Monday, March 22, 2010

Is Singapore a democracy?

I recently had a conversation with a friend on whether Singapore is a democracy. Let's strip it down to the fundamentals.

Democracy is commonly regarded as a system of government with four key elements:

1. A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections.

2. The active participation of citizens in politics and civic life.

3. Protection of the human rights of all citizens.

4. A rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.

Are these 4 key elements present in Singapore? In 2009, Freedom House's report on Singapore said that Singapore is not an electoral democracy.


soojenn said...

It will be interesting to know who you think meet the four key elements you defined as commonly regarded as "democracy".

Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Hong Kong, Indonesia, USA, Australia, who?

Who, which countries or country in your perspective meet this 4 key elements you espoused?

Seelan Palay said...

In my view, all of those countries meet those 4 requirements in combined amounts more than Singapore.

All of those 6 countries have elections that are more free and fair than Singapore.

All of those 6 countries do not have a mainstream media that is entirely owned and controlled by the government.

All of those 6 countries have variations of repression, but there is enough space for civil society, the opposition, and citizens to campaign and express their points of view.

All of those 6 countries have a judicial system that doesn't spell defeat for each and every single political case.

Advocates, activists and parties should view democracy as a process, a process in which Singapore pales in comparison.

A PR from India who lives in my neighbourhood acknowledges that Singapore as a city is more "structurally developed: than Singapore. But when asked about democracy, he says his country is definitely more democratic than Singapore.

So yes, Singapore has some shreds of democratic norms in place, but let's take it from Lee Kuan Yew himself:

“But we either believe in democracy or we not. If we do, then, we must say categorically, without qualification, that no restraint from the any democratic processes, other than by the ordinary law of the land, should be allowed… If you believe in democracy, you must believe in it unconditionally. If you believe that men should be free, then, they should have the right of free association, of free speech, of free publication. Then, no law should permit those democratic processes to be set at nought.”
- Lee Kuan Yew as an opposition leader, April 27, 1955

Ruzhi said...

Hi Seelan,

I am a Malaysian currently residing in Singapore, for about five years. And while I do believe that Malaysia is relatively more democratic than Singapore (though not exactly democratic in absolute terms), I question the fruitfulness of a democratic system in this region.

Malaysia and Singapore more or less started off with a similar demography. Back then, the different races and religions were clashing. If Singapore had started off as a democracy, it wouldn't be what it is today - with free speech and all, the various groups would've destroyed each other. It took an authoritarian PAP to control these groups through strict enforcement and yes, lack of freedom, to make Singapore the nation it is now. There is more 'people power' in Malaysia - people speak up when they aren't happy - but that is also the cause of our problems. When the wrong people speak up, or when the wrong people vote, the entire country suffers.

Thus my take is that a democratic system should only be implemented when the people are mature and educated enough to decide the country's future. Give freedom and empowerment to a group of racists and religious fanatics and we'd end up with Malaysia or Indonesia. The maturity of Singapore society should be properly gauged first before allowing more rights. I say this because I've met some Singaporeans who still harbour racial sentiments - some of them are employers - if these people have more power, it could disrupt racial unity here.

My only gripe about having a rigid, authoritarian system here is that the people become politically apathetic, as what I've generally observed here. Nevertheless, it's good to know that political consciousness in Singapore is gaining momentum.

Seelan Palay said...

Thank you Ruzhi. I think that the first and most essential requirement for the maturing of Singapore society is a free market of ideas where independent and alternative views can be shared amongst all citizens.

Because only a free market of ideas can encourage balanced discussion, reflection and understanding of issues.

While opposition parties in Singapore do have the legal capacity to publish and distribute/sell their newsletters, they have difficulty publishing them in frequencies and amounts anywhere near the government owned and controlled mainstream media.

Another issue is the reach of their newsletters, which takes manpower. The overarching culture of fear prevents many from coming forward to aid in this task. But no, I will never blame Singaporeans for being afraid, because I'm sure that at some point of time, everyone has been.

But outside of political parties, when citizen activists try to distribute fliers or other material, we are harrassed, threatened with arrest and brought in for police interrogation.

Still there is hope. Like you aptly noted, it's good to know that political consciousness in Singapore is gaining momentum.

Robox said...

Seelan, I hope that you publish this because it is a VERY dangerous sign for democratic development in Singapore, especially where it concerns Indian and Malay participation in the democratic process.

I just joined the kenneth Jeyaratnam's and his 'Reform' Party's Abolish GRC facebook and posted one question that I had hope that he would reply to.

I will post my comment here, but follow up in my nxet posting with Kenneth Jeayaratnam's rude, uncalled for, and completely unsound reply to me:

This was my posting:


I hope Kenneth Jeyaratnam replies to this.

I have only joined this group and don't know if this has already been raised. I am all for the abolishment of the GRC feature. (I recall a netizen once describing it as the Gang Rape Conspiracy; I thought it a very appropriate description.)

However, I want to see the goal of guaranteed representation by Indians and Malays continue, and there are already well-established provisions for this in other countries. ... See More

Your father is the only oft-cited example of a non-Chinese opposition party member being able to win elections in an SMC; a gut feeling tells me that you might well be the next one.

Which brings me to this concern: Can a non-Jeyaratnam Indian or Malay opposition party member ever win in an SMC?

What are your thoughts on this?

(One other thing I am interested in doing with regards to this particular issue to is to collate enough material to help build up a case for the GRC's unconstitutionality. But that's for another discussion.)