Everyone’s Favorite Authoritarian State

From the Internet Archive.

After a recent trade mission to the Philippines led by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, United Parcel Service (UPS) announced a major increase in its investments and physical presence throughout the vast Pacific region. This stepped up presence fits well into the United States’ military and political strategy to counter the growing rivalry from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the so-called “pivot to Asia” begun by the Obama administration. Obama made nine trips to the region during his presidency.

While the Philippines is currently promoting itself as the region’s natural logistics hub, UPS, popularly known as “Big Brown” for decades in the U.S., is also heavily investing up and down the Pacific region, including in Singapore. The tiny, densely populated city-state of Singapore with slightly more than six million people is located off the southern tip of Malay peninsula. The former British colony has been depicted as an exotic location in films and television, its importance, however, for several centuries is that of a regional and global trading center.

Singapore is also everyone’s authoritarian state. When the man considered Singapore’s founding father longtime Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew died in 2015, then President Barack Obama eulogized him in glowing terms:

“I personally appreciated his wisdom, including our discussions during my trip to Singapore in 2009, which were hugely important in helping me formulate our policy of rebalancing to the Asia Pacific. He was a true giant of history who will be remembered for generations to come as the father of modern Singapore and as one the great strategists of Asian affairs.”

There have been only four Prime Minister’s since 1963, all members of the People’s Action Party, the dominant political party in Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew held the position of Prime Minister until 1990, when he assumed the titles of a Senior and then Mentor Ministers in the cabinet until his death. He was succeeded by his close political ally Goh Chok Tong, and then by his son Lee Hsien Loon. Lawrence Wong was recently elected Singapore’s fourth Prime Minister, another PAP veteran bureaucrat.

Disneyland with the Death Penalty

We should just cut to the chase and call it what it is — a police state, which maintains a highly repressive and effective police apparatus, including an aggressive use of the death penalty against minor league drug dealers. Lee Kuan Yew set the tone during his long reign, where he created and enforced with a heavy hand a strict and conformist society with a sterile consumer culture despite its ethnic diversity. Political repression was widespread, and was particularly directed at the working class and the left. But, its defenders are many and cross political lines from liberals like former President Barack Obama to the Silicon Valley far right.

In 1993, Wired magazine published an essay by Science Fiction writer William Gibson called Disneyland with the Death Penalty, it was a sensation, but the push back was immediate. Gibson captured what a dreary, shiny hell it was, and was pleased that his books weren’t for sale:

“Although you don’t need Mormons making sure your pop is squeaky-clean when you have the Undesirable Propagation Unit (UPU), one of several bodies of official censors. (I can’t say with any certainty that the UPU, specifically, censors Singapore’s popular music, but I love the name.) The various entities attempt to ensure that red rags on the order of Cosmopolitan don’t pollute the body politic. Bookstores in Singapore, consequently, are sad affairs, large busy places selling nothing I would ever want to buy — as though someone had managed to surgically neuter a W.H. Smith’s. Surveying the science fiction and fantasy sections of these stores, I was vaguely pleased to see that none of my books seemed to be available. I don’t know for a fact that the UPU had turned them back at the border, but if they had, I’d certainly be in good company.”

While there, Gibson read of two men sentenced to hang for drug trafficking, including Mat Repin Mamat, who was caught smuggling with 1 kilogram of cannabis. Gibson was so glad to leave Singapore, that he ended his article, “I loosened my tie, clearing Singapore airspace.” As if to prove Gibson’s point, Singapore banned that issue of Wired magazine. But, the label stuck, much to the Singapore’s political elite, despite the protest of such elite correspondents as former New York Times reporter and associate editor, the late R.W. Apple, who wrote,

`It’s plenty tough on miscreants, but hardly deserving of William Gibson’s woundingly dismissive tagline, ‘’Disneyland With the Death Penalty.’’

Singapore continues to be aggressive in its use of the death penalty. Last year it executed the first woman in twenty years. According to the BBC, “Singapore law specifies that the death penalty will be imposed on anyone caught trafficking more than 500g of cannabis or 15 g of heroin.”

