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Heed history’s ghosts of city-states

There has been debate ever since the General Election in 2011, and particularly since the Population White Paper’s release, about a disconnect between the governed and the Government in Singapore.

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There has been debate ever since the General Election in 2011, and particularly since the Population White Paper’s release, about a disconnect between the governed and the Government in Singapore.

It has surfaced even in government discourse. In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong acknowledged that the Government would have to “work in a more open way”, given “a different generation, a different society, and the politics will be different”.

And during last month’s debates over the Government’s Budget, it is notable that the Education, Health and National Development Ministers — among others — called on Singaporeans to get involved in shaping the future of the education system, healthcare financing and public housing policy. The ongoing reviews of these three hot-button areas signal the Government’s impetus to address key sources of discontent.

Will this have any effect in repairing tensions? That remains to be seen, but surely the inability to understand each other effectively is something both must seek to resolve. History suggests that the need is an urgent one.


The rise of Singapore as a prosperous city-state was premised on the marriage between effective leadership and a committed, hardworking populace.

A quick glance at history reveals, rather tellingly, that the fall of great city-states has often been partially premised on a disconnect between people and government.

Italian historian and philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli once noted that the demise of city-states was caused by internal failings and an inability to quench the internal strife between social classes.

He propounded that the lack of compromise between the governing classes and the merchant middle classes was a source of inherent tension and instability. This is an astute observation.

City-states, due to their small size and general dependence on trade, have often required both decisive government and a dynamic economy to flourish.

Machiavelli warned prophetically that the unavoidable consequence of such tensions is “political uncertainty and economic short-termism”, culminating in the state’s demise. It is these failings we must seek to avoid, by seeking to re-establish an effective channel of communication and by addressing the sources of tensions.


The disconnect has so far prevailed in Singapore despite efforts of the Government to reconnect with the people. This, I would argue, is largely due to the fact that Singapore’s social contract is in need of re-negotiation.

A social contract may be defined as an implicit and tacit agreement between the people and the government, in which both parties agree to cooperate for certain mutual benefits. Social contract theories hence typically argue that individuals have consented to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to authority in exchange for protection of their remaining rights.

In Singapore, the social contract of the last half-century has been fairly clear and understood by one and all: Singaporeans have given up certain civil liberties in exchange for economic stability, growth and prosperity. The rise of Singapore in the last 50 years under a paternalist form of government is a success story that most, if not all, Singaporeans are proud of.

One need only look at other post-colonial states to understand that the Singapore story could have been very different — much bloodier and more tragic. Nationalistic fervour and the raging need to dismantle the legacy of colonialism have historically manifested as killing fields and civil wars. In Singapore, they were channelled towards the singular goal of creating an economic oasis in South-east Asia.

It is, perhaps, ironically the very nature of the People’s Action Party (PAP) which created economic growth that is now engendering a disconnect. As Singapore flourished, citizens’ expectations changed. No longer was survival a priority; an increasingly educated and middle-class society was no longer willing to sacrifice as many civil rights for economic stability, especially since that stability had been achieved and seemed to be a given. More was expected.


The focus of citizens now seems to be on addressing the problems that arose with growth at breakneck speed.

The ideals of meritocracy and the unrelenting surge towards growth have not been sufficient to resolve the inherent problems of inequality in society. Issues of identity, in the face of a growing influx of foreigners and the perceived superiority of their socio-economic status, have become a political issue, with many questioning what exactly it means to be Singaporean.

More freedoms are being demanded, and with the old contract having been met by both parties, a re-negotiation is in order.

No longer will promises of growth and prosperity (often met) suffice — dealing with inequality must become the cornerstone of Singapore policy and the new social contract. While continued growth is essential, this must happen with decreasing and not increasing inequality.

The reduction of inequality would have a multiplier effect on resolving the disconnect in Singapore today. While it is not the only causal factor, it is the source of a great deal of discontent that has spawned many other problems.

For instance, Singapore has for centuries been dependent on trade, commerce and with it a constant influx of immigrants, with an overwhelming majority of us being the children of immigrants. So, the real unhappiness, in my view, lies not with immigrants per se but with the inequality perceived to exist between those who have been Singaporean for generations, and newer or soon-to-be Singaporeans.


Citizens, too, must re-evaluate expectations as they approach the negotiation table.

In a recent online post, writer Catherine Lim describes a “new electorate, so intoxicated by the power of the new media that it has cultivated an intense, self-conscious and aggressive emotionality in its response to all overtures from the PAP side”.

As we seek to assert ourselves politically, we must not forget, in the rapture of our emotions, that both the Government and the people share the same responsibility and the same goal: A better Singapore for all. Voted in democratically, the current Government should be aided, urged and most definitely critiqued, but not chided or taunted at every turn, especially as it takes steps to re-engage.

There must be understanding that change is rarely instantaneous or drastic, especially with regard to policy. Most instances of instantaneous and drastic policy change tend to be a result of desperation and poor decision-making. This should not be the avenue policy makers are goaded into.

Maturity and a clear level-headedness are qualities that took us to success when it eluded many others, and these must remain with us as we strive for the next stage of prosperity with equality. There is an urgent need to approach the negotiation table with the right spirit on both sides. Indeed, the ghosts of history demand it.


Pravin Prakash currently tutors in political science at the National University of Singapore and runs a social commentary blog. This is part of a series of essays on the new engagement between government and citizens.

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