The landscape changes for Singapore’s elite

Singapore (from Shutterstock)

After five decades, Singapore’s power elite continues to dominate the country’s politics and economy, but the island-nation’s rulers are losing the people’s respect, says Flinders academic Dr Michael Barr.

Dr Barr of the School of International Studies has just published a new book, The Ruling Elite of Singapore: Networks of Power and Influence.

Dr Barr says the early part of the book traces the emergence of the national elite in post-independence Singapore, its subsequent move to dominance, the capture of the elite by Lee Kuan Yew, and Lee’s perpetuation of his dynasty.

As well as describing the building of the national elite, the book sets out to analyse the elite’s character and characteristics, and in a one-chapter “snapshot” individually identifies the current wielders of power.

“The centres of power in the country are the cabinet, the two sovereign wealth funds, the civil service, the officer corps of the military and the government-linked companies,” Dr Barr said.

“But ultimately, they all come back to the same little group.”

“And in the name of the national good and looking after the country, they’ve looked after themselves very, very well indeed. The Lee family has built a cocoon for itself and has built its own brand, which is very closely linked to the national brand.

“There is no denying that they have brought a remarkable level of stability, prosperity and social harmony to Singapore, but there is a point at which stability and harmony become oppressive.”

The book’s final chapters deal with contemporary Singapore, including the prospects for greater democratisation.

Ironically, Dr Barr said, the highly regulated nature of Singapore means that its leaders have been raised to be very risk-averse, and are struggling to update their economic and societal model to meet modern circumstances and demands.

“They want the benefits of an open, American style school system that encourages imagination and creativity: at the same time they want everyone to be the same,” Dr Barr said.

Dr Barr said that in the past 10 years significant cracks have appeared in the edifice, and cites the 2011 election as a turning point, with weakening support for the government and a significant electoral showing by opposition parties.

“But beyond that, there is a new willingness to criticise, or even to deride, the government,” he said.

“The government – and the elite – has always commanded a high level of respect because of the quality of its deliverables, but that has substantially gone, partly because they have mucked things up so badly.”

“Singapore now has an economic model that relies increasingly on growing inputs of labour and capital, including foreign workers, and the government has failed to meet the resulting challenges.”

Dr Barr said as long as the elite retains its hold on so many of the levers of power, he won’t be forecasting full democratisation or even a change of regime.

“But for the first time, it’s conceivable.”

The Ruling Elite of Singapore is published by I.B.Tauris.


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