Individualism and Communitarian Ideologies in Singapore

Individualism and Communitarian Ideologies in Singapore

Sam Choon Yin (2003)


What do Singaporeans believe in? Are they individualistic? Communitarian? These are not easy questions to answer. In the first place, they may be conflicting. For example, what does it mean when one is referred to as individualistic? Individualistic is not egoistic. Joseph Tamney exposits this issue clearly. It is worth quoting his thoughts on this issue at length. He writes:


‘Individualism means that the value of the person exceeds that of any group as such. Take the case of a family. According to individualism, the well being of each member of the family is equally important, and the happiness of the members is more important than the status of the family as such; thus divorce can be justified in terms of improving the aggregate well being of the individuals composing the family. Individualism is not egoism. The latter means being selfish, making one’s self more important than anyone else. Individualism is not glorification of the self. Rather, it is expressed in a respect for each person including the self’ (Tamney, 1995, p. 11).[i]


            Individualistic behavior is more closely associated with someone who is rationale. The rationality concept helps one to understand the thinking process of an individual. A person is said to be rationale if he or she assesses all the alternatives that are available to the person. The individual will calculate the benefits and costs of these alternatives, usually in monetary terms, and chooses the option that yields the highest net benefits. Clearly, it is not an easy task for the person to assess all the alternatives. Information may be lacking or too costly to obtain. As a result, it is often assumed that the persons are bounded rationale instead, which essentially recognizes the impossibility of acquiring all the necessary information. With as much information as one can have, the person will choose the alternative deemed optimal although with more information, the chosen option may only be the second best. In this case, the individuals are said to be satisficing, a term coined by the late Herbert Simon. Given the above description, it is not difficult to see that an individualistic individual is closely associated with a rational person. The thinking process of both involves caring of oneself and the possibility of caring for others as well.

            To some extent, the Singapore government, led by the first and second generations leaders, Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong respectively, are not in support of the individualistic behavior. Divorce is not accepted in the minds of these leaders for it implies the breaking up of a family unit. Unlike the west, a family in Asian is one which contains the father, mother and a child. A single-mother parent with a child does not constitute a family. The national values of Singapore also appear to go against the individualistic ideology. First raised in 1988, a National Ideology Committee was established, headed by Lee Hsien Loong, to develop Singapore’s ideology using the traditional cultures of the Chinese, Malays and Indians. The first ideology ‘Nation before community and society above self’ exemplified the Singapore values, one that advocates self sacrifice and social harmony. Based on the Confucian principles, the government prescribes to a hierarchical system centred on the society, the government and the family before others. Clearly, being individualistic is not recommended as one value that Singaporeans should adopt.

            Of course, the government realizes that such thinking would create many unhappy Singaporeans. Opposing the individualistic view essentially restricts how individuals can behave. The government’s argument is that the national interest should always take priority. Caning of criminals is justified to warn others against committing crimes that are harmful to the society although it does not give one the right to physically hurt another person intentionally. The government is willing to sacrifice human rights like the freedom to speak. Such restrictions are justified as means to protect the interest of the community for failing to do so can potentially create chaos in the streets, the tendency for the people to demonstrate over minor grievances, and other events that do harm to the community. For example, foreign investors may not want to invest in Singapore if the streets are unsafe, and workers are rowdy.

            To get over the people’s unhappiness over the lack of freedom of expressing their interests, the government compensates this with the freedom to seek opportunities by raising the economic potentials of the individuals. Providing opportunities for one to receive education, to get good jobs and to have the option to purchase a wide variety of goods and services, are some of the things that the PAP is doing to compensate the people for the lack of human rights in Singapore. The government supports the meritocratic principle, which essentially rewards those who are relatively more willing and able to pursue the opportunities.

It is perhaps useful to note is that the PAP was able to control the behavior of the individuals because of good economic growth performance.  People did not mind losing some human rights and freedom over certain issues since they were able to live comfortably. People remained loyal to the PAP because of the strong economic growth which the people believed was a result of good governance. In the event that the government loses control over the economy the likelihood of the individuals succumb to the government authoritarian rule will fall. The government appears to have realized this and taken corrective actions to rectify the situation. Goh Chok Tong’s leadership has moved towards the direction of engaging more people from the private sphere in the policy decision-making process. His more consultative style of governance is welcome by many. The fact that his popularity grew and elections were won relatively easily signals the success of his approach to govern.

