attention needs to be paid to the contingent historical factors that were going on in the geographic region of Southeast Asia post-1965. By doing so, we have better insight into the kind of forces that guided the PAP government’s policy action that were undertaken. In the case of Singapore, its successful open-door policy to MNC’s and foreign investment was helped by the fact that the neighbouring political climate lingered heavily on communist sentiments; these ‘developing countries erected protectionist barriers against foreign capitalists who were often vilified as economic imperialists’ (Tan, 2016, p. 58). Singapore therefore stood out in that time as an attractive investment area in the Southeast-Asian region. Therefore, both its colonial past and the post-WW2 geopolitical forces should give pause to the intuitive notion that the PAP government was easily able to instil any kind of cultural or national identity.
The political monopoly of the Singapore government
Singapore became an independent republic in 1965 following the failure of a merger and an abrupt ejection from the Federation of Malaysia. Since independence, the People’s Action Party (PAP) has dominated the political arena in Singapore. In all General Elections in 1968, 1972, 1976 and 1980, the PAP enjoyed complete walkover victories. Although the complete monopoly was lost in 1981, serious interparty competition in Parliament has practically been non-existent.5 Such is the strength of the PAP’s political hegemony that the term ‘opposition parties’ has entered Singapore’s political lexicon in reference to the collective of all other registered political parties. Such opposition parties have largely accepted and played a de facto role of questioning and checking the government, instead of aspiring to replace them.
Given a half-century’s long parliament dominance, the PAP’s policy action and rhetoric can and does have large impacts on Singapore’s culture. Unlike most liberal democracies where one can find various competing political ideologies in mainstream discourse and a vigorous amount of interparty competition for minor blocs of power, Singapore’s political landscape is far more politically homogeneous in terms of ideas.
This intellectual homogeneity can be attributed to the PAP’s complete control of the state-controlled media and public schooling education system, ensuring that competing narratives been stifled out of the public eye (George, 2012). Indeed, even communication channels in the era of the internet has been subsequently regulated to lawsuits carried out against libellous bloggers or netizens. Contrary to Western democratic ideals where democracy is actualised through grassroot participation by the masses, politics in Singapore is seen as a professional vocation where only politicians are deemed as professionals participate (Hwee, 2002). The government regularly uses the ‘out-of-bound markers’ term to denote the acceptable topics of political discussion, where topics of race, religion, political corruption and freedom of speech have been demarcated as taboo topics. With these stringent criteria, the government has been able to thrust upon the public a narrative that has been consistently used to buttress the justifications for its public policy planning.
A stark absence of political competition and logrolling in Singapore’s political arena has allowed the PAP to back up their political narratives with legislation almost without any obstructions. This almost seamless ability to carry out long-term planning is akin to an Olsonian ‘stationary-bandit’ (Olson, 1993). As such, the Singapore Inc. moniker stands as a reference to the fact that Singapore has been run more like a corporation with a unified objective than a democratic polity where ends are submitted to checks and balances (Low, 2003).
A monopoly over the legislative process, the education system and the media has allowed the PAP to tout an unchallenged governmental narrative that is deeply engrained in the social fabric and the hearts and minds of Singaporeans. The following subsection takes a closer look at how the institutional context of Singapore’s post-independence period developed as the early leaders of the city-state embarked on a market-oriented economic plan.
Economic pragmatism as the answer to Singapore’s surviva l
Singapore found itself alone in 1965 upon the failure of the merger with the Federation of Malaysia. Immediately, Singapore was in a state of geopolitical and economic uncertainty. It was a small city-state which lacked natural resources, faced high unemployment, illiteracy rates and tensions between its ethnic communities. The first Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew – a man credited for the success of the city- state today – saw the split with Malaysia as a catastrophic turn of events for Singapore. He remarked tearfully then in a press conference,
“For me it is a moment of anguish because all my life... you see, the whole of my adult life... I have believed in merger and the unity of these two territories. You know, it’s a people, connected by geography, economics, and ties of kinship... Would you mind if we stop for a while?” (Lee, 1965)
Premised on its geopolitical and economic uncertainty, the early leaders of Singapore rationalised that the city-state had no one to depend on but themselves to survive. This survival narrative places a great emphasis on Singapore’s lack of natural resources and its precarious geopolitical circumstances of being a Chinese-majority nation in the vicinity of potentially hostile Muslim-majority territories.
With a population of some two million in its immediate post-independence period, Singapore’s small domestic market and resource scarcity led the PAP to embark on a global export-oriented economic strategy that sought to attract multinational corporations (MNC) and foreign direct investment into its economy. This strategy sought to attract the MNCs’ capital, technical expertise and advanced technology into its own domestic market. This was due to the fact that Lee and the PAP saw that Singapore’s survival and success would be largely dependent on its interconnectedness with global markets. By establishing a business-friendly environment base for foreign corporations to invest, they had hoped to lubricate Singapore’s entry into global markets. Indeed, Singapore’s initial stages of economic development that has been predicated on a heavy reliance of attracting the foreign investment and MNCs thrusted it into an economic culture that entailed leaving the village life behind for a big bang of modern industrialisation (Deyo, 1981).
