Further Response to Professor Bryan Caplan

Professor – I think you tried to hard to refute the claim that Singapore is not a democracy. Still, you failed, and I will come back to that. What I really really want to know is, how can a libertarian of all people – democracy or otherwise – support the PAP? “The best policies in the world” I think is how you put it. Maybe I don’t know much about libertarians but I thought the idea was about small government and personal freedoms? How does small government fit in with 85% of people living in government subsidised housing? When the government uses your government subsidised house as a stick to beat you with at election time? When the company that builds those houses is owned by the PM’s wife? Further, in my twitter feed today I got a link to a parliamentary debate [8] from a few years ago wherein the government threatened to withdraw their kindergartens from opposition wards?? Is this the (small?) government you are such a fan of?

As an economist, I suppose you understand the importance of saving for retirement. In Singapore the government legislates that all citizens and “permanent residents” have to save for retirement by buying government debt … and the interest rate is lower than inflation. Small or big, as an economist I wonder how you can justify this as anything other than appalling? What was that phrase again … “best policies in the world”. Can you justify that please?

Onto democracy and a bit about the history of political opposition in Singapore, this is the environment we are working with. You describe Singapore’s opposition as “hamstrung” by the peculiarities of the PAP system, but don’t see this as an indication that democracy is critically wounded in Singapore?

While you may be right that there are currently no political detainees in Singapore, you conveniently neglect to mention all the abuses that political opponents have suffered over the years. It is these abuses that deter Singaporeans from getting involved in opposition politics and winning elections. In 1966 Chia Thye Poh [1] was arrested. He was never charged or tried. After the release of Nelson Mandela, Chia became the longest-serving political prisoner in the world. Including his incarceration and time under effective house arrest with various other restrictions on his movements, Chia was denied his freedom for 32 years. Impressive in a country where life imprisonment (at that time) meant 20 years, or 14 with good behaviour. Chia now lives in exile. Is this a minor indignity?

More recently in 1997 Tang Liang Hong [2] stood for election with the Workers Party. Purely on the basis of the number of opposition candidates fielded, it was an election the PAP literally could not lose. But they decided to destroy Tang anyway. His case is complicated but suffice to say 13 PAP MPs sued him and won eight million in damages, not just against him, but also his wife, who had nothing to do with the case. His appeal was fought by a QC from England but was unsuccessful. You mention that the PAP’s peculiar restrictions “shield people from criticism, not policies” but I think Mr Tang would disagree. The 1997 election came not long after the “Hotel Properties Scandal” [3] wherein Lee Kuan Yew and many of his extended family had purchased cut price properties from a public company of which Lee’s uncle was a director. Despite Singapore having a “Corrupt practices Investigation Bureau”, Lee decided to take care of the HPL scandal by having his government colleagues investigate the matter to clear his name. Tang, not unreasonably, suggested CPIB would be better placed to take care of such an investigation. This is not a form of abuse. Yet it is this, amongst other things, that he was sued for. The dichotomy between protecting people and policies is a false one. If the policy is a corrupt one, set up by a person to protect themselves, how does one criticise this without facing a multi million dollar law suit? Let us not forget that the Judge in Tang’s case had also bought cut price apartments from Lee’s uncle [4]. Tang now also lives in exile. Is this also a minor indignity?

On the topic of shielding people from criticism – not so long ago, the wife of PM Lee, despite a lack of relevant qualifications or experience, was appointed CEO of one of Singapore’s sovereign wealth funds. The Economist magazine suggested that this was nepotistically achieved and were subsequently sued [5]. Under the Singapore model, how can political opponents address this without falling foul of the courts? “Vote for me and I’ll replace the PM’s wife (who I am obliged to mention is the best person for the job or else I will be sued) with … someone better?”

You mention Pakistan, a splendid choice. The real problem in Singapore is the media. Why would anyone vote for a political party they had never heard of? Freedom House in their 2012 Freedom of the Press report [6] ranked Singapore 150th in the world – lower than Pakistan – which came in at 144. Reporters without Borders as recently as 2003 [7] ranked Singapore 144th – much lower than Pakistan at 128. Let’s remember that democracy is a long game.

You say “The government of Singapore partially owns the main newspapers and television stations” but this is highly disingenuous. In fact the government has full management control over all newspapers and TV in Singapore. Don’t make the mistake of looking at share ownership and think the government is not in total control. The government mandates the issuance of “management shares” with voting rights 200 to one in comparison to ordinary shares. And the management shares are wholly controlled by the government. It is this management control that allows the government to enforce a blanket ban on coverage of opposition politics – with the occasional exception when they can be painted in a bad light or to report on legally induced bankruptcies. It due to this more than anything that Singapore’s opposition politicians have little success, although with the advent of the internet, things are changing.

For all the above reasons I suggest Singapore is not a democracy but a “hybrid regime” – that is I agree with the Economist Intelligence Unit who say the same.

[1] http://www.singapore-window.org/81130sc.htm
[2] http://www.tangtalk.com/index-eng.htm
[3] http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Sg_Review/message/2335
[4] http://www.tangtalk.com/sc63.html
[5] http://www.mrbrown.com/blog/2004/09/lee_family_1_ec.html
[6] http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/freedom-press-2012
[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Press_Freedom_Index
[8] https://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=388696724557683

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One response to “Further Response to Professor Bryan Caplan

  1. Pingback: Andrew J. Ho | Singapore, Bryan Caplan, and my own reflections

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