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Singapore Sociologist Daniel Goh

Political Liberalization the Right Track


Political Liberalization the Right Track


Singapore’s strong economy and social stability have fuel the city-state’s rise as ASEAN’s most advanced country. But as activist and sociologist Daniel Goh explains, political liberalization is now needed to deliver the innovation economy Singapore wants.



Political Liberalization the Right Track

By Elaine Huang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 613 )

It was a call from a friend in 2011 that got Daniel Goh, a sociology professor at National University of Singapore, involved in politics. He agreed to join Singapore’s second largest political party, the Workers’ Party, and help the campaign of political star and Taiwan-born lawyer Chen Show Mao as head of policy research.

In that election, the ruling People’s Action Party took 81 of the 87 parliamentary seats up for grabs but its share of the popular vote fell about 6.5 percentage points from the previous election to 60.1 percent in what was seen as a “watershed election.” It was a sign of Singaporeans’ growing dissatisfaction with a widening rich-poor divide and immigration. Seeing the change in attitude, Goh ran for election in 2015 and won a seat as a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament.

“The key thing for me in entering politics and being committed to sustaining my political activism is to make sure that my children remain happy and that the next generation will have the same opportunities,” says the 43-year-old Goh.

As a social historian, Goh believes Singapore is on the right track, and even as an opposition politician, he praises the government for its educational, talent and economic reforms. He hopes that Singapore, which is now facing an economic growth bottleneck, can move toward a creativity-driven future.

The following are excerpts of CommonWealth Magazine’s interview with Goh:

CommonWealth Magazine: The Singapore model has worked very well the past 30 years. Why does it seem to be changing recently?

Daniel Goh: Because I think as the government tried to develop, they kept hitting this thing called society. So they finally discovered society. The government started to engage us to do social research in this field to understand society, to help them understand why are people like this? Why do they feel this way? Why do they think this way? Why do they behave this way?

The government has realized this is the core of society that is resisting all the development. It’s not that [the government is] retreating on development, it’s just that now they have a much better consciousness of what this thing called society is, and they’re trying to deal with it and maybe come to terms with it in such a way so their development plans won’t get obstructed.

CW: Why has there been this change?

Goh: Because of the realization that our economy has matured, and we have kind of hit a glass ceiling, when it comes to high-tech industries coming in. And we don’t seem to be inventing and innovating, whether it’s business processes, or enterprises or products. We are attracting capital, we are famous for our diligent workforce, and almost still completely obedient workforce, but that’s about it. Yes, productivity is there, but the productivity is not a high value kind of productivity in which you invent things and invent processes and new business models. The productivity comes from just working harder and harder and harder.

So I think there was a realization that we are stuck, and a lot of it comes from DPM [Deputy Prime Minister] Tharman [Shanmugaratnam]. When he came into government, he put in a lot of these new ideas.

He is much more conscious of this thing called society. He is one of the first people to talk about things like culture, and how culture is really important for building the economy. So [he does] not just see the economy as the engineering of input factors and just putting them together and making and letting it happen. When he became education minister, he tried to bring creativity into the syllabus. So that kind of realization, I think that came with his leadership – he went from education to manpower and eventually to finance minister – to bring in this innovation-driven economy.

The Need for Political Liberalization

[The government] started to realize there was this certain inertia that was developed through social engineering in which people have become very obedient, very hardworking and have lost their ability to connect with their creative energy. So the government has been trying in the last 10 years to undo the habits of the state, of being focused on social engineering. So it’s much more reform-focused in this sense.

CW: What do you think is the next step that Singapore will change?

Goh: There’s still the inability of the ruling party – I’m not talking about the government now but the ruling party – to see that if you want a creatively driven, innovation-driven economy that draws a society’s inner strength and creative energies, you also have to be more thoughtful about opening up politically. And they have kind of done that, like allowing more online discussions and opening up the internet, though not having a light-touch approach to internet regulations. They did that, but they also realized that by doing so they were slowly losing their monopoly on power.

