Singapore Is Failing at Digital Sovereignty

Abdurrahman/Singapore Changi Airport, Singapore

The intensifying geopolitical competition between China and the United States has sounded the death knell for liberal hopes of a transparent and unified internet. These aspirations have warped and disintegrated beneath the shadow of the “Splinternet”—a fragmentation of the global internet into autonomous American, Chinese, Russian, and other spheres. Though the West has grown resigned to the prospect of a hegemonic and heavily censored Chinese internet within China’s own national territory, the internet’s global “marketplace of ideas” remains the object of maudlin lamentation as a casualty of the spiraling U.S.-China cold war.

The erection of this Iron Curtain in cyberspace, we are told, has diminished opportunities for transnational collaboration in a variety of productive spheres, ranging from cultural exchange to scientific research, excluding both the American and Chinese sides from the win-win dynamics of a free and open internet. Left unquestioned in this is the premise that the uncensored Western internet has served as a neutral platform for the unmitigated intercourse of ideas and networks.

Influential American geopolitical strategists such as Joseph Nye have frequently observed that the U.S. dominance of the internet constitutes a key pillar of American cultural hegemony abroad. This appears validated by Western Europe, which, above all, has fallen ever more under the sway of American political discourse. Even in countries culturally positioned outside the West such as India, prolonged exposure to the Western internet is increasingly eroding traditional cultural norms. Although this has not yet extended to influencing Indian politics, international familiarity with the distinctly American brand of liberal politics underscores the Internet’s instrumental role in exporting its publicity—putting in question the internet’s intrinsic neutrality.

The active role of the American-dominated internet in radiating this particular form of liberal politics across the world bears profound implications for the global future of governance. It raises fundamental questions as to whether a country should find it desirable to remain open to the Western internet today.

The trade-off involved is best illustrated in a comparative examination of Singapore and China. Both countries are highly technocratic states with formidable capacities for mobilization and, from the perspective of many Westerners, enviably functional governance structures. Singapore’s cyberspace is practically constituted and engulfed by the American internet, while China has retained and consolidated “cybersovereignty” over a distinctive internet culture.

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The West is undoubtedly the dominant cultural influence in virtually all aspects of Singaporean life across social classes, especially for the governing elite—a trend that shows no signs of abating. The most conspicuous instance is linguistic hegemony; proficiency in English is viewed as the principal arbiter of social status and English continues to cannibalize other local languages in spoken frequency among youth, like Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. This also means Singaporeans rarely browse the Chinese internet, excluding mainland China from Singapore’s cultural relevance. Among the elites, this manifests itself in the constant use of Western countries as benchmarks or referential comparisons for justifying new policy frameworks. Collectively, this enshrines a Singapore plugged firmly into the American internet, but not the Chinese one.

Although Singapore does censor the internet, it does so in light-touch fashion. Almost all dissident political websites are permitted, and access to foreign media sites is unrestricted. To the extent online political restrictions exist, they take two forms. First, the government imposes heavy, one-off registration fees for the mandatory licensing of online political sites. These licensing terms commit political sites to remove content flagged by the state as subverting political stability within 24 hours.

Though this appears as a potential pretext for heavy restrictions on online content, the Singaporean state in practice limits its use to explicit racial or religious hate speech. The one-off nature of the fee has also not deterred the emergence of multiple alternative news sites, such as Mothership and the Online Citizen. Second, originators of online statements that are flagged as factually untrue must accompany the post with a government notice clarifying why the statement was factually untrue. However, this falls short of removing the post and applies to transparently false claims, rather than statements of opinion.

This combination of openness to the West and retention of illiberal technocratic management is widely seen as a major advantage of Singapore’s governing model. The former allows Singapore to access the West’s scientific and cultural know-how, while the latter ensures policy can be implemented efficiently without partisan obstruction and in a long-term manner. Indeed, in light of America’s catastrophic governmental response to the coronavirus, Singapore is increasingly cited approvingly as an example of a competent state that still tolerates Western institutional norms—thus proof the West need not emulate China in designing a credible alternative governance model.

