Pragmatic Competence and Communication Governance in Singapore



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.


  1. Brennan, E. (2015, March 23) ‘Lee Kuan Yew: Singapore’s Great Pragmatist’, The Drum, Australia Broadcasting Corporation. Accessed 1 February 2016.
  2. Carston, R. (2002) Thoughts and Utterances: The Pragmatics of Explicit Communication, Oxford: Blackwell.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Channel NewsAsia. (2015, December 21) How Singapore will remember the week Mr Lee Kuan Yew passed away. Accessed 25 January 2016.
  4. Chong, T. (2011) ‘Election Rallies: Performances in Dissent, Identity, Personalities and Power’, in Tan, K.Y.L. and Lee, T. (eds.) Voting in Change: Politics of Singapore’s 2011 General Election (pp. 115−130), Singapore: Ethos Books.Google Scholar
  5. Chua, B.H. (2017) Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore, Singapore: NUS Press.Google Scholar
  6. Collier, J. and Talmont-Kaminski, K. (2005) ‘Pragmatist Pragmatics: The Functional Context of Utterances’, Philosophica, 75, 61−87.Google Scholar
  7. Cunningham, S., Flew, T. and Swift, A. (2015) Media Economics, London: Palgrave.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. East Asia Forum. (2017, June 22) Dynastic demolition in Singapore?. Accessed 24 June 2017.
  9. Financial Times. (2017, July 6) Singapore’s Lee Family calls public truce over feud. Accessed 13 August 2017.
  10. George, C. (2012) Freedom from the Press: Journalism and State Power in Singapore, Singapore: NUS Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. George, C. (2011) ‘Internet Politics: Shouting down the PAP’, In Tan, K.Y.L. and Lee, T. (eds.) Voting in Change: Politics of Singapore’s 2011 General Election (pp. 145−160). Singapore: Ethos Books.Google Scholar
  12. George, C. (2006) Contentious Journalism and the Internet: Towards Democratic Discourse in Malaysia and Singapore, Seattle: University of Washington Press.Google Scholar
  13. Lam, P.E. (2015) ‘New Normal or Anomaly: 2015 General Election and PAP’s Electoral Landslide’, In Lee, T. and Tan, K.Y.L. (eds) Change in Voting: Singapore’s 2015 General Election (pp. 246−264), Singapore: Ethos Books.Google Scholar
  14. Lam, P.E. (2011) ‘The Voters Speak: Voices, Choices and Implications’, In Tan, K.Y.L. and Lee, T. (eds.) (2011) Voting in Change: Politics of Singapore’s 2011 General Election (pp. 173−196), Singapore: Ethos Books.Google Scholar
  15. Lee, T. (2016) ‘Forging an ‘Asian’ media fusion: Singapore as a 21st century media hub’, Media International Australia, 158(1), 80−89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Lee, T. (2011) ‘Mainstream Media Reporting in the Lead-up to GE2011’, In Tan, K.Y.L. and Lee, T. (eds.) Voting in Change: Politics of Singapore’s 2011 General Election (pp. 131−144), Singapore: Ethos Books.Google Scholar
  17. Lee, T. (2010) The Media, Cultural Control and Government in Singapore, London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Lee, T. (2008) ‘Gestural Politics: Mediating the ‘New’ Singapore’, In Sen, K. and Lee, T. (eds) Political Regimes and the Media in Asia (pp. 170−187), London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  19. Lee, T. and Tan, K.Y.L. (2016) Change in Voting: Singapore’s 2015 General Election, Singapore: Ethos Books.Google Scholar
  20. Lee, T. and Willnat, L. (2009) ‘Media Management and Political Communication in Singapore’, In Lars Willnat and Annette Aw (eds) Political Communication in Asia (pp. 93−111), New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  21. Lim, C. (2011) A Watershed Election: Singapore’s GE 2011, Singapore: Marshall Cavendish International.Google Scholar
  22. Liu, S. (n.d.) ‘What is Pragmatics?’, Available: Accessed 5 April 2017.
  23. Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) (2012, June 27) ‘Appointment to the Government Information Service’, Press Release, Accessed 10 December 2013.
