Monday, September 10, 2018

Jothie Rajah's "Authoritarian Rule of Law"

By closely examining five well-chosen case studies—the 1966 Vandalism Act, the 1974 Press Act, the 1986 Legal Profession (Amendment) Act, the 1991 Religious Harmony Act, and the 2009 Public Order Act—through the lens of critical discourse analysis, Jothie Rajah's Authoritarian Rule of Law: Legislation, Discourse and Legitimacy in Singapore shows how the Singapore state governs through the illiberal "rule by law" while claiming to do so through the liberal "rule of law." By legislating illiberal laws and dominating public discourse, the state has successfully silenced or co-opted, in turn, its early electoral opponents, the local press, the legal profession, the Catholic Church and other religious organizations, and local civil society--the major sources of non-state authority and mobilization.

How then, Rajah asks, does the Singapore state construct and maintain its legitimacy despite such illiberal moves? The answer, implicit throughout the book, is articulated clearly and powerfully in the last chapter. Besides delivering widely distributed material success to the populace, the Singapore state has relied on two main discursive strategies. First, "telling the history of the 'nation' in a manner that celebrates colonial rule..., and presenting the colonial legal system as an asset to the 'nation' dulls suspicion and scrutiny of colonial precedent." For an obvious instance, the state has extended colonial Emergency legality (detention without trial etc) into present-day non-Emergency Singapore. Less obviously, the state has subordinated and infantilized its citizenry just as once the British did. Rajah writes:
Instead of rejecting 'colonial', the nation-state adopts colonial precedents and elevates this adoption in a manner that masks the Othering subordination inherent to colonial legal ideologies. The state's discursive employment of 'English law' as a legitimising marker is rhetorically consistent with the state's claim that Singapore is a 'rule of law' Westminster-model parliamentary democracy. The neo-coloniality of continuties between colonial 'law' and 'national' law is masked through thus rhetoric, which is in turn consistent with the national narrative's celebration of colonial rule as the source of modernity, prosperity and the plural population.
Seen in this light, the state's decision to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Stamford Raffles' 'founding' of Singapore next year is not surprising or backward-looking or arbitrary, but entirely consistent with its governing ideology and citizen-directed pedagogy.

The second discursive strategy that the state deploys to legitimize its illiberal rule is the national narrative of extreme vulnerability, first to the threats of Communism and communalism during the Cold War, then to the threat of religious intolerance in the 80s and 90s, and then to the threat of terrorism in the new century. The threats change in the state narrative but the nation's 'vulnerability' stays the same, justifying the legal exceptionalism to the rule of law that the state claims to abide by.

Rajah's argument gives me two ideas for counter-narratives, ideas that are not entirely new but brought into sharp focus by this fiercely intelligent book. First, to counter the neo-colonial narrative, we need to focus more sharply and unrelentingly on the injustices and harm of colonial rule in Singapore. Second, to turn the vulnerability narrative to a more progressive use, we need to tell the stories of the truly vulnerable segments of Singapore society, namely, the poor, the elderly, LGBT teens, single moms, and migrant workers.

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