Singapore, Incomplete is a collection of essays about the country’s underdeveloped democracy by the author of Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation. Following Lee Kuan Yew’s death and the ruling party’s resounding 2015 election victory, and as the government prepares to transition to a fourth-generation leadership, Cherian George contemplates the unfinished business of political liberalisation and multicultural integration. He calls for a more open system that will protect and celebrate a diversity of ideas and beliefs.

from the back cover


Selected chapters are free for download.

Preface > Download

  1. Accidental citizens: It’s time we cultivated deeper appreciation for our diversity
  2. Justice and equality: There’s more to handling race and religion than avoiding riots > Download
  3. The power of symbols: The 2017 presidential turnover was a missed opportunity > Download
  4. 391 Orchard Road: Xenophobia turned a commercial space into a national icon
  5. Morality police: Conservative values needn’t restrict adults’ cultural choices
  6. Infamous Amos: His provocation was wrong, but that doesn’t make the law right
  7. Demophobic society: Singapore’s allergy to the D-word weakens us
  8. From 2011 to 2015: The PAP corrected its policies, but not its policymaking style
  9. Winter is here: Since the 2011 general election, a chill has descended on political debate
  10. Freak elections: Elites underestimate the sophistication of the electorate
  11. Open government: An ombudsman can relieve pressure for government accountability
  12. 6.9 million: The Population White Paper revealed a lack of internal debate
  13. The fog of fear: If the rules are going to stay, they should at least be clarified > Download
  14. Elite cohesion: The Lee family feud tested Singapore’s unique establishment unity > Download
  15. Disturbing the peace: Singaporeans have peculiarly low tolerance for troublemakers
  16. Political sweet spot: The lack of protest results from an exceptional balancing act
  17. Calibrated coercion: The state has grown in power by moderating its use of force > Download
  18. Freedom of speech: Singapore can strike a better balance between tyranny and anarchy > Download
  19. Dreaded defamation: It’s time to rethink Singapore’s most chilling speech law > Download
  20. Holding the press: The media are free to earn profits, but not popular support > Download
  21. The digital gap: Our vibrant internet space still lacks independent journalism
  22. Academic interests: Our universities have arrived globally, but left the local behind > Published in Times Higher Education
  23. Reputational risk: NTU gave me a personal tutorial in how the system works > Download
  24. Active citizens: We shouldn’t silence civil society’ voices of conscience
  25. The LKY legacy: Lee Kuan Yew isn’t to blame if Singapore can’t let go of him > Published in New Mandala
  26. A PAP wish list: I can imagine becoming a PAP fan if its leaders can imagine reforms
  27. Reforming the PAP: Future leaders must make changes their predecessors resisted > Download
  28. Accidental losers: Our future completeness requires reconciliation with our past


Singapore, Incomplete was conceived as a compilation of essays about Singapore politics and society. Like my first such anthology, Singapore: the Airconditioned Nation, it builds on commentaries I’ve written over the years. Airconditioned Nation, published in 2000, was based on my columns written as a Straits Times journalist in the 1990s. Singapore, Incomplete includes views published over the last decade on my blogs, Airconditioned Nation and Freedom From The Press, and my academic books. However, several of the essays were written specifically for the book.

I self-published this book to give me more financial and creative control over the project. It’s published under the imprint “Woodsville News”. I last used this name more than 40 years ago. Woodsville Road is the name of the street in Singapore where I grew up, and Woodsville News was the family newspaper I wrote during the school holidays when I was nine.

I knew I’d found the cover art for my book even before I started writing it. When I visited the Singapore Art Museum in January 2016, it was holding a special exhibition, 5 Stars; Art reflects on Peace, Justice, Equality, Democracy and Progress, to mark the 50th year of Singapore’s independence. SAM commissioned Matthew Ngui to work on the theme of Democracy. His installation, “Every Point of View” was a captivating, immersive experience comprising a forest of plastic pipes with seeming gibberish painted on them.

When viewed from the right spot, though, the fragments come together to form quotations about democracy. “You have to be at a particular point to understand each perspective,” Ngui told one interviewer. “Democracy is a way to work with these conflicts. In any society we have competing viewpoints and desires which democracy can help to balance.” I stayed a long time and took several photos. I’m very grateful to SAM and Matthew for letting me use these images for my book cover.

Book launch

Hong Kong Baptist University School of Communication


I wrote this book to spark a conversation about the kind of politics we need. After a series of great dialogues at events in Singapore and Hong Kong in December, I took part in an online Q&A on Reddit’s Ask Me Anything forum. You can read the entire discussion here. Or visit my Facebook notes for extracts on the political succession issue and politics and media.