The PAP went to great lengths to cultivate such a business haven. Firstly, low tax rates with attractive perks were offered to incentivise investment and MNCs. Secondly, the government heavily invested in infrastructure and education services to create a productive workforce for its economic goals. The Singaporean education system has traditionally emphasised the usefulness of ‘practical’ disciplines such as the STEM fields, while deemphasising the value of the arts and humanities for its misalignment with the target of the state’s economic growth.
Third, the state protected its policy planning from potentially disruptive forces. The trade unions, a major force of mobilisation for labour discontent in that time, was compartmentalised under the wing of the state to be headed by government ministers and officials, drastically reducing workers’ scope of negotiation and the likelihood of riots and strikes. A strong anti-corruption stance was strictly enforced by the leading members of PAP that signalled a no-tolerance position and insulated the legislative arm of the government from interest groups. The absence of corruption in Singapore’s political economy has been a ‘big selling point, [encouraging] foreign investors and multinational corporations to use the country as a regional hub and overseas headquarters in preference to other Asian economies’ (Low, 2003, p. 52).
Singapore’s economic development is rooted in a pragmatic approach. Public policies are justified on a basis of economic pragmatism where policy is developed in accordance to the changing circumstances of the global political-economic landscape. The decision-making criterion of any undertaken action is whether it would hinder or accelerate economic growth, rather than reflecting a consistent ideological or moral principle. For instance, the PAP launched a two-child population planning policy in 1973 in a bid to reduce the rate of population growth. This policy was accompanied by publicity campaigns advertising to parents that ‘Two is enough’, financial disincentives that penalised large families, and even changes in abortion and sterilisation legislation to streamline its efficiency. When it was found that the policy had been too successful and that the childbirth rate was too low, the government reversed the direction of the policy in 1987 and this time encouraged childbirth beyond the second child, removing the previously implemented disincentives and offered tax breaks and subsidies to large families. In another instance, religious lessons were introduced in 1984 into the public schooling curriculum for the purpose of guarding against a perceived moral crisis of the times, evidenced by rising drug abuse, crime and divorce rates. It was soon found that religious and ethnic tensions were heightening in the following years. Consistent with the government’s vision of building an investment-friendly business haven where sociopolitical disruptions were minimised, the government again reversed the policy and confined religious instruction to the confines of the family unit (Gopinathan, 1995).
If one had to peg the PAP to an underlying principle that guided the logic of its public policy, it would be one of an economic pragmatism, where economic growth was taken almost to be a be all and end all principle that ‘dismisses all other decision criteria as subjective, irrelevant, and emotive’ (Haley & Low, 1998, p. 3). Such an economic pragmatism has consistently been built upon the aforementioned survival narrative of Singapore’s geopolitical hostilities and lack of resources. As the Prime Minister Lee remarked, I'd read up the theories and maybe half-believed in them. But we were sufficiently practical and pragmatic enough not to be cluttered up and inhibited by theories. If a thing works, let's work it, and that eventually evolved into the kind of economy that we have today. Our test was: Does it work? Does it bring benefits to the people? (Han, Fernandez, & Tan, 1998, p. 109)
This economic pragmatism, buttressed by the survival narrative, has persistently been used as a guide for Singapore’s economic development and general policy action. The PAP’s style of governance has been undoubtably pervasive in socioeconomic life. Unbridled by strict ideological principles or political competition, the state has been able to engineer social life and carry out policy planning relatively smoothly. This fact is crucial in understanding Singapore’s culture simply because of how omnipresent the state is in its society.
Singapore’s Economic Culture
In the previous section, I surveyed an overview of Singapore’s post-1965- independence economic development. As I summarised, the PAP government has had a pervasive presence in the economic development process. Through its monopoly of political institutions, the PAP has been able to bring the media and education sectors under the arms of the state. The purpose of highlighting this aspect of Singapore’s political economy is to lay the foundation for my argument that a meritocratic culture is widespread in large part due to the official narrative of the state i.e., the rhetoric of the political elite matters. This section now takes a closer look at how the PAP has propagated meritocracy and championed it as an ideal form of governance.
