Singapore: Helicopter parent autocracy


Updated: June 2017.

“Drive Safely. Think of your loved ones.”

I had been in the taxi for three minutes, and already there was no doubt where I was.  Where else could I find an exhortation to safe driving followed by a noble justification calibrated to make even the best driver feel just a little bit guilty?

Where else could I be traveling along an urban six-lane highway under a canopy of trees, with neatly clipped hedgerows on each side and in the median?

A six lane avenue to the airport

Where else could I be intercepted, a day later,  in a shopping mall by two earnest teenagers asking me to write a note of encouragement to an about-to-be paroled first offender, encouraging him not to break the law again?

Do you know of any other country where a government website would offer advice on choosing a spouse, how to make a marriage work, and how to parent teenagers?

Welcome to Singapore, a country with something for everyone to love and also to hate, a place with enough contradictions to set your head spinning.

I spent a few days in Singapore recently, and since then I have been trying to write something about the place and my observations of it. I have started writing a dozen times, and each time I have run aground. The country defies conventional analysis, it confounds any ideological perspective, and I find it difficult even to say whether I like the place or not.  So let me instead lead you through the sources of my confusion.

An Authoritarian State?

Singapore is seldom accused of being a democracy. In its 2017 report, Freedom House gives the country a “partly free” rating, alongside Kenya, Nigeria, and Bangladesh.  Reporters Without Borders ranks Singapore 151st out of 178 countries rated in its 2017 Press Freedom Index. According to Amnesty International, the Singaporean government has created “a climate of fear” for people who oppose it. Human Rights Watch accuses Singapore of having a “long established pattern of civil and political rights abuses.”

If they were autocrats would they have a Facebook page?

Since attaining self-government in 1959, Singapore has been governed by the same political party, the People’s Action Party (PAP.) In parliamentary elections in 2011 the PAP, in its worst electoral drubbing ever, won 81 of 87 seats in Parliament.  This is a record that would do any authoritarian state proud.

But this is Singapore, and things aren’t quite what they seem to be. The country’s prisons are not filled with political dissidents; Amnesty International counted just 20 prisoners (all ‘Islamic militants’) being held without trial in 2011, a lot less than the US held in Guantanamo Bay at the time. Government opponents do not disappear in the dead of night, nor does the country have a record of extrajudicial killing. And opposition parties do exist; they just don’t do very well in elections.

Singapore’s press is clearly not free, but journalists are not brutalized or detained here, as they are in Russiaor Zimbabwe. Nor does the Singapore government control the news media, or use them as overt vehicles for propaganda. Indeed, the law requires that all newspaper companies to be publicly listed, and prohibits any single ordinary shareholder from owning more than a three percent stake. Instead of the standard techniques of repressive regimes, Singapore uses subtler means to persuade news media of the virtues of self-censorship.

All the news that’s fit to print in Singapore’s newspaper of record

Since 1994 government regulations have required all internet traffic to pass through approved proxy servers, and all religious and political bodies putting up web sites must register with the government. The state therefore holds the power to block foreign websites at will, and to shut down local ones. Yet, ten years after these internet regulations were introduced, the government had still not blocked access to any political websites. In 2005, the Open Net Initiative found no evidence that the Singapore government was filtering any political or security-related websites, although it did block a few pornographic web sites “as a symbol of disapproval of their contents” (GLBT seem to come under particular scrutiny.)

Something you would want to read

The free-yet-not-free nature of Singaporean society owes its peculiar character to the country’s founding (and longest serving) prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. Writing in 2000, Nicholas Kristof described him as “the most eloquent autocrat in the world today… Intolerance and authoritarianism have never had so articulate or stimulating a spokesman.” Lee himself was characteristically frank (and simultaneously obtuse) on the subject of press freedom:  “Freedom of the press, freedom of the news media, must be subordinated to the overriding needs of Singapore, and to the primacy of purpose of an elected government.”  In 2007 he added, “There’s nothing that you’d want to read which you cannot read in Singapore… But we do not allow certain subjects to be made bones of contention.”

The genius of this uniquely Singaporean system, according to local author Cherian George, is “calibrated coercion.”

Economic sanctions are favoured over those that violate the sanctity of the individual. And, controls are targeted at limited numbers of producers and organizers of dissent, rather than at ordinary citizens. In short, coercion is increasingly calibrated for maximum effectiveness at minimum cost.

