Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Authoritarianism in Singapore

Written by johnleemk on 2:27:29 pm Aug 6, 2007.
Categories: ,

One of the more perplexing issues for those who try to find a causal relationship between economic growth or education and democracy is the problem posed by Singapore. In Singapore, despite an urbane, prosperous and well-educated burgeoning middle class, authoritarianism has survived virtually unchecked for over four decades.

In short, there is not only an apparent lack of a causal link, but also a correlational association between the different variables.

Of course, there is an easy explanation — there is rarely, if ever, a perfect correlation between any two variables (at least in the real world). Taking an exception to the rule and using it to disprove the rule does not work when the rules are supposed to be broken every now and then.

Looking at the big picture, a good argument can be made that there is a causal link between economic growth and education and democracy. South Korea and Taiwan are often cited as two examples.

But having said that, why is Singapore the exception? That there are exceptions is no surprise, statistically speaking, but explaining those individual exceptions is a separate issue worth looking at.

One thing that strikes me is that I am a member of the middle class or upper class, quite educated, and well aware of issues like human rights. I would be the perfect opponent to the authoritarian government of Singapore.

And yet, I really doubt that given the chance, I would vote out the People's Action Party regime. This is not because I condone the PAP government's actions — I find them to be as repulsive as much of what many totalitarian regimes have done.

The main reason I would not oppose the PAP (actively supporting it being a different issue altogether) is that it has successfully managed Singapore. I view democracy as largely a means to an end — democracy is meant to lead to good governance. Singapore has, in my view, achieved good governance without resorting to democracy.

The PAP spews a lot of crap about how more civil rights would jeopardise economic growth. I don't buy what they're selling. I think Singaporeans deserve better civil liberties, and I support any and all attempts to do this.

What I am more shaky about supporting is those who fight for civil liberties, but at the same time don't seem to have the managerial ability requisite to run the government. Chee Soon Juan, the perennial critic of the Singaporean government, strikes me as one fellow who fights the good fight, but poses an unknown quantity when it comes to governance. There is, after all, no use in having democracy but bad governance.

In my own country, things are more simple to sort out. The ruling regime here does not permit democracy, and has horrible governance. The opposition at least wants democracy, meaning we can only go up from here.

Singaporeans on the other hand are trapped between a rock and a hard place — good governance or democracy? I'm not sure if I envy the position they are in.

What slightly heartens me is that at some point or another, the PAP will slip up, the corruption that comes with power will rear its head, and Singaporeans will realise that in order to sustain a clean and efficient government, there must be democracy.

At the moment, though, the surprising thing is that Singapore remains a well-managed country, despite the lack of democracy. Despite achieving good governance, however, this prosperity cannot last unless democracy enters the mix.

Not too long ago, I read an interesting conjecture in Time, postulating that there are good dictators and bad dictators. Good dictators, like those in Taiwan and Korea, lead their country to prosperity and let the tide of democracy push them aside so the prosperity is maintained. Bad dictators keep their countries poor and stand in the way of democracy.

What kind of dictator will the Singaporean government be? We can but hope that it will either change for the better, or that the opposition will be finally able to present a tangible need for more democracy to check heretofore-unkown excesses of the PAP regime. One thing is for sure, in my opinion: at one point or another, Singapore must turn to democracy to maintain its good government.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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