Values for power

What does the People’s Action Party government stand for? I have written previously about the need for various opposition parties to be clearer about what they represent, instead of merely presenting themselves as “Not the PAP” and I am glad to see the process happening. The same question can be asked of the ruling party — what do they stand for?

This question arose obliquely in a roundtable session I participated in a few weeks ago. A diplomat from a Western country remarked with some surprise that Lee Kuan Yew made some statements about lesbians raising a family that did not constitute outright rejection. Personally, I thought those statements were so ambiguous, almost incoherent, they were hardly worth much.

Another Westerner at the roundtable commented on how Adam Lambert kissed another guy at last year’s concert in Singapore — he did? I didn’t know that — and how that seemed to be a non-issue with Singapore.

Was this the kiss in question, at 23 seconds into this video?

The roundtable was about freedom of expression. Another participant enumerated the areas where the government interferes with that freedom, among which were race, religion, homosexuality, the Lee family, the death penalty and questioning the judicial system. The question then was: If homosexuality is considered a “no go”area, why did Lee sound relatively gay-friendly?  Why was Lambert free to “flaunt” his sexuality on stage?

The best answer came from yet another participant: Because Lambert’s kiss was very much within the People’s Action Party’s (PAP’s) value system. And one could argue that lesbians raising children would also be very much a part of the PAP’s value system.

Wait a minute. . .  what value system is this again? The PAP, you say?

* * * * *

Then it struck me. The Western diplomats there were seeing Singapore through the lens of Western politics. It is a handicap when it comes to understanding Singapore.

In the democracies of the West, political parties compete to form the government. As in business, so in politics: Having coherent, clearly-perceived brand values can be key to popular loyalty and market share (votes). Most parties in the West are understood to represent distinct approaches to economics and social issues, one strain of which is social conservatism.

Since social conservatism is often correlated with respect for authority, and since the PAP has created an authoritarian system in Singapore, Western observers can hardly be blamed if they put two and two together and assumed that the PAP represents social conservatism. In many instances, they are not wrong. There are plenty of policy examples, e.g. discrimination against single-parents, pro-family rhetoric, reluctance of the state to provide social support, bias in favour of organised religion at the expense of secularism, treating gay people as second-class citizens,  that smack of social conservatism as understood in the West.

Where they are wrong is in the “cart-before-the-horse” problem. In the West, parties compete for power in order to implement their value systems. Thus, values come first and power is a means to an end.

In Singapore, it’s the other way around. At least for the PAP, power comes first — they are already in power and they expect to stay in power for a very long time — and values are there to serve their staying in power. Values are means to an end. Hence, power is non-negotiable, values are.

At the core of their belief system is the idea that the PAP is the fittest bunch of people in Singapore to rule. Chiefly they see themselves as the best and brightest, with a solid determination to stay incorruptible, at least in legalistic, cash terms. Corruptibility in terms of power warping one’s sense of entitlement to other privileges, e.g. higher official salaries and immunity from media and public scrutiny, is not considered corruption. From this core belief system is constructed a good part of the value system they espouse and set out to propagate. The “no go”areas are merely the kinds of speech that contest their belief system and associated values.

However, these “no go”areas are of two kinds: the first relates to their legitimacy or the “mandate of heaven” they claim for themselves. Thus:

  • No questioning or scrutiny of the Lee family and their motives
  • No suggesting that Lee Kuan Yew behaved with ulterior motives in the past (e.g. detention without trial)
  • No questioning of the incorruptibility of the PAP
  • No questioning of the incorruptibility of their enforcers, including the police and the courts

The second relates to their track record and their ability to govern, going forward. A lot of their claim to legitimacy rests on having delivered economic progress and social peace. Avoidance of controversy is seen as an essential ingredient to past success and critical to continuing success. They may not admit it, but it is easier to pass the governance test with flying colours when a populace is ready to follow orders and not be fighting among themselves. Moreover, deep social cleavages, e.g. over race and religion, can make all sorts of issues, including economics, a zero-sum game. It becomes very hard for a government to do anything without being accused of “selling out” one side or another.

Therefore, to grease the path ahead, the other “no-go” areas are designed to make governing less troublesome, and consequently to make it easier for the PAP to claim continuing excellence in governance and perpetuate their hold on power. Thus:

  • No strident discussion of race or religion
  • No questioning of the death penalty which they see as having made Singapore relatively crime-free and drug-free
  • No “promotion” of sexual values that raises the ire of any important group of PAP supporters (e.g. the Christianised social elite)

Are they being purely utilitarian in espousing these values, or do they genuine believe in them? I don’t think the question is meaningful. At some point when we want something badly enough, we find ourselves in all sincerity, actually believing it. A compulsive gambler can quite sincerely believe that all he needs is one more throw of the dice to make a difference.

