Thorstein Veblen’s Singapore?


Suggested citation: PHUA Kai Lit (2000). Thorstein Veblen's Singapore? e-THOUGHT. 1(1) Oct-Dec.

Thorstein Veblen’s vision of a society run by “engineers” has been realized  in contemporary Singapore: a country increasingly ruled by economists, engineers, and other technocratic experts with First Class Honours undergraduate degrees, Oxbridge and Ivy League Masters degrees and PhDs. Whether this society truly fulfills his dreams and meets his expectations is a question worthy of debate.


PHUA Kai Lit, PhD





Thorstein Bunde Veblen (1857 – 1929) was an unorthodox American economist of Norwegian ancestry. He was an economist of the institutional school who made a distinction between “industry” (production for the satisfaction of human needs) and “business” (profit maximization through market manipulation, restriction of production and other similar practices). He hoped that “engineers” – a group dedicated to productivity and not profit maximization  – would seize power from the vested interests and run society for the good of all (Borus, 1995).


Other intellectuals have also envisioned societies run by elites who are civic-minded and dedicated to the creation of the “good society” or to the improvement of societal welfare. Plato’s “philosopher kings” and H.G. Wells’ “Samurai” are useful examples. 


Interestingly enough, Singapore’s present political leaders are composed heavily of technocrats (economists, engineers and other technically-trained experts in contrast to the lawyers of the U.S. Congress). They are also some sort of  “philosopher kings” in the sense that they are almost invariably high academic achievers and come from the ranks of the “best and the brightest” (with each succeeding generation of leaders, the ruling elite has become even more and more technocratic). Singapore’s first generation of political leaders such as Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, S. Rajaratnam, Toh Chin Chye and C.V. Devan Nair were initially followers of Fabian socialism – just like H.G. Wells (in this essay, Chinese names are listed in the East Asian manner, i.e., last names first). However, the ruling political party in Singapore, the People’s Action Party (PAP), gradually drifted away from Fabian socialism towards technocratic pragmatism and finally quit the Socialist International in 1976 as the effort of some of the other parties to get it expelled from the organization was gathering steam. Ironically, C.V. Devan Nair published a book called “Socialism That Works – The Singapore Way” in the same year! Today, there is no more talk of socialism and brotherhood/sisterhood among the leaders of the PAP – instead, there is continuous pressure on its people to compete with each other and excel.


Some American conservatives regard Singapore as an example of a “Capitalist Paradise”. The Guru of monetarism, Milton Friedman, was actually invited to speak in Singapore as an honored guest in the lecture series named after Lee Kuan Yew. Nothing can be further from Fabian welfare state socialism than Friedman’s brand of libertarianism and monetarism of course.


Background of Some Important Singaporean Leaders (see Asiaweek, 2000; Leifer, 1995; Selvan, 1990)


It is very useful to look at the background of some of the most important Singaporean leaders if we are to understand the Singaporean emphasis (some would say “overemphasis”) on meritocracy, efficiency, productivity and competitive, high achieving performance.   


“First Generation” Leaders


Lee Kuan Yew: the first Prime Minister of independent Singapore and currently “Senior Minister” in the Singapore Government. He graduated in law from Cambridge University and the Middle Temple, London with highest honors. He helped to found the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and became Prime Minister when he was only 35 years old.


Goh Keng Swee: one of the prime architects of Singapore’s highly successful economic development programs, he received a PhD in economics from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He has served as economic adviser to the post-Mao Government of the People’s Republic of China.


Toh Chin Chye: He served as Deputy Prime Minister under Lee Kuan Yew. A PhD holder in one of the biological sciences, he eventually became an internal critic of the People’s Action Party and its increasing authoritarianism.


S. Rajaratnam – Educated at King’s College, University of London, he became a journalist and the first Foreign Minister of Singapore.


CV Devan Nair – He was an activist in the teachers’ trade union and built links between the PAP and the trade union movement. He fled into exile after his fallout with Lee Kuan Yew and is now a strong critic of the Singapore Government.


“Second Generation Leaders”


Goh Chok Tong – He graduated with First Class Honours in economics from the local university before completing a Masters degree in economics at Williams College. He managed the state-owned shipping company, Neptune Orient Lines, before being recruited into politics by the PAP. He was selected by his peers to take over as Prime Minister from Lee Kuan Yew although Lee had always made it known that Goh was not his first choice as a successor. He has been Prime Minister since late 1989.


BG (Brigadier-General) Lee Hsien Loong – The eldest son of Lee Kuan Yew, he received First Class Honours in mathematics from Cambridge University. Subsequently, he earned a Masters degree in computer science from Cambridge University. He is one of the leading contenders to succeed the current Prime Minister of Singapore Goh Chok Tong.