The second-to-last election in 2011 was a shock to them, because [although] they accepted that political liberalization was inevitable if you wanted a creative, innovative economy, when they actually came to the reality of losing seats and power, there was a backlash in the party itself.

So in the last five years, there was an attempt by the leadership to balance, political liberalization, economy liberalization, and this engagement with society. So there are three things that are going on: economic reforms and liberalization, political liberalization or not, and social reforms --not really social reforms, but reforms regarding the relationship between state and society, a recognition that society exists and that the state has to engage it in a very sustained and intense manner. They’re doing that now, trying to introduce technologies.

They formed a new institution called “GovTech” agency, which is supposed to use technology platforms like apps to get the government to engage more intensely with the citizenry.

In a very strange way it’s a kind of experiment with mass democracy that has direct communication between the citizens and government, but bypassing the political parties. I think for the ruling party it’s a way to kind of try to negate the uncertainties and the instabilities that they think can be caused by partisan politics, and maintain the ruling party’s hold by having a very direct and close, intimate relationship between government and people.

I think the [Singapore] government is one of the most innovative governments in the world, if not the most. It’s attempting to create a “smart nation,” but the smart nation program is not just about big data; it’s also about the relationship between government and people. So it’s mass democracy without quite the democracy element as we know it.

They think it will work especially for the younger generation. But it’s not an attempt to control. It’s really an attempt to try to understand and engage; it’s an attempt to bypass the democratic, partisan kind of feel to go toward a kind of direct democracy.

CW: Why will this “smart-nation” plan benefit Singapore in the future?

Goh: The feeling I get in terms of the way the economy should be heading, the way society should be heading, is that the government itself is really very unsure. It has no new ideas. So for them it is just another setting up of a new infrastructure and then getting the right people to engage to people, and then somehow from this mix, new ideas will emerge. In the past, the PAP governments were a bit more planning-oriented. Nowadays there is certain kind of vagueness to the plans. Let’s put this thing here, put the entrepreneurs here, let’s put the young people here, let’s put the government officials here, and let’s see what happens.

No Fears of a Succession Crisis

CW: Some say that Singapore’s next crisis will be the uncertainty of your leaders, a succession crisis. Do you agree with that?

Goh: I don’t quite agree with that actually, because I think this whole notion is something that Lee Kuan Yew actually caused. So the blame is on Lee Kuan Yew, not for the succession crisis, but for the idea of the succession crisis. He was so careful in planning his own succession, he made succession planning to be so important and so critical to the success of the country and the maintenance of political stability that it has become ingrained for us to always think of succession.

The problem with LKY’s dominance of the political part of the ruling party for so many years, so many decades, is that once he steps down and leaves it up first to Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Long, [there is always the danger] that these guys will not have the same clout to control this massive political party, with all its different interests.

I think PM Lee’s contribution in the past decade or so is to first of all establish political stability, maintaining the stability of the ruling PAP, keeping all the factions in line and then allowing the space for Tharman to bring all this reforms.

Maybe if you have all of these different institutions in place that maintain the stability of the country and its governance, then succession is not so important. Succession can be just about different teams of people, not just based on one person or a small talent pool but the whole team of people and the institutions that are involved. And I think more or less the institutions are there.

There is still an uncertainty, and I think the uncertainty is the PAP itself, because we have become so dependent on it as a kind of linchpin for governance and the strength of the other institutions – the executive, the judiciary, the legislative branch and society as a whole, the kind of tripartite arrangement between business, labor unions and government.

If you do an experiment in which the PAP now has collapsed, and it’s now maybe about three or four parties taking over, maybe a smaller PAP together with three other parties in the political realm. Would that cause a lot of instability? That’s the key question, and I think it may, 50-50 I think. Because a lot of things like the tripartite arrangement between business, labor and government is built into the PAP.   

The kind of closeness of the executive and the legislature again is built into the PAP. It’s dependent on the PAP staying coherent and united. So the question then is about PAP, not so much about who becomes the next prime minister.

Edited by Luke Sabatier