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Salient. Victoria University Students Newspaper. Volume 38 Number 8. 1975

Singapore: A class society — The Socio-Economic and Political Structure of Singapore — An Introduction of Iain Buchanan's 'Singapore in S.E. Asia'

page 8

Singapore: A class society

The Socio-Economic and Political Structure of Singapore

An Introduction of Iain Buchanan's 'Singapore in S.E. Asia'

Iain Buchanan had been teaching in the University of Singapore for many years. In his book, he implicitly analysed the essence of the island's economy. On the aspect of social stratification, Buchanan had a unique interpretation of the root cause of poverty in Singapore. And by examining the political development in Singapore, he strongly criticised the P.A.P. Government's repressive measures, often disguised in the form of 'democratic socialism'.

The following account is an attempt to introduce the essential points made in the book. For a better understanding of Singapore's socio-economic and political structure, especially the highhandedness of the P.A.P. Government, readers are advised to refer to the book.

Cartoon depicting a hammer called internal security act hitting a coffin with Student Solidarity and Academic Freedom written on it


Singapore's economy is that of a colonial metropolis, dependent for its survival upon handling raw materials from a large primary-producing hinterland and manufactured goods from more industrialised countries. In this respect, it plays a vital entrepot role for Malaysia and Indonesia on one end and Japan, Western Europe, the United States, and Great Britian on the other. Imports from Malaysia and Indonesia — mainly rubber, minerals, timber and palm-oil — account for about 40% of Singapore's total import trade, while imports from Japan, Western Europe, the United States and Great Britian— almost entirely manufactured goods and components for assembly — comprise 31 % of all imports.

Firstly, while Singapore is still the entrepot centre of the Malay world emphasis on Britain and West Malaysia as entrepot partners has declined, while that on East Malaysia, Indonesia and the United States and Japan has increased.

Secondly, while Singapore is still a processing centre for 'traditional' primary materials gathered from the surrounding region — rubber, palm oil, and timber — the Republic is assuming a new role as one of S.E. Asia's main oil refining centres — if not the most important oil-refining state in the region.

Thirdly, once the centre of British agency-house activities in the area, Singapore has now become the regional headquarters for large American and Japanese combines and the strategic operations base for the 'new wave' of Western and Japanese investment in S.E. Asian mineral exploitation concentrated in and around Indonesia.

Fourthly, in the field of manufacturing, foreign investment has given to Singapore three relatively new roles: as an assembly centre for industrial goods imported for the regional market, as a servicing and repair centre for long distance and regional shipping and air transport; and as a low-cost production unit in a vast international business system.

Finally, Singaore is being rapidly developed as a transit-point in the international tourist network.

The Republic's relationship with its Malaysian and Indonesian hinterland remains a colonial one, but the structure of colonial influence is changing: from a British and Dutch domain the Malay world is being transformed into an American and Japanese one.

The Essence of Singapore's Economy

The most significant feature of Singapore's economy is its disproportionately large tertiary sector. Tertiary activities (excluding those in public utilities) occupy about 70% of the active labour force and, as Table 2 shows, this proportion had changed little since 1947. Moreover, despite considerable emphasis on manufacturing development during the 1960's, there was only a slight recorded increase in the proportion of the labour employed in this sector (e.g. 19.2% in 1966).

Some 60% of Singapore's population live on per capita incomes of less than $600 per annum, or less than one-third the national average, and between 20% and 25% of the population are ('in poverty' — meaning they cannot meet the minimum material and physiological needs of daily life. Significantly, the proportion of Singapore's population living in poverty has changed little since 1953, when it was officially estimated that one-quarter of the population were poverty-stricken.

Given the prevalence of poverty, an and a serious problem of unemployment, (and under-employment) the need for sustained economic development is imperative. Insofar as the tertiary basis of the economy is a major impediment to the productive mobilization resources, economic development must necessarily imply diversification.

For Singapore, diversification within the tertiary sector, as is presently occurring through an extravagant expenditure on tourism, cannot guarantee greater economic security, and there is only limited scope for expansion in the primary sector. Diversification means industrialisation, and it was recognised in the state's first Development Plan for 1961-1964, that capital acquired through commercial activities was structurally immobile in relation to the needs of industrialisation, but that there was at the same time a 'considerable amount of local capital that can be invested in industrial enterprises if serious structural immobilities are removed.' The Government, however, could not use 'draconic measures ... to give mobility to capital' for fear of upsetting the confidence of the business community, and discouraging foreign investment. Its activities were therefore concentrated in three principle fields: the creation of an attractive financial climate for industrial investment, including a wide range of tax concessions, free profit repatriation for foreign investors, and state lending institutions; the creation of a sound infrastructure of expanded port facilities, better communications and power supply, and well-developed industrial estates; and the guaranteeing of domestic, social and political stability, and an amenable and cheap labour force.