However, this presupposes a monolithic and static Singapore model, meticulously selecting the best aspects of the West to emulate. It ignores a recent transformational shift which has only accelerated due to deep exposure to the Western internet: the ascent of “identity politics” in Singapore. If sufficiently proliferated, it would pose a new, yet undiscussed challenge to the sustainability of Singapore’s governance model.

Singapore is a multiracial country, with ethnic Chinese forming the dominant demographic majority (76% by the 2019 census), the Malays forming a sizable minority (15%), and a smaller Indian community forming most of the rest (7.5%). A guiding principle for the Singapore state’s administration of multiethnic relations is racial harmony. This prohibits structural discrimination on racial or religious grounds. It is also a severe criminal offense to make derogatory comments about other races or religions. This has been credited with preventing racial and religious strife that have consumed other small states like Lebanon or Sri Lanka.

However, this state-imposed vision of racial and religious harmony is largely freedom from racial and religious discrimination, rather than freedom to actively forge a collective identity that transcends race and religion while still accommodating cultural differences. This is manifest in the Singaporean state’s reliance on top-down mechanisms to enforce this policy—notably, in the primary use of legal sanctions against racially sensitive activity, and in the deliberate allocation of public housing to ensure multiethnic compositions in housing estates.

One consequence of this “freedom from” top-down approach is the persistence of racial stereotypes across Singapore’s racial groups. For example, Singapore’s Malay community may be stereotyped by the Chinese as “lazy,” while the Malays may reciprocate with labels of “intimidating” and “bossy.” These sentiments are only compounded by Singapore’s high level of income inequality and status anxiety.

This setup has fomented a growing constituency of primarily younger Singaporeans who believe the discourse of American liberal politics finds a direct parallel in Singapore’s domestic situation. Unashamed borrowing of the terminology is evident. For example, the term “Chinese privilege,” derived from the Anglo-American concept of “white privilege” and used to describe the advantages enjoyed by the politically and economically dominant Chinese community, has proven ubiquitous enough to become the central theme of articles in the student newspaper of the Raffles Institution, one of Singapore’s leading schools.

The Singaporean government’s “meritocratic” approach to scholarship issuance and the prevalence of racial stereotyping by numerically dominant Chinese employers are cited as instances of “institutional discrimination” favoring the Chinese community. Following another feature of Western discourse, crude instances of stereotyping of Malays and Indians by Singaporean-Chinese have become analyzed as “microaggressions.” Such sentiment is not merely confined to online discourse, but has exploded onto the national spotlight.

One incident from August 2019 is instructive. A racially insensitive advertisement where a Chinese actor painted his face brown to play the role of an Indian provoked a Singaporean-Indian couple’s infuriated video response where they explicitly accused the Chinese community of racism and insulted them with profanities. The Singaporean government responded disproportionately to the latter, viewing the former as an insensitive yet accidental mistake but the latter as a direct threat to racial harmony. An intense public backlash at this perceived ‘double standard’ ensued, especially from liberal voices, prompting repeated ministerial statements to clarify the government’s position and calm public anger.

Another example is online anger at a recently circulated Facebook image of some Chinese students celebrating an Indian classmate’s birthday with their faces painted black. In a Singaporean context, such actions have little of their deep historical resonance in America. And yet, they have taken on heightened significance with the increasing penetration of Singaporean discourse by American liberalism. In the latter case, the resulting outcry was sufficiently severe to prompt an appeal for calm from the Education Minister. These examples illustrate the growing contrast between the state’s vision of racial harmony and the viewpoint of the imported liberal politics: while the former has strictly regulated explicitly racist behavior while giving ambiguous cases the benefit of the doubt, the latter tends to view such ambiguities as “microaggressions.”

