by Jothie Rajah. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 364pp. Hardback. $120. ISBN: 9781107012417.

Reviewed by David Gurnham, Reader in Law, University of Southampton, UK.


Singapore occupies a curious place in post-colonial history. It became an independent nation in 1965, not because of a struggle to free itself from the colonial yoke, but because it was expelled from Malaysia. Its remarkable economic development since that time is well known, as Singapore has been immensely successful as a growth economy and as an attractive prospect for foreign investment. It is also well known that independent Singapore has achieved a high level of social stability, albeit at a certain cost: a tendency towards authoritarianism, with severe penal sanctions, a strong executive and a relatively weak parliament dominated by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). What is less widely understood is precisely how the government of Singapore has sought to use the institutions and mechanisms of law, inherited from colonial rule, to shore up its authority and to resist and suppress dissent in almost all forms while maintaining legal and political credibility. It is to readers unfamiliar with this story that Jothie Rajah’s important book is addressed.

Authoritarian Rule of Law is one of a growing number of scholarly studies of the role of law, its institutions and actors in Post-colonial Asia, and the challenges for realizing the ideals of political liberalism in Asian legal contexts. I come to this work soon after reading Yves Dezalay and Bryant G. Garth’s Asian Legal Revivals in which Singapore featured as an example of an independent nation whose professional lawyers and judges, many of them products of the same education and training in the English university system and Bar, have failed to assert themselves as champions of the rule of law and judicial independence. Rajah joins this complaint and amplifies it. In five chapters she describes how the government of Singapore (represented almost entirely by the country’s charismatic and ferocious long-time Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew) systematically destroyed every significant opportunity for civil society to offer counter-narratives to the ‘official’ government line.

An attractive aspect of this book is that it brings an original intellectual perspective to the legal context that it describes, which is clear and precise in its application. Rajah distinguishes between on the one hand the ‘rule of law’ as it is commonly understood in the ideals of political liberalism, and on the other hand ‘rule by law’, exemplified by authoritarian Singapore. ‘Rule by law’ describes the use of law by a government to legitimize the measures it takes to bolster its own power and exclude others from access to public fora in which to challenge it. The thesis of the book is essentially that Singaporean rule, which has largely meant the imposition of the [*525] personal will of Prime Minister Lee upon all arms of state, has consistently relied on rhetoric of ‘rule of law’, ‘nation’ and ‘exceptionalism’. The combination of these notions shouldn’t work: indeed they are contradictory, even in the ways in which the government has used them, because a state of ‘exception’ (justifying the curtailing of rights and liberties) seems to have remained a permanent fixture in Singaporean political discourse. And yet they have worked inasmuch as the government has succeeded in conflating ‘the state’ and the national interests of Singapore with ‘government’ and the power of the executive to curb liberties and de-politicize the public realm. The effect of these measures has been to characterize all opposition to the government by PAP as unpatriotic opposition to the state as a whole, suffocating political opposition.

Chapter 2 sets out a theoretical perspective grounded in Foucault’s writing that gives shape to the book’s overriding themes of power and discourse. Foucault is never again discussed, but rather only implied by a constant concern about the Singaporean state’s hegemonic use of ‘rule of law’ discourse to justify its authoritarianism. Therefore, Foucault does not so much inform the argument as merely announce it, yet Rajah does manage to present a convincing case about the use of rhetoric and power by the Singaporean state. Taking the legislative measures enacted to suppress street protest, criticism in the press, lawyers who represent political ‘undesirables’, and outspoken religious activists and groups as case studies, she describes how the Singaporean state has appealed simultaneously to conflicting ‘facts’. The first of these facts is Singapore’s constitutional arrangement: its Constitution, its judiciary and elected parliament, and the operation of these, which lend ‘rule of law’ legitimacy to exercises of executive power. The second is Singapore’s vulnerability as a new, small state to detracting forces such as communism, violence, fanaticism, and the like. Thirdly, Singapore’s distinct identity as a multicultural post-colonial ‘Asian’ state and hence with values different from the West, albeit ones also connected to British common law traditions. Used in conjunction, the Singaporean state has sought to ensure that its citizens are protected from being ‘confused’ or ‘led astray’ by ‘communists’, ‘foreigners’ and other enemies of the state that supposedly infiltrated parliament, the media, the Law Society and religious groups. Unopposed in parliament, the government has been able to legislate for detention without trial or appeal, and ministerial discretion unfettered by judicial review. Quoting from original sources, Rajah shows how Prime Minister Lee used the select committee format – which in other countries has ensured transparency – to publicly intimidate, bully and lecture those who he regarded as opposing him in the Law Society, further strengthening the executive position.

The book is also set out with refreshing clarity of structure. The book proper begins at chapter 3, in which Rajah describes PAP’s decimation of left-wing political opposition in Parliament by identifying opposition parties as communist enemies of the state and arresting them, and then the suppression of dissent in the Vandalism Act 1966. Rajah demonstrates how, both in the 1960s and 1990s, expressions of political [*526] dissent were collectively identified as ‘vandalism’ that threatened the fragile new nation, and punishable with sentences that included the colonial-era humiliation of caning. In chapter 4, Rajah’s attention turns to the press, and the breathtakingly effective way in which criticism of Prime Minister Lee’s government in newspapers was stifled by the Newspaper and Printing Act 1974. Then in chapter 5 we learn of the Legal Profession (Amendment) Act 1986: equally ruthless in excluding the Law Society from involvement in ‘politics’ by legislating for the detention without trial of lawyers who represented those already deemed to be enemies of the state. Chapter 6 concerns religion, and the way that the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act prevented – without ever really being used – religious groups from speaking about ‘political’ issues in public. In all examples, Rajah demonstrates how the Singaporean public has been infantalized by being prevented from hearing an ‘alternative discourse’ about law, power and justice from the one imposed by the state.

Rajah positions herself both inside and outside of the law and politics of Singapore. As a graduate in both law and English of the National University of Singapore (the denigration of which by Cambridge-educated Prime Minister Lee Rajah tellingly notes), the author can legitimately claim to be a ‘product’ of the Singaporean system. She recounts her early education in which, like so many young Singaporeans, she was taught the flagrant lie that Singapore is a nation whose constitution and legal system are built upon the ideals of the ‘rule of law’. However, her critical position puts Rajah necessarily quite outside of the discursive channels of Singaporean political discourse. Indeed, ‘the people’, who the state has taken such pains to keep away from politics, emerge in Rajah’s text as having at best a minimal opportunity to become politically informed or engaged, even in the age of the internet. What is impressive about Rajah’s writing is that she manages to create an intense feeling of frustration in the reader on matters of legal principle. This is true not only with regards the lack of means by which Singaporeans can participate meaningfully and productively in political action. It is true also in Rajah’s accounts of the inability of those media and law professionals who, appallingly accused of endangering the state through public engagements entirely consistent with the needs of political discourse, failed to stand up to the intimidation they have been subjected to, to counter the state’s rhetoric and defend the rule of law more effectively. As I said at the beginning, this is an important book for its insightful and original analysis of ‘rule of law’ rhetoric deployed to keen effect. With the exception of the rather half-hearted nod to Foucault in chapter 2, this is a clear, direct and insightful analysis that deserves a wide readership.


Dezalay Yves, and Bryant G. Garth. 2010. Asian Legal Revivals. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Copyright 2012 by the Author, David Gurnham