Letters – Issue 33

Singapore grip

I was shocked to read Ramesh Thakur’s remarks on Christopher Tremewan’s book The Political Economy of Social Control in Singapore (NZB December 1997) as much for what it says as for what it implied. I wonder whether Thakur would consider all critical commentary on societies which have done better than village India unacceptable or worse. As one who has been very impressed by Singapore’s many achievements but also critical of what I consider its ugly underbelly, I welcomed Tremewan’s considered study of dimensions of a regime of social control perhaps unique in the contemporary world. While I did not especially care for his Althusserian approach or some other aspects of his work, Thakurs derogatory remarks should not go unchallenged, especially for what it implies about acceptable scholarly discourse. While Tremewan’s book is not selling half as well as some other more popular critical studies of Singapore, it, together with the fine earlier study by Garry Rodan on Singapore’s industrialisation, has emerged as the major reference for anyone seriously trying to understand the social underpinnings of Singapore’s corporatist model.

Let me be clear. I do not completely agree with Tremewan’s analysis. But instead of rejecting Tremewan’s arguments after a serious consideration of their merits and demerits, Thakur’s damning remarks reject by innuendo. The fact that Tremewan is not Singaporean or is white seems to be enough to condemn him as ethnocentric. No evidence of his alleged ethnocentrism need be offered. It does not seem to matter that Tremewan may have spent a great deal of time in Asia, perhaps doing precisely those things which, according to Thakur, would qualify him to comment on matters Asian. And what exactly does the amount of time that Thakur has spent in Indian villages qualify him for – besides taking the high moral ground over others who presumably have not done so?

And in case Tremewan has not spent as much time in such communities, does that mean that he is not qualified to comment critically on anything at all, or only on things Asian, or solely on matters which might offend Thakur? Or perhaps, people like me who choose to live in Asia are supposed to take the moral high ground and not allow anyone, inducing Asian expatriates outside Asia, to comment on things Asian. Ad absurdum.

Jomo K S
Professor, Applied Economics, University of Malaya

P. S. It would be interesting to have both parties declare their interests and connections with the Singapore authorities.


I look forward to scholarly critiques of my writing but Ramesh Thakur’s review of my book The Political Economy of Social Control in Singapore was disappointing. It was emotively critical and lacked scholarship. My mother always taught me to say the nice bits first so I must acknowledge Thakur’s statement that my book is an example of “sophisticated scholarship”. He then says it is fundamentally flawed and attempts to substantiate this assertion by inviting readers to accept the ad hominem assertion that I approach the subject out of a notion of ethnocentric superiority. That is nowhere proven unless using one’s intellect critically is ethnocentric.

He then proceeds comprehensively to misrepresent my work either because he hasn’t read it, he can’t understand it or he simply doesn’t like it. He finally lapses into incoherence when he asks: “if it wasn’t for Singapore’s economic miracle, social cohesion and political stability, would the academic and publishing world have had much time for a book like this on a country of under 3 million people?” What does this mean? That Singapore is miraculous, should not be scrutinised and I have freeloaded by having the temerity to write a book which was accepted for publication by a post-graduate Oxford college in its Macmillan series, has been published in London and New York, has gone to a second edition, and has received generally positive reviews? That publishers are only interested in books on small countries if they are economically successful? It also assumes, erroneously, that I am against Singapore being economically successful, morally cohesive and politically stable.

Unfortunately, Thakur has misread my research as trying to find a sinister underlay in Singapore. I state early in the introduction to my book:

this system [of social regulation] should not be primarily conceived in simplistic terms of state repression. In fact the singular characteristic of social control in Singapore is its success in producing political loyalty and cooperation among the majority of the population. It is not merely or even mainly a matter of direct imposition of the government’s will by means of force. Rather the threat of coercion underlies institutional practices which really do produce consent or at least acquiescence. The complex relationship between institutional practices, political loyalty, consent and cooperation lies at the heart of this research.

I then examine in detail the development of public housing, the education system, parliamentary politics and the law since 1959, noting how institutions have had different effects at different times, how they interacted to form a comprehensive regulatory regime and how they related to the political and economic strategies of the state. I note that a major characteristic of the Singapore state is its cooperativeness with foreign capital even while maintaining a strong nationalist and neo-Asianist ideological position and I spell out the implications of this for domestic regulation. I try to understand as a scholar how Singapore works as a socio-political entity and to do that I have to look beneath the surface.

As a researcher I cannot accept at face value, as Thakur apparently does with regard to Singapore, that there is “a remarkable absence of racial tension in a multi-ethnic society”. If it turns out to be true, it needs to be explained and, if in the process of investigation it is found to be more complex and even untrue, surely it is the scholar’s task to bring this complexity to light. My chapters on education explain how ethnicity, gender, language and religion have all been given salience by regulatory initiatives, and how the ideology of multiracialism has been mobilised behind state objectives. New Zealanders of all people know how ideologies of harmonious multiracialism can grow and be used to certain ends.

Thakur appears to think that looking beneath the surface of Singapore is one research task which should be off-limits. Presumably he has an emotional investment in the Singapore “miracle” as explicable entirely in terms of the leadership of a new Asian state independent of Western assistance? He is not alone. Singapore’s Controller of Undesirable Publications has prevented Macmillan from distributing my book in Singapore.

A reviewer of Thakur’s experience should know that there is no substitute for respecting a work enough to discern its particular contribution and then by all means to contest its arguments. Thakur has caught his pants in a paradigm shift in the understanding of Singapore’s “miracle” and his review is an emotional squeal.

