In 1959, Lipset posited that the modernization of a country is conducive to democratization. Lipset understood modernization to include development in industrialization, urbanization, wealth and education. The definition has since been extrapolated to include respect for human rights, recognition by intergovernmental organization, prominence in the global economy, and more. Growth in these metrics is supposed to support transition to democracy and subsequent consolidation. Prior to the Cold War, modernization theory was largely Eurocentric as most of the countries fit nicely into the mold of the theory. Contradictory outcomes in Third World and former Soviet republics began to embolden its critics. The greatest challenge to modernization theory, however, came from Southeast Asia. Within the past fifty years, there has been enormous economic development (or a lack thereof) with no ostensible correlation with regime type. The greatest outlier is Singapore, an economic powerhouse run by a partially-democratic regime.
Several criticisms of and alternatives to modernization theory have arisen since its inception. Singaporean exceptionalism appears to arbitrarily support or contradict some of these proposals, leaving it largely unexplained. Inglehart posits that economic development creates social conditions that facilitate political participation and democracy, which is a more indirect correlation. Singapore not only enjoys mass political participation, but voting is compulsory and protected. Nonetheless, these conditions have not yielded democracy, counterintuitively affirming the position of the ruling party through voting. As another alternative, Przeworski claims that democratization happens randomly and in accordance with cultural conditions, and modernization makes it easier to maintain. Singapore supports this because it has modernized without democracy, implying a weak correlation between the two. Rather than maintaining democracy, however, modernization legitimizes the party in power. Through its demonstrative capacity, the PAP has sustained itself rather than its regime type. A final point of contradiction rests in Singapore’s human rights record. Contemporary definitions of modernization theory include human rights as a metric to achieve democracy. Singapore has a poor human rights record yet has excelled in every other modernization metric. This could indicate that human rights is the missing piece in Singaporean democracy. Even so, Singapore has modernized at a remarkable rate, and the government enjoys widespread support despite its authoritarian tendencies.
Singapore’s colonial history and democratic tradition is an outlier in regards to its regional neighbors. Singapore was colonized by the British in 1819 and subjected to a British Legislative Council. Although the locals had no representation on the Council, the governors were often receptive to public opinion and feedback. The relationship was so amicable that the locals welcomed back British rule after the Japanese were expelled following World War II. The British then allowed for local representation on the Council, before helping Singapore transition to an independent representative democracy in 1958. The unicameral legislature has been controlled by the PAP since then. For its entire existence, Singapore has enjoyed a form of paternalistic quasi-authoritarian government under the British and the PAP. The British imported representative democracy before modernization occurred, which contradicts the logical order of modernization theory. Additionally, in spite of rapid modernization, Singapore has opted to maintain its historic ‘one-party rule.’ Whereas most post-colonial states struggled with an extractive colonial relationship and self-interested autocrats, both the British and the PAP have largely ruled with the interest of Singaporeans in mind. These ‘authoritarians’ have also demonstrated their capacity, transforming the island into a financial hub in half a century. For this reason, there has simply been no incentive for Singaporeans to change their regime type.
On paper, Singapore is a representative democracy. The government is semi-presidential, with a prime minister serving as head of government, and a ceremonious president serving as head of state. The legislature uses a first-past-the-post system, with non-constituency spots allocated to represent diverse political opinions and minorities. Despite this democratic infrastructure, Singaporeans continue to elect PAP majorities in the legislature. This is in part because of the extra-judicial pressure the PAP puts on political opposition. The PAP levies libel lawsuits against opposition to bankrupt them, gerrymanders districts in their favor, and suppresses outspoken critics with the Sedition Act. Despite this pressure, Singaporeans overwhelmingly elect the PAP. As counterintuitive as this may seem, it’s because the PAP has demonstrated itself to be an extraordinarily capable and transparent regime. Within Asia, the PAP maintains the highest GDP per capita, the highest literacy rate, the highest life expectancy, and lowest levels of corruption. There is also remarkable infrastructure and public transportation, and social programs to reduce poverty. The PAP has done an incredible job transforming the island from a fishing village into a modern metropolis. There is little reason for Singaporeans to vote out their rulers and transition to democracy. Thus, in a sense, Singapore has the ‘perfect dictatorship.’ In terms of modernization theory, it seems that development simply affirms the legitimacy of the ruling authority and regime. So long as the regime effectively operates in the interest of the people, it can maintain legitimacy.