A meritocratic style of governance
A key principle in the PAP’s governance is the political philosophy of meritocracy. The rhetoric of meritocracy is prominently featured in Singaporean society and the ideology permeates social life in Singapore to its core. From a young age, children are taught in public schools the moral virtue of hard work and that the rewards of society are availed to anyone as long as one was committed to diligence. Equal opportunity and a non-discriminatory society, it is taught, ensures anyone to reap the fruits of success if one set their mind to it. In the National Pledge which students recite daily through elementary to middle school, the words ‘pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion’ reminds Singaporeans of its multiculturalism. Politicians of the ‘old guard’ to the new frequently credit the meritocracy in their speeches and rallies as the bedrock of Singapore’s developmental success, as I show later. Meritocracy in Singapore is,
… enshrined and celebrated as a dominant cultural value in Singapore, it has also come to serve as a complex of ideological resources for justifying authoritarian government and its pro-capitalist orientations. (Tan, 2008, pg. 11)
The prominence of the meritocratic foundation of Singapore society is most clearly visible in the education sector and upper echelons of its political class. Politicians who fill top political appointments or key positions in government-linked companies (GLCs) typically display an exemplary academic background, having studied in top-tier overseas universities on prestigious government scholarships that are availed only to the cream of the crop. Academic achievement and professional expertise were singled out to be the defining attributes of Singaporean meritocracy. That the best-performing of Singaporean society populate key leadership positions is no coincidence. The meritocratic ideology of the PAP parallels a market allocation mechanism for mobilising the ‘best’ labour into the state bureaucracy (Sai & Huang, 1999). Indeed, the PAP has long pursued a policy of recruiting the brightest and most talented into the public sector as part of a strategy to cultivate an elite technocratic class that can run the machinations of the state.6
Consistent with the meritocratic narrative, the early leaders of the PAP sought to ensure that ‘no race would have an advantage’ (The Straits Times, 2011, p. 219) in multiracial Singapore. This bold vision of an equality of opportunity that is blind to race would be pursued uncompromisingly by the PAP, as seen by a slew of policies that aimed at creating a level playing ground for all races and general racial cohesion. Racial quotas for the public housing system, which more than 80% of Singaporeans live in, were implemented in 1989 to thwart existing racial enclaves. Such a policy has had the effect of ensuring that children from low-income families grow up in a relatively similar environment as the rest of society in terms of cultural exposure and housing quality. This prevents potential clustering of crime-ridden neighbourhoods that tend to have a disproportionate representation of certain racial groups. English instead of Chinese, Malay or Tamil, was established as a neutral lingua franca and the main language of instruction in the professional workplace. The British-inherited electoral system was changed to reflect the meritocratic narrative; the Group Representation Constituency scheme was introduced requiring parties to field a team of candidates (as opposed to the traditional single member scheme) that mandated a minimum of one minority candidate, typically a Malay or Indian. As Article 39A of the Singapore Constitution states, the purpose of the GRC scheme was to ensure that minority communities were sufficiently representated in Parliament. In the recent 2017 presidential election, the seat was reserved for candidates of only the Malay minority race under the reasoning that all races had served as a presidency since 1970 except for a Malay.
The PAP’s position on welfare handouts also follow a strict consistency with its meritocratic philosophy of self-reliance. Where welfare assistance is offered, it is often structured in a way that does not encourage welfare dependency or remove the incentive for hard work. Indeed, it is not easy to qualify for welfare in Singapore. The government’s stance is that families and communities should provide the first line of welfare before turning to the government as a last resort (Fund, 2015). The state, in other words, should not act as a guarantor of means, but merely a guardian of final recourse. Therefore, even the disabled or elderly must prove that they do not have a family member they can depend on financially before being able to qualify for public welfare.
One substantial form of welfare are the government-supported self-help community groups such as the successful Mendaki programme in the Malay community (Moore, 2000). These self-help groups are consistent with the ‘Many Helping Hands’ welfare approach of the Singapore government where welfare is seen as a service that is not limited to public provision, but also to private and grassroot organisations. These communities are structured along racial lines and formed to help tackle poverty alleviation for the lowest income by helping them through various schemes of cultural lessons and general education to improve their economic opportunities. The program started within the Malay community in 1981 and was deemed so successful by the end of the decade that the government gradually expanded it to form similar self-help organizations for the “under-performing” groups of the Chinese, Indian and Eurasian races too.
The Singapore government’s involvement in these community groups goes only as far as a general regulatory oversight. Unlike typical welfare states, funds for these welfare organizations are not mechanically funnelled from a large taxpayer-funded pool into an ever-bloating bureaucracy. Instead, funding is derived from a mixture of mandatory government schemes that draws a token sum of one to two dollars from each citizen’s government savings account, as well as encouraging optional charity from the general community. Most importantly, the discretionary processes involved with allocating welfare was left to the community groups itself. This privatized form of welfare where key decision-making was carried out at a decentralized level has proved to be a far more economically-efficient form of welfare.
This philosophy of self-reliance and responsibility is prominent not only in social welfare, but also replicated in the Singapore government’s approach to retirement savings, healthcare, education and housing. For instance, the state’s preferred policy of ensuring individuals have sufficient finance for essential expenses is via the Central Provident Fund (CPF), a government-mandated savings account where a portion of one’s monthly salaries are deducted and deposited into. These funds can be used only for health expenses/insurance, the purchase of a flat or at the age of retirement, reflecting the government’s encouragement of self-reliance where you should “help yourself before asking others for help”.