During the 1960's the Government effectively fulfilled all three roles. Investment in manufacturing increased significantly both from foreign and local sources, but especially from the former. However, substantially increased investment did not imply the creation of a stable industrial base as we had mentioned earlier.

In the short-term, Singapore's dependence will not fundamentally damage its prosperity; in the medium-term (say five to ten years), a strategic Western withdrawal south from Indochina into the Malay world will guarantee Singapore's existence as what one senior American military man has described as 'an excellent back-up facility' for the U.S. military presence in Asia, with continuing sustenance from the scramble for the region's mineral recources; in the long-term (ten to twenty years) anything could happen — at the most most serious, Singapore's precarious dependence, and with it the present politico-economic structure, would collapse in the midst of Malay revolution.

A Class Society

This upper 10% of the taxpaying population are those earning assessed incomes of over $15,000 per year. Most of these people earn assessed incomes of over $200,000. These figures contrast strongly with estimates of incomes earned by the majority of Singaporeans. According to the Prime Minister, 60% of Singapore's workers earn monthly incomes of below $200. It is possible broadly to distinguish five social classes in Singapore's society: a fractional upper class, an upper middle class, intermediate middle class, a lower middle class and a working class.


The upper class — it is predominantly European and Chinese, with most of its members business and professional men, bankers and financiers.

Elitist in outlook, with a tendence towards in-breeding, the upper class has acquired many traits of its British counterpart, without the traditions: it lives extravagantly, entertains lavishly, accumulates — and all too often hoards — capital; its members are race-horse owners, exclusive club-goers, frequent travellers, and presidents of a host of charities and such city institutions as Rotary and Lions. It is a strongly commercial upper class and, beyond commerce and finance, plays only an indirect innovating role in the economy. In its pattern of investment, a traditional tertiary bias persists. This 'power elite' derives much of its influence from the West's economic and political stake in Singapore. Its interests coincide with those of the West, and so do its values. Thus, it is not only a vital 'agent' of Western expansion in the area — it is also, despite its domestic insularity, an important filter for the processes of westernisation as they affect other groups in society.


The upper middle class — in this group come the bulk of Singapore's professional men as well as many university teachers, upper echelon civil servants, executives and managers. Upper middle class families comprise about 1.5% to 2% of the population, and earn some 10% to 12% of total personal incomes. In terms of personal income, we can define the upper middle class as comprising people who earn between $25,000 and $50,000 per annum.

The younger generation of the upper middle class are almost ostentatiously 'progressive'. Theirs is a highly stylised 'progressiveness', often harshly materialistic, but above all emulative. The structure of local political power and influence, together with readily available material resources, make the upper middle class very much a status-seeking class. At this level of society, the bulk of an extensive accumulation of capital is invested in relatively unproductive channels: in conspicuous consumption, in real estate, and in stocks and shares. In short, there is relatively little innovation, and a high rate of unproductive — and often speculative — investment.


The intermediate middle class — it accounts page 9 [unclear: r] about 5% of the population. Within [unclear: es] class, personal incomes range bet[unclear: en] $12,000 and $25,000 per annum. [unclear: gain], occupational structure is pre[unclear: minantly] commercial: proprietors [unclear: middle]-scale provision stores, cloth[unclear: g], hardware, and electrical goods [unclear: res,] agencies and restuarants const [unclear: ate] a Urge group in commerce. This [unclear: ss] has a far higher proportion of [unclear: vernment] servants, professional men, [unclear: vice] workers, and qualified technical [unclear: rkers] such as engineers, surveyors, [unclear: ctors], architects, and chemists.

