Technical Expertise and Objective Knowledge in Singapore’s Democracy

Marcus Teo, LL.B., National University of Singapore

We live in an age of experts, and this is certainly felt in Singapore. Concepts like ‘expertise’ are crucial to the legitimacy of the ruling People’s Action Party (the ‘PAP’), whose philosophy of government is premised upon a belief in, and a belief of, objective technical expertise – specifically, a belief that the complex problems faced by modern society can only be dealt with by specialized expert knowledge, produced by meritocratically-chosen leaders. In the words of Kenneth Paul Tan, the dominant conception of government in Singapore ‘privileges [a] technocratic mode of governance over political and democratic modes, so that the practice of administration – portrayed as expert, technical, scientific, rational, value-free and pragmatic – can enjoy protection from political and ideological contestation’. According to this perspective, it is the expert, with the rationality and the clarity of thought to know the objective best way forward, which provides the hope for the continuation of Singapore’s bright future.

The notion of rule by technical experts – technocracy –remains controversial. A classic objection to technocratic government is that it is inherently undemocratic: if people cannot understand the experts who influence or run government (the ‘experts-in-government’), they cannot meaningfully check them, and thus cannot effectively exercise their right of self-government to ensure that their elected representatives carry out their will. The PAP’s response to this criticism tends to be that its brand of technocratic politics cannot be undemocratic, since it is consistently endorsed through the ballet box. At first glance, this response appears satisfactory: since Singaporeans tend to be highly educated, yet continuously support the PAP in every election by an overwhelming majority, one might argue that Singapore’s technocracy is anything but undemocratic. This conclusion, however, would be over-simplistic. A more nuanced understanding of the notions of the ‘expertise’ and ‘objective knowledge’ that the PAP’s experts-in-government purport to have will have to show that a democratic deficit still exists in Singapore’s technocracy. 

This refined objection to Singapore’s technocracy may be made as follows: assertions of ‘expertise’ are in fact implicit assertions of ideological or value-laden choices, and that such assertions, made by experts-in-government, are difficult to refute because of the manner and the context in which they are made. This objection proceeds from three points: first, that expert ‘knowledge’ is largely, if not inherently, subjective; second, that this subjectivity is ideological and partisan; and third, that in government, such ideological and partisan ‘expertise’ is particularly influential, being shielded from the checks that democratic society can readily place on other individual experts who are members of the public (‘individual experts’). 

Expert ‘knowledge’, far from being objective understandings of facts, is subjectively constructed. An understanding of scientific or quasi-scientific ‘knowledge’ as objective and developed through new discoveries made through objectively-correct methodologies, incrementally building on prior learning, is flawed. As Thomas Kuhn notes, even in the context of scientific knowledge, the history of knowledge actually consists of a series of changing ‘paradigms’, being bodies of fundamental principles and assumptions capable of reconciling and forming a network of overlapping theories. When new discoveries and theories are introduced, paradigms must stretch and expand to accommodate them – and when the boundaries of scientific rationalization no longer permit further accommodation, the dominant paradigm must be totally replaced by another. 

This is not to say, of course, that objective facts do not exist – only that significant progress or revolutions in scientific knowledge are not incremental additions to a body of ‘knowledge’, but instead re-thinkings of the very idea of ‘knowledge’ in any given field. Thus, the notion that expert ‘knowledge’ is objective knowledge is challenged: our ‘knowledge’ of objective facts is subjective – a castle built on sand, susceptible to the tides of change. Thus, while objective scientific or quasi-scientific facts do exist, our ‘knowledge’ of such – our lens of understanding the same – cannot hope to be similarly objective.

That ‘knowledge’ is subjective does not necessarily mean it is a threat to democracy. After all, objective facts do exist. So even if we must muddle through life relying on mere visions of those ‘facts’ tainted by the subjective biases of those who discover them, we are at least better off than we would be if we were led by absolute amateurs in the ‘science’ of government. Thus, it would be rational and defensible for a people to choose to delegate a fair amount of their task of self-governance to experts. 

