SG is not a democracy despite rule by popular consent

I refer to the 2 Apr 2015 TR Emeritus article “SG is a democracy ruled by popular consent” from

Sgthinker wrote:

Dear Western Media: Singapore is a democracy and the PAP rules by popular consent
I am sick and tired of reading the western media’s statements that Singapore is not a democracy, but is instead ruled by autocracy or a benevolent dictatorship. This convenient but lazy stereotype needs dismantling …

Western media’s labeling of Singapore as an autocracy or a dictatorship is neither laziness nor stereotype but the undeniable truth.

Sgthinker wrote:

For every election since Singapore’s independence, the PAP has won at least 60% of the popular vote. This averages at 69.5% of the popular vote over the decades. In other words, approximately 2 out of 3 Singaporeans want the PAP, compared to the alternative political parties.
The facts speak for themselves. PAP rules by popular consent.

Rule by popular consent doesn’t in and of itself make Singapore a democracy. The most fundamental prerequisite for democracy is a free press. No free press means no democracy. Singapore’s press freedom is 150th in the world, close to rock bottom.

Democracy is impossible without freedom of the press, for freedom of the press is the basis of democracies.

Gerhard Schröder, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany

A free press is a fundamental prerequisite in the implementation of democracy.

Tarja Halonen, President of the Republic of Finland

Freedom of the press is one of the rights that is fundamental to democracy. No country that systematically interferes with or restricts freedom can be considered fully democratic.

An Taoiseach Mr Bertie Ahern T.D., Prime Minister of Ireland

The people’s Right to Know is a universal principle that secures democracy, and Freedom of the Press is the basic freedom that guarantees this right.

Yoshiro Mori, Former Prime Minister of Japan

Freedom of the press has remained the condition sine qua non of democracy ever since: every cultural and political development is based on freedom of opinion.

Wolfgang Schüssel, Federal Chancellor of Austria

If a nation expects to be both ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be

Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.

Information is the currency of democracy

Thomas Jefferson

A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny. … Under dictatorship the press is bound to languish, and the loudspeaker and the film to become more important. But where free institutions are indigenous to the soil and men have the habit of liberty, the press will continue to be the Fourth Estate, the vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen.

Winston Churchill

Sgthinker wrote:

Contrast this with the definition of autocracy (government in which a supreme power is concentrated in the hands of one person, whose decisions are subject to neither external legal restraints nor regularized mechanisms of popular control). You can vote out the PAP. We are not an autocracy.

Although North Korea doesn’t have elections, it’s hard to imagine North Koreans voting out their Kim dynasty rulers if ever given a chance to. Despite terrible famines and severe children malnutrition, North Koreans still look up dearly to their Kim dynasty rulers, convinced that nuclear weapons are more important than food for children. North Korean’s unwavering support for their Kim rulers can be seen from the wailing and crying on the death of their Kim ruler which was not unlike what Singapore witnessed during the recent mourning of Lee Kuan Yew. North Korea is a good example of a people so brainwashed to be endeared to its leaders that it would not vote them out even if there were famine or widespread malnutrition.

Thus, Sgthinker should not underestimate the power of an autocratic government to brainwash its population. During the Second World War, the Japanese military dominated the government and systematically indoctrinated the nation into thinking they were superior beings, that the Chinese were pigs meant to be slaughtered and conditioned the people to commit untold atrocities.

After the war, the Japanese government systematically doctored its education program so that many Japanese today don’t know the full extent of the atrocities committed by their forefathers.

The same thing happened in Nazi Germany. Hitler did exactly what Lee Kuan Yew did. He controlled all the press and the people were fed with exactly the information he wanted them to be fed with. The result was a compliant nation galvanized to war and even holocaust.

So Sgthinker should never underestimate the extent to which a population can be brainwashed.

Sgthinker wrote:

How about dictatorship? (government where political authority is monopolized by a single person or political entity, and exercised through various mechanisms to ensure the entity’s power remains strong). There are other opposition parties in Parliament and you can always vote in more. We are not a dictatorship.

Other opposition parties in parliament are severely under-represented so much so that the PAP can out vote other parties anytime, all the time. That for all intents and purposes is a monopoly of the parliament. We can’t vote in more unless we have press freedom. Thus, we are a dictatorship.

Sgthinker wrote:

Retort 1: But the opposition gets virtually zero representation despite gaining over 30% of the popular vote!

That’s because we adopt the “First-Pass-the-Post” system that we inherited from the UK. It’s a winner-takes-all system, but it is also a democratic system. Unless you are insinuating that the UK is not a democracy too?

Sgthinker ignored fundamental differences between UK and Singapore. “First-Pass-the-Post” is needed in the UK to amplify small differences in voting outcomes because voting outcomes are close affairs due to UK press freedom. “First-Pass-the-Post” is not needed in Singapore because Singapore already has a dominant party so there is no need for “First-Pass-the-Post” to further amplify that dominance. Amplifying the dominance of a dominant party worsens the democracy of a nation. Sgthinker should not expect the same tool used in a completely different context will yield the same good results. It is ultimately press freedom, not First-Pass-the-Post that UK’s democracy is rooted in.