The CPF savings system is at the crux of how the Singapore’s healthcare system. World Bank data shows that Singapore’s 2015 government health expenditure in 2015 is only 4.3% of GDP, a small fraction in comparison to other first-world countries; 16.9% in the US, 11% in France, 9.9% in the UK, 10.9% in Japan or 7.1% in Korea (World Bank, b). Research by William Haseltine (2013) has shown how Singapore manages to spend exponentially lower on healthcare in comparison to other first-world economies while achieving comparatively on par or superior health outcomes of low infant mortality and higher life expectancies. Because CPF savings can be used for only critical health issues, Singaporeans are forced to pay out-of-pocket for minor health expenses. This helps to control government healthcare costs while instilling in Singaporeans a crucial sense of self-responsibility about saving and spending on healthcare.
The same approach of encouraging self-reliance is also replicated through ‘Workfare’ programmes where government welfare is contingent on the worker’s willingness to work and upgrade his or her skills and productivity (Teo, 2018). In effect, these Workfare programmes encourage low-wage workers to rejoin the workforce where simple handouts may have incentivised them to stop working altogether. For example, the Progressive Wage Model (Singapore’s alternative to a minimum wage) provides low- wage workers with the opportunities to acquire new skills by subsidising training costs. Reflected again in this approach is the lesson of self-sufficiency and an anti-entitlement mindset to Singaporeans.
In sum, the concept of meritocracy goes beyond superficial political rhetoric where politicians pay mere lip service to lofty notions of moral virtue. Government policies has consistently affirmed the official meritocratic rhetoric. The PAP’s position on welfare reinforces values of self-reliance underlying the ovearching meritocratic philosophy of the state. It reminds Singaporeans to forge one’s own success by individual merit – the state acts only as an extreme safety net. As Neo & Chen (2007) puts it,
Singapore’s governance philosophy the stress on the link — between work and rewards, encouraging self-reliance and the application of rationality and logic to problem solving and the — resulting emphasis on economic principles in policy making, is reflected in the key features of public policy: no inter-generational transfers; no subsidies to consumption, and wherever possible, using the market and pricing mechanism to allocate resources. (p. 171)
How meritocracy colours economic life
We are now in a better position to understand how the meritocracy pervades the Singaporean work ethic. The PAP’s brand of meritocracy can be conceived as a philosophical ideal that aspires for an equality of economic opportunity regardless of race, religion, gender, sexuality or social status. This practice governs the socio-political and economic spheres of society, ensuring that the ability to climb the ladder of success is availed to anyone as long as they possessed the appropriate work ethic. The pervasiveness of meritocracy in Singaporean society is vital to explaining what drives its socioeconomic life.7
Do Singaporeans believe that they live in a meritocratic society? I argue here that they most certainly do. Underlying Singapore’s merit-based culture is a robust belief that despite its high ethnic and racial diversity, these factors have little to do one’s lot in life. In a recent study, 73% of Singaporean respondents disagreed that a person’s race was an important determinant of their success, while 89% affirmed the meritocratic belief that hard work was the key ingredient to economic success (Matthews, 2016). There is an overwhelming consensus of Singaporeans that see multiculturalism as an ideal; 91% stated that they enjoyed social cohesion among a diverse ethnic matrix; 96% respected people from all races; 95% held the view that all races are equal and 96% that people of all races should be treated equally (Ibid). Cross-country studies also suggest that Singapore is one of (if not the most) the most racially harmonious societies. According to the Legatum Prosperity Index of 2015, Singapore ranks at number 1 in the category of ‘tolerance of ethnic minorities’ (Legatum Institute, 2015). The Global Creativity Index 2015 also ranks Singapore in the top ten category in measuring ‘how nations stack up on the openness to and acceptance of racial and ethnic minorities’ (Martin Prosperity Institute, 2015). All this despite being the most religiously diverse country in the world!8
Meritocracy within Singaporean culture has produced a wide underlying belief that an ethic of self-responsibility and diligence is essential to one’s own economic success. Perhaps the greatest value of the meritocratic ethic is that it has provided Singaporeans with the right motivation by combining rewards with economic incentives and competitiveness. The belief that ‘anyone can be successful’ incentivises Singaporeans to persevere and excel. Material possessions, a comfortable life, or social esteem are all visible signs of meritocratic success that encourages Singapore to be ambitious about their lot in life and discourages fate-based mentalities. Indeed, this strongly motivated drive towards excellence has been attributed to a key explanation for Singapore’s successful economic development and prosperity:
Singaporean society is one which places strong emphasis on meritocracy. The espoused national ethos includes democracy and equal opportunities for all. Apart from policies governing the strict rationing of scarce resources like land, the average Singaporean is presented with enormous material incentives –provided that he or she works hard for them. The Singaporean Chinese man can be described as “economic man”. (Lee, 1998).
