Everyday Authoritarianism

A Political Anthropology of Singapore

Author: Nur Amali Ibrahim


Observers of Singapore agree that its state is authoritarian. Complicating such accounts of Singaporean authoritarianism, this paper shows authoritarianism is not simply state-driven or top-down as commonly assumed, but involves diffuse governing processes. The paper describes a recent high-profile case involving Amos Yee, an eighteen year-old blogger who made a video mocking Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding prime minister, shortly after Lee's death in 2015. The teenager was incarcerated for the video, but only after ordinary citizens filed police reports and subjected him to online and physical abuse, suggesting that the people were acting as the state's partners in punishment. Yee's case shows that authoritarianism can have an everyday dimension, and that it can be reproduced by ordinary citizens who punish fellow citizens perceived to be acting in adversarial manners towards the nation-state. The everyday authoritarianism of recent years is a reassertion of patriotism – a response to the insecurities caused by the rapid movement of people, capital, and ideas in the neoliberal economy. Everyday authoritarianism helps explain the longevity of Singaporean state authoritarianism, how it has managed to withstand multiple democratic challenges, and why it may survive long after Lee Kuan Yew, its chief architect, is dead.

Countries: Singapore

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© 2004 ILO/Cassidy K.