Given the official ban on polling in Singapore, hard empirical data on the exact demographic of this emergent liberal politics is difficult to ascertain. However, the movement’s disproportionate representation in forums such as Reddit and in online sites with an explicitly millennial base such as Zula and Rice Media intimates both its roots in the American internet and the demographic’s youthful and highly-educated slant across all races, including—if not especially—among ethnic Chinese. This is further confirmed by the recent popularity of Singapore poet Alfian Sa’at’s writings on racial identity in Singapore, including among government scholars studying at Western universities. The coincidence of public anger at the scandals mentioned above with the George Floyd protests and even the Education Minister’s explicit appeal for enraged netizens to bear in mind differences between the American and Singaporean racial situation only further underscore the contagious and imitative role of the American internet.

This straightforward importation of Western liberal politics into Singapore should be taken seriously as a political trend with disruptive potential for its governance. Whatever one thinks of the positions involved here, the rising challenge is not compatible with Singapore’s governance model.

Some have seen in the Singaporean governance model a simultaneously inclusive and technocratic state apparatus. The technocratic elite derives expertise on “appropriate” policy by leveraging powerful state organs to consult social stakeholders and gauge public sentiment. This forms the “inclusivity” aspect. In tandem with consultation, the technocratic class evaluates public sentiment in relation to their worldview and analysis of the conjuncture. These factors jointly influence eventual policy decisions that are imposed top-down. This forms the “technocratic” aspect. This purportedly ensures astute decisiveness in policy-making while still leaving room for public opinion. More importantly, the ability of the state to set the parameters of discourse in civil society develops a consciousness among individuals and consulted stakeholders of where their interests and roles stand in the broader national interest. This expedites trust and co-operation with the state in policy implementation.

However, the importation of Western liberal politics has introduced two novelties to Singaporean discourse that undermine this approach that renders American cultural influence problematic for the sustainability of Singaporean governance.

First, the particularist strand in this import of liberal politics is evident: the “problem” identified is the existence of institutional discrimination against racial minorities and the minority’s sense of exclusion from mainstream society. The chief issue is thus distributional: how to redistribute social currencies—prestige, jobs, scholarships, and the like—toward racial minorities and away from an envisaged “privileged” caste. By defining the mode of political engagement as advocacy for the interests of a specific community, politics is framed as a perpetual clash of competing partisan groups defined along racial lines.

Encouraging stakeholders to constitute themselves as partisan agents extracting concessions from an institutionalized state subverts the Singaporean state’s ability to effect lasting compromise among contesting interests. Since the state by construction serves the established interests from which redistribution is sought, this mode of liberal politics refuses to accept the sine qua non of the Singapore model: the technocratic state’s monopoly on discourse production. Collectively, this entails the disintegration of Singapore’s technocratic politics into a politics polarized along identity lines.

This culminates in emulation of Western political dysfunctionality.

Second, a bizarre paradox lies at the heart of Singapore’s imported variant of liberal politics: although racism is framed as a structural problem, not even an attempt at structural reform is suggested as a prescription. Instead, the solution is framed as the privileged individual’s imperative to reflect on their discrimination. The “solution” is thus explicitly addressed to privileged groups, including governing elites, exhorting endless individual introspection and even guilt at being on the favored side of the institutional setup. Though there is nothing problematic in the occasional reminder to account for racial sensitivities in individual conduct, liberal politics positions itself as a recurrent political demand for the privileged to apologize for institutional inequities.

This perspective thus encourages governing elites to dismiss institutional reform to mitigate racism as necessarily impotent and normalizes distrust in the very institutions they manage for perpetuating inequities. This is transparently a recipe for eternal political paralysis as the governing class avoids responsibility for governance by guilt at even engaging with the state institutions under their control. Given the Singaporean model’s inordinate reliance on technocratic instruction, paralysis at the top would prove especially fatal. The popularity of imported liberal politics among Singapore’s current scholars, its future civil servants, a trend amplified both by their studies at Western universities and heavy use of the American internet, renders this prospect plausible.

