Singapore is authoritarian

Dear Washington Post Editor,

I refer to the 9 July 2013 letter by Mr Jerome Lee [1].

Singapore is widely regarded as an authoritarian state [2]. Since authoritarianism is much closer to autocracy than to democracy, the autocracy label for Singapore is therefore not that unreasonable.

Singapore scored a dismal 5.88 out of 10 in the 2012 Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index which puts us in the category of a hybrid regime that bears the following description: “Elections have substantial irregularities that often prevent them from being both free and fair”. Mr Lee’s assertion of free and fair general elections in Singapore is somewhat contradicted by EIU’s classification of Singapore as a hybrid regime.

One example of Singapore election unfairness is the Group Representative Scheme (GRC) where multiple constituencies are lumped together and contested as one. The dubiousness of the GRC rationale has been confirmed when Worker Party’s female candidate Ms Lee Li Lian beat PAP’s male candidate Dr Koh Poh Koon in the recent Punggol East by-election, debunking former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s explanation that GRCs were needed because they could not get single minority candidates or women elected [3].

No amount of variation in democracy all over the world can justify one that exercises absolute control over the press and the media. What else other than military juntas and the communists would impose absolute control over the press and the television media? Reporters Without Borders ranks Singapore 149th out of 179 nations in press freedom this year. Freedom House classifies the Singapore press as being not free.

History and tradition are no impediments to democracy. Taiwan and South Korea were authoritarian in the past but have become much more democratic now. Ethnic mix too is no impediment to democracy as examples abound of nations with healthy mix of races that are democratic as well. The table below shows many nations with comparable ethnic and cultural fractionalisation as Singapore but that have better Democracy indices than Singapore [4]. Perhaps the country most similar to Singapore in history, traditions, ethnic and religious mixes is Malaysia; yet Malaysia ranks and scores better than us in the Democracy Index.

Country Democracy Index rank Democracy Index overall score Ethnic fractionalisation Cultural fractionalisation
New Zealand 5 9.26 0.363 0.363
Switzerland 7 9.09 0.575 0.418
Canada 8 9.08 0.596 0.499
UK 16 8.21 0.324 0.184
Mauritius 18 8.17 0.632 0.448
USA 21 8.11 0.491 0.271
Belgium 24 8.05 0.567 0.462
Spain 25 8.02 0.502 0.263
Botswana 30 7.85 0.351 0.161
South Africa 31 7.79 0.88 0.53
Chile 36 7.54 0.497 0.167
Israel 37 7.53 0.526 0.246
India 38 7.52 0.811 0.667
Slovakia 40 7.35 0.332 0.293
Cyprus 41 7.29 0.359 0.359
Lithuania 42 7.24 0.338 0.259
Panama 46 7.08 0.507 0.168
Latvia 47 7.05 0.585 0.441
Trinidad & Tobago 48 6.99 0.647 0.38
Croatia 50 6.93 0.375 0.185
Mexico 51 6.9 0.542 0.434
Indonesia 53 6.76 0.766 0.522
Bulgaria 54 6.72 0.299 0.25
Thailand 58 6.55 0.431 0.431
Romania 59 6.54 0.3 0.265
Peru 61 6.47 0.638 0.506
Malaysia 64 6.41 0.596 0.564
Moldova 67 6.32 0.51 0.401
Papua New Guinea 67 6.32 1
Zambia 70 7.92 0.726 0.189
Namibia 72 6.24 0.724 0.589
Macedonia 73 6.16 0.535 0.432
Senegal 74 6.09 0.727 0.402
Malawi 75 6.08 0.829 0.294
Guyana 76 6.05 0.62 0.46
Ghana 78 6.02 0.846 0.388
Benin 79 6 0.622 0.4
Singapore 81 5.88 0.388 0.388
Guatemala 81 5.88 0.493 0.493
Tanzania 81 5.88 0.953 0.564

The table above also shows that better democracy has been achieved in continents other than the West. Democracy is not a particularly Western ideology imposed on us but a universal ideal and virtue aspired by people all over the world hindered only by existing power structures that have vested interests to subjugate democracy in order to entrench local elites.

