Home News SG Economy The unembarassed reemergence of Singaporean authoritarianism

The unembarassed reemergence of Singaporean authoritarianism

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Referring to an article published in Vox titled ‘Rise of the American Authoritarianism‘, Mr Donald Low said that it helped him make sense of the results of GE 2011 and GE 2015. Mr Low said that the commentary in Vox was long, but was a fascinating piece that is well-worth reading in its entirety.

We republish an edited version of Mr Low’s Facebook post.


The article (by Amanda Taub) confirms two intuitions that I’ve had for a couple of years but have struggled to articulate.

The first is that the people who the article describes as “authoritarians” are probably less evolved cognitively, i.e. their System 1 (fast thinking) overrides their System 2 (slow thinking) more often than with non-authoritarians, and they are less able to process complex, abstract ideas. This has nothing to do with IQ or cognitive ability; it has more to do with their instincts, biases, prejudices and predispositions – and more specifically, their unwillingness or laziness to question these.

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So authoritarians are not just people who value hierarchy, law and order, traditional values and social structures much more than diversity, civil liberties, equality and social progress (e.g. gender equality and LGBT rights), they are also people who are more likely to fall prey to the various biases that cognitive psychologists have identified. For instance, we all suffer from the saliency bias. But for authoritarians, this shapes their threat perceptions much more than with liberals. For example, authoritarians are more concerned about threats like terrorism, illegal immigration and Iran – simply because it is easier to imagine a terrorist, an illegal immigrant and an Iranian ayatollah – than about abstractions such as climate change and inequality – the issues that liberals care about.

The second intuition is that the majority of Singaporeans are probably authoritarians. I really like the four questions mentioned in the article that are used to identify authoritarians – for the very simple reason that they are not subject to the risk of people giving socially acceptable answers. I score very lowly on hierarchy, conformity, order and traditional values. In the civil service, I was often told that I didn’t conform to the values of the organisation. I now realise that those values are hardly universal values; they are the values of the authoritarian!

In this context, the results of GE 2011 and GE 2015 also begin to make a lot more sense. In GE 2011, authoritarians felt threatened by the rapid pace of social change (especially as a result of high immigration) – so some of them voted against the PAP. By GE 2015, that concern had dissipated somewhat and become less salient. But more importantly in the years between GE2011 and GE2015, there was a lot more appeal to the things that authoritarians care about: law and order (prosecuting and demonizing the likes of Amos Yee and Roy Ngerng was very popular with authoritarians), hierarchy and traditional values (things like the Pioneer Generation Package and the national mourning for LKY appealed to values like respect for elders), and conformity and the wisdom of the past (SG50, which was mostly a backward looking exercise, was reassuring and comforting for authoritarians). To summarise GE2015: not everybody who voted for the PAP was an authoritarian, but all authoritarians probably voted for the PAP.

So what does all this mean for Singapore’s political future? I think the prospects for sociopolitical liberalisation (e.g. abolition of 377A) and democratisation are more dismal than ever. As in the US, authoritarians in Singapore no longer feel that they should be embarrassed about their values and policy preferences. So they too will agitate for the laws and policies that reflect their values and preferences. And since, as I suspect, they are (still) in the majority, I do not envisage any significant advances on the civil liberties and democratisation front over the next 5-10 years. Indeed, I expect the opposite: greater intrusions by the state in the private sphere justified by the “conservatism” of the majority or the threat posed by terrorists.

So in a nutshell, all very depressing.


Mr Low is an Associate Dean (Research and Executive Education) at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Prior to his current appointment, Donald served fifteen years in the Singapore government. He held various senior position, including the director of fiscal policy at the Ministry of Finance and the director of the Strategic Policy Office at the Public Service Division. He also established the Centre for Public Economics at the Civil Service College of Singapore to advance economics literacy in the Singapore government.

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