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Pragmatic competence and communication governance in Singapore

Lee, T.ORCID: 0000-0003-3333-0076 (2019) Pragmatic competence and communication governance in Singapore. In: Rahim, L. and Barr, M., (eds.) The Limits of Authoritarian Governance in Singapore's Developmental State. Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 233-253.

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This chapter offers a contemporary analysis of communication governance—or the way in which communication is managed or controlled—and electoral outcomes in Singapore. The chapter begins with a brief introduction to Singapore’s media environment and its media economics, and considers how the much-vaunted ideology of pragmatism has been used to shape the way Singaporeans understand the role of the media and their communicative engagement with the government. The chapter applies the linguistic discourse of ‘pragmatic competence’, understood quite simply as the mastery of social language skills we use to cut thought or make sense in our daily interactions and conversations with others, to explain how the People’s Action Party (PAP) was able to experience voters’ backlash at the general election in 2011 (and at the 2012 and 2013 by-elections in Hougang SMC and Punggol East SMC) and claw back strong popular support less than five years later in 2015. As much as elections are typically won (or lost) on policy rationales and responsiveness, the 2011 and 2015 general elections also demonstrated the growing significance of assiduous communication governance and the ability of the PAP government leaders to communicate competently, despite the authoritarian construct of Singapore’s national media system. The chapter then considers the ways in which the regaining of political power can lead to a gradual loss of pragmatic competence, particularly in an authoritarian context like Singapore. Indeed, it looks at how the government has again moved to tighten its media and communitive space by seeking to rein in alternative viewpoints and to regulate ‘fake news’. In this regard, it considers the impact of a well-publicised family dispute between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his siblings, Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang, over the last will of their father, Lee Kuan Yew, in relation to the demolition of the late Lee’s family home that lasted for several weeks from June to July 2017. The exchanges between the siblings—and with a number of senior ministers in the Cabinet—which took place initially on the social media platform of Facebook before the mainstream media reported on it are highly instructive to our understanding of communication governance, not least because the siblings expressly referred to the national press in Singapore as timid and cowed. The media, communication and political landscapes in Singapore point to the ever-growing role of pragmatic competence in communication governance. In fact, it is an aspect of politics that can no longer be ignored as Singapore will continue to face up to urgent social, technological and economic challenges as well as generational leadership changes over the future electoral cycles. The truly competent solution would be to liberalise media and communication spaces and to allow genuine political discourse to be conducted, but the ideological impetus of the PAP is to continue on its trajectory of control—this is considered as the pragmatic thing to do, at least for now.

Item Type: Book Chapter
Murdoch Affiliation: Asia Research Centre
School of Arts
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Copyright: © 2019 The Author(s)
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