In Singapore today, economic sanctions frequently take the form of lawsuits for defamation, and have been aimed local as well as at foreign media (including the International Herald TribuneThe Economist, the Bloomberg business news wire, Hong Kong-based Yazhou Zhoukan and the Far Eastern Economic Review.) Defamation suits have also been used to silence or tame opposition politicians, who risk being driven into bankruptcy (and thereby being rendered ineligible to run for office again.) But lawsuits are not lodged against just anyone who opposed the government; they are instead employed sparingly and for maximum effect. That’s the calibrated part of calibrated coercion.

It would be a mistake, though, to think that the PAP’s hold on power – now in its sixth decade – is a result of coercion, calibrated or otherwise. Much evidence points to the fact that the PAP has remained in power because, notwithstanding the freedoms it denies them, most Singaporeans support it. They do so not because they have been conned, but rather because of what George describes as “their not-unfounded faith that the government will continue to deliver rising standards of living.” So far, they have not been disappointed.

From Third World to First

In 1960, Singapore was a poor country by most standards; its per capita GDP was US$428 (at 2010 prices.) A decade later it had doubled, and in the following decade it increased a further fivefold. By 2010, per capita GDP was nearly US44,000, and its Human Development Index (a measure of quality of life) put it in the ‘very high human development’ category, ahead of its former colonial overlord, the United Kingdom.

There are, of course, many reasons for Singapore’s prosperity; among the most commonly cited are its advantageous location, its lack of corruption, and the fact that it is a small city-state. But, uncomfortable though it may be for western liberals like me to stomach, Singapore’s coercive system of government may deserve a large part of the credit for the country’s economic transformation. Coming to terms with Singapore’s success is even more difficult for conservative ideologues; there is a strong argument to be made that the heavy hand of the Singaporean state in its citizens’ personal, economic, and political lives has facilitated rather than obstructed the country’s economic growth. Singapore is a ‘big government’ success story.

A Free Market State?

On the face of it, Singapore is a capitalist’s dream come true. The World Bank rates it as one of the best countries in the world in which to do business (ranked second, behind New Zealand, in 2017). It’s also been named the ‘most globalized’ and least corrupt country (in the latter it ties for first place with Denmark and New Zealand.) It’s also the third most competitive country, the second most transparent, it has the least restrictive laws about employing skilled foreigners, and the world’s third most motivated workforce. (You can find these superlatives, among others, on the Singapore government website, where all claims are scrupulously documented.)

All of these accolades might lead a free marketeer to conclude that Singapore must be adhering to that favorite dictum of American conservatives that ‘the government which governs least governs best.*’  Singapore can justifiably be accused of all manner of things, but governing lightly is not one of them, certainly where the lives of its individual (as opposed to corporate) citizens are concerned. Singaporeans are required to contribute a portion of each paycheck to a health savings account, each child receives an annual education subsidy deposited into a so-called ‘ Edusave’ account, saving for retirement in publicly managed accounts is mandatory, and the government has a central role in the housing market.

What is the result of this massive state involvement in the economic lives of its citizens? The country has near universal health care for its citizens and permanent residents, homelessness rates are low, its 15 year-olds recently ranked in the top five among OECD (developed) countries in science, mathematics, and reading, and, for the time being at least, retirees are generally comfortably off.

In other words, a strong case can be made that Singapore has achieved its high quality of life not despite government intrusion into its people’s lives, but because of it.

But if you were to ask most outsiders what they know about Singapore’s laws and policies they would, I suspect, be very unlikely to talk about economic policies or defamation suits against opposition figures. They would instead talk about chewing gum.

A Nanny State?

Singapore’s most famous news story began in 1992 when the government banned the import, manufacture and sale of chewing gum. Gum smugglers would henceforth face the prospect of a year in jail and a US$5,500 fine. The crisis that prompted the state to reach its hand into the mouths of its citizens was the mess it caused. Lee Kuan Yew complained that the stuff was fouling buildings, sidewalks, and buses. By causing doors on the subway to stick, gum was even producing a safety hazard.

The gum law (slightly relaxed in 2004) became a symbol of what Singapore’s critics are fond of calling the ‘nanny state,’ a place where the government — albeit with benevolent intentions — strictly controls the lives of its citizens. Souvenir shops make money off this reputation; emblazoned on the chest of a popular t-shirt are the words “Singapore is a FINE city;” on the back are a dozen red circles with lines through them: “No littering. Fine $1000,” “Failure to flush a public toilet. Fine $50,” and so on.

For most Singaporeans, I would guess, the whole notion of the nanny-state probably seems like a caricature. After all, they have grown up with these prohibitions, and so they must seem quite normal. For an outside like me, though, the nanny-state seems all too real. Prohibition signs are everywhere: on buses, on subways, in elevators, on street signs, even in private spaces like stores and shopping malls. During my vsits to Singapore, I have photographed over 50 different signs. Some were clear prohibitions, ranging from the threatening (“Religious Activity, Funeral Wake Rite is not allowed in this space. Offender could be fined up to $5,000”) to the downright strange (“No studying,” on a public bench outside an airport terminal.)

