I came across an interesting article recently, written by one Dr Stephan Ortmann. It claims to describe a change, a liberalisation in fact, in the political regime of Singapore. Immediately I was curious as this is not exactly my understanding of reality on the little red dot. The paper is The 2011 Elections in Singapore: The Emergence of a Competitive Authoritarian Regime from Hong Kong University.
The author presents a spectrum of political regime types from “closed autocracy” at one end to “liberal democracy” at the other. His argument appears to be that Singapore has transitioned from a hegemonic electoral regime to a competitive authoritarian regime. This represents a single step in the direction of liberal democracy, away from the pure “closed autocracy”. This process is variously described in positive terms – as an “evolution”, how the PAP have “[allowed] the elections to become more meaningful”, asking “why did the government liberalise parts of the polity” and stating that the government “opened the doors for more political activism”.
The paper seems to somewhat revolve around a possibly confused understanding of what is a regime. My dictionary says “A method or system of government” but yet the following quote appears to imply that the author takes a somewhat different view.
“The fact that the 2011 parliamentary election was the first election in Singapore’s modern history in which almost all of the constituencies were contested clearly exemplifies the transformation of the city-state towards a competitive authoritarian regime”
There are a few problems with this sentence and I will come back to it. Firstly, let us ask, is Singapore a regime? I would suggest not – the PAP and the mechanisms and structures of power they have set up may be regarded as a regime, but to call the city itself a regime seems odd. One other article is cited that describes a supposedly similar transition, it speaks of a “decay of the hegemonic party regime” and identifies two key factors: “a leadership succession” and “the belief that political concessions would enhance the legitimacy of the ruling party”. It is important to note that both of these factors represent changes by and of the ruling party rather than their opponents or broader society. This seems to support my dictionary’s definition of a regime. I suggest that the author’s argument for regime change having occurred in Singapore is misguided by taking an overly wide definition of the regime in question. Singapore may have changed, but the PAP have not.
Firstly, returning to the previous quote, it appears to be the author’s argument that a more capable or better organised opposition is indicative of the regime having changed – that seems to be a somewhat misguided line of thinking. If the step towards liberal democracy is a step towards freedom, then we must consider whether or not a greater opposition to a lack of freedom is itself indicative of an increase in freedom. Imagine a political prisoner, incarcerated without trial for 5 years. He clearly lacks freedom. One day he wakes up and decides he should file a law suit against the government for unlawful imprisonment – is he any more free for having brought his case? Obviously not if he is still imprisoned. Arguably even more so if his jailers guarantee him five more years of repentance as punishment for bringing his case.
Secondly, the argument is dangerous because it allows authoritarian governments to claim progress towards liberal democracy when none in fact may have taken place. Imagine now, a hypothetical country with a long track record of electoral mischief and a few disorganised but eager opposition parties. The ruling party could easily claim to have “changed” in the way the author describes Singapore to have changed by merely rigging the vote in a fashion somewhat more favourable to the opposition. If seats have previously gone uncontested, setting up a few tame opposition parties would be trivial. If the problem is a lack of votes for the opposition undermining the credibility of elections, then vote rigging can presumably work to their favour. A state as gerrymandered as Singapore would provide a ruling party plenty of opportunities to make a few token concessions to their opponents, the ruling party could then claim progress towards liberal democracy, citing the need for stability in support of not making further, more meaningful changes. The author’s paper is dangerous because it may plant these seeds of mischief in the minds of authoritarian rulers.
Finally, the argument is unenlightening as it makes it all too easy to misdiagnose the nature of change that a system is undergoing. An authoritarian government that allows some form of electoral process, but due to reasons beyond their control becomes less popular, can probably be expected to suffer some sort of reversal at the polls. An obvious example would be any country using, for example, oil revenues to implement populist subsidies. If the price of oil declined in the run up to an election then subsidies may have to be cut. This would presumably reduce the popularity of the ruling party and cause a swing against them. If this inspired more opposition parties to contest and win a larger share of the vote, would it be indicative of meaningful change on the part of the regime? Probably not.
So this is one big problem with the author’s paper – inferring from the effectiveness or popularity of the opposition, that Singapore has made a meaningful step in the direction of liberal democracy. I would suggest that more tangible changes to the underlying political model and system in Singapore would be a pre-requisite for announcing change. In this respect, the author himself states “all the draconian measures that make it difficult to classify Singapore as even an illiberal democracy are still on the books” – for this reason we should be wary of overstating the change that Singapore saw in the 2011 GE.