UPS goes global

American multinationals, including UPS, love Singapore’s tightly controlled, hyper-pro-business political culture. The United States is the city-state’s largest foreign investor. According to the U.S. State Department:

“Singapore received more than double the U.S. FDI invested in any other Southeast Asian nation. The investment outlook is positive due to Singapore’s proximity to Southeast Asia’s developing economies. Singapore remains a regional hub for thousands of multinational companies and continues to maintain its reputation as a world leader in dispute resolution, financing, and project facilitation for regional infrastructure development.”

UPS also loves Singapore’s strategic location. It expanded into the island, city-state during its push to go global during the late 1980s and 1990s. The Los Angeles Times reported in 1988

“United Parcel Service has acquired Asian Courier Systems, which operates in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand. The acquisition, for an undisclosed price, significantly expands UPS’ Pacific Basin distribution routes beyond Japan. ACS has been absorbed into the UPS delivery network and now operates under the Greenwich, Conn. [UPS’s then corporate headquarters], company’s name.

UPS said it has established Pacific Basin air hubs in Hong Kong and Singapore. Its new delivery areas also include Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, South Korea, Australia, China, Macao, New Zealand and the Philippines. The carrier also added some new European destinations, bringing the total number of countries it serves to 41.”

In its official history, UPS looked at this era as a success story, “These moves not only diversified UPS’s revenue streams but also positioned the company as a crucial player in the global logistics industry.” The push globally has been unrelenting. UPS now has 11,000 employees in twenty-six countries in the Asia Pacific region. UPS’s goal is to establish itself as the leader in the global cold chain supply network. UPS last month stated its goals for Pacific region:

“We’re also growing our healthcare business in the region, introducing UPS Premier in nine markets across Asia Pacific. This service provides priority handling for time- and temperature-sensitive, patient-critical products. In 2023, we added over 22,000 square meters of cold chain-enabled handling, storage and distribution space with new healthcare facilities in Singapore and Australia. An additional 12,000 square meters is planned for 2024.”

The UPS hub at Singapore’s Changi airport is the crucial link in its Southeast Asian operations. Payload Asia reported last year:

“UPS has expanded its operations hub at Changi Airport in a move that will almost double the amount of packages the facility can process each day. UPS said the expansion, which sees the overall size of its hub extended by 25 percent, will allow the company to process 40 percent more import packages, whilst speeding up delivery times to almost 5,000 additional postal codes across the country.

Changi airport is part of a cluster of civilian and military installations on the eastern end of the island, including Changi Naval Base, where the U.S. Navy has visiting rights.


Singapore uses a mix of different methods for tightly controlling its population from various authoritarian states around the world, including dividing native and immigrant workers from one another. Singapore’s trade unions, represented by the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC), are also tightly controlled by the ruling People’s Action Party. Even the U.S. government admits:

“Singapore’s trade union movement has always been aligned closely with the government. The Singapore Trades Union Congress (STUC), the trade union federation after independence, was closely allied with the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). When the party split along ideological lines in 1961, the STUC also divided into two groups, the left-wing Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU) and the NTUC. The ruling PAP strongly supported the NTUC; the SATU, in turn, was banned in 1963 after leading a general strike against the government deemed to be in violation of the Trade Disputes Act. The NTUC gained control of the Singaporean trade union movement and has supported the PAP throughout its history.”

There is a history of independent unionism and wildcat strikes in Singapore. I don’t know if these have had any impact on UPS workers in Singapore. But, discontent is widespread. The New York Times recently reported:

“Singapore is one of the most expensive cities in the world, but it does not have a minimum wage. Housing prices have surged, and many Singaporeans say social mobility has dropped considerably. Others complain that freedom of expression is still tightly controlled, if less so than before. The strains are exacerbated by the need for overseas workers; about 40 percent of Singapore’s nearly six million people are not citizens.”

Solidarity from U.S. workers, especially from transport and airline unions, who have the most direct connections with Singaporean workers would be a big step forward for both.

JOE ALLEN is the author of The Package King: A Rank and File History of United Parcel Service.