Modern Singapore’s political landscape has often served as a bellwether (or mirror, as the case may be) for what other countries in Asia have come to expect from their polities – maintenance of the status quo, with enough of a sliver of opposition voices at election time to enable the country to call itself a ‘democracy’ with a straight face. That wouldn’t pass the smell test in much of the rest of the world, but it works well in Singapore.
The results of this weekend’s general election were somewhat surprising — with the ruling PAP managing to recapture the 10 percent of the popular vote that it lost in 2011 (to achieve 70% of the vote) and took 83 of the 89 parliamentary seats — given that Minister Mentor Lee (the Founder of modern Singapore) had passed away earlier this year, there was a more vocal opposition than ever before in the city state, and that Prime Minister Lee had spoken of the need for change. Given the 94% turnout, apparently, the voters begged to differ.
Part of the reason is surely that the average voter is comfortable sticking with what he/she knows best, and in fairness, the PAP has delivered the goods for decades, since its founding in 1954. When the departed Minister Mentor assumed office in 1959, Singapore had fewer than 2 million inhabitants. Today, it is approaching 6 million, many of whom are foreigners, who have helped make the country a regional financial and technology powerhouse, but who have also produced much of the hard labor that was essential to achieving Singapore’s incredible growth. In 1960, Singapore’s GDP was less than $1 billion; in 2014 it was just under $300 billion. In 1960, the country’s GDP per capita was $427 per person; in 2013 is was over $55,000 per person. By any measure, this is an astonishing success story. The opposition parties talked a good talk, but when confronted with these statistics, it is hard to make a convincing case that fundamental change is needed.
The same certainly cannot be said of many other countries – in the region, and all over the world, where fundamental change is exactly what is needed. One need look no further than next door to Singapore, in Malaysia, which is in the midst of a mammoth corruption scandal that goes right to the Prime Minister’s door. When combined with long-simmering race-related issues (stemming from institutionalized preferences being given to ethnic Malays), income inequality, rising crime rates and a plummeting currency, there is ample reason to argue in favor of political change. Having had the same political party (UMNO) in power for nearly 60 years has resulted in a net negative for the country. Prime Minister Najib is acting as though his own political survival, and that of UMNO, appears to be more important than the well-being of the country.
Compare the well-worn story of fossilized institutionalized political regimes with the message that is being delivered – loud and clear – from voters in the United States, on both sides of the political spectrum. Even though the U.S. is completely dominated by two political parties that have taken turns running the country since its founding, voters from both the Democrats and Republicans are saying that they have had enough of business as usual – although the U.S. economy is doing well when compared with many other developed countries. Voters are tired of, the country’s crumbling infrastructure, its decaying schools, Washington’s institutionalized (and legalized) corruption, and the sclerotic and nepotistic manner in which anything gets done in Washington (when anything does get done).
The desire for fundamental political change is being screamed in so many places throughout the world – whether the monarchies of the Middle East, the barrios of Latin America, or the kleptocracies of Africa – but the example of Singapore shows that a paternalistic one party “nanny” state can get the job done well, even though it stifles its press and freedom of expression. Perhaps that is the point. If Singapore were the thriving democracy it could be, it would presumably not have been able to achieve nearly as much as it is has in its 50-year life – as it undoubtedly would have become preoccupied with such ‘trivialities’ as political inclusion and freedom of expression, and distracted from ensuring continual economic growth and rising incomes.
That approach works as long as the ruling party can continue a definitive march forward economically. As soon as the music stops, voters come to realize that there is another path, and it just might be preferable. The government of Singapore knows that very well, as does the Chinese government. The challenge for both is to keep the music playing, even though everyone knows it cannot play forever.