The intermediate middle class is some extent a class of frustrated [unclear: tus]-seekers, particularly in the [unclear: eld] of government service. Taxpayers [unclear: a] fixed salaries express this 'bourg[unclear: is] dissatisfaction' most strongly — [unclear: r] here are people with limited in[unclear: me]/capital resources, generally [unclear: esternized] in outlook, unable to [unclear: ep] up with the pace set by richer [unclear: ad] socially more mobile people in [unclear: rms] of material possession. Western [unclear: e] styles, and social status. There is [unclear: sentment] against an elitist government [unclear: rongly] inclined towards foreign [unclear: eonomic] interests and large scale cap[unclear: lism]. It is at this level, that the [unclear: rict] discipline exerted over government [unclear: vants] is most resented — particularly [unclear: mongst] teachers and the large number of [unclear: middle] echelon civil servants whose [unclear: omotion] too often depends upon [unclear: bservience] to departmental heads [unclear: nd] an all-pervasive P.A.P. party machine.


Lower middle class families [unclear: ccount] 15% of the total population. In [unclear: is] class, personal incomes range from [unclear: 5,000] to $12,000, The vast majority [unclear: f]ower middle class household heads [unclear: ork] in commercial and servicing occup[unclear: tions]. For the few in professional em[unclear: loyment], lower-scale teaching is the [unclear: ost] common occupation.

Lower middle class workers thus [unclear: chieve] status only after a considerable [unclear: eriod] of employment, and rarely by [unclear: irtue] of either capital accumulation [unclear: r] higher education. Low educational [unclear: uaifications] mean low starting salary, [unclear: nd] may be anything up to fifteen [unclear: ears] or twenty years of continuous [unclear: ployment] before a man can assume [unclear: iddle]-class status for himself and his [unclear: mily]. Aspirations any higher than [unclear: at] are generally reserved for his [unclear: ildren]. English-medium education [unclear: s] seen by him as the best guarantee [unclear: f] seure employment.

In general, the lower middle-class is a politically conservative group. It cannot afford the luxury of liberalism, or the stigma of socialism. Although by no means prosperous, it manages to survive at a level of economic and social stability which distinguishes it from the working class. Its circumstances are restricted, even static, but they are relatively secure and predictable: in so far as social and economic mobility is determined to a large extent by things such as children's education, long service in employment, and regular salaries, there is a vested interest in maintaining a stable base. The lower middle class is defensive: it has everything of lose by active political dissent, and nothing to lose by implicit support of the ruling regime. Indeed, political patronage is often regarded as a means of upward mobility — with the result that a good many P.A.P. cadres and party workers come from the lower middle class. Conversely, it is to this class that the government looks for support below the upper middle class.


The working class — the largest socio-economic grouping in Singapore is that which we can broadly define as the working class, embracing about 75% of the total population. Occupational status is uniformly low: workers are mainly skilled and unskilled labourers, craftsmen, hawkers, shop assistants, service workers, drivers, and own-account proprietors of petty trading and manufacturing concerns; amongst these people, employment is usually irregular, often daily-rated, and low-paid. For main wage-earners, incomes range between $50 and $400 a month (or $600 to $4,800 per annum). Living standards are therefore low, in terms of conditions of housing, the degree of overcrowding, nutritional levels, material possessions and educational opportunities. Within the working class, socio-economic and political discontent is stronger than in any other class, and oppostition to the ruling group is most prevalent. Inevitably, the heavy concentration of impoverished and near-impoverished people in a city such as Singapore encourages the growth of a strong and militant left-wing movement: amongst the poor in Singapore, revolutionary sentiment is a deep-seated and widespread reality, despite repression of all open-front left-wing organisations. Amongst poor Chinese there is strong cultural and political antagonism towards Western values — for such values are, basically, those of an elite which has neither the desire nor the ability to empathise with the mass of the local population.

A minority of working class households, perhaps 20%, belong to the upper working class. Employment remains characteristically dependent, particularly when it is unskilled and earnings are irregular. A change of job, or a growing dependency burden, may bring households close to poverty. On the other hand — with great effort, sacrifice and sustained education — children may move onto the lower rungs of the middle class. But the failure rate is high amongst such children, simply because their domestic situation in incompatible with proper education.

The frustration of these 'partly-educated' children is of critical importance in working class life — for through education are acquired aspirations which reality cannot fulfill, and the sense of dispossession is thereby sharpened. Thus, the barrier of 'class' is more tangible, and education — however abortive it may be in terms of simple economic betterment — plays a vital rule in creating within the working class a group of people able to articulate class sentiments and act as a catalyst for political action.

