Singapore’s Challenge to Democracy

A citizen pays tribute in the days after Lee Kuan Yew’s death in March 2015. Source: Getty Images

Henry Kissinger, the great American statesman of the 70’s, once wrote, “One of the asymmetries of history, is the lack of correspondence between the abilities of some leaders and the power of their countries.” But whom was Kissinger bestowing this rather grandiose compliment to? It was Lee Kuan Yew, a close confidant and friend of Kissinger. Lee Kuan Yew, who passed away last March, was the founder of Singapore, a tiny country in Southeast Asia half the size of Los Angeles, CA.

To understand Singapore, we must understand that Singapore in Lee’s own words “was not supposed to and cannot exist.” Singapore, in the simplest of terms, is an anomaly of history. What other geographically small country with no natural resources, shared history, or language has thrived over the course of history? But what of Singapore now? As the country celebrates its 50th anniversary, Singapore can be considered among the richest, healthiest, and safest countries in the world. Singapore’s success brings up interesting questions regarding democracy and its worth. American policy both at home and abroad has always assumed democracy to be the best form of government, yet Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore is hardly democratic. Despite free and fair elections with multiple political parties, Singapore has only known one ruling party in its history due to the structure of its political system. This post will compare Singapore with the U.S. on a number of different measures as the U.S. is often seen as the model of democracy and where democratic sentiment is strongest.

We can first start by gauging economic performance, as this is the empirically easiest category to measure. During Singapore’s founding in 1965, the average income for a Singaporean was about 500 dollars in today’s dollars; today it is about 55 thousand dollars. Over the past fifteen years, U.S. GDP has grown at an average of two percent per year while Singapore has averaged nearly six percent despite not having any natural advantages to speak off. In the latest Global Competitiveness Index, a measure of how competitive an economy is, Singapore ranked second behind Switzerland while the US came in third. For the past seven years, the Economist Intelligence Unit has also ranked Singapore as the best place to do business in the world.

But what of other factors such as education, health, and safety? Singaporean students recently ranked first in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development global school ranking, a study that analyzes which system of education is best suited to economic development. Also, a comprehensive study by Bloomberg in 2012 ranked Singapore as the healthiest country in the world. It is worth noting that the United States was ranked below thirty in both studies. Furthermore, the infant mortality rate is much lower in Singapore than it is in the U.S. as a baby born in the U.S. is three times more likely to die as a baby born in Singapore. Additionally, Singapore has one of the lowest crimes rates in the world; an individual is twenty-four more times more likely to be murdered in the U.S. than in Singapore. Lastly, less than one percent of Singaporeans reported that they struggled to afford food or shelter, which is by far the lowest figure in the world.

How effective is the governmental process in Singapore compared to the U.S.? Every year, the World Bank releases a Governance Indicators Metrics on the effectiveness of government, regulatory quality, rule of law, and the prevention of corruption. Singapore is far ahead of the U.S. in every category as the US lags an average of 30 places behind. Another area where there is a gulf between Singapore and the U.S. is the prevention of corruption, as demonstrated in Transparency’s International latest corruption prevention ranking, where Singapore ranked seventh while the U.S. lagged 10 spots behind in 17th.

Now this is where the fundamental contradiction lies. Singapore is well governed and successful by almost every statistic imaginable. But how does it rank when democratic participation and personal liberties are considered? Despite having what The Economist calls “free and fair elections,” Singapore ranked in the bottom half of Freedom House’s 2013 democratic ranking. Opposition to Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action Party (PAP) “has been typically hamstrung by the threat of libel suits, strict regulations on political associations, and the PAP’s influence on the media.” The discrepancy between Singapore’s rankings in the first two categories of governmental performance and its ranking in democratic participation brings up the fundamental question of political philosophy and governance.

What is the ultimate purpose of government? Is it the liberal idea that political rights should be emphasized, or can the purpose of government be understood as “whether it helps that society establish conditions that improve the standard of living for the majority of its people” as Lee Kuan Yew so succinctly put it? In assessing Singapore, perhaps other freedoms should be considered, such as the freedom of being able to walk without fear at night.  Additionally, Lee Kuan Yew always insisted that he had no place for ideology in his country, as Western democracy was too volatile and forced policy to be short term and appealing to the masses instead of adopting long-term policies that might initially be unpopular but beneficial for the country in the long term. He had always been unapologetic, as he was once quoted saying “I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters — who your neighbor is, how you live…….or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.”

It is to be acknowledged that Lee Kuan Yews pragmatism is made easier as Singapore is a small island nation where control is more easily exercised, yet this does not discount Lee Kuan Yew’s achievement and his fundamental challenge to the worth of democracy. At the end of the day, for Lee Kuan Yew, the only ideology worth pursuing was no ideology. His philosophy in his own words was, “Does it work? Let’s try it and if it does work, fine, let’s continue it. If it doesn’t work, toss it out, try another one. We are not enamored with any ideology.” What are the larger implications of Lee Kuan Yew’s impact on politics? It is perhaps to show that, when the conditions are right and when a leader is truly committed to a country, democracy might not be the best form of government. However, history offers very few examples of successful countries with one-party rule. Perhaps that is what makes Singapore and made Lee Kuan Yew so special. Singapore, no matter how you look at it, is an anomaly of history. Lee Kuan Yew with his will and pragmatism is certainly responsible for that.

He will certainly be missed.