The question of the sustainability of the Singaporean model in view of the accelerated import, facilitated by the internet, of the American style of identity politics. In America itself, this style has already demonstrably paralysed governance and distracted elites from deeper material problems such as economic stagnation and deepening income inequality. This throws into question Singapore’s status as a plausible exemplar for integrating the advantages and avoiding the pitfalls of both Chinese authoritarianism and Western liberal democracy. Those who see in Singapore a panacea for American political dysfunctionality should first bear in mind the more pertinent risk of Singapore’s increasing imitation of American political partisanship. With the West increasingly riven by political fragmentation, openness to the imitative potential—the mimesis—of the Western internet is more a liability than an asset for governance. A contrast can be found in the case of China itself.

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For many people, both in and outside of China, the reason that China censors its internet has seemed obvious: to suppress the emergence of threats to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This is true as far as it goes. Yet under Xi Jinping, China’s regulation of the internet has been systematized further and given theoretical articulation under the moniker of “cybersovereignty,” and the objectives and effects of this project go beyond the mere elimination of political competition. At the simplest level, it indicates the territorialization of cyberspace: the segmenting of the internet into autonomous sovereign spaces. To understand the scope of the divergence of China’s public sphere from that of a country like Singapore, however, it is necessary to consider the objectives and effects of this doctrine in more detail.

A 2019 article by Zhang Xu and Liu Yangyue—a political scientist at China’s National University of Defense Technology who has specialized in comparing the dynamics of internet control across different countries—instructively outlines the central problems that the policy of cybersovereignty is intended to resolve. Among these they enumerate the intrinsic disorder of the internet and its facilitation of political irresponsibility—items that may appear as so many generic authoritarian complaints in response to a space of free and unfettered discourse. Yet they highlight two other characteristics that are harder to dismiss: first, the unequal distribution of power built into the global infrastructure and governance of the internet; second, the tendency of cyberspace towards cultural homogeneity.

In respect of the broader goals of China’s internet policy, this last observation may be the most relevant point. “Cyberspace,” Zhang and Liu argue, citing Adorno and Horkheimer’s theory of the culture industry, is a favorable “environment for the expansion of cultural imperialism.” The dominant characteristic of online social media, they note, is the use of American social media platforms by non-American users. The ostensible neutrality and freedom of cyberspace has become merely the vector of an all-encompassing American cultural hegemony. To some degree, the Singaporean case might justify this view.

In effect, China’s response to this problem has been the guided and intensive cultivation of a domestic online culture industry unbeholden to Western concerns. Though competitive domestic alternatives to the Western social media giants have emerged in many countries—Naver in South Korea and VK in Russia—from its fortified position behind the Great Firewall, China has attained a degree of influence and variety in its homegrown social media that is unique outside the West. The comprehensive and carefully regulated ecosystem of networks such as Weibo and Weixin, together with forums such as Zhihu, represents a total discursive space that has proven relatively impervious to the currents emanating from the internal convulsions of American culture—unlike the Singaporean internet. Moreover, as the growth of TikTok in Western markets attests, Chinese platforms may now cast shadows that extend far beyond China itself.

As with the selective imposition of tariffs on physical goods, this aspect of cybersovereignty as an industrial policy of the public sphere, a project that combines the cultivation of flagship social media platforms with intentional cultural engineering, would not be possible at such scale without the selective exclusion of dominant foreign alternatives. This exclusion is by no means hermetic. Mainland Chinese users of Western social media, though Westerners typically dislike their opinions, are not simply “bots” sponsored by the CCP: the use of VPNs to access Western websites like Twitter is endemic and shows little sign of disappearance despite its formal illegality and periodic, often localized crackdowns by the Chinese government. It is not difficult to find mainland Chinese users on Western social media. What is far less frequent, however, is for the cultural worldview of such users to be shaped fundamentally by their access to these foreign platforms. In that respect, the policy of hindering access without complete exclusion has done its work.

There is more to say about China’s “authoritarian” concern with the apparent intrinsic disorder of the internet. One of the most penetrating historians of Soviet culture, Boris Groys, has described the regulation of public discourse under the Soviet Union through the historical context of the collapse of the Enlightenment ideal of arriving at social progress through a process of reasoned debate in the public sphere. The experience of the long 19th century had demonstrated that, left to its own devices, public discourse must inextricably be riven by the conflict of irreconcilable views and value systems.