But most of the signs I saw weren’t prohibitions at all. Rather, they took the form of an exhortation to the citizenry to behave well, usually followed by a social argument to back it up. “Do be safe,” urges a sign on city buses, and below are five sketches showing passengers doing safe and admirable things like holding the handrail firmly while standing and keeping strollers folded while on board.  “Help us keep public transit safe from influenza A (H1N1). Practice good personal hygiene.” “Did you know? 8 out of 10 injuries in our stations are caused by the improper use of escalators?”

Guilt trip

As I stood on a tiny beach, protected from the open ocean by an artificial island, and read two signboards listing – with illustrations – seven prohibited activities and ten rules for beach safety, I realized that Singapore isn’t really a nanny state. It’s a helicopter parent state, constantly urging its citizens to be on guard for dangers, no matter how remote those dangers might be, and intervening incessantly in their lives to make sure that they do the right thing.

The right thing might involve hand-washing: I saw one sign giving instructions – with photographs – of an eight step hand-washing routine (“Employees must wash hands before returning to work” would never suffice here.) Or it might involve politeness: “Graciousness is showing appreciation by saying thank you to someone who brightens your day.”

I saw several signs urging Singaporeans to be aware of the threat of terrorism; yet the country has had no terrorism-related fatalities or injuries since 1968. Numeous notices warn of the dangers of crime, but the country’s overall crime rate is one of the lowest in the world. Its ‘intentional homicide rate’ in 2006 was 0.39 crimes per 100,000 people in the population (about 1/15 of the US rate, and lower than Switzerland or New Zealand.) And, according to the Singapore government, latest statistics show that crime rates in most categories fell even further in 2010.

Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

The Bottom Line

Whenever I visit Singapore (or anywhere else), I come with my own ideologies, preconceptions, beliefs, and experiences as an inevitable part of my baggage. Like most people, I am forever on the lookout (usually unconsciously) for evidence that supports my own views. In this regard, Singapore always proves a singularly unhelpful place.

I believe firmly in freedom of expression, assembly, and publication. I have difficulty in imagining that a government that denies these freedoms to its citizens could possibly govern with their consent. As a corollary to this, I tend to assume that the absence of dissent is almost certainly evidence that it is being suppressed. In Singapore, there isn’t much evidence of dissent and there are laws in place to suppress it. But the main reason for the absence of public dissent is not that the dissenters are being locked up or silenced.  It is that, for the most part, people are quite satisfied with the way their country is being run; in Cherian George’s words, the ruling PAP has the people’s ‘instrumental acquiescence.’ (I would find ideological solace, in a perverse way, if it were be revealed that Singapore had for years been squirreling its dissidents away in secret prisons.)

Even if you can’t smell it right now

I believe that people learn responsibility by taking responsibility and making their own decisions, even when these decisions are prove to be misguided. For the most part, I don’t believe that a government (or a college professor or even a parent) should hover over adults to make sure that they make the right choices for the right reasons. As a visitor to Singapore, I find the ubiquity of warnings and pieces of advice amusing (and interesting,) but I think that if I lived there they would annoy me intensely (I might even end up spitting on the subway just to remind myself of my individuality.)  But I don’t live in Singapore, and I am forced to admit to the possibility that the helicopter parent state may have delivered positive results. Streets are clean and gumless, Singaporeans aren’t being blown up by terrorists, washed away by rip currents or dying in a skin cancer epidemic because of their collective failure to use sunblock.

In short, Singapore seems to work, and work very well indeed, at least in taking care of its residents’ physical and material well-being.  The society has given up freedoms that I believe are important, but they have also reaped benefits that arguably outweigh their sacrifices.


What is missing from this blog is, of course, the voice of any Singaporeans. So if you are from Singapore, and think I got it all wrong (or right) please post a comment here!

I drew heavily on the work of Cherian George, especially his paper ‘Consolidating Authoritarian Rule: Calibrated Coercion in Singapore.’  (The Pacific Review, Vol. 20 No. 2 June 2007: 127–145.) I also used  (and highly recommend) his book Singapore: The Air-conditioned Nation. Essays on the Politics of Comfort and Control, 1990-2000 (Singapore: Landmark Books.)
I have included links to other sources in the body of the text. I took the photographs shown here between 2004 and 2011; to see more see my Singapore album.
* This quote is from Sarah Palin, who misquotes Thomas Paine. He really said “That government is best which governs least.”


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