Veblen (1899) observed that societies who subscribed to relatively higher beliefs that luck or chance tended to be less efficient or unproductive. Such individuals exhibit higher levels of ‘external control’ where life’s events are often interpreted as being out of their ability to influence, thereby seeing ‘themselves as at the mercy of forces that turn them into pawns rather than actors. They are weathervanes buffeted by the wind’ (Harper, 2003, p. 39). Superstitious and luck-based beliefs certainly exist in Singaporean culture (or even the most luck-adverse culture for that matter). The pervasiveness of its meritocratic culture however, is more aligned with luck-adverse beliefs that shapes the economic life of modern industrialisation.
That merit plays a pervasive role in the Singaporean life is telling when one examines the style of rhetoric that political leaders employ when speaking to the general public. Wherever one looks in the post-independence political radar in Singapore, talk of ‘meritocracy’ is prevalent. As early as just six years after independence in 1971, Singapore’s most prominent political leader Lee Kuan Yew made a now infamous remark:
The main burden of present planning and implementation rests on the shoulders of some 300 key persons. They include key men in the PAP, MPs and cadres who mobilise mass support and explain the need for policies even when they are temporarily inconvenient or against sectional interests. Outstanding men in civil service, the police, the armed forces, chairmen of statutory boards and their top administrators - they have worked the details of policies set by the government and seen to its implementation. These people come from poor and middle-class homes. They come from different language schools. Singapore is a meritocracy. And these men have risen to the top by their own merit, hard work and high performance. Together they are a closely-knit and co-ordinated hard core. If all the 300 were to crash in one jumbo jet, then Singapore will disintegrate. (National Archives of Singapore, 1971)
From its earliest beginnings, Lee, along with his political party, believed strongly in a political system governed by meritocracy. Fast forward three decades, in remarking on the uncertainties of globalisation trends and burgeoning knowledge-based economy, Lee had no doubt that the tenets of meritocracy would need to be vigorously adhered to for Singapore’s continued progress:
That we have succeeded in the last three decades does not ensure our doing so in the future. However, we stand a better chance of not failing if we abide by the basic principles that have helped us progress: social cohesion through sharing the benefits of progress, equal opportunities for all, and meritocracy, with the best man or woman for the job [emphasis added] , especially as leaders in government . (Lee, 2000, p. 691)
Lee also encouraged values in Western entrepreneurial culture that aligns closely with the meritocratic spirit of Singaporean society:
‘a national emphasis on personal independence and self-reliance… a respect for those starting new businesses… acceptance of failure in entrepreneurial and innovation efforts… tolerance for a high degree of income disparity. For over 30 years, we in Singapore have aimed for an egalitarian society. If we want to have more successful entrepreneurs, Singaporeans must accept a greater income disparity between the successful and the not-so-successful.’ (SMU, 2002)
This style of political rhetoric where hard work is emphasised is not exclusive to Lee, although it most certainly spells out a lot about the cultural sentiments of Singaporean society. The second Prime Minister similarly called on Singaporeans to ‘encourage enterprise and reward success, not envy and tax them’ (Goh, 1988, p. 5). Former top diplomat Kishore Mahbubani reflects on how he owes his life’s success to Singapore’s meritocratic system:
In my life, I have lived the meritocratic dream... Through unusual good fortune, Singapore had remarkably wise leadership upon independence in 1965. These leaders decided that Singapore’s only resources were human resources. None should be wasted. Any talent anywhere in society would have an opportunity to grow and flourish. Hence, with financial aid and scholarships, and through a merit- based promotion system, I escaped the clutches of poverty. (Mahbubani, 2005, p. 5)
The third and current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong echoes this repetition of reference to hard work determining success: ‘I ask myself if we’re not going on merit, what are you going to look at?’ (Choo, 2012) In a more recent speech, Lee continued to uphold the ideal of meritocracy: One of our most remarkable achievements over these last 50 years, has been our racial and religious harmony. It stems from a strong belief in the ideal of a multiracial society where everybody is equal, regardless of race, language or religion… we have held firmly to the belief that before race, language and religion, first and foremost, we should all be Singaporeans together and so, we have built a fair and just society, based on meritocracy, where ability and not your background or the colour of your skin, determines how well you do, determines what contributions you make, and what rewards you get. (PAP, 2016)
S. Rajaratnam, an influential founding leader of the PAP that held various prominent ministerial positions put it blatantly: ‘I believe in a hierarchy of merit simply because I cannot think of any other way of running a modern society – for that matter even a primitive tribal society’ (Chan & Haq, 1987, p. 539).
