Is Singapore A Unique Form Of Democracy

Essay, Research Paper

The Singapore government has captured the imagination of the West, having been described as authoritarian and undemocratic, yet enjoying a baffling run of economic success generally achieved by free, democratic, capitalist states. Its success has lent justification to the formation of the Singapore School that championed a separate Asian-style democracy that eschews some of the accepted features of liberal democracy in favour of greater state control. This has divided critics over the legitimacy of democracy

Singapore-style. This paper by looking at Asian-style democracy vis a vis liberal democracy, and through examining the extent to which democratic institutions are present in Singapore hopes to determine if Singapore is truly a unique form of democracy or if it is simply authoritarianism by another name.

Democracy is a contentious term to define, replete with numerous qualifications and caveats. The common definition of of the people, for the people, by the people captures the spirit of the concept, but doesn t advance an understanding of what constitutes a democracy. Neher and Marlay (1995), note that democracy recognizes individual rights and places less belligerent leaderships in place. They outline what constitutes a democracy as citizen participation in choosing the government, political competition between candidates and government recognition of civil and political rights. Ooi (2000) concurs, adding that democracy, after all, has been regarded as constituting first, legal guarantees of citizens to participate in the formulation of policies. Second, democracy also means the institutionalization of specific political freedoms including freedom of speech, association and judicial rights, as well as representative control over the executive and the bureaucracy. Political contestation is legally ensured and considered legitimate and democracy is also seen to include popular accountability.

Neher and Marlay (1995) also point out that variables that contribute to the development of democracy include economic development, the rise of a middle class, indigent cultures given to tolerance and compromise, and international links to other democracies. While it can be argued that developed, multicultural, cosmopolitan Singapore has all these variables in place, and while there is universal suffrage, the recognition of civil and political rights, and the extent of political competition are questionable. Whither then is Singapore s democracy?

An argument often forwarded by the establishment in Singapore is that the nation practices, along with certain other Asian states, a different brand of democracy namely Asian-style democracy . This is distinct from liberal democracy in that it does not champion individual rights and civil liberties to the extent the latter does. A closer examination of the concept is warranted.

Neher and Marlay (1995) posit that Asian democracies are semidemocratic with universal franchise and elections of liberal democracies, but with other countervailing features. These include confucianism with its emphasis on harmony, stability and consensus; a hierarchic but mutually beneficial patron-client communitarianism; personalism where personal alliances precede institutions and laws in importance and force of personality garners the mandate to lead, a great respect for authority; a dominant political party stressing on consensus; and a strong, corporatist state that co-opts independent organizations and unions. Inoguchi (1998) takes a more economy-centred perspective and observes commonalities in Asian-style democracies, while noting that they have particular manifestations in each country. These are: good economic performance underpinned by government intervention and management of economy; emphasis on human resource development; high propensity to save thereby aiding capital accumulation; social trust in networks and kinship ties over laws and contract; small, pragmatic and responsive government that eschews ideology; a small, lean bureaucracy in the pursuit of national interest; co-option of autonomous social organizations of forge consensus, and a distinct communitarian and Confucianistic values.

These traits have worked to great success in parts of Asia, hence the East Asian Miracle . Yet, is this success a justification of the means in itself, does good economic management translate to sound statecraft? Is Asia s brand of democracy legitimate in itself?

Robison (1996) posits that the economic outcomes of low wages, low taxes, a strong work ethic, and high savings prevalent in Asian NICs appeal to conservative and neo-liberal elements in Australia. They argue for aspects of Asian-style soft-authoritarianism with cohesive national and economic policy strategies to dismantle welfare systems, remove lobby groups and unions, instill societal discipline, and minimize government intervention in markets. However, it must be recognized that Asian NICs are at different stages of development from mature economies, their successes are historically contingent and culturally specific, and they are now beginning to face pressures of maturing. Rodan and Hewison (1996) take this point one step further. They posit that rather than a West against the Rest opposition, a convergence of ideologies seems underway instead, between the East and conservative elements in the West. Diametric cultural oppositions are belied by pockets of dissent in Asia calling for democracy, human rights and other un-Asian values, while conservatives in the West are espousing Asian values of stability, discipline, authority, and societal obligations ahead of individual rights. In short, Asian values are largely conservative values appropriated by Asian leaders to perpetuate their hold on power.