Amongst the lower working class, poverty or near poverty prevails. The tenuous opportunities apparent to the marginally better off members of society are non-existent, aspirations are lower, and the sense of this dispossession is complete, This is the world of the early drop-out, the economically derelict, and the chronically under-employed; a world in which hope seems pointless, in which people feel they have nothing to gain — and nothing to lose. Here are some half a million people drifting on the margins of poverty — and another half a million people existing completely and chronically in poverty.

From the above analysis, we can conclude that there is a marked disparity in Singapore between a mass of economically depressed workers and their families on the one hand and a small prosperous elite on the other.

On the Political Side

A moderately left-wing government, dominated by the Labour Front, assumed office in 1955, with David Marshall as Chief Minister. The aims of this new government were the achievement for Singapore of independence within the Commonwealth, and ultimate political merger between Singapore and Malaya. Between 1950 and 1957, leftwing pressures came to a head in a series of protests against the government and the colonial policy which controlled much of Singapore's economic, social and political life: there were strikes by unionists and Chinese Middle School students, rioting, and repressive government action, resulting in the arrest and imprisonment of many political leftwing figures. Inevitably, the division between Mandarin-educated and English-educated Chinese was given sharper focus by socio-economic disparities amongst the population. Socialist and nationalist ideals disseminated through Mandarin schools found fertile ground among the working class, organised labour, and the politically conscious but officially side-stepped the mass of people whose participation in government was inconsonant with a largely expatriate and English-educated upper middle-class administration.

In 1954, the People's Action Party was founded by a group of liberal, largely English-educated, nationalists. The party's secretary-general was Lee Kuan Yew. At its inception, the P.A.P. was non-socialist and, though nationalist, by no means rigidly anti-British. But to win popular support the P.A.P. needed the backing of Singapore's leftwing and Mandarin-educated Chinese. Thus, soon after its founding, the P.A.P. embarked upon a marriage of convenience with the radical left in Singapore. It was a marriage convenient to both groups, each hoping to outwit the other and gain overall political control before the decisive 1959 election. By 1958, it was clear that the liberal faction had outwitted the left-wing for control of the P.A.P. In 1956 and 1957, the colonial government interned most of the socialist leadership, and in 1957 the P.A.P. amended its constitution, giving ultimate power to Lee Kuan Yew.

The political conflict which characterised the 1950's and the first half of the 1960's is thus of fundamental importance to any understanding of the position of Singapore within the sphere of British and Malayan Alliance Party interests in the region. For it involved a number of critical questions: was a radical left-wing government in keeping with the rational of an entrepot economic system; was such a government liable to threaten the role Britain wished to preserve in the region, let alone its military role; was socialism likely to threaten the position of the Alliance government in Malaya — given its aim of the 'socialist unification' of the two territories; and what were the implications for communal relations of a pro-communist, basically Chinese orientated government in Singapore within a region dominated by Malays? The re-arrest and detention of the most effective left-wing leadership in February 1963 was the most dramatic single blow against the socialist oppostiion since 1957. In September the Federation of Malaysia, designed by the British who saw it as a way of countering the left-wing threat, came into being. It was followed by events including the declaration of 'Confrontation', Indonesia's embargo of trade with Malaysia, a costly build-up of British forces in the region and widespread unrest in Sarawak in 1964 and 1965.

It was hardly suprising, therefore, that the federal Union between Malaya and Singapore was shattered in 1965, within a wrath of political, economic, and communal acrimony.

Table 1 Singapore's Trade By Country & Sector, 1969 (summary percentages)
Country Imports major importing goods %age Exports major exporting goods %age
Malay Peninsular Indonesia Rubber, mining & quarrying, timber, palm oil 40 Manufacturing wholesale & retail trade 34
Japan, Western Europe, United States, Great Britain. Manufacturing wholesale & retail trade. 31 Rubber, mining & quarrying, timber, palm oil 30
Table 2 The Industrial Distribution of The Labour Force: 1947 & 1966 (summary percentages)
Industry 1947 census 1957 census 1966 survey
Primary 8.8% 7.4% 3.6%
Manufacturing 17.0% 15.7% 19.2%
Construction 2.7% 5.2% 6.4%
Public Utilities 0.2% 1.2% 1.4%
Commerce 24.0% 25.9% 23.7%
Trans., Star., & Communic. 15.3% 10.7% 9.7%
Service 31.9% 33.9% 35.8%