Yet, the latter three “no-go” areas are not all the same. The last, especially with respect to homosexuality, differs from the first two in that there are counter-examples extant around the world. The PAP can see that there are no examples of successful economies — and that is their penultimate objective after all, behind staying in power, their #1 objective — where a society is riven with racial and religious divisions. Nor are there many societies where economic progress can co-exist with a high crime rate and high rate of drug abuse. There probably are some examples from the certain parts of the United States and even China, but at the very least, no one has made the case that a high crime rate and high rate of drug abuse promote economic growth.

With sexuality, it is quite different. Uncomfortable though it may be to the truly socially-conservative ones in the PAP, there are examples of societies doing well while being fully accepting of gay people and liberal sexual mores. In other words, being sexually liberal is not in itself an impediment to economic success, like racial or religious conflict. This makes censorship of sexuality a bit more negotiable than censorship over racial, religious or death-penalty activism.

If the fundamentalist Christians disappeared from Singapore overnight and everybody else just gave homosexuality a big shrug, homosexuality would no longer be an issue. Once it is no longer a potential source of social conflict, it will no longer be considered a brake on economic progress; in turn no longer considered a hurdle to the PAP’s remaining in power.

Furthermore, acceptance of gay people is, at least in some PAP quarters, considered a plus factor in promoting economic growth (and therefore promoting the PAP’s longevity). It adds to Singapore’s image as a hip, cosmopolitan city, welcoming of talent and diversity. And as we all know, the PAP views attracting talent as absolutely key to continuing economic dynamism. That being the case, we could well have had a hypothetical conversation between Lambert’s managers and the authorities, with a high civil servant saying, “Actually, we would prefer it if Mr Lambert were to flaunt his homosexuality while here, but don’t quote me on that.” (All the while, shockingly unaware of course that the expression “flaunting one’s homosexuality” is an anti-gay term originating from the Christian rightwing — such has been the cultural isolation of some of our power-holders.)

As for accepting gay members of parliament, and lesbians raising children, matters that Lee Kuan Yew touched upon as recounted in the new book Hard Truths, these too are negotiable. In fact, considering the atrociously low birthrate among Singaporeans, if gay families are potentially able to add to population numbers — and cross-border surrogate pregnancy is on the increase — it only means the government has to keep an open mind on the matter and not close the door on it.

* * * * *

In short, it’s like this: the PAP’s social conservatism may seem inconsistent when viewed through the Western lens. But it’s the wrong lens to use, because unlike in the West, power is the means to effectuate values, in Singapore it is the other way around: Values are mere tools to sustain power. And (some) tools can be changed to suit needs and circumstances. But don’t ever question the PAP’s right to be the wielder of tools.


17 Responses to “Values for power”

  1. 1 Contender 7 February 2011 at 20:51

    I disagree with your analysis. The PAP has its own value system that it religiously upholds; it is just a different value system than the typical conservative/liberal models you see in the West.

    For the PAP values social order and economic success above everything else. The importance that the PAP places on these values outweighs its interest in maintaining power – it is why the PAP refuses to budge on things like casinos and minimum wage, even though its stance will lose it many votes.

    But you are correct that at the margins, some issues do not threaten the PAP’s core values, and thus the PAP’s attitude towards these issues is a utilitarian one that is dictated by popular sentiment. Homosexuality is one of those issues.

    Finally, even in the West, politicians would happily compromise their values if they believed that it would make them more electable. Thus, it is just too simplistic to say that Western politicians see power as a means while the PAP sees power as an ends.

    • 2 twasher 8 February 2011 at 10:31

      I’m not sure the casino and minimum wage issues prove your point. They are maintaining power despite the lost votes from those issues. If the balance in parliament were such that those issues would have actually resulted in them losing power, then I think it’s perfectly plausible that they would have budged on those issues.

      • 3 Contender 8 February 2011 at 13:04

        That the PAP is still maintaining power is besides the point. Political power is not an “either/or” thing, but lies on a continuum. Every unpopular measure that the PAP forces down Singaporeans’ throats reduces its political capital and consequently erodes its power.

        The point is that if the PAP saw values solely as a means to maintaining power, then it would bow to popular pressure most, if not all, of the time. The fact remains that the PAP *does* have various sacred cows that it stubbornly refuses to slaughter, shows that it values certain things more than power itself.

        For example, consider the Public Assistance Scheme. The PAP is highly reluctant to increase the quantum of the monthly payout, even though it could easily do so without there being any noticeable dent in the nation’s treasury. Moreover, it would buy the PAP a lot of goodwill. So why doesn’t the PAP do so? The only explanation is that it is so ideologically opposed to welfarism that it is willing to forgo any political advantage that it might gain from increasing welfare payouts.