Confucianism is held to be the ideological foundation for Asian-style democracies. They provide the anti-liberal, communitarian principles that inform governments like Singapore s in their soft-authoritarianism. Yet, Confucian scholars like Yu (1998) maintain that this is not an accurate interpretation of Confucianism and that Confucianism is in fact pro-democracy, unlike the anti-Confucianist stance notions that the system is illiberal and undemocratic in Western and recent Chinese thought. He defends it, asserting that while Confucianism lacks the specific terms of democracy and human rights , their general notions or values are present. Scholars noted that democracy, or the common people as the ultimate source of political authority with the rule of law, was the perfect form of government, prevalent in Chinese antiquity. Human rights, are also enshrined. Having rights is recognized as being the beneficiary of someone else s duty, and comprehensive lists of duties are outlined for people from all ranks of society in Confucianism, thereby safeguarding rights. This challenges the Confucian defense adopted by many soft-authoritarian Asian states, including Singapore.

There has been criticism abound in the West and within Asian itself that Asian-style democracy not a valid form of democracy. Lawson (1995) gives voice to these criticisms, saying that there are reasonable limits to what can be legitimately called a democracy, and many Asian democracies are, in fact, authoritarian. In democracies, a democratic constitution and enfranchisement must be combined with political competition, participation, and civil liberties. Asian democracies, promoting a set of allegedly Asian values, purport an essential political identity and a distinct democracy incommensurably different from, and immeasurable by, Western yardsticks. However, there are no authoritative accounts of Asian democracy and early sources seem more intent in justifying authoritarian rule, as the examples of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia evince.

Other critics are more forgiving than Lawson in their assessment of Asian-style democracy . Hood (1998) suggests that states actually evolve to full-fledged liberal democracies. He notes that certain Asian states privilege communitarian concerns and Confucian values a philosophically archaic system that discounts free-will in human beings over individual freedoms, and enjoy high development through state-managed economies. Asian leaders maintain that their system with its complex nexus of interdependencies and bonds of loyalties, duties and reciprocities, will not translate to a Western democracy. The author asserts, in being part-democratic and part-authoritarian, Asian democracies are not unique or hybrid forms of democracy but have failed to complete the transition to democracy as the democratic socialization has not caught up with economic modernization. Most will, over time, develop democratic institutions till they become liberal democracies.

This is an interesting position to take with regards to Singapore. Is it only economically modern and yet to complete the social evolution to a liberal democracy? Is this a prescriptive that works across the board for all states? Emmerson (2001) suggests that the democratization is rife with complexity and contingencies, particular to each state and warns that pressing ahead with reforms without caution could trigger backlash effects that could derail the entire process itself. While processes like elections and rule of law have to be put in place and institutions like the legislature, the media and civil society have to be developed, diversity and differences must always be accommodated. Inherent tensions between liberalism (the rule of law with inalienable rights) and democracy (rule of the majority) present problematic complexities to governments. The task at hand is to search for local solutions to relieve the local pressures and strengthen local institutions in the course of democratization.

Singapore certainly has many of the features identified in Asian-style democracies and works to them to good effect. It has a centrally-managed, government-driven economy, with a strong patron-client relationship between government and the electorate as in most Confucianistic states. Personal alliances factor significantly in commerce and government, though in a meritocratic sense rather than in a nepotistic way. Bureaucracy has been co-opted as the right arm of the government, which has increasingly been confused with the ruling People s Action Party. It has been very successful in its economic management that Singapore is held as model in those areas. Yet do these imperatives curtail Singapore s ability to democratize, stunting it in a particular phase of development towards becoming a liberal democracy? We will examine this further.

George (2000) observes that Singapore has put up a rigorous defense of the Asian way, arguing that liberal values were not universal, and the timing and pace of democratization were not suitable for developing Asia. Singapore s motivations for this were to avert US alienation of China, and to play on domestic suspicions of post-colonial condescension. The outcome of this stance, bolstered by the then-Asian miracle, was to provide an ideological crutch that prevented meaningful discussion of policy. However, as seen earlier in Yu s argument, the notion of Confucian tradition impeding democratization and the upholding of rights is not valid. In that respect at least, a populist tendency of the government to play to the people s suspicions, as George has mentioned, is cloaked behind cultural contingency.