However, when ‘knowledge’ is alleged not just to be subjective, but also partisan and biased toward the interests of one group over another, the threat it poses to democracy appears far greater. It is precisely this second criticism that Jürgen Habermas makes. Habermas argues that any assertion that ‘knowledge’ and ‘rationality’ are superior to, and to be preferred over, other ideologies is necessarily partisan. To Habermas, a preference for ‘rational’ knowledge is a preference for ‘the “efficiency” or “economy” of procedures to the exclusion of traditional or cultural values, which, ‘within the framework of [supposedly “value-neutral” rationalism’s] understanding of itself…[are] justified as though they were values’. Thus, Habermas warns that ‘the concept of rationality… ultimately implies an entire organization of society: one in which a technology become autonomous dictates a value system’, and ‘all the other interests of the practice of life are subordinated for the benefit of the sole interest in efficiency and economy in the utilization of means’

As an example of the above dynamic, take the Singapore government’s policy of frequently treating two drug traffickers involved in the same or similar criminal enterprises differently, depending on how much they can assist the Central Narcotic Bureau with disrupting the drug trade. This governmental policy is one which is purportedly justified by expert knowledge: various expert opinions, on matters such as ‘[the offender’s] moral blameworthiness, the gravity of the harm caused to the public welfare by his criminal activity…whether there is sufficient evidence against a particular offender, whether the offender is willing to cooperate with law enforcement authorities in providing intelligence, [and] whether one offender is willing to testify against his co-offenders’ may legitimately be relied on and balanced against each other. Yet, the rationalities that these expert opinions are based on (i.e. the logic that these experts engage in to differentiate a ‘good’ opinion from a ‘bad’ opinion) will necessarily be based on, and will thus necessarily prioritise the promotion of, certain underlying values – minimising further drug activity, and quickly convicting offenders, for example. By contrast, to the extent that other more ‘sentimental’ values like mercy and the rehabilitation of the individual drug trafficker are considered, they will be accommodated simply as exceptions to the rule, and ranked as lower-priority values.

If the concept of ‘rational knowledge’ asserts a particular ideological or value-laden vision upon a society, how are other members of that society to resist such ideologies and assert their own? After all, if only experts can understand each other, how can laypeople identify and challenge the ideologies and values that expert opinions implicitly assert? Deliberative democracy – a polity’s commitment to decide how best to govern itself through the open and fair discussion of ideas – provides a solution in theory: the use of individual experts as proxies and representatives for interest groups in society. ‘Experts’ will not all be partisan in the same way, and will likely be found across the political and ideological spectrum. Thus, even if only experts can understand each other, the open contestation of ideas necessary for democratic self-governance is still possible if individual experts become proxies for various interest groups in society. These individual experts can deliberate and shape ‘knowledge’ in line with the interests groups they represent, and distill the ideologies implicit in the ‘knowledge’ espoused by other experts, for the public’s consideration. Through this deliberative democratic process with individual experts as representatives, society may ultimately come to accept the ideological precepts of one paradigm of knowledge in a given field, thus crystallising a democratically-determined ‘truth’ in that field, as free from partisan subjectivity as possible. On the basis of such ‘truths’, other debates may then be had, and other conclusions, drawn. 

However – and this is the crux of the problem – this solution of democratizing expert discourse to limit expert influence, while effective in limiting the influence of the opinions of the individual expert, is far less effective against the opinions of the expert-in-government. This is because the expert-in-government’s paradigm of ‘knowledge’ is protected and reinforced by the institutions of state. As Stephen Turner notes, ‘[s]ince a great deal of political authority in modern democratic regimes resides in discretionary actions of bureaucrats, the control of the bureaucracy by [a partisan expert] can amount to the denial of the original premises of liberal regimes.’ The only obstacle the expert-in-government faces to transforming his opinions into governmental policy is the formal democratic process, as constituted by existing institutions of constitutional and parliamentary politics, the dominant form of which is simply accountability to parliament. 

Yet, as Turner argues, such accountability is structurally deficient when used against the expert-in-government, since it is very indirect and largely abstract. Indeed, because the information the expert-in-government’s opinions are based on will often be confidential, and because that expert’s opinions are eventually aggregated alongside others in the larger policy-making exercise, if that expert’s opinions leads to poor policy decisions, it will be unclear which expert opinion was flawed, why it was flawed and how those flaws contributed to the poor policy decision. Consequently, these systems of government which subscribe to the paradigms of knowledge espoused by specific experts-in-government become largely invulnerable to the only democratic check available in the context of constitutional politics. In such situations, as Michel Foucault argues, individuals who wish to challenge a specific policy decision cannot challenge the opinion of the expert in isolation; instead, they must challenge ‘the political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth’ as a whole – any challenge that falls short of that may simply be refuted on grounds that the policy decision, even if flawed, is on balance worth tolerating because the technocratic government does generally ‘get things right’ in that field of policy-making, and in the task of government more broadly.

