Why Do Outsiders Care About Singapore’s Elections?

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Why Do Outsiders Care About Singapore’s Elections?

The attention is less about an election than an exception.

To the casual outside observer, Singapore’s general election this past week would seem like a pretty boring affair.

After just days of official campaigning, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which has governed the city-state since 1959, won again as expected. Debate about the outcome – to the extent it existed – centered largely on how and why the PAP cemented its dominance, which amounted to a whopping 70 percent of the national vote and 83 out of 87 parliamentary seats. Next to pre-election putsches in Myanmar and post-election coups in Thailand, Singapore’s politics appear rather predictable.

And yet, if the flood of international commentary over the past few weeks is any indicator, outsiders were intrigued by Singapore’s recent election and its outcome. To some, the reasons may not seem that surprising. Many are familiar with Singapore’s remarkable transformation from a third world backwater in 1965 into a first world city-state, along with some of its quirks like the infamous initial ban on chewing gum and hefty fines for littering and not flushing toilets. Its late founder, Lee Kuan Yew, has no shortage of admirers globally, with the ‘grand master’s’ insights on the world even distilled into a book recently published by MIT Press.

While these factors matter somewhat, outside interest in Singapore’s politics is arguably less about periodical elections in the city-state itself and more about the enduring exception that it presents. For decades, Singapore has defied the basic thesis of modernization theory, famously articulated by Seymour Martin Lipset, that nations become more democratic as they get richer. In 1990, as it celebrated its silver jubilee, Singapore was the only non-oil exporting “high-income country” (as defined by the World Bank) that did not have a democratic political system, with other East Asian countries like South Korea and Taiwan making the predicted transition.

What’s more, while some were thought to be heralding the ‘end of history’ in the 1990s, the city-state was actively challenging the idea that democracy was the best form of governance. During the so-called Asian values debate, Lee Kuan Yew fervently argued that denying civil and political rights to people was acceptable if it promotes economic development and general wealth for the majority. That idea, subsequently dubbed “the Lee Thesis,” has been fiercely debated since.

Policy-wise, the Singapore exception posed a formidable challenge to Western democracies including the United States. To take just one example, many have a cursory understanding of the Michael Fay Affair, where an American teenager gained international attention in 1994 when sentenced to caning – a form of corporal punishment consisting of strokes with a rattan cane – for theft and vandalism in Singapore. But fewer realize that while elite opinion in the United States was firmly against the sentence – which was eventually reduced – public opinion was in fact more divided, with some Americans suggesting that such punishment may actually cut crime in the United States. In one poll, Gallup asked Americans whether caning would deter crime if used in their country. A full 62 percent said yes.

Over the past few years, the city-state’s politics has attracted even greater attention among outside observers because of growing signs that ‘The Singapore Exception’ may not endure in the long run. The signs are there for those looking for them. The PAP’s performance has come under scrutiny in recent years due to structural issues including the rising cost of living, growing inequality and immigration. Singaporeans – especially younger ones – are also less inclined to leave governing up to elites and are demanding more of a say in how the country is run. In the city-state’s last general election in 2011, the PAP registered its worst-ever showing in the country amid unprecedented opposition gains. While the party has instituted some notable reforms since then, critics charge that they have not gone nearly far enough.

The PAP’s strong showing in the 2015 general election merely confirms what many – including some of its critics – already knew: under current conditions, the party is able to adapt to the extent required for it to continue to win elections comfortably, and an end to the PAP’s dominance is not nearly as near as some outside observers had expected. That should come as no surprise to those who understand what those conditions are – including gerrymandering, media controls, and restrictions on assembly and speech – and the advantages they confer to the PAP at the opposition’s expense. Besides, as Singaporean author Sudhir Vadaketh wrote in his popular blog just before the election, the PAP’s tactical adaptability to win elections ought to be distinguished from its ideological adaptability to govern Singapore in the coming decades.

Little surprise, then, that this hasn’t stopped outside observers from calling for an end to ‘The Singapore Exception.’ Earlier this week, Dan Slater, a renowned American professor who focuses on Southeast Asian politics, called for the PAP to ease its authoritarian controls and pursue democratic reforms. “2015 may have been one of the PAP’s most successful authoritarian elections; but it could also be Singapore’s final authoritarian election, if the PAP would simply decide to make it so,” Slater wrote in a piece for East Asia Forum. Irrespective of the course the PAP chooses to adopt in the coming years and the fate of ‘The Singapore Exception,’ we can expect the keen international attention to the city-state’s politics to continue.