    • 4 yuen 8 February 2011 at 10:53

      wanting social order and economic success is hardly special to PAP; I am sure Muslim fundamentalists in middle east and maoists in Nepal also want these, once they are in power of course; the values of a ruling group are reflected more in the specifics of social order – how it acquires supporters and treats opponents – and of economic success – how to achieve it and how to distribute benefits; these are where different political groups adopt different ideas and build different systems

      over the last few years PAP seems to have neglected some of the support/issues within its “system” giving opposition parties, old and new, hope to do well in the next election; how PAP deals with this situation will show whether the old guard are still on the ball and whether the new guard is up to it

  2. 5 syn 7 February 2011 at 23:08

    Contender, yawning bread has a point here. In fact, I think he calls a spade “a spade”.

    The so-called “value system” that PAP has is one that ensures PAP stays in power. I thought this is unambiguous.

    Once upon a time,
    LKY disagreed with F1, now they have F1 night race
    LKY was against gambling, now they set up 2 dens
    then they allowed bar-top dancing, RA movies, more gambling offerings through Sing Pools, etc.

    PAP calls this “changing with times and openness of people”. Yet, isn’t this a means to ensure they stay in power?

    • 6 Contender 8 February 2011 at 13:27

      I see the examples you cited as liberalizations that the PAP allowed for the sake of economic growth. Casinos, F1 racing, bar-top dancing etc were allowed not because the PAP felt that it needed to grant these concessions to stay in power, but because it felt these policies were necessary to ensure continued economic growth (e.g. by attracting more foreigners and tourists).

      This only confirms my point that one of the PAP’s core values is economic success. Its pursuit of power is simply a means to implement its particular values. If you told Lee Kuan Yew that he could be the leader of Singapore provided that he compromised his values or “hard truths”, I highly doubt he would agree to do so.

      • 7 K 8 February 2011 at 17:23

        Contender, you are exactly right. It is tautological that power is a vehicle to effectuate values. True by definition.

        PAP’s values might not map neatly to those of social conservatism or liberalism, but values they are. Their collective name is economic pragmatism.

      • 8 iworkhardatnight 9 February 2011 at 00:53


        quote: That the PAP is still maintaining power is besides the point. Political power is not an “either/or” thing, but lies on a continuum.


        i disagree. an example of a political party on the verge of losing power but still in power is not something hard to imagine.

        when it come to that scenario, will the PAP still chose to implement policies that maintain social order and economic success while the electorates have expressed disillusionment over these policies ?

        it is easy to talk big with noble rhetoric with still in comfort zone.

        it is simply foolhardy to believe that any political party will choose ideals over survival when it comes to the crunch.

  3. 9 strangebuttrue 8 February 2011 at 01:02

    A thought provoking piece. But this whole West versus East thing is lazy journalism. Political systems around the world may differ. Politicians are politicians the world over, some good, some bad, some despots, some bigots. Just tell it the way it is.

    If you have to cite West v East at least tell me where your border lies. Is Africa West or East by your definition?

    About time we dropped outdated vocabulary and, as syn says, started calling a spade a spade. North, East South or West

  4. 10 iworkhardatnight 8 February 2011 at 02:07

    the most important value for any party in power is to stay in power. all the other values like social order and economic progress is meaningless if u fail to stay in power.

    lets do an experiment, u choose economic progress and social stability at the expense of staying in power, after u get ousted the next government changed the policies and now have there is social order and economic success. so now u lose all 3.

    come on lah.

  5. 11 Tanky 8 February 2011 at 06:06

    Politics is about Power.
    Government is about Power.
    No power, no money.
    No money, no power.
    West or East; North or South.

    Value-based and ideology-based politics/governments are rare. Therefore we remember them. You don’t need to share their values to admire their guts. They don’t last long in power but they live in your hearts.

    The rest are just games.
    You know what they want. So you know what they fear.
    Shout correctly at the correct time and you get what you want — packaged in a value basket, like a hamper.

  6. 12 lee sg 8 February 2011 at 22:44

    If i am an elected leader, I will compromise on peripheral values to stay in power to implement my core values.

    A political party is formed by a group of people with more or less the same ideology. If this ideology is different from the majority population and the party cannot convince the people of its ideology, should it listen to the people and change?

    • 13 I. Malevich 9 February 2011 at 00:39

      This is the whole problem with consensus-based politics – aren’t the elected meant to represent those who voted for them? Why has it become understood to be merely a fight to win people over to specific ideologies or values? Let’s think outside this grubby old box people. Put direct democracy into action.

  7. 14 iworkhardatnight 9 February 2011 at 01:07


    pardon my ignorance but i have never remembered PAP stating that they value social order and economic success above EVERYTHING else, please enlighten me on the underlying premise of your conclusion, lest you misrepresent the values of the PAP.

    intriguingly, u speak as if u have a direct phone line to the powers that be in the PAP party, or perhaps u are indeed an authorized representative of the PAP, if that is the case please state your position.

