Obliged smart freedom: The Singaporean experience of advanced neoliberal-developmental governance

Obliged smart freedom: The Singaporean experience of advanced neoliberal-developmental governance


Written by:

Aisha Sobey

First Published:

09 May 2023, 12:30 pm


Obliged smart freedom: The Singaporean experience of advanced neoliberal-developmental governance

This paper grew out of my interest in technology and society – what does it mean for us to live in a world where we communicate, shop, and live online? How does the ability to make money from these spaces interact with the people living there? And how can we make sure these environments make our lives better? While there has been a lot of criticism of the concept of a smart city, and the way it has been used to promise a panacea to city planners to solve any and all city problems, they continue to grow in number and money contained in the market for smart technologies. On top of this, little research has asked qualitative questions of smart inhabitants, of their experience and perception of living in those environments. 

So, the Singaporean Smart nation was an ideal starting place to begin to answer some of these questions, as a place with really high technological penetration and the national goal to be a smart place that increases the quality of life and depth of social connection for its inhabitants. For these reasons, a more in-depth look at the inhabitant’s perception of the Singaporean Smart Nation seemed in order! For this paper I focussed on how the smart digital environment is spoken about and understood, to explore how this dynamic could form quiet, sneaky forms of control. To do this I used a development of Foucault’s governmentality called ‘obliged freedom’ by Rose (2017), which says that governance can be developed by creating a system that obliged and expects people to be free in a certain way. By offering an acceptable bandwidth of freedom, it requires people to be active to achieve the correct form of living, so the unemployed become jobseekers, refugees to asylum seekers, and so forth. 

This theory offers new insight into the way smart cities have become marketing rhetoric and are shaping reality for the people living there – both by highlighting how this rhetoric spreads and reinforces itself, and by allowing the impact on the people living in these spaces to be explored. In this analysis, by focusing on the Singaporean context and the people’s experience a holistic work is produced. It uses government-published documents, interviews, and an inhabitant survey to study the Smart Nation. The government-level messaging is compared with the experience of the inhabitants through the framework of obliged freedom to explore how this messaging translates between government and governed and ultimately if and how it’s working. This paper finds that through the lens of obliged freedom, there is potential for the digital environment of Singapore to oblige an economic, productivity-focused form of freedom. This form of freedom is produced in a way that encourages and shapes people’s desires and lives and becomes a way of controlling the population. In addition, the Singaporean case highlights the need for more context-focused research, especially as we keep implementing smart cities without a real review of their impact on the people and how we live.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.