Singapore: The World's Only Successful Dictatorship?

In July 2020, Singapore held its 13th General Election — the purpose of which is to elect the country’s parliament. At stake, however, was not really the ruling party, its policies, or even the general direction 

of the nation. Those were already known to anyone with half a brain: The People’s Action Party would retain power, as it has for nearly six consecutive decades. Also nearly certain was that it would win somewhere between 60 and 70% of the vote — a range it has deviated from only once in the previous 36 years. You might assume, given its predictability, that the election was somehow fraudulent. But you’d be wrong. Unlike its Southeast Asian neighbors Laos and Vietnam, elections in Singapore are free from intimidation or tampering. Knowing this, you might instead conclude that the election simply didn’t matter. Again, you’d be wrong. If 70% voted for the People’s Action Party, the exercise would be deemed a great success, cementing the party’s medium-term future. Win 60%, instead, its worst showing in the country’s history and it would be a humiliating failure, giving rise to speculation about its future. In either case, it would win by a margin unheard of in most free democracies. The true number was 61.24%, a moderate disappointment for the ruling party, and one that will have some tangible impact on the next five years. And yet, no one seriously contemplated any other outcome. Even opposition parties don’t profess the ability to dethrone the PAP — a claim that would be so far-fetched as to destroy all credibility. Such is the strange state of politics on the very strange island known as Singapore. Its very existence continues to baffle outsiders, who struggle to place it on any spectrum. Because while most countries belong somewhere in the grey area between “Democratic” and “Authoritarian”, Singapore is an exceptionally rare blend — one described both as “a technocratic dream state”, and a “thinly veiled dictatorship” simultaneously by those more or less sympathetic. So, what is it? The answer reveals just as much about this tiny red dot off the Malay Peninsula as it does about your true feelings towards democracy and the very purpose of government. As colonies around the world gained their independence in the mid 20th century, many reacted by aggressively rejecting Western investment, seeing it as a continuation of imperial exploitation. In 1959, for example, Indonesia went so far as to legally bar foreigners from doing business in the countryside, forcing them to transfer ownership to an Indonesian national. Singapore, on the other hand, was in a strange position: It had no natural resources. With no diamonds, oil, or timber to exploit, Singapore had no invader to fight. The British were no saints, that’s for sure, but they did not leave Singapore with the same bad taste in its mouth as other colonies. Un-toppled statues and English street names still, litter the island. Foreign investment was, in fact, its only option. And so, it set out to design the country, Philips, Shell, and Canon had previously only dreamed of. There would be no taxes, no protests, no corruption, and no change of leadership. A country run like a corporation, for corporations. After the People’s Action Party was democratically elected, it wasted no time obliterating any and all forms of “instability” — whether they be socialist rivals, labor unions, or student activists. The party unapologetically arrested or disappeared them all. But in its desire to please multinational mega-corporations, Singapore also implemented what are known today as some of the best things about the country. Its world-class public education system was designed to churn out highly educated, obedient workers by “streaming” children into accelerated, vocational, or “normal” tracks, with no pretense of equality. Its unrivaled healthcare system ensured citizens and wealthy ex-pat bankers alike stayed happy and healthy — thus, productive. Its enviable public housing helped integrate its three main ethnic groups — Chinese, Malay, and Indians — by making them neighbors. Race riots are, after all, bad for business. The secret to Singapore’s clean streets, timely public transit, and well-respected institutions is simple: When you have 6 decades of uninterrupted power, zero accountability, and no opposition to slow things down, you truly can just get things done. Singapore’s anti-democratic tendencies are neither unusual in the world nor especially egregious in comparison. Their purpose, however, was to support rapid economic growth. Whether economic growth was ultimately in service of raising the standard of living or retaining the party’s grip on power is disputed. What cannot be disputed is that it has now achieved that all-important economic growth. With the same GDP per capita as the U.S., Denmark, and Qatar, Singapore is now one of the richest, most prosperous, and comfortable places to live on planet Earth. And yet the PAP has resisted democracy. Singapore has been called a “thin”, “procedural”, “hollow”, “proxy”, or “bureaucratic” democracy, as well as a “competitive authoritarian state” because its elections are completely free, but not the least bit fair. In addition to normal incumbent advantages — passing popular policies immediately before an election and being able to call one at the most convenient time — it also employs a wide range of tools to disadvantage the opposition. For starters, preparation can begin only after an election is called. Even then, politicians can’t actually campaign. Since 1968, the legal “campaign period” has lasted no more than 11 days — giving the opposition less than two weeks to present their case to voters. In other words, Singaporeans have only been exposed to the alternative 109 days in the past half-century. It gets far worse. The Prime FMinister has the unchecked right to draw the electoral boundaries — leading to intense gerrymandering. In 2020, some districts had just 19,000 voters while others had nearly twice that number. One neighborhood has suspiciously been moved between four different districts from 1988 to 2011. And in 2020, the PAP dissolved three districts from the 2015 election — see if you can find what they had in common. That’s not all! The Prime Minister can redraw boundaries whenever he or she wishes — meaning the opposition may not even know which constituency they’re contesting until the last minute. In 2001, districts were announced one day before the election was called, which took place 16 days later. When all those things aren’t enough, the Men in white” resort to good ‘ole fashioned lawsuits. A long list of opposition politicians, writers, and activists have been sued for defamation. One blogger was ordered to pay the Prime Minister $100,000 US dollars in damages for sharing a link to an article on Facebook without comment. No one is above the law. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and The Economist have all been targeted — which helps explain why you might know the country as an efficiently-run resort rather than an authoritarian regime. Finally, it grants token positions to opposition parties requires some districts to be elected in groups, which favors large parties, and has in the past used its broadly-defined Sedition Act to arrest dissidents. To summarize: the ruling party decides when, where, and how elections take place. It can arrest or bankrupt anyone it wishes. To be clear, the party is not free from consequences. A very prominent Minister of Foreign Affairs lost his race in 2011, for instance. But it works very hard to ensure that never happens. You may wonder why Singaporeans accept its lack of democratic accountability. But a better question might be: Can they consent to the PAP’s rule while being so insulated from the alternatives? Protests are illegal unless pre-approved by the government, and its colonial-era laws have been used to silence critics. In 2017, a silent protest was held on public transit. The activists were charged with vandalism — a crime punishable with up to three years in prison and 8 strokes of the cane — for, get this, taping a piece of paper to the wall. More recently, a man was charged for participating in an “illegal assembly” for holding a piece of cardboard with a smiley face in public. He was alone. Censorship extends to the media, as well. The government has the power to install any director or editor of its choice to any newspaper. It can also simply revoke the media license of anyone not sufficiently cooperative. All traditional outlets, including The Straits Times, are therefore government mouthpieces. And while the internet initially gave the opposition a new avenue to reach voters, the PAP recently began taking on Facebook, too. The “Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation” — aka “Fake news” — Bill, gives the same ministers up for election the ability to force their opponents to “correct” or remove their statements online or risk jail. In essence, the PAP granted itself the right to silence the opposition. And because they’re silenced, the opposition will never have the opportunity to challenge... that very law. The PAP’s 60% share of votes seems much less decisive when you realize the extreme lengths it goes to disadvantage its opponents. If 2/5ths of the country still voted for another party, after all, thatperhaps it doesn’t have such strong consent. Then again, perhaps it does. Another theory says that Singaporeans are making an informed decision — that they know exactly the trade-off they’re making. In one survey, 64% of respondents said they considered economic development more important than democracy. If Singapore truly is a corporation, as Lee Kuan Yew intended it must pay its workers — (citizens) — a competitive wage or risk losing them to a competitor. The relationship appears transactional. Citizens want things to improve: schools to get better, healthcare to get cheaper, and so on. The party, meanwhile, seeks legitimacy. Decisive electoral victories signal its “right” to rule. And if the purpose of an election is merely to measure support, having an opposition doesn’t much matter. In the eyes of the party, only one number is relevant: the share of votes it receives. The current Prime Minister revealed his true views on democracy when he criticized voters who supported the opposition as “free-riders”. In his view, not voting for the PAP is akin to not showing up for work while expecting a paycheck. This was made explicit in 2015 when the government announced it would give priority to PAP voters when doing public housing maintenance. Frustrated by opposition voters, the party finally gave up the veneer of fairness. Perhaps because it thought voters were too stupid to pick up on its hints, it finally spelled out the trade-in plain English: Vote for us and we’ll fix your elevators and pipes sooner. 