[1] Washington Post, Singapore is no autocracy, 9 Jul 2013, Jerome Lee


• Max Singer, The History of the Future: The Shape of the World to Come Is Visible Today

Page 64 – Of the more than twenty modern countries today, only one of them, Singapore, is not yet democratic.

• Fanie Cloete – At Full Speed the Tiger Cubs Stumbled: Lessons from South East Asia about sustainable public service delivery

The single most glaring negative feature of the Singapore system is probably the de facto authoritarian or controlling nature of the political system.

• Diane K. Mauzy and R. S. Milne, Singapore Politics Under the People’s Action Party

However, certain draconian laws, controls on political participation, and measures limiting civil and political rights and freedom of the press, mean that Singapore is, to some extent – critics vary on the degree – an authoritarian state.

• Lily Zubaidah Rahim, Singapore in the Malay World: Building and Breaching Regional Bridges

Page 118 – While Northeast Asian developmental states of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have liberalised their political systems, Singapore has remained an authoritarian one-party dominant state since independence.

Page 80 – … a Singaporean national identity that is rooted in the culture of fear, paranoia and insecurity – a culture engendered and exploited by the authoritarian PAP government.

• Roy C. Nelson, Harnessing Globalization: The Promotion of Nontraditional Foreign Direct Investment in Latin America

Page 28 – Singapore is an authoritarian regime

Page 216 – Singapore’s authoritarian political context hindered the EDB’s long-term prospects to attract increasingly knowledge-intensive investment.

• Howard J. Wiarda, Cracks in the Consensus: Debating the Democracy Agenda in U.S. Foreign Policy, page 30

Some regimes, like that of Prime Minister Lee in Singapore, have maintained authoritarian controls longer than could be justified by internal or external threats to stability.

• Michael Hill, Kwen Fee Lian, The Politics of Nation Building and Citizenship in Singapore, page 10

The culture of political management in Singapore is authoritarian and interventionist.

• Harold A. Crouch, Domestic Political Structures and Regional Economic Co-Operation

Only in Singapore is the working class large enough to form a potential base for a major opposition movement but there it has been subjugated through both repression and the take-over of the trade union movement by government officials.

The Singapore government has thus created a situation where its survival does not depend on its ability to meet particular mass demands. It has combined limited but effective repression with indirect control of some potential opposition forces and the undermining and intimidation of others.

• Zhang Yumei, Pacific Asia: The Politics of Development, page 7

Indonesia and Singapore were at best pseudo-democracies dominated respectively by the military and a Leninist-style political party.

• Christopher Lingle, Singapore’s Authoritarian Capitalism: Asian Values, Free Market Illusions and Political Dependency

From a perspective gained from his service as a former Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore, Dr. Lingle identifies Singapore’s authoritarian capitalism as combining a selective degree of economic freedom and private property rights with strong-armed control over political life.

[3] 2006 televised dialogue – Why My Vote Matters – A Dialogue With Minister Mentor Lee Kuan

Ken Kwek: You have also erected all kinds of barriers of entry for the opposition.

Sue Ann Chia: And one barrier is the GRC …

LKY: First why do we have GRCs? Because we could not get single minority candidates or women elected. In the early elections, just being a PAP candidate got you elected. But after a while the electorate got wise and smart, it says oh we’ll have a PAP government, I don’t like this. Why an Indian? He can’t speak my Teochew or Hokkien. I choose Chinese.

Ken Kwek: Mr Lee but that’s not true. I mean in 84 you had people like Abbas Abu Amin, 88 Abdullah Tarmugi, strong minority candidates have never been absent

LKY: That was with the PAP in complete control. That generation voted for the PAP.

LKY: You watch the candidates that we are fielding in single wards. Do we field a minority? Do we field a woman? No. You watch the opposition. Will they have a woman or a minority challenging a Chinese male? No. Because they know that on the ground, they cannot win.

LKY: These are basic, visceral, emotional biases. I don’t like this MP because he can’t understand me, he is Malay and I’m not a Malay and the Malay voters want a Malay MP. It’s a reality.

[4] Ethinc and cultural fractionalisation data taken from the paper “Ethnic and Cultural Diversity by Country” published in “Journal of Economic Growth” in 2003 and written by James D Fearon, Department of Political Science, Stanford University


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