The Stalinist cultural apparatus constituted the administration of a state of collapse in the public sphere in which the liberal desire to approach the truth through argument and reconciliation had failed—and, in Soviet eyes, had always been doomed to failure. The Soviet Union has remained an instructive example for Chinese policymakers, especially under Xi Jinping. In the context of both the internal critique of “historical nihilism” that has motivated Xi’s cultural policy from the beginning of his chairmanship and, externally, the apparent collapse of public discourse in the West, Xi’s focus on internet regulation may well be read in a very similar light.

The contradictions of China’s own development, above all between reform-and-opening and the self-insistent continuation of the Leninist state, have themselves produced discursive divergences that cannot simply resolve themselves through reasoned argument. Some of the broad and ultimately irreconcilable viewpoints generated by these different moments of development were summarized by the Beijing theorist Jiang Shigong in 2018: the desire for China’s transformation into a liberal democratic state on Western lines, the appeal to Confucian antiquity as a basis for the reconstruction of the CCP, and so on.

In the context of an intensifying competition between fundamentally divergent worldviews, Jiang’s argument suggests, the political development of the public sphere must be subject to an ultimate Schmittian decision that clarifies the goals and limits of acceptable discourse. As the West’s own experience has shown, in cyberspace such points of tension have the potential for limitless amplification. Yet the intrinsic network openness of the internet will not simply disappear. The only option—so it appears to China—is a recognition that this process of discursive collapse will happen, and that it must be kept in check by a continual process of public intervention aiming to maintain its contradictions within the limits, and perhaps for the benefit, of a certain common good.

That this is best considered as the promotion of autonomous culture and the suspension of its contradictions rather than its totalitarian regimentation is shown by the fact that within this partially closed ecosystem an apparently strange vitality of political discourse has been sustained. China has developed its own quite distinctive corners of policy debate and theory on its internet, schools of opinion such as the Industrial Party that have produced fertile debates and maintain varying degrees of independence from CCP doctrine. Some of these have proven more influential than their Western counterparts; their debates reach vast audiences within China. At any rate, within the overall framework of China’s cybersovereignty there has grown a self-governing intellectual world that should not be ignored or dismissed.

The dominant presumption in the West has been that China’s regulation of the internet is a rearguard attempt by an authoritarian regime that has far outlived its welcome to prevent the inevitable emergence of an independent civil society mediated by a free and open internet. As an industrial policy of the public sphere, however, the intended results of Chinese cybersovereignty are more far-reaching and, likely, quite effective. As anyone familiar with it can attest, the Chinese internet has its own distinctive idiosyncrasies quite apart from the shadow of government censorship.

Yet for all that, it is demonstrably autonomous; far from sterile, its climate is even enduringly vital. This vitality is what has allowed it to serve the CCP as a tangible gauge of Chinese public opinion and an information-gathering network: in identifying cases of interest, Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign has relied heavily upon distributed reports by internet users. The internet’s capacity to create overall political fragmentation and stasis, however, is tightly limited.

These are merely concrete benefits that China derives from cybersovereignty and not moral justifications for China’s policy. Given heightening American strategic competition with China, however, there must be some coherent Western response to the challenge of China’s model of cultural regulation. An important starting step would be the recognition that the status quo of an internet regulated solely by private interests can be a liability for effective governance. In the context of an internet riven in the West by private social media amplifying a spiral of internal conflict, the old nostrums about the intrinsic potentiality of cyberspace to construct a free and rational world are increasingly hollow.

The decisive questions in this struggle for the future of cyberspace are: can an open internet function not simply as a vector for the power plays of American political interests, but as a space of genuine cultural productivity—that is, as something that it is possible to order towards the good? More fundamentally: is there anything now to be gained from openness to the West?

A Western answer to these questions can begin only by admitting the reality of cyberspace as a strategic terrain requiring public oversight—and laying the groundwork for an industrial policy that can effectively govern its own public sphere.

Vincent Garton is a political analyst currently based in London. His interests lie in the intersection of politics with economics, technology, and theology. Follow him on Twitter @Sysimmolator.