82% of Singaporeans in one survey said they’re Satisfied with the way democracy works” in the country, yet 61% voted for the PAP last year. One way to interpret these numbers is that voters are, by and large, content with the deal they have with the PAP but wish to send a message. They don’t want a change of leadership, but they also don’t want to write a blank check. Realizing that the outcome of the election is virtually guaranteed — they can instead treat their vote as a form of polite protest. The PAP, somewhat hilariously, calls this Irrational voter behavior”, but in truth, they have no one to blame but themselves. By turning elections into nothing more than an opinion poll, they’ve allowed Singaporeans the ability to remind the government of their leverage without facing consequences. They can vote based not on who they want in power, but what message they wish to send. With its share of votes trending downwards over time, the People’s Action Party faces a dilemma: As the odds of what it calls a “freak election” appear less and less farfetched, it has two options to remain in power. The first is that it could continue weakening the opposition. Increasingly, this has meant blurring the line between the party and the country itself. The Lee family dynasty — father and son — has ruled Singapore for 48 of 62 years, or 77% of its existence. The number of buildings, awards, and schools named in their honor would make Kim Il-Sung jealous. It also manufactures crises, perpetuating the “survivalist” mentality — that Singapore is a “new” or “fragile” nation and therefore, needs strong, experienced leaders at the helm. Somehow every one of the last 60 years has been so tumultuous as to require “just another few years” of repression. The second way the PAP could stay in power is, ironically, to do the opposite: democratize. Counterintuitive as it may sound, it's clear that most voters like the PAP and have doubts about the alternatives. But because the opposition is so heavily disadvantaged, voters may “grade them on a curve”, giving them more credit than perhaps they deserve. If elections were fair, citizens would likely vote fairly as well. Introducing some democratic reforms may also win respect. “Delivering economic growth” is a fairly weak source of legitimacy. With an economy closely connected to the worlds, it could easily fail to deliver through no fault of its own. If it were to do the “right” thing instead and impose limits on itself, its support would be much more durable. By treating them more generously, Singapore Incorporated might have more loyal workers. What does it really matter, you may ask. If the PAP democratizes but stays in power, the end result is the same. But such an argument neglects one of the biggest benefits of democracy… When people hear about Singapore, they often experience the same pattern of grief. Unable or unwilling to believe housing, healthcare, or education are simple, “solvable” problems, they find reasons why Singapore is different. “That’s great”, they say, “but it only works because it’s — fill in the blank — small, cosmopolitan, Confucian, etc.” When they learn the only thing stopping these policies from being exported elsewhere is politics, they move on, looking for other reasons to dismiss it. Usually, this means pointing out that Singapore still practices caning — true — or bans chewing gum — true, but don’t forget New York banned soda. By focusing on the comical and outlandish — the chewing gum ban, or astronomical fines for littering — they miss the real problem with Singapore. Lack of accountability allowed the People’s Action Party to implement effective, efficient, enviable policies. But it also came at an invisible cost. By taking the authoritarian shortcut, Singapore took a massive gamble. One that happened to pay off — but one that could also crumble at any moment. If a less benevolent party or politician were to win power, there’s no telling what kind of permanent, lethal damage it could do to the country. And thanks to the PAP, there would be no easy way to vote it out of power. History has taught us to expect the People’s Action Party will take the former path — devolving into nationalism and crushing the opposition until nothing is left. But Singapore is no ordinary country. We should all hope it’s not ordinary in this respect, either.