The consultative style of governance was thought to have gained in importance after the PAP lost a parliamentary seat, for the first time since independence, to J.B. Jeyaretnam from the Worker’s Party in the 1981 election (Anson). The perception of the electrorates was that the PAP was too authoratitive. It did not help when the PAP began to intervene in the social life of the people. An example was the government’s initiative to favour graduate mothers to have more children, an initiative that many (including the graduate mothers) considered unfair and disgraful. Unhappiness among the electorates about the PAP was reflected in the 1981 election which saw the PAP popularity sliding significantly. Since the loss of the parliamentary seat, the PAP had began to take into consideration the feedback from the non-civil servants into its decision-making process. For example, consultation with the public was initiated on the establishment of Group Representation Constituencies in 1988, the revision of the land transportation system to accommodate expansion of car ownership in 1990, the establishment of an elected Presidency in 1991. Other initiatives to engage the non-PAP members in the policy-making debates include the introduction of the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament scheme in 1984 to give parliamentary seats to the oppositions who received the highest percentage of votes despite losing; the introduction of the Feedback Unit within the Ministry of Community in 1985 where regular closed-door sessions were held with invited members of the public; and the introduction of the nominated Member of Parliament in 1989. Feedback from the public on new bills initated and committee reports was also common in the 1990s and in recent years.

People are after all rationale. The electorates are likely to weigh the alternatives of voting for the PAP and against it and choose the option that yields the highest net benefit. People are also marginal thinkers. This essentially implies that the individuals care more about the present and what happened in the last couple of days more seriously than the events that happened many more days in the past. People are more likely to take into consideration incremental improvements in the way things are doing in the political scene in Singapore such that any clear incremental improvements would bring about positive responses to the government’s action and the government’s reputation in the eyes of the electorates.

Let me go back to the issue on individualism. It appears that while the PAP has expressed its unwillingness to support individualistic behavior among the Singapore residents, its policies and decisions seem to have suggested otherwise. For instance, the PAP is in support of the capitalistic economic system. It tolerates income inequality to some extent. The PAP sees the importance of capitalism in pushing the economy forward. It understands that the capitalistic society rewards greed. Being in support of capitalism essentially implies that the system tolerates greed and individualistic behavior, which in turn provides a conflicting view in my earlier discussion. Is there a clash of ideologies in Singapore? It appears to be so. The success of the Singapore society essentially calls for the two ideologies to appear side by side. It is critical for the residents to be individualistic, be rationale and make decisions that yield the highest net benefits to one. Being greedy is one of the characteristics, which is in tandem with the notion of being individualistic although it should not go to the extent as to link greed with selfish. Being greedy does not necessary mean being selfish or self-interested. A greedy person may do things with the intention of maximizing the interest of the immediate family members while a selfish person cares for no one except himself or herself. While Singapore has tolerated individualistic behavior among the people, the PAP ensures that the actions made do not harm the community. The decisions should be morally acceptable from the society’s point of view. For example, while it is acceptable for the businessmen to seek profits, the important thing is that this should not be done at the expense of the society. Another example may be appropriate. It is part of the Confucian value for one to care for his or her family members and relatives. This is supported by the government. But, the act to achieve this should not be done at the expense of the others. Instead, one should use one’s own resources and ability to fulfill the necessary needs in support of the virtue. The person should not exploit the public resources to achieve the same aim. Nepotism is an act that is not desirable from the Singapore’s perspective.

To fully understand the gist of this essay, it is important to see the link between the communitarian and individualistic ideologies. The communitarian ideology is one that essentially encompasses the notion of caring for the community. The ideology is descriptive. It describes what is good and what is bad in a relatively more straightforward manner. The former encompasses those decisions that raise the welfare of the community while the latter covers those decisions that cause harms to the community. Assessing whether a person is individualistic or not is relatively more difficult to ascertain. Whether a person is individualistic or otherwise really depends on the individuals themselves. The idea of individualistic, like rationality, has a single objective, that is, to better understand the thinking process of individuals. It does not define in a very specific way whether a person is moral or otherwise. The ultimate decision made to do the right thing or otherwise is personal, for the perception of good or bad for a particular action differs from one individual to another. In this sense, individualism is a more subjective concept.



[i] Joseph Tamney (1995) ‘The Struggle Over Singapore’s Soul: Western Modernization and Asian Culture’, Walter de Gruyter and Co (Berlin). The book covers the sociological aspect of the Singapore society. It discusses the cultural issues in Singapore (as opposed to the west). The author did cover quite substantially the areas relating to the national ideologies in Singapore and the Confucianism values.