In December 2021, the United States held an international Summit For Democracy, inviting 100 nations to combat democratic backsliding. The invite list was full of liberal democracies but included some fairly authoritarian regimes like Iraq and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Notably missing from the list was the prosperous nation of Singapore. Leaders of the Southeast Asian city-state were offended at their exclusion. Singapore’s Ambassador-at-large asserted that the nation was a healthy, stable democracy with free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, and protected political freedoms. However, with a 2021 Freedom House score of 48/100, these claims are quickly called into doubt. Is Singapore the fair, functioning democracy it considers itself to be?
In 2020, Singapore held its most recent general election for parliament. At stake, was nothing. The People’s Action Party (PAP), which has ruled Singapore since 1959, secured 61% of the vote. While a victory of this margin would be unimaginable in most parliamentary nations, the PAP was deeply concerned with the result, its second-worst showing since 1963.
If these election results didn’t raise enough red flags, Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, and his son Lee Hsien Loong (pictured above) have ruled the country for all but 14 years of its existence. How can a party regularly receive 60-80% of votes with a ruling family dynasty in a functioning democracy? The People’s Action Party claims that the people of Singapore simply approve of their rule. Critics assert that Singapore is rather a thinly veiled autocracy. The truth, as is often the case with Singapore, is complicated.
Are elections in Singapore free and fair, as it insists? It’s true that there is no vote tampering or election fraud and, with voting compulsory, participation is high. There exist genuine opposition parties; the Worker’s Party and the Progress Singapore Party both hold some seats in Parliament. However, even if Singapore’s elections qualify as free, they have never been fair.
The People’s Action Party has all the usual incumbent advantages: passing legislation and calling elections at strategic times. However, the party has many policies to tilt the scale. The Prime Minister has unchecked power to redistrict at any time, resulting in extensive gerrymandering. Just four months before the 2020 election, the party dissolved 3 districts in which they performed poorly in the prior election. To further disadvantage opponents, the PAP controls the legal campaign period. Usually set at around 10 days, this severely limits the opposition’s ability to reach voters.
The mentality behind these restrictions is that the PAP has provided economic development and opportunity to the people of Singapore. According to them, voting for the opposition is just free riding. To make this argument explicit, the party announced in 2015 that their voters in public housing would now have priority in maintenance requests. With all of the obstacles faced by their opposition, we can understand the PAP’s concern after only 61% of voters chose them.
An Independent Judiciary
With a European-style government structure, power in Singapore is held by the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, and Parliament. Candidates for the Presidency are selected by the PAP but the role is most ceremonial anyway. On paper, there’s an independent judiciary. However, top judges are appointed by the President with the advice of the Prime Minister. While the courts occasionally rule against the PAP, they generally fall in line, especially in defamation cases or lawsuits against political opponents.
Since they were first elected, political lawsuits have been essential in maintaining the People’s Action Party’s power in Singapore. Opposition leaders and activists have been fined, imprisoned, and scared into silence for decades. Vague defamation and libel laws and a loyal court make these lawsuits nearly impossible to beat, so fear of them keeps most criticism out of the public sphere. Just last September, a blogger was fined $156,000 after posting a critical article for libel and defamation of the Prime Minister, the party, and the nation. Even international newspapers such as the New York Times have been sued in Singaporean courts.
Protected Political Freedoms
While democratic backsliding has occurred in most of Singapore’s institutions, recent years have seen a particular crackdown on civil liberties. Not only are foreign newspapers often sued for defamation, but all newspapers, radio stations, and tv channels in Singapore are government-controlled. While the internet once enabled opposition parties to reach voters, the 2019 Protections from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act now requires companies like Facebook and Google to provide corrections or remove content deemed false by the state. However, foreign media continues to publish critical articles read by many in Singapore.
Assembly rights are also weak in Singapore. The Public Entertainments Act requires all public gatherings (including protests and strikes) to apply for police permits, which are frequently denied. Protesters without permits are regularly arrested and found guilty. Additional charges, such as vandalism, are often added for harsher sentencing. In 2020, a free-speech activist was famously arrested for holding a cardboard sign with a smiley face alone.
Technocratic or Authocratic?
There are many who argue that Singapore is merely an efficient, technocratic democracy. Most Singaporeans report satisfaction with the People’s Action Party, although one must remember their limited exposure to the opposition. There is room for disagreement and reform within the party and incompetent leaders are often removed. Many would also praise the government as largely free of corruption, but the extensive favor given to corporations is its own form of undemocratic corruption.
Of course, no one can deny the economic success Singapore has seen under the People’s Action Party. The small island nation has become a global hub for trade and business. Despite extreme wealth inequality, housing, healthcare, and other necessities are widespread and relatively affordable. It may be the case, as leaders assert, that Singaporeans understand their political reality and support them because of this success.
However, as the response to their non-invitation to the Summit for Democracy shows and their weakness in the 2020 elections, the People’s Action Party is clearly insecure about their hold on power. Singapore is no abusive authoritarian regime, but they are definitively not a liberal democracy. If they want to be considered one, serious reforms in election law, civil liberties, and the judiciary are required. Instead, however, it seems the People’s Action Party will continue to erode Singapore’s institutions to ensure their hold on power.