  8. 15 Geography 9 February 2011 at 12:51

    It is not just foreign diplomats that are paying attention to Singapore. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman feels such attention is warranted.

    Also, he was recently in Singapore to give a talk at the National University of Singapore (NUS) .

    In the Strait Times today, Dr Jacques Attali commented that Singapore as a country is well-poised for progressing into the future. Just like China has done in the past, Western Europe and USA are taking a harder look at what they might be able to learn from the island-state beyond what it can offer economically. This is especially so in a context of financial uncertainty and regional crises occurring around the world at this time. A follow-up question to ask might be how “global” views of Singapore (albeit mediated by local media) affect how Singaporeans see themselves and their country. Particularly at a time when the General Elections must be held within a year from now.


    “Are they being purely utilitarian in espousing these values, or do they genuine believe in them? I don’t think the question is meaningful.”

    On the contrary, I feel that the question is meaningful. If one is purely utilitarian towards wanting to attain a goal, there is a case for stating that one might (end up) sincerely believe in that goal. However if one genuinely believes in something, one need not necessarily adopt a utilitarian approach towards achieving it.

    An example would be parenting and a goal of parenting would be to let one’s child reach her/his maximum potential. Should one let one’s child choose what to do according to interest or should the parents choose what the child should do according to what’s most pragmatic? Of course one might say the 1st choice can be utilitarian too as one will do well (and make a lot of money) in something one likes. But I hope I have made my point in distinguishing that the spirit that one begins with can have an effect on the path taken to the results, even if the results end up being “the same” nominally (e.g. becoming a doctor based either on interest or utilitarian grounds).

    On a random note after reading this article (and welcome back YB), I had the strange association of Tiger Mama and MM Lee. I wonder what will happen if they were a couple with children in real life. Or perhaps, if they governed a state collectively.


    With reference to your “experiment”, I think what you tried to ask was whether to choose to retain power or to choose allowing freedom of expression? Since arguably, the PAP has managed to stay in power and attained social stability and economic progress (the 3 options you listed)

    With regards to retaining power or allowing freedom of expression, the PAP has played on the aspect of fear. They have employed, amongst several factors, the size of Singapore to which the island can ill-afford to have (presumed) resultant chaos from allowing more freedom of expression. Interestingly, they (and some Singaporeans) do not explicitly note the geographical size of the island when celebrating the sense of security living in Singapore.

    Drawing from this, it can seem that the PAP treats facts quite selectively, emphasizing and neglecting certain things depending on their usage in context. I make a note to K’s “economic pragmatism” which I find is a pretty good encapsulation for what the PAP stands for.

    I would like to add to it; “Short/mid-term economic pragmatism”.
    The government knows how to make money but it does not continually bring out the best in everyone, monetarily and (especially) otherwise. Of course citizens themselves have a part to play but there is a certain sense of the government being distanced. More of a boss than a friend. Perhaps Singapore really is a company which isn’t totalitarian or liberal and hence, conventional political values do not lend themselves easily to the island.

    The only company-state in the world. Now that might interest those diplomats even more.

  9. 16 Breadtalk 9 February 2011 at 13:57

    The PAP gov ultimately stands for the elites. Therefore, its value system is primarily elitist. The non elites are supportive proletariats. What emerges in such a rule is a subtle two value system. A flexi value system for the elites(because of economic liberty) and an encapsulated system for the struggling class(because of economic disadvantages).

    The power expressed in their value system is thus suppressive,for the majority, as oppose to liberating because of the element of modern slavery.

  10. 17 Gazebo 9 February 2011 at 20:22

    Great article YB.

    In general, I find governance by values (which may be unfounded) sketchy. It is too easily twisted to suit the whims and fancies of those in power. For example on this issue of minimum wage. The ruling party argues that it goes counter to our “value” of meritocracy. Does it? How does setting a minimum wage retard our talented from achieving the best he/she is able to? It is mind boggling (and sad) how a social safety net gets twisted, through the misuse of purported social values.

    Ultimately the real reason why the ruling party opposes the social safety net, is because of the party’s ideological adherence to a misguided understanding of social darwinism. It is sad but true. No, I am not denying the forces of natural selection. But the very ESSENCE of elected governance and its organization, is to counteract the forces of natural selection, not sit at the sidelines claiming “market forces”, or worse promote them.

    I think governance must be by principles. Principles, at least well thought out ones, are firm and resolute. Principles like citizens first. Like preservation of citizens’ rights to free speech and liberty. Upholding principles like these will ensure transparency of governance, and more importantly, participation by the people in the process of governance, thereby creating a truly democratic, progressive society.

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