Tony Tan Keng Yam – He was a PhD science lecturer at the National University of Singapore and subsequently, Chairman of the local bank Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC). He was recruited into politics by the PAP. 


Richard Hu Hsu Tau – Dr Hu was a former Chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (the central bank) who was recruited into politics and into the position of Minister of Finance by the PAP.


Ong Teng Cheong – Educated as an architect in Australia, he served as President of Singapore from 1993 to 1999 (a largely ceremonial position until the PAP enhanced the powers of the Presidency just before Ong contested for the position). Apparently, he was keen to run for a second term as President but did not gain the support of other top political leaders in the PAP. After leaving the position, he made known his unhappiness to the public and traded sharp exchanges with his erstwhile former political colleagues.  


Wong Kan Seng – A graduate of the local university, he also received a Masters degree from the London Business School. He worked as a teacher, civil servant and human resources manager with a leading multinational corporation before becoming a politician.


“Third Generation Leaders”


BG (Brigadier-General) George Yeo Yong Boon – He received a degree in engineering with First Class Honours from Cambridge and an MBA from Harvard University with high honors. He is one of the more philosophically-minded of the PAP’s top leaders.  


Lim Hng Kiang – Another top PAP leader with an honors degree in engineering from Cambridge University. He served as the top manager of the Housing and Development Board (HDB – Singapore’s highly successful public housing entity) before being recruited by the PAP.


Rear Admiral Teo Chee Hean – An engineer by training, he studied at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, Imperial College and Harvard University. 


David Lim Tik En – One of the newer technocrats recruited by the PAP. He studied engineering at the University of Melbourne. He was the Chief Executive Officer of the Jurong Town Corporation before entering politics.


As with other things in Singapore, the process of leadership renewal has to be a thoroughly planned operation. (Then) Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his associates were entirely certain that the key objectives of state policy, and the broad strategies to achieve them, that they had devised and introduced were the only correct ones, the only ones suited to the realities of Singapore. Therefore, what was required was a second generation leadership that had the necessary technocratic-managerial skills and capabilities to be able to pursue those objectives and strategies effectively. They did not see any special need for new leaders who possessed political skills, who were “word spinners” in the words of S. Rajaratnam.


Vasil, 1992: 200-201


As Vasil indicates, the PAP has established a unique system of recruitment of its top political leaders and Ministers. Talented individuals are “spotted” and have to pass through a barrage of observations, interviews, attachment to a veteran MP and allegedly, even psychological tests before being offered safe parliamentary seats to contest (under the PAP banner) in General Elections. After winning these safe seats, they may be offered responsibility as junior ministers and if they pass this test, they would then be offered higher level positions with greater responsibilities. Individuals who fail to perform would be unceremoniously dropped back into political oblivion. This would effectively spell the end of their careers as would be politicians and ministers. 


Singapore’s Achievements


By conventional economic indicators, Singapore’s economic development program has been a great success. When the PAP first came to power in 1959, unemployment was a major problem. By the early 1970s, high rates of economic growth had led to the resolution of this problem. Today, there are many foreign workers in Singapore. These range from Filipino maids and Thai construction workers to Malaysian, Indian, Australian, Hong Kong, Japanese, European and American professionals and managers. A high percentage of service sector workers such as hotel employees in Singapore are Malaysian citizens. Recently, an American was hired to run the government-owned Development Bank of Singapore. Economic growth rates have been consistently high and Singapore’s foreign exchange reserves are certainly impressive relative to the size of its population. Its per capita GNP is among the highest in the Asia-Pacific region. It is not uncommon to find Singaporean women working as professionals and holding high level managerial positions in both the government and the private sector.


When Singapore was expelled (after only two years) from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965, its economy was heavily dependent on the entreport (transshipment) trade through its excellent natural harbor. It was also heavily dependent on the economic effects of the British Naval Base in the northern part of the island. Today, it has managed to diversify its economy and has built up a thriving export-oriented electronics industry and a significant banking and finance industry. 


Singapore’s economic growth is also reflected in its other socioeconomic indicators such as those pertaining to health, education, housing, and transport and communications. Its infant mortality rate is lower than that of the United States. The life expectancy of its citizens is comparable to those of the richest Western countries. There is universal literacy among its younger generation. The public schools are excellent: it is not uncommon for parents from the neighboring Malaysian state of Johor to send their kids to study in Singaporean public schools – including the primary and secondary schools. The National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technological University are two of Asia’s leading universities. Singapore is also one of the most wired nations in the world.