As an example of the above dynamic, we return to the prosecutorial policy in relation to drug traffickers discussed above. Say an individual or community wishes to oppose the application of this policy. They cannot simply hope to succeed by challenging the defensibility of the opinions of one or several experts-in-government (i.e. experts in drug trafficking, or experts in criminal prosecution) who contribute to the formulation of that policy: these experts-in-government will be largely unidentifiable, and their specific contributions to the policy even more so. Left with no other recourse, these opposers must allege that the Singapore government’s policy on managing the problem of drug trafficking in general is ‘bad’ – and to do so, must challenge ‘the political, economic [and] institutional regime’ which constitutes the idea of ‘good government’ dominant in Singapore. 

Since such policy (and political) upheaval each time an expert-in-government’s opinion is challenged is an impractical way for a people to govern itself, we are left with a real dilemma. We cannot understand ‘knowledge’ objectively, and must thus rely on the ‘knowledge’ and opinions of partisan experts-in-government, whose ideological biases we are susceptible to, and whose expert opinions and policy decisions based on those biases we cannot effectively challenge after the event. How can effective democratic self-government still be maintained in the face of this challenge?

Two brief cumulative suggestions are made here. First, we the people must delimit the proper scope of ‘expertise’ in Singaporean society. From a theoretical point of view, this involves drawing a line in the sand dividing those fields of knowledge to be considered ‘scientific’ from those which are considered ‘unscientific’. As Turner argues, the provenance of ‘science’ is, ultimately and irreducibly, a political question – not in the sense that there is no objective ‘truth’, but in the sense that, because our understandings of ‘truth’ are necessarily partisan, any ‘truth’ on the matter should be defined by a people for itself, based on their perceptions of what ‘works’ for them and what doesn’t. In this light, what differentiates fields like quantum physics or molecular biology from ‘religious’ science is simply popular democratic opinion about what issues one can meaningfully have ‘knowledge’ in. This political question can and should be asked in the context of government as well: we can accept macroeconomic, resource management or defence policymaking as objective fields of ‘science’ in which a government official may have ‘knowledge’ and develop ‘expertise’ in – but we must also ask whether we should also accept, for example, the PAP government’s position that the ‘public interest’ is a field in which such ‘knowledge’ and ‘expertise’ can also exist.

Second, we must ensure that the demographic of experts-in-government on any policy-making field should represent a diverse range of ideological positions that experts in that field have taken in society. After all, if democracy in the age of experts can only exist by way of reliance on experts as proxies, then a society must ensure that these experts are, in fact, representative of the different interest groups. To the PAP government’s credit, it has recognized the need to combat ‘groupthink’ among its policy-makers, even if its solutions to diversify experts-in-governments in various policy fields are not always apparent. Singapore’s democracy can avoid being beholden to an ideological technocracy by nipping the problem in the bud – but this is possible only if true representativeness among experts-in-government exists, and only if the procedure for the appointment of experts-in-government in place ensures adequate representativeness. There will be no antidotes short of revolution for groupthink and ideological hegemony once experts-in-government are already appointed.

Singapore does already have a firmly-entrenched technocracy, and one might well argue that it is on the whole a far better thing for Singaporeans than otherwise. But unless Singaporeans insist on a proper provenance of democratic decision-making beforehand, experts-in-government will be making all of Singapore’s crucial decisions for it unless they are voted out. Surely, there must be a more practical middle-ground solution. In short, this solution to technocratic government is to insist on a democratic determination of the legitimate scope of ‘expertise’, and then to insist on a democratically-representative corpus of experts-in-government during the policy-making process. 

About the author:

Marcus is a Teaching Assistant at the NUS Faculty of Law, and was previously a researcher at NUS’ Centre for International Law. He teaches courses on constitutional and administrative law and the Singapore legal system. He also researches in those fields, as well as the fields of private international law and foreign relations law.

Marcus is also an advocate and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Singapore, and continues to practice in the field of constitutional and administrative law.

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Featured image: 1963 HARBOUR WORKERS’ UNREST: Mr Lee speaking to workers from the Singapore Harbour Board. When members of the Singapore Harbour Board Staff Association decided to proceed with a strike after he promised a S$2 million award for wage claims, he deregistered the union on July 22, 1963. – picture via ST files

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