The Singaporean ethic can be described as a strong belief in achieving success by the sweat of one’s own brow. Narratives that one is privileged by race, social status or oppressed by an oppressor are absent. That one’s success is determined by one’s own merit is an important lesson Singaporeans learn, and this contributes an important explanation to its successful economic development. This merit-based ethos has laid a robust foundation for a cultural embrace of ‘bourgeois’ acivities in Singaporean economic culture. This is reflected in high levels of material acquisition in Singapore. Scholars have observed such a tendency and dedicated serious study on the values of material acquisition among Singaporeans (Chua, 2003). The colloquial term kiasu – a term familiar to any Singaporean – is used to denote a cultural behaviour to be overcompetitive in economic matters. To be kiasu is to harbour an obssessive ingrained aversion to missing out on opportunities or losing out to others, and going to extreme measures to ensure coming on top of others. Consider award-winning Singaporean fiction author Catherine Lim’s satirical characterisation of kiasuism:
The person who possesses this attribute (henceforth referred to as the ‘kia-suer’) believes in the Principle of Perfect Balance, that is, any amount of money or effort expended must be perfectly matched by the returns for it; hence if the ‘kia-suer’ pays $4.95 for a set lunch in which six items have been advertised and he suddenly remembers after he has left the restaurant, that the sixth item, say, cucumber pieces in tomato sauce, had not been served, he will return for it, or insist that a proportionate sum be deducted from the bill. Only after this is done, will he feel satisfied. If he pays his Filipina maid a salary of $200 and discovers that the work she is doing is worth less than that of other Filipina maids drawing the same salary, he will devise all manner of ways to redress the imbalance; for instance, he may get his maid to help out at his mother-in-law’s noodles shop on Sunday. The redressing of imbalance works only in one direction: It does not operate in situations where the kia-suer finds that he is getting more than his money’s worth. For instance, if he discovers that for the meal for which his $4.95 entitles him to six items, the absent-minded waitress puts on his table eight items instead of six, or charges him for two persons when she should charge him for three, he says nothing and lets the matter rest. With regard to the affective or emotive component of kiasuism, the kia-suer suffers a wide range of uncomfortable feelings when he discovers that he has not got his money’s worth. The feelings range from mild disappointment with himself for having been foolish and unwary to acute distress that will go away only when he has redressed the wrong. A multimillionaire was known to have been apoplectic with rage when he discovered that he had over- reimbursed his chauffeur by $1.30; a housewife was unable to sleep the whole night through agonising over the fact that she had paid the taxi-driver three dollars for a ride that would normally cost $2.10. The same housewife, only the week before, was rejoicing over the fact that, owing to some slipup in the attachment of price-tags to clothes in a large departmental store, she had got a $90 dress for only $28. She had talked about it endlessly to her friends who then went to the store but found, to their intense disappointment, that the price-tags had been correctly attached this time. (Lim, 2009, p. 280-281)
The pervasiveness of kiasuism within Singaporean culture cannot be overstated. Most Singaporeans do in fact self-identify with traits of kiasuism, which is loosely related to being ‘hardworking’ or a competitive behaviour that stems from a fear of losing out to one’s peers (Chia, et al., 2015). Having also inspired a franchise of comic books and television show adaptations, the Mr. Kiasu comic books were in its time the only local comic series to enjoy mainstream popularity. Extensive coverage in the state media was dedicated to this cultural phenomenon, even being a policy concern of the government for its potentially adverse impacts on tourism at some point (Ho, et al., 1998).
Signs of the meritocratic-capitalist culture is prominently featured in Singapore’s popular culture, such as its domestic film industry. Consider perhaps the most successful film of Singaporean cinema, the 1998 box office success Money No Enough (which inspired a 2008 sequel) by Singapore’s most renowned filmmaker Jack Neo. The film is heralded as Singapore’s first commercially successful film, holding the top grossing record until 2012, and inspiring several copycat films. The film chronicles an all-too- familiar experience of Singaporean life: the pursuit of money. Such a pursuit is at the front and centre of the motivations of the three central characters Keong, Ong and Hui. They are in a constant search for a quick buck, hopping from one moneymaking scheme to the next. A lifestyle of constant accumulation for material goods is portrayed to be dignified and held in high esteem. In contrast, the Hui character is that of the typical lower-class Singaporean. Throughout the film, he constantly expresses admiration and awe for his peers whom are far more financially successful than him. When he tries to win the heart of the woman he fancies, he is encouraged (and convinced) to purchase an expensive mobile phone to impress her. He is also chided and chastised for being contented with a low-end blue collar ‘coffee shop boy’ job and not aspiring to achieve more than his current lot in life. In Neo’s films is a common theme of an excessive approval and appreciation for the well-to-do entrepreneur with a sharp business acumen. Similarly, this theme of Singaporeans being money-minded is captured in Lim’s popular short stories:
‘This people in this country got a God, that people in that country got a God, they pray, they worship their God, they do good, holy things, but what is Singaporeans’ God? I will tell you. It’s money, money, money, money. That is the Singaporeans’ God!’ (Lim, 2009, p. 299)
In another of Neo’s popular films I Not Stupid (2002), again the meritocratic ethos of Singaporean culture is on full display, this time in its highly competitive education system. The film’s characterisation of Singaporean societal culture is clear: success in life is equated with grade achievement in school. Struggling middle school students are repeatedly lectured by their family and teachers that failure to do well in school would most certainly spell a lifetime of mediocrity. At one point in the film, a father sternly instructs his son to study hard so as to be able to secure a high-paying job in the civil service when he grows up. Singapore’s education system, based itself on a meritocratic philosophy, streams students into different band levels where best-performing students are separated from the worst-performing. In a bid to avoid placement in the ‘underperforming’ stream, the kiasu mentality reflects heavily when parents compete against one another in a race to the bottom of subjecting their children to an increasing amount of extracurricular tuition services to give them more of an edge over other children. Poorly-performing students are seen as failures that eventually are shuffled into the Institute of Technical Education, a school where students are offered vocational technical training. Its acronym ITE is spelt out as a joke ‘It’s The End’, suggesting that students with poor grades are doomed to be a failure in society.