Singapore’s housing program is one of its great success stories. The Housing and Development Board (HDB) has been instrumental in relocating the population from the overcrowded and unhealthy slum housing of the colonial era to high rise apartment blocks in the many satellite townships scattered all over the island nation. Although some of the lower end HDB-built apartments may be small, all of them are built with flush toilets and piped water supply and this has contributed to the improvement in health indicators. The newer, high end HDB apartments in the township of Pasir Ris at the eastern tip of the island are of such high quality and design that they can almost pass for the condominiums built by private sector developers. Singaporeans who live in HDB-built high rises (more than three quarters of the population) own their apartments and pay for them through usage of part of their CPF funds (the Central Provident Fund is Singapore’s compulsory, publicly-managed retirement scheme financed by payroll deductions and employer contributions into individual accounts). Only a small percentage of Singaporeans are so poor that they have to rent apartments from the HDB.


The transport and communications systems of Singapore are excellent. The road and light rail system (MRT or Mass Rapid Transit) and Changi International Airport are efficiently maintained and well run. Singapore’s port facilities are also well known for their efficiency. Road traffic volume is kept under control by a deliberate policy of making ownership of a car beyond the financial capability of the majority of Singaporeans. 


All these undoubted successes are impressive when contrasted with the problems of the 1950s and early 1960s:


When Singapore achieved its Independence in the mid 1960s, there was political instability and ethnic tension. Unemployment was a serious problem. There was industrial unrest in an economy heavily dependent on entreport trade and the British Naval Base in the northern part of the island. There was even some doubt about whether Singapore could survive its expulsion from the Federation of Malaysia. Lee Kuan Yew wept bitter tears at a televised press conference as he broke the news of the expulsion of Singapore from Malaysia to his people.


A great contrast with the Singapore of today indeed: “politically stable” under the dominance of the PAP, full employment, little labor unrest and relatively harmonious interethnic relations. The economy is diversified and becoming increasingly high tech and sophisticated. The Singapore bureaucracy is also famed for its efficiency and lack of corruption.


The Dark Side of Singapore


“When I see my leaders do what they have done, I feel like an outcast – that this is no longer my home – that it is PAPs (sic) home and that I am only their guest and have to play by THEIR rules or get out”.


Paul Sands (quoted in The General Elections are Over, 3 January, 1997) 


The Government of Singapore is strongly authoritarian and paternalistic by Anglo-American standards. Although things have loosened up under Goh Chok Tong (e.g. male Singaporeans can now openly sport long hair whereas they could not do so when Lee Kuan Yew was the Prime Minister. During the Lee era, male foreign tourists were even required to get their locks shorn before they could enter the Republic), the regime continues to maintain tight control of its citizens. Resident foreigners who wrote critically on the Lees or the regime such as Christopher Lingle have had to flee from the country in haste when the authorities started investigating them. Singaporeans like C.V. Devan Nair (a former President), Francis Seow (a former Solicitor-General) and Tang Liang Hong (a former election candidate for the opposition Workers’ Party) have had to go into exile after falling foul of the Governments of Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong. Nevertheless, to be fair to the PAP government, “responsible” opposition politicians, i.e., those who manage not to antagonize the Government such as Chiam See Tong and Low Thia Kiang are tolerated in Parliament. Foreign newspapers and periodicals such as the International Herald Tribune, the Far Eastern Economic Review, Time, Asian Wall Street Journal, Asiaweek and the Economist have been either forced to eat humble pie and publish apologies to Lee Kuan Yew or the Government for allegedly publishing libel or have had the permitted circulation of their periodicals slashed to small numbers within the island Republic from time to time for “interference” with Singapore’s domestic politics (see Lingle, 1996). The PAP politicians have been accused by the opposition of continually devising ways to put the latter in positions of disadvantage: these range from old-style gerrymandering of electoral districts and restriction of access to the mass media, to the creation of Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs), multimillion dollar libel suits against certain opposition politicians and latterly, threats to withhold public spending in districts which elect opposition Members of Parliament. For opposition political candidates to contest in multi member GRCs during the election (in contrast to the traditional single member electoral districts), they have to come up with a team of between three to six candidates. The ethnic composition of the teams was even specified when GRCs were first introduced in 1988 (see Ooi, 1998). GRCs put the opposition parties at a significant disadvantage since most Singaporeans are reluctant to participate openly as candidates for opposition parties in the elections.   


In the area of economics, although official statistics claim low rates of inflation, these are probably underestimated because certain goods are not included in the basket used to calculate the index of inflation. Singaporeans routinely complain about the high cost of car ownership and the high prices of private, landed property and privately-built condominiums. The counter-argument is that high housing prices in the private sector are not surprising because of scarcity of land in Singapore and also that HDB-built apartments continue to remain affordable for most citizens. The Government has recently identified the emerging problem of increasing income differentials between highly educated employees (including those who work for multinational corporations) and those who are lowly educated and possess low skills. This problem, however, is attributed to the globalisation of the economy and the “digital divide”. The use of Government powers to reduce income differentials through increased income redistribution is not favored as the PAP leaders believe that this would promote an undesirable “welfare mentality”.


