5 December 2017: In Focus: Thought leaders discuss politics and Singapore society


By Daryl Yang | Images by Yasunari Watanabe and Saksham Mehrotra

A new lecture series titled “Singapore in Focus” was launched this year where experts on Singapore society and politics were invited to share their insights with the Yale-NUS community.

The first speaker to inaugurate the series on 12 October 2017 was Professor Chua Beng Huat (pictured above) who currently serves as Head of Studies for Urban Studies at Yale-NUS. He was previously the Provost Chair Professor of the Faculty of Arts and Social Science at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and a Research Leader of the Cultural Studies in Asia research cluster at the Asia Research Institute (ARI). His lecture was titled “Disavowing Liberalism: Political Development in Singapore since the 1980s”.

The second speaker was Yale-NUS Governing Board member Ambassador Chan Heng Chee (pictured above), who spoke on the foreign policy of a small state on 16 November 2017. A distinguished academic who has held many key diplomatic positions for Singapore, Ambassador Chan is currently Ambassador-at-Large with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Chairman of the National Arts Council, and a Member of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights.

Based on his new book Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore, Professor Chua examined how the ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), in Singapore reinterpreted liberal democratic concepts to develop its own communitarian ideology.

A well-respected public intellectual, Professor Chua has previously published many other books such as Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore and Political Legitimacy and Housing: Stakeholding in Singapore.

Tracing the history of the PAP from its pre-independence ideology to more contemporary iterations of its policymaking, Professor Chua explained how the party was able to entrench itself in the Singapore context.

For Ahmad Musthofa (Class of 2021), Professor Chua’s expertise in the history of governance in Singapore led him to attend the event.

“I was intrigued by Professor Chua’s extensive knowledge on the evolution of the PAP’s governance style against the backdrop of Singapore’s post-independent uncertainty. Speaking at length about the history of the PAP and the party’s socialist roots, Professor Chua was able to depict a comprehensive timeline of the shifts in the PAP’s modus operandi in light of socio-political developments in Southeast Asia and the rest of the world,” he reflected.

“Professor Chua’s talk thoughtfully unravelled the processes of conception and renewal of the PAP’s ideological stance in relation to democracy, illiberalism and communitarianism in ensuring the survivability of its dominant power. This was particularly enlightening as it shed light on how Singapore’s unique economic and social circumstances post-independence led to many of the policy shifts enacted by the PAP,” he added.

According to Professor Khoo Hoon Eng, Associate Dean (Academic Affairs), the lecture series aims to develop a further understanding of Singapore society and is a more formal iteration of an earlier set of talks held in the first two years of the College’s inception.

“Previously, a more informal series of lunch-time talks called “Rojak” was organised and covered a wide range of topics such as education, the arts and the history of Singapore as a way for both international and local members of our community to learn more about the country. Since then, the Yale-NUS community has grown bigger and more diverse with larger numbers of faculty, staff and students who may not be that familiar with Singapore. So earlier this year, the Dean of Faculty, with encouragement from President Tan Tai Yong, decided to initiate this new series,” she shared.

President Tan explained that one reason for launching this series was because students wanted deeper insights into Singapore history, society and politics. “Many of our international students felt that although they were living and studying in Singapore, they did not know the local scene well. This was part of the motivation for launching this series, which we hope students will find useful,” he said.

Angela Ferguson (Class of 2018), who hails from the USA, decided to attend the event because she cherished the opportunity to learn more about Singapore.

“Events like this are particularly helpful in elevating these Singapore-specific conversations to the campus level, which allows our community to discuss these topics,” she said.

Jiang Haolie (Class of 2021), a freshman interested in geopolitics and international relations, attended the second lecture with Ambassador Chan.

“Singapore’s precarious position in global geopolitics is something I’ve always enjoyed reading up on. With increasing geopolitical turbulence, Singapore’s foreign service seems to be both overextended and saddled in jittery introspection. Listening to Ambassador Chan was an opportunity to further explore the psyche and nuances of Singapore’s foreign policies in such uncertain times,” he shared.

During the dialogue, what struck Haolie the most was a question about the viability of Singapore’s foreign policy in a post-Lee Kuan Yew era.

“Ambassador Chan voiced optimism in the robustness of Singapore’s foreign policy in transcending the personage of Lee Kuan Yew, particularly because of its cornerstones of consistency, firmness and its commitment to multilateralism. I found this optimism both surprising and refreshing in light of the general pessimism towards Singapore’s vulnerabilities,” he explained.

For Haolie, the greatest takeaway from the lecture was the reminder that Singapore, as a small state, has constraints to idealism, scale and ego of its foreign policy vision.

“I am nonetheless still a firm believer that Singapore can and should do more in promoting sustainable development in human capital, resource security, civil society, community and culture within the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN). Ambassador Chan’s sharing has, if anything, added greater nuance to my beliefs and an expanded perspective, which is invaluable,” he said.