Two landmark films credited for pioneering Singapore’s 1990s film industry revival with its record entry into the international film circuit are Eric Khoo’s Mee Pok Man (1995) and Twelve Storeys (1997). Both films feature protagonists that tend to be socially outcasted and of low socioeconomic status. Set against the backdrop of Singapore’s post- independence economic success, Khoo’s destitute characters are positioned as having slipped through the cracks of the mainstream ‘Singapore Success Story’. Indeed, a common theme among local literature writers is the featuring of this Singapore Success Story as the background of their story (Chua & Yeo, 2003). Ironically, even in stories of Singapore society’s most impoverished, the endless pursuit of economic achievement is hitched to its core narrative. As De (2010) puts it, ‘People [Khoo’s characters] are shown to be untiringly pursuing socioeconomic advancement through increasingly gainful employment and conspicuous consumption’ (p. 201).
The Singapore Success Story is a theme that pervades much of Singaporean fiction, such as in literature pioneer Edwin Thumboo’s famous poem Ulysses by the Merlion. In its final lines: ‘So shining urgent, Full of what is now’, reflects the familiar theme of Singapore’s preoccupation with economic growth and prosperity (Hayward, 2013). Similarly this theme is the background of the film Ilo Ilo (2013), guiding the motivations of the film’s characters.9 The film is set in Singapore during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, depicting the story of an average-income family struggling through the economic depression. Despite having lost his job, the father character Teck continues to indulge in the Singapore Success Story by investing in stocks and buying lottery tickets, in hopes that he will create a reversal of fortune. He contemplates starting new business ventures that would require unrealistically high amounts of capital given the family’s economic circumstances. He hides his job loss from his wife and is so ashamed of working in a blue collared security guard job that he conceals his uniform.
This pursuit of the possibility of striking it rich is similarly observed in other main characters. The wife, Hwee Leng, impressed by a speaker’s get-rich schemes at a motivational seminar, immediately purchases his full catalogue of DVD’s and books, only to realise later that it was a scam. The 10-year-old son, Jiale, makes a hobby out of tracking the pattern of winning lottery numbers. When his unhealthy obsession with lottery numbers was discovered by his school teachers, he successfully evades punishment by bribing the discipline master himself with ‘winning numbers’ from his scrapbook. In the film’s climax scene, Jiale spends what little savings he has on a lottery ticket in hopes of preventing his maid from being retrenched. As Ho (2015) puts it, ‘Through a boy’s “unhealthy” preoccupation with 4-D, the audience can see just how entrenched the idea of material success is in Singaporeans’ lives’ (p. 179). She summarises the film’s main characters as ‘dangerously attached to capitalist and material understandings of success’ (p. 183), which is a mainstay of the Singapore Success Story. In Ilo Ilo’s depiction, the Singaporean drive to attain material success remains steadfastly strong even in the face of a financial crisis.
The overall theme of determination and entrepreneurial alertness that I argue is ubiquitous in Singaporean economic life stems from a foundational belief of meritocracy i.e., success comes with hard work. This widespread cultural appreciation for a meritocratic philosophy is what motivates Singaporeans to persevere and succeed even in times of hardship. Because the values of hard work are dignified in the form of a meritocracy, Singaporeans interpret the world around them as filled with prospects and opportunities, and are driven to work for them. It is what Harper (2003) refers to as a high locus of control. Such beliefs that one can successfully perform entrepreneurial tasks widens an acute perception to discovering open opportunities. In contrast, low levels of self-efficacy and an external locus of control tends to produce apathetic and indifferent attitudes, leading to lower levels of entrepreneurial alertness. As I have argued here, it is precisely the meritocratic culture of Singaporeans that enables a high locus of control. Indeed, the Singaporean meritocratic-capitalist economic ethic is omnipresent within its domestic cultural media products. That these films are commercially popular and successful among locals is telling of the pervasiveness of such an ethic that Singaporeans find relatable to. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that the aforementioned media heavily reflect the types of values that represents the everyday Singaporean.
