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Questions over Singapore’s model of democracy

For decades Singapore delivered peace and prosperity – but not much freedom. Now its leaders are being forced to consider the choices ahead for its model of 'guided' democracy.

Dancing on tabletops in bars is an activity some might consider amusing and others banal. But dangerous? In tiny Singapore, this pastime is banned for – yes – safety reasons, acquiring a symbolic significance in a debate on whether to loosen decades old social and political controls.

Last year, junior minister Vivian Balakrishnan told parliament, in a speech also addressed to young Singaporeans asking for more personal and political space, "While I support the liberalisation of the policy, I also want all of us to be aware that there is a price to be paid for liberty." People could die, he told incredulous Singaporeans, if the dancing got out of hand and tempers rose.

Balakrishnan heads a high-profile committee leading public consultations on the socio-political and cultural 'remaking' of Singapore. A similar committee is crafting new economic strategies for the island-state to reposition itself in an increasingly challenging global environment. Both were pledged by the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) in the 2001 general election, held during Singapore's worst recession since independence.

The minister's remarks were therefore heard with care and taken as a signal that ardent reform-seekers should lower their expectations. The government would accommodate change in the calibrated way it has been doing for the last decade – and within limits. Leaders have cited religious and racial issues, geopolitical vulnerabilities and protecting social values among the reasons for not dismantling Singapore's famous controls too fast.

Clearly, the regime – architect of one of the most successful economic experiments of the 20th century – is balancing economic imperatives for reform with equally strong imperatives to preserve a political system it has dominated for over 40 year.

Singapore epitomises what political scientists from the Institute of Development Studies in Britain have termed "democracies with adjectives" – among them, incomplete, fragile and no-party. The adjective most commonly used for Singapore is 'guided.' And the researchers consider whether states like Singapore, Botswana, Malaysia and Mauritius have enjoyed sustained economic growth if they had had "unfettered democracy."

The Singaporean system is a hard-to-classify blend of democratic and authoritarian features. Elections are held regularly, voting is secret and counting is fair. The PAP always wins them because it has a formidable political mandate. However, the PAP, as a 1999 US State Department report put it, also maintains its dominance by 'manipulating the electoral framework, intimidating organised political opposition and circumscribing the bounds of legitimate political discourse and action'. Election campaigns are short; and rules and electoral boundaries are changed at short notice. Opposition leaders say they have little access to the government-controlled media, and libel laws are among the tightest anywhere.

These controls are often justified as being part of an informal social contract – liberty traded for peace and prosperity. The PAP has delivered its part of the bargain with decades of dazzling economic growth. Per capita income exceeds many European countries and Singaporeans are a nation of homeowners: Eighty-six percent of the population lives in low-cost public housing schemes, and 93 per cent of the occupiers are owners.

Singaporeans have delivered their part of the bargain, too – there is little evidence that they wish for a redistribution of power, even if they do seek fewer controls.

But as a fledgling civil society pushes the envelope in the internet age, more groups and individuals are speaking up about the dangers of a system that is bereft of political competition and checks and balances and of a citizenry alienated from the political process.

Alienation is cited as one reason why many bright young Singaporeans migrate. In the last election, just one-third of eligible voters got to vote, in only 29 out of 84 contested seats. The rest were walkovers. The PAP won 82 seats.

Political science lecturer Suzaina Kadir says: "There are pockets of people who want – not revolution – but change. As a consequence of the stability and economic growth that the PAP has provided, people have now got to a point where they are asking questions like what prevents a fairer system?"

A government-constituted citizen-led feedback group caused ripples last year by listing dubious electoral and political practices. It said people saw these as "less than fair" even if they were legal. These were not perceptions of a "vocal minority" but "ground sentiments."

The question that intrigues Singapore-watchers is how medium-to-long-term economic challenges will affect this political arrangement. Apart from an uncertain global environment, Singapore, as a mature economy, must also cope with being priced out of some traditional areas of competence by new players like China and Malaysia.

Says Gillian Koh, a researcher at the Singapore think-tank, Institute of Policy Studies: "There are three pillars of legitimacy for a Singapore government – economic development, social cohesion and a free and fair political system. The first two are the most important because Singaporeans are a pragmatic lot. If the government can deliver these effectively, the electorate will not insist on the third.

"Delivery of economic goods is increasingly being conditioned by the global situation and this environment has become more challenging. Internally, people's needs are becoming more diverse. That is why questions such as the need for a free and fair political system may become more important in the future. If the government gets challenged on the economic front, it may need to open up more on the political front as citizens demand effective representation of their diverse views and interests."

Tan Chong Kee, an academic who pioneered the launch of Singapore's first internet society, Sintercom, believes there is a link between the political system and the knowledge-based economy it has embraced. "There is no a priori reason why a biotech researcher has to care about the political system. However, the qualities required to carry out that kind of research, or any new research, are: thinking out of the box, questioning received wisdom, testing the boundaries of knowledge. If someone has those qualities, you can't expect him to switch them on inside the lab, and turn them off outside."

Malaysian columnist Karim Raslan writes that Singapore's task of managing the impact of globalisation on the least qualified – such as older workers lacking technological skills – is exacerbated by an "impoverished political culture" and that many people "feel sidelined and excluded from the policy debates raging at the elite level". Strategic business decisions, too, he argues, "demand a more engaged and robust political discourse".

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Panos London

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