  24. Ortmann, S. (2010) Politics and Change in Singapore and Hong Kong: Containing contention, London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  25. Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) (2013) Reflections of Our Singapore Conversation, Singapore: Government of Singapore.Google Scholar
  26. Remaking Singapore Committee (2003) Changing Mindsets, Deepening Relationships: The Report of the Remaking Singapore Committee, Singapore: Government of Singapore.Google Scholar
  27. Rodan, G. (2004) Transparency and Authoritarian Rule in Southeast Asia: Singapore and Malaysia, London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Rodan, G. (2003) ‘Embracing electronic media but suppressing civil society: Authoritarian Consolidation in Singapore’, The Pacific Review, 16(4), 503−24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Rodan, G. (1989) The Political Economy of Singapore’s Industrialization, Selangor: Macmillan Press Ltd.Google Scholar
  30. Seow, F. (1998) The Media Enthralled: Singapore Revisited, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.Google Scholar
  31. Singapore 21: Together We Make the Difference (1999) Singapore: Government of Singapore.Google Scholar
  32. Tan, E.K.B. (2011) ‘Election Issues’, In Tan, K.Y.L. and Lee, T. (eds.) Voting in Change: Politics of Singapore’s 2011 General Election (pp. 27−48), Singapore: Ethos Books.Google Scholar
  33. Tan, K.P. (2012) ‘The Ideology of Pragmatism: Neo-liberal Globalisation and Political Authoritarianism in Singapore’, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 42(1), 67−92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Tan, K.Y.L. and Lee, T. (eds.) (2011) Voting in Change: Politics of Singapore’s 2011 General Election, Singapore: Ethos Books.Google Scholar
  35. The Economist. (2015, March 22) ‘Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore: An Astonishing Record’. Accessed 1 February 2016.
  36. The Guardian. (2015, March 23) Lee Kuan Yew leaves a legacy of authoritarian pragmatism. Accessed 10 December 2015.
  37. The Interpreter. (2017, June 21) Singapore’s informative family feud. Accessed 22 June 2017.
  38. The Straits Times. (2011, November 21) PAP: We hear you, we will change. The Straits Times. (2015, July 26) The Kuan Yew factor in winning over voters. Accessed 27 July 2015.
  39. The Straits Times. (2015a, August 15) Polling Day on Sept 11, Nomination Day on Sept 1 as general election is called in Singapore.Google Scholar
  40. The Straits Times. (2015b, September 8) No guarantee PAP will be in government after polls: Khaw.Google Scholar
  41. The Straits Times. (2015c, September 12) PAP wins big with 69.9 per cent of votes.Google Scholar
  42. The Straits Times. (2015d, September 15) GE2015 has assured Singapore's future beyond SG50: PM Lee. Available: Accessed 19 August 2017.
  43. The Straits Times. (2016, February 5) PAP won GE2015 before campaign began: Polling firm Blackbox Research. Accessed 8 February 2016.
  44. The Straits Times. (2017a, April 3) Fake News: Current laws ‘offer limited remedies’. Accessed 3 April 2017.
  45. The Straits Times. (2017b, June 19) New legislation to combat fake news likely to be introduced next year: Shanmugam. Accessed 19 June 2017.
  46. The Straits Times. (2017c, June 30) Lee Hsien Yang: I’ve no confidence of a fair account in Parliament. Accessed 30 June 2017.
  47. The Straits Times. (2017d, July 5) ‘No abuse of power by me or Government, says PM Lee’, Available: Accessed 10 July 2017.
  48. Trocki, C.A. (2006) Singapore: Wealth, power and the culture of control, London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Vasil, R. (2000) Governing Singapore: A history of national development and democracy, Australia: Allen & Unwin.Google Scholar
  50. Wong, K. (2001) Media and Culture in Singapore: Theory of Controlled Commodification, Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.Google Scholar
  51. Yao, S. (2007) Singapore: The State and the culture of excess, London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Yule, G. (1996) Pragmatics, New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Arts and Asia Research CentreMurdoch UniversityMurdochAustralia

Personalised recommendations