In this thesis, I have tried to contribute a cultural explanation for the success of Singapore’s post-independence economic development. My contention is that economic life in Singapore is highlighted by a strong meritocratic culture that promotes the notion of hard work bringing success and an equality of opportunity. Evidence that this culture is pervasive can be seen in multiple avenues. Firstly, such a culture is consistent with the pro-meritocracy rhetoric of the PAP government. Second, far from being empty political rhetoric, the hegemonic political party has supported this rhetoric with policies that supports the philosophy it preaches to practice. I review this in the post-independence section of Singapore’s history. Third, a look at the region’s texts in its popular culture and media sphere shows that there is a strong sense of meritocracy embedded in Singaporean culture.
To a significant extent, this merit-based culture has been supported by the modern day state. That government actors were able to easily tap into such a culture is apparent by two salient factors. Firstly, a survey of Singapore’s pre-colonial history shows that a vibrant pro-market culture already existed in the institutional context of Singapore since its colonial period. The laissez-faire beliefs of the early British leaders had a great influence on the economic culture of early colonial Singapore, as I reviewed in the section on Singapore’s colonial history.
Second, volatile geopolitical circumstances surrounded Singapore in the 1960s. Singapore was a non-Muslim majority city-state surrounded by Muslim-majority nations in a time where ethnic tensions and racial riots were commonplace. Furthermore, Singapore decidedly embarked on a market-oriented development path that was contrary to the communist climate of the region. Coupled with a lack of natural resources, the early leaders of the PAP government were prompted to champion a meritocratic style of governance which they saw as essential to the city-state’s survival. Such a style of governance acted as a principle of resource allocation; the brightest and most talented were filtered into the state apparatus. While politicians rationalised the adherence to meritocratic principles, the philosophy that was preached top-down found a natural fit with the prevailing economic culture of Singapore.
In concluding, an important caveat needs be made. While my main thesis is that there is a robust meritocratic spirit in Singapore’s economic culture, I am not making the claim that the meritocratic spirit is the sole culture in existence, or that it is the most dominant. I am only claiming that it is one strong explanation out of many other possibly existing cultural explanations that I do not attempt to explore here. As I clarified in the first section of methodology, cultures are heterogenous, diverse, interrelated and always conflicting with other cultural beliefs. Therefore, to assert that a meritocratic spirit is the be-all-and-end-all cultural explanation for Singapore’s economic development would be an unfounded claim.10 Indeed, multiple economic cultures exist in any given society that can be both complementary and conflicting at the same time. This thesis only makes an attempt to map out one such cultural trait that shapes economic life in Singapore.
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1 While the advent of East Asian growth (this thesis a case in point) has largely disproved Weber’s thesis today, that is not to say that there is no value from using Weber’s interpretive methodology to study culture.
2 It should be noted that I am not making the claim here that econometric tools are ‘useless’. Economists who treat culture outside of the interpretative framework I adopt in this thesis here can and do find valuable use for quantitative methodology.
3 See (Chamlee-Wright, 2010) for a more comprehensive discussion of the use of qualitative methods in economics.
4 It is akin to what hermeneuticist scholars term the ‘fusion of horizons’. See (Prychitko, 1994) for a further discussion.
5 The very first time a seat was lost by the PAP was in a by-election in 1981 when the incumbent Member of Parliament stepped down to become President of Singapore.
6 This has resulted in a public sector that has siphoned talent from the private sector, oftentimes successful persons in the private sector leave the business world upon invite into a political career with the PAP. Because the policy has been so aggressively enforced, the result is an indigenous business sector that fails to be self-sufficiently dynamic and innovative in the era of knowledge economy (Low, 2001).
7 Whether or not meritocracy as a philosophical ideal is feasible, or if PAP practices its meritocratic philosophy to a perfect consistency is out of my research scope. My thesis depends only on the fact that insofar as the majority of the Singaporean populace believe that they live in a society governed by meritocracy, I am able to provide a plausible explanation for what shapes economic life.
8 According to a Pew Research Center (2014) report, Singapore scores the highest on its Religious Diversity Index; its population matrix consists of Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews and other miscellaneous religions.
9 Singapore’s first film to win an award at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
10 The methodological approach of this thesis draws heavily on a Weberian tradition. As Weber himself conceded, ‘… we have no intention whatever of maintaining such a foolish and doctrinaire thesis as that the spirit of capitalism… could only have arisen as the result of certain effects of the Reformation, or even that capitalism as an economic system is a creation of the Reformation… On the contrary, we only wish to ascertain whether and to what extent religious forces have taken part in the qualitative formation and the quantitative expansion of that spirit over the world. Furthermore, what concrete aspects of our capitalistic culture can be traced to them.’ (Weber, 2001, p.49)