Tracing modern Singapore s history, Neher and Marlay (1995) posit its strategy has been to enforce tight social and political discipline in favour of freedoms, and it has reaped the benefits of human and economic development and an increasingly affluent and educated populace. While electoral participation is high, opposition isn t strong, the media is fettered, parliament is dominated by the PAP, and a corporatist state has been installed. Civil liberties are curtailed, few autonomous groups are permitted, the population has been detribalized, and dissidence is not tolerated. While Singapore strives to be the bridge between the East and the West, the authors consider it an autocracy . As such most of the democratic institutions are not present in Singapore. The press is fettered, civil society is weak, and opposition is either co-opted of crushed, leaving real political competition sorely lacking. With this as the case, can Singapore be considered a democracy.

Theory suggests that industrialization promotes political changes to a more open society, and employing this Paul (1992) analyzes the prospects for political liberalization in Singapore. He concludes that they are bleak. Singapore is exceptional given: its need for political stability engendered by a high dependency on foreign investment; the imperative for micromanagement of the state in order to maintain economic viability in a rapidly changing, globalised environment; and its concerted policy of alternately co-opting and coercing the opposition and civil society through legislation, social policy and economic engineering. Given additional concerns of size, weakness of national identity and geopolitical vulnerability, authoritarianism is likely to continue in Singapore.

Lam (1999) concurs, observing that despite growing affluence, a burgeoning middle class and a well-educated workforce, there is no significant pressure in Singapore for greater liberalization, thereby belying modernization theory. He asserts this is because the strong People s Action Party government keeps civil society weak and removes any opposition that might challenge its dominance. Adopting Confucian values, it expects respect, obedience and loyalty in exchange for good governance. Constantly drumming home the issues of size and vulnerability, the government plays on anxiety to depoliticize the citizenry. Co-opting trade unions, and installing a bureaucracy that is the largest employer in the country, the government developed an expanding but state-dependent middle class that is unlikely to press for democratization.

Culturalised behaviour is at the root of the problem, opines Chua (1996). He advances that Singapore s PAP government instills an ideological hegemony in the citizenry to ensure the country s economic success and party longevity. The government draws legitimacy from its capacity to plan and manage national interest a concept reduced merely to economic development and induces citizens to believe that this is only possible with the political stability of single-party dominance. The government others in the Foucauldian sense the liberal, individualistic West while it defines and places distinct Asian values rooted in Confucianism into social practice. It culturalises the citizenry with discipline and a solid work ethic geared towards collective welfare, and thus promotes an ideological Asianisation of itself and it s people.

The outcome of this repeated barrage of social programming of the people through culturalised behaviour, through a deprivation of democratic institutions, and through the over-arching drive to succeed materially, is worse than apathy. It is ignorance of democratic behaviour, says George (2000). Using the opening of the Speakers Corner in Singapore last year, enabling for the first time a citizen to address the public freely without a license, and calls from the government for greater political participation in the citizenry as a backdrop, he examines the out-of-bounds markers invisible lines that are not to be crossed for fear of the government s response in place in SIngapore. He states that the past two decades have seen disturbing catchall legislation formulated, and individuals facing severe reprisals, leaving no room for political error. These measures have created a sterile political environment and an apathetic citizenry who don t know how to participate in a democracy. Making them set aside their fears and step forward now is a difficult task.

In the light of these features in place in Singapore, it would be hard to argue that the state is in the process of democratization. There is no democratic integrity in institutions, such as a free press, or active civil society, and there is no obvious intention of the government to install such integrity in the institutions. The obvious motivation seems to be the People s Action Party s desire to prolong its stay in power, at any costs. As such, the impedances to democratization are also contrived by the ruling party, hiding behind the banner of Asian values and Asian-style democracy , which has been shown earlier to be dubious in origin. From crushing political opposition to coercing the electorate to vote in its favour through financial threats, the government has shown little regard for the integrity in democratic processes.

In the light of these facts, it would be difficult to say that Singapore is a unique form of democracy. It is rather an authoritarian regime attempting to legitimize its brand of government by citing dubious cultural contingencies, such as Asian-style democracy .


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