In social matters, the Malays are the most disadvantaged of the major ethnic groups in Singapore. They are over-represented (in terms of their percentage composition of the total population) among the less well educated and lower paid and among “problem” sub-groups such as drug addicts and educational underachievers. The Malays are also subjected to de facto discrimination as a high percentage of job ads openly state ethnic preferences (as well as gender and age preferences) for the job being advertised. Unskilled foreign workers are another category of underprivileged residents of Singapore. Cases of abuse of maids (domestic workers) from the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and so on are reported from time to time in the local mass media.


The education system of Singapore is openly (and proudly) elitist and there is considerable pressure on schoolchildren to excel in their studies. High achievers are rewarded well, e.g., as Presidential Scholars and Singapore Armed Forces Scholars and sent for further studies at top knotch universities overseas. These Scholars are likely to end up eventually in high level positions in the bureaucracy, Government-linked corporations (GLCs) or the armed forces. Thus, high achievers like Lee Hsien Loong and George Yeo were sent to places like Cambridge and Harvard for tertiary-level studies and served as high-ranking officers in the Singapore military before moving into politics.


One of Singapore’s most popular comic book characters is “Mr. Kiasu” – a personification of Kiasuism, i.e., a person who hates losing out to others (“kiasu” literally means “afraid to lose” in a local Chinese dialect), are overly competitive, highly envious of the success of others and eager to sabotage, backstab and undercut others so as to protect one’s position or chances for advancement. The motto of Mr Kiasu in Singaporean English is “Everything Also I Want”, i.e., “ I Want It All For Myself” (and perhaps even “And I’ll be Damned if Anyone Tries to Stop Me”).


Ask Singaporeans what the “5 Cs” are and they will tell you with a snicker that it refers to Cash, Car, Career, Credit Card and Condominium. My belief is that the rise of Kiasuism and materialism in Singapore is directed related to the Government’s constant exhortations to students to excel in academic studies, in its promotion of elitism, e.g., schools are regularly ranked – even secondary schools - and the list of rankings are published in the local newspapers), its strong emphasis on economic growth and constant reminders to Singaporeans of potential competition from neighboring countries and so on. The pressure on Singaporeans to excel is so great that significant numbers of Singaporeans (in relation to its population) emigrate every year.




I have discussed Singapore’s undoubted and widely-recognized economic success. I have also discussed its less well known “dark side”. Veblen’s “engineers” are indeed in firm control of the Singaporean polity. With each new generation of PAP politicians, Government ministers becomes even more and more technocratic in composition. Singapore functions like a well-oiled piece of sophisticated machinery. Perhaps this is why some Singaporeans feel like they are just like cogs in a highly efficient economic machine overseen by highly qualified and brilliant (and even arrogant) engineers.  The Veblenian “engineers” of Singapore have ensured that the basic needs of Singaporeans are being met. But this is at a price. The price is having to live under a hierarchical system and having to follow the directives handed down by the technocrat-politicians. Veblen’s “engineers” in Singapore, interestingly enough, have collaborated with multinational capital to mutual benefit in the building of a dynamic economic machine – a case of successful collaboration between national technocrats and international capitalists. Singapore’s economic growth depends on investment by multinational corporations and well-run Government-linked corporations (GLCs). Local capitalists are weaker and subordinate to the technocrat-politicians of the PAP.


Veblen also came up with the concept of  “conspicuous consumption”. This is very obvious in Singapore. Badges of “conspicuous consumption” are literally worn with pride in Singapore. These are the “branded goods” or “designer goods” with conspicuous labels especially favored by Singaporeans. Those who can afford to own cars prefer luxury models. In short, Veblen’s “engineers’ have taken over in Singapore and have created a dynamic, highly rational and efficient society. But they have also created a society which functions in ways that Veblen never envisioned. Indeed, contemporary Singapore can be better labeled as “Max Weber’s Singapore” rather than “Thorstein Veblen’s Singapore”, i.e., a society which emphasizes (overemphasizes?) instrumental rationality to the point where the “iron cage of rationality” is a real threat to the social and mental well-being of individual Singaporeans and resident foreigners.



K.L. Phua is a sociologist who teaches public health at the International Medical University in Malaysia. He has also lived and worked in Singapore as a manager for a number of years.

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Asiaweek 2000 The Next Generation, August 1, 2000


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pp. 702-703


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London: Routledge


Lingle, C. 1996 Singapore’s Authoritarian Capitalism Barcelona: Edicions Sirocco and Fairfax: The Locke Institute


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Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited


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Selvan, T.S. 1990 Singapore: The Ultimate Island Melbourne: Freeway Books


Vasil, R. 1992 Governing Singapore Singapore: Mandarin