Sgthinker wrote:

There’s also the issue of gerrymandering. While this is indeed a problem, it should be noted that other democratic societies like the USA have this problem too, but you wouldn’t use this as an excuse to say that the USA is not democratic.

Not true, US state boundaries don’t change with every election.

Sgthinker wrote:

Retort 2: The opposition performed poorly because the PAP fixed them!

Mr LKY himself has admitted that he has come down hard on the opposition. But this action does not sufficiently explain the opposition’s poor performance. Why? Because the disgruntled voter can see all that discrimination happening and protest against it by either voting for the opposition, spoiling their vote or refusing to vote.

It is indeed possible, as in the case of Hitler’s government persecuting Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, the deformed and so on while the German people looked away and did nothing. But the German people looking away didn’t justify Hitler’s persecution of Jews and so on. Similarly, Singaporeans looking away doesn’t justify LKY persecuting the opposition.

The data shows that even if we include spoilt or non-votes, the PAP still has the majority popular vote.
Voters are not blind and stupid. If they are truly upset at the PAP for “rigging elections”, they can still voice their disagreement by not voting the PAP and spoiling their vote. And indeed, the results show that people have done so. There are clearly not enough dissatisfied people to vote out the PAP. This is an inconvenient truth for opposition supporters. It is still a fact that the PAP has popular consent.

Sgthinker assumed that voters are neither blind nor stupid. That’s a dangerous assumption. While people may not be stupid, they may be ignorant. Sgthinker should not underestimate the ability of state controlled press, television and education to mould a nation of ignorant people as the examples of Nazi Germany and war time Japan have shown. Without press freedom, popular consent doesn’t necessarily mean wise consent.

Retort 3: The lack of a free press hampers democracy. If there was a free press that could criticise the PAP, and the voters would not have voted for the PAP.

It is dangerous to assume that a free press would necessarily be in the opposition’s favour. People who make this argument should be careful for what they wish for.

Not true. Singapore luminaries like Catherine Lim and Jack Neo have attributed Singapore’s recent political change to the Internet which although is a poor substitute for the press, is still better than nothing. The recent turn of events shows that press freedom, like internet freedom will more likely than not offer advantage than disadvantage to the opposition.

The reason is simple. The press is a profit-making entity. Reporters write to get viewership, which in turn generates revenue to keep the reporters paid. Yes, there are reporters that write in search of truth and to provide an impartial view. But we cannot forget that there are reporters who are paid to write (or incentivised to write), regardless of truth or impartiality.

Not true. There are so many internet news websites and news blogs out there written by citizens for free which shows that people feel strongly enough to disseminate information even if they have to do it for free or at great personal loss. There is no reason why they wouldn’t set up newspapers if they are allowed to even if there is no money to be made.

For proof, look at Fox News in the United States. Fox News was created by Rupert Murdoch, media magnate, in response to a gap in the American media industry. He created a media outlet that was specially designed towards the tastes of conservative (Republican) voters. Fox, with its conservative slant towards reporting and commentary, soon became the dominant news outlet for Republican voters. By giving conservative voters what they want to hear, Fox News has guaranteed its survival and profitability.

There are so many countries in this world with a free press. Sgthinker cannot quote one example and insist that Singapore will definitely conform to that example. Can Sgthinker quote a similar example from Finland, Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg, Denmark, New Zealand, Sweden and so on?

Even in America, there are different media catering to different groups, infinitely better than in Singapore where 40% has nothing catered to it.

Free press can contribute to a politically polarised society, one where voters are stuck in an echo chamber where they only hear the opinions they identify with, ignoring other viewpoints. This is not the foundation of a good democracy.

Isn’t Singapore already polarized? Isn’t the current situation one where 60% is stuck in its own echo chamber, hearing only what it wants to hear while ignoring the other 40%? If that is considered bad foundation for democracy, then by Sgthinker’s definition, Singapore’s foundation for democracy is already not good which contradicts his claim that Singapore is a democracy.

It is easy for a free press in Singapore to create an echo chamber because it is profitable to do so. If Singapore already identifies as ~60% voting for the PAP, then isn’t it possible for a free press to spawn news outlets that are strongly pro-PAP (even more so than SPH today)? That could in turn make it even more difficult for the opposition parties to be voted in.

At least there will be two echo chambers – one 60%, the other 40%, still better than the current one echo chamber catering to 60% leaving the remaining 40% voiceless.

Sgthinker wrote:

I emphasise this. It is dangerous to assume that a free press would necessarily be in the opposition’s favour. It might work in their favour, or it might not.

That’s not the point. The point is the press has to be free in order that the people’s minds can be free.


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