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Neoliberal governmentality: The Singaporean context

Saturday 21 March 2015, 1400 – 1600, Auditorium 2

Terri-Anne Teo
University of Bristol

Zaharom Nain
Nottingham University, Malaysia

This panel addresses how the concept of neoliberal governmentality contributes to our understanding of Singapore. Regarded as a model of success in the region, Singapore is often described in terms of its economic progress, political stability and multiracialism. These traits are now questionable, with the recent spate of anti-immigration protests, Little India riot and ‘Penguin book controversy’. As watershed events, these disruptions mark a sea change in Singapore’s political climate. Emergent voices articulate rising public discontent against Singapore’s ruling party and throw the nation’s racialised, gendered and classed inequalities into sharp relief. Larger questions arise about the meaning of citizenship and rights in the context of Singapore. The concept of governmentality provides an analytical framework that situates Singapore within market-driven norms. Neoliberal values discipline and regulate the conduct of individuals, collectives and the state, assembling layered practices of inclusion and exclusion. The valorisation of neoliberal principles contribute to constructions of the ideal citizen or migrant, organising populations into privileged and unprivileged halves. At the same time, governmentality offers insight into social movements through the notion of counter-conduct, which uncovers practices of resistance within technologies of governance. With these tools, the concept of governmentality builds an analytical framework that enables us to account for prevailing and evolving practices of governance in Singapore.

Paper 1: Who are the ‘others’?: Singapore’s Little India ‘riot’

Terri-Anne Teo
University of Bristol

This article examines neoliberal multiculturalism within the context of the Little India ‘riot’ that took place in Singapore. To understand the ‘riot’ narrative, I look at the spatial politics of Little India as an ethnic enclave, while drawing from policy, political elite responses, news reports and social media. With the perspective that an understanding of neoliberal governance must be contextually situated, I relate neoliberal practices to Singapore’s colonial past, the history of its heterogeneous population and evolving diversity. Through this framework, I show how colonial and neoliberal logics within the ‘riot’ narrative legitimise the extensive securitisation of Little India and contravention of civil rights. This study explains how a neoliberal logic portrays the ‘riot’ as an example of ‘bad diversity’. In addition, articulations of blackness, incivility and barbarianism within the ‘riot’ narrative illustrate the prevalence of colonial tropes in contemporary Singapore. By tracing the history of colonial stereotypes and racialised narratives, I analyse how the discrimination of South Asian migrant workers extends to the wider ‘Indian’ identity that includes citizens by birth, naturalised citizens and non-citizens. Through the Little India ‘riot’, I show how intersecting neoliberal and colonial logics organise the population into privileged and unprivileged halves in ‘multiracial’ Singapore.

Paper 2: The Politics of Media Governmentality and Communication in Singapore

Terence Lee
Murdoch University

Following the watershed 2011 General Election (GE) in Singapore, state leaders identified communication as the weakest link in its governance. It appointed Janadas Devan as Chief of Government Communications from 1 July 2012, and then sought to address policy deficiencies via a year-long national ‘listening’ exercise known as ‘Our Singapore Conversation’ (OSC). Headed by newly-minted MP and education minister Heng Swee Keat, OSC concluded its outreach with a report Reflections (August 2013) declaring that 47,000 Singaporeans participated via 660 dialogue sessions, supplemented by 1,331 email threads and more that 4,000 facebook exchanges. At first glance, OSC seemed like a fair attempt to re-engage with the electorate. However, a government-initiated dialogue with the citizenry is by no means new. It has been preceded by several earlier ‘consultation’ projects, all designed to gauge sentiments and socio-political pulses.

This paper examines the broader discourse of government communication in Singapore via Foucault’s governmentality framework. It looks at how the media – both mainstream and the contentious online cum social space – have been subjected to governmental control, and questions what can be done ahead of GE 2016. Contrary to widespread expectations, this paper contends that the PAP’s embrace of media governmentality has not morphed despite the electoral setbacks of 2011. If anything, it has intensified as political pressures to respond to electoral challenges draws the PAP back to its concurrently authoritarian yet neoliberal modes of governance.

Paper 3: Neoliberal Governmentality, Confucianism, and Old Age in Singapore

Patricia O’Neill
University of Oxford

Though it is often described as a confluence of East and West there is substantial evidence that the Singapore government uses filial piety and Confucian values as an ideological tool to promote economic development and modernisation. (Kuah, 1990:375).

From the time Singapore achieved nationhood in 1965, its government has systematically endeavoured to forge a national identity with uniquely “Singaporean” values centred on the family. Since the 1980’s it has promoted Confucian ethics to offset influences from the West, justify its social welfare policies and reinforce its authority. Under the guise of civic responsibility and moral education in a multi-ethnic population, Confucian values have been integrated into society through the school system, public awareness programmes, financial incentives, and the law. All of this is directed at strengthening the family and ensuring the family remains the primary caregiver of elderly parents.

By shifting the financial burden for ageing parents from the state to the family, many benefits accrue to the government. As the last resort for its elderly citizens, the state does not dissipate its wealth through social security programmes. When it does intervene it appears to be altruistic and philanthropic. It preserves its status as a non-welfare state, and taxes are kept low thereby maintaining its economic competitiveness.

This Confucian approach to governance is portrayed as being “unique and superior” to liberal democracy where the West can be characterized as materialistic and individualistic. Pride is taken in Singapore’s government-endorsed practice of filial piety with the whole of Singaporean values viewed as protecting tradition despite modernisation.

This paper will examine the ways in which social engineering of family values takes place in Singapore, how successful it is, and whether or not it is being undermined by Singapore’s own economic success.