No democracy in Singapore

Dear Professor Bryan Caplan,

I refer to your 3 Jan 2013 TR Emeritus posting “Democracy in Singapore”.

Although Singapore has several opposition parties, these are largely powerless parties with either little or no representation in parliament.

There are no lack of examples of what you would consider serious violation of civil rights. We have political detainees like Chia Thye Poh who was detained for longer than Nelson Mandela. Others like Dr Lim Hock Siew were similarly incarcerated for many years.

‘Hardly live in mortal fear of PAP’ doesn’t mean there is no fear. During the last election, the WP had to take pains to explain and convince voters that voting is secret. If there is no fear, why bother about whether voting is or is not secret?

It’s inappropriate to compare Singapore politics to Pakistan politics where widespread poverty means there is little to hold one back in going for broke to gain political power. The opportunity cost of politics in relatively prosperous Singapore on the other hand is much higher.

It is also wrong to assume that opposition candidates can easily gain power by campaigning on policies. Many Singaporeans, particularly the oldest generation who may have little education, don’t care about policies and simply vote the PAP without considering policies. This is partially supported by your quote [8] which reports 75.2% of Singaporeans disinterested in politics.

Your quote [6] doesn’t show Singapore to be stellar in “Rule of Law”. Instead, it shows Singapore to be middling amongst developed nations when it comes to “Rule of Law”. There are so many developed nations with better “Rule of Law” scores than us. To describe our score as ‘stellar’ would be to sterilise the word stellar.

Countries Rule of Law score 2011
DENMARK 1.92
NEW ZEALAND 1.91
NORWAY 1.89
NETHERLANDS 1.82
AUSTRIA 1.81
LUXEMBOURG 1.81
AUSTRALIA 1.78
IRELAND 1.77
SWITZERLAND 1.76
CANADA 1.76
SINGAPORE 1.69
UNITED KINGDOM 1.67
LIECHTENSTEIN 1.63
GERMANY 1.62
UNITED STATES 1.59
HONG KONG 1.54
FRANCE 1.5
BELGIUM 1.45
JAPAN 1.27
SPAIN 1.2
TAIWAN, CHINA 1.04
KOREA, REP. 1.01
ITALY 0.41

Don’t rely on a simple quote (your quote [7]) to conclude there have been no irregularities during voting but rely instead on documented past events instead. During the 1997 Cheng San election, important ministers appeared at the polling station even though the law forbids loitering within 200 metres from the polling station.

Although your quote [8] reports that 86% of Singaporeans believe Singapore is a democracy, the same report also shows that 75.2% of Singaporeans are not very interested or not at all interested in politics. How do you trust Singaporeans who are not interested in politics to give an interested, well thought answer to the question of whether Singapore is a democracy? The same report also shows that 52.4% of Singaporeans feels that our government can’t be held accountable in between elections, 59.8% feels there is no freedom of speech and 51.1% feels there is no freedom of association. Surely, given Singaporeans perceptions about our state of accountability, freedom of speech and association, if they truly understood what democracy entails or if they even cared to think about it, they would not have considered Singapore to be a democracy.

Although there is no electoral corruption in the manner described in your quote [10], there have been vote buying in the form of HDB upgrading priority over decades which would normally be considered electoral corruption in other countries.

Your 2002 World Values Survey is outdated. You should refer to Gallup’s survey report last year [1] which showed Singaporeans to be the most emotionless. We, of all nations are the least likely to say “yes” to these questions:
· Did you feel well-rested yesterday?
· Were you treated with respect all day yesterday?
· Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?

The difference between Singapore and most democracies isn’t just that the ruling party responds with lawsuits, but also that the ruling party perpetually wins all lawsuits. Also, what you term as opposition ‘verbal abuses’ are quite often innocuous things that just about everyone else on the street would say too.

Your quote [13] doesn’t justify your claim that the government of Singapore practises a moderate form of censorship. Having government nominees sit in all major media corporations could mean more than just moderate censorship. They can choose the top executives of these corporations and hence control these corporations. You can easily judge the level of censorship by contrasting the minimal coverage given to WP’s explanation of the AIM saga versus the much greater coverage of PAP’s counter explanation. You can also see it from the maximum assault on ex-WP MP Yaw versus the much softer reporting on ex-PAP MP Michael Palmer on the same issue of extra marital affairs.

It’s wrong to say that censorship is irrelevant to the Median Voter Model. There is no voting in North Korea but from television images, we know that the median North Korean is patriotic and will die for his communist government even as their children die of hunger. But if you put the median North Korean in South Korea for a while, would his median mind set remain unchanged? Similarly, if you let competing ideas flourish in our newspapers and television, would the median Singaporean mind set remain unchanged? It’s very easy to see if censorship is or is not relevant to voting. Abolish it, and we shall see.

Having the freedom to vote is not enough. We also need information freedom in order to free the mind. Baby elephants are chained to tree trunks to train them not to run away. They are too young to break away from the tree and after some hopeless trying, they give up. These elephants grow up thinking that once they are chained, they cannot run away even though the chain is no longer attached to the tree. We may be free to vote. But that doesn’t mean we vote with a free mind, un-coloured by what we read or see around us.

[1] http://www.gallup.com/poll/158882/singapore-ranks-least-emotional-country-world.aspx

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One Response to “No democracy in Singapore”

  1. PG Says:

    Singapore has proved again its lack of wanting a real democracy , by refusing the UN suggestion that it should have an independant authority verifying the election process , and by its systematic gerrymandering

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