Chris Tremewan
Director, New Zealand Asia Institute, The University of Auckland


In the context of the economic crisis in Southeast Asia and the defanging of the Asian “tigers”, I find Professor Ramesh Thakur’s review of Christopher Tremewan’s Political Economy of Social Control in Singapore quite extraordinary. Here is a book which within two years of its original publication had already gone into a second-paperback edition (exceptional for a Macmillan publication on Southeast Asia), and is now widely used in university courses both here in Britain and in North America (and also, I suspect, Australasia). Amongst the slew of hagiographic literature on the “Asian miracle” to which Canberra-based academics seem to have contributed more than their fair share (one thinks of their optimistic articles in the Bulletin of lndonesian Economic Studies) – it takes a refreshingly critical look at the social costs of Singapore’s relentless drive to developed nation status. By providing a class, race and gender-based analysis of the processes of social control in Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, Tremewan has been able to present a persuasive picture of the ways in which we can understand the evolution of the island’s state political economy. Now that we can see that state for what it was under Lee’s leadership – the headquarters of hubris rather than a “Confucian” success story – Tremewan’s analysis will only gain in stature, while the pontifications of Professor Thakur on the social cohesion, political stability and economic prosperity of East Asia will be seen for what they are – not mirage but moonshine.

Dr Peter Carey
Laithwaite Fellow in Modern History, Trinity College, Oxford


Ramesh Thakur replies:

What a pleasant surprise to discover that New Zealand Books is read promptly and assiduously in Malaysia and Britain. In response to Professor Jomo, and to set the record straight: I have visited Singapore several times, but never for longer than a week at a time. I have never lived in Singapore, nor do I have any family there, nor have I had any association (other than a visiting lecture or seminar) with any academic or official institution there, nor have I ever worked for any branch of the Singapore government, nor have I been engaged in any consultancy in, about or for Singapore, and I have never received any travel or lecture fee from any government source there. And Jomo accuses me of innuendo! I’m not sure therefore on what basis I would have any “emotional investment in the Singapore miracle” that Tremewan presumes to exist. Does it suggest that some who are prepared to be very critical of others cannot accept that critical work too may be open to attack without vested interests being involved?

In my December review, I took one author to task for uncritically purveying exaggerated, contradictory and self-promoting claims by Southeast Asian leaders and officials. The booklet’s tone and analysis reflected the region’s hubris. Christopher Tremewan, I thought, had fallen into the opposite trap. It’s interesting that the comments critical of his work have elicited three responses, the other none. Methinks they protest too much. The tactic of attempting to tar a critic through guilt by association, with heavy-handed censors or links with the evil capitalist empire, is distressingly familiar.

To be sure, Singapore has many faults and defects. I am not sure that I would like to live there as an academic with my fields of interest. Having encountered problems with governments even in liberal societies like New Zealand and Australia, I might find the political atmosphere of Singapore too stifling for my professional health. Despite my awareness of the occasionally oppressive social and political atmosphere that prevails in Singapore, I found Tremewan’s book more irritating than enlightening. Instead of attacking the critic, he might reflect on whether he destroyed the substance of his own underlying analysis and message through unnecessarily loaded language and arguments. I did acknowledge the book as a work of sophisticated scholarship. Having said so, I quoted those extracts which most annoyed me. Tremewan deserves commendation for being one of the few to try to theorise the Singapore state. All the more reason to be disappointed that he could not refrain from the baggage of tendentious statements. Unless Tremewan et al are claiming that the quoted excerpts are inaccurate, I must confess that I fail to see what they are complaining of. About 200 of 700 words on the Tremewan book are his own.

The point about India (and about the overt and hidden costs of Western industrialisation) is to contextualise achievements as well as shortcomings. It helps to induce a sense of proportion and balance. My confidence in the care with which Jomo reads what he rushes to attack is shaken when he metamorphoses my comment on “the slums of Bombay and Calcutta” into “village India”.

Tremewan wears the banning of his book by the Singapore authorities as a badge of honour. I’m sorry, but this is a reflection of their folly rather than his quality: it impresses me as a reviewer no more than would an endorsement of a book by them. Dr Carey notes that Tremewan’s book is into its second edition and widely used in university courses. Well, good luck to the author and the book. Beyond that, I fail to see the relevance, unless reviewers are to be required to substitute for their critical judgment the popularity count of books on university reading lists. Canberra-based academics have contributed both to critical and to “hagiographic” (Carey’s word) literature on the Asian miracle (the reference to Indonesia is just a red herring). I’m not sure that such generalisations get us any further in the debate.

Nor does the transformation of the miracle into the present malaise – and Singapore, far from the being the headquarters (whatever that means) of the crisis, is one of the few hold-outs in East Asia – take away from the achievements of these countries over 20-25 years or so. Just as the achievements could not camouflage the serious flaws even during those 20-25 years. Indeed, apropos of Tremewan’s central argument, what is striking about the Asian economic crisis is how little Southeast Asia matters to the international capitalist system.

Yes, Tremewan’s book is “refreshingly critical”. Does that mean it is above questioning? Books sympathetic to Asia’s less than democratic and undemocratic regimes may be subjected to critical scrutiny, but not those antipathetic? If so, count me out.

Some day Tremewan will learn to accept that it is possible to dislike his book because one has read and understood it. Or to like it because one has either not read or not understood it. Or to like it because one has read and understood it.


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