Further, the author appears to misunderstand the nature of political opposition in Singapore. In ascribing changes to the opposition which are not borne out in fact, he again overstates the case for change.
“In the past, opposition parties have remained in the minority and have not tried to challenge the People’s Action Party head on. They largely accepted their inferior position and aspired to be only a constructive opposition that voices the interests of the people while the ruling party was still considered to be the most qualified to rule the country.
The opposition is no longer content with playing second fiddle as its stated goal has become the desire to move toward a two-party or multi-party system. “Towards a First World Parliament” was the title of the election manifesto of Singapore’s most popular opposition party, the Workers’ Party.”
It would be hard to describe JB Jeyaretnam as doing anything other than challenging the PAP head-on in the 1980s. However, the idea that Singapore’s opposition “is no longer content with playing second fiddle” is a particularly curious observation in light of the fact that the Workers’ Party, the only party to have won any seats in 2011, have often re-iterated their position that they are not ready to govern, describing themselves as a “co-driver” who can slap the government if they take the wrong course. Party leader Low Thia Khiang made this clear as recently as January 2013, two and a half years after the supposedly watershed 2011 GE. Curiously, it is not clear that the Workers’ Party is planning to make the step up to being a viable alternative to the PAP in the near future.
But we [the Workers’ Party] are not ready to be the next government or alternative government, and we are clear about this and we do not want to give Singaporeans the false expectation of an alternative government.
The author further expounds the credentials of WP’s “A-team” in Aljunied, describing the capture of a GRC as an obstacle that was once believed “insurmountable”. Clearly the WP’s victory in Aljunied was hugely significant, but it should be placed in some context. In 1988 WP came within 1% of taking Eunos GRC, with a team that included Singapore’s former Attorney General Francis Seow. In 1991 WP lost the same seat by less than 2.5%. The obstacle, whilst clearly hugely undemocratic, was never realistically “insurmountable”. In failing to mention this context, the author overstates the significance of winning a GRC and thus the magnitude of change that Singapore saw in 2011.
In the context of liberalisations that the PAP has allowed to occur, the author generously cites liberalisation of the internet in favour of the ruling party
The most important liberalization in regard to the 2011 elections was the government’s decision to relax the restrictions governing political content on the Internet in one of the world’s most connected countries.
This is somewhat debatable, and can equally be seen as an example of the PAP “reverting to type”. Opposition parties have generally always been free to canvass public opinion – going on walkabouts and selling party newspapers has long been a staple of opposition politicians. Allowing outreach activities to extend online represents “more of the same” rather than meaningful change. The PAP’s preferred tactic has always been to make life difficult for the opposition in less obvious ways and this has continued into the online world. The unilateral gazetting of The Online Citizen by PM Lee is a case in point. The ruling party’s use of mainstream media to hound the alleged owner of Temasek Review is another. More obviously, the threat of defamation suits has been used to silence bloggers and other online critics, a tactic the PAP has been famous for deploying since long before the advent of the internet. Cooling off day applies equally on-line as it does off-line. Interestingly a PAP MP was accused of violating this rule on-line in 2011 and the offence was ultimately pinned on a possibly mythical administrator. Despite that person not having been registered as an administrator of the relevant social media platform, that in itself being a violation of election rules, no sanctions were ever taken. Would an opposition MP benefit from such a light-touch approach to enforcement? Let us ask the parallel question from the off-line world in 1997. Would an opposition MP benefit from a ruling along the lines that being within a polling booth does not fall within the definition of being within 200 meters of the polling booth? It is clear, the challenges faced by opposition parties online mirror those that exist offline. That parties are ostensibly free to extend their outreach programs online only mirrors the long-standing nature of politics in Singapore, and is not really indicative of change on the part of the ruling party.
It is true however that the role of the internet promises to be revolutionary in Singaporean politics. For once, a medium has emerged wherein Singaporeans can voice their discontents openly, a medium which so far appears to be beyond the control of the ruling party. Rather than ascribing this to regime change however, a better analogy would be that of the political prisoner mentioned earlier – the internet gives him a voice with which to speak out of his incarceration, and rally supporters to his cause. He is not free yet, in fact he is arguably no more free whatsoever just for having a voice, but if he can win the support of the masses by speaking out, he may be able to force a review of his case and win his freedom.
Other claims are made in support of the Singapore regime having made the transition towards liberal democracy, however those above appear to be central to the author’s argument. I argue that by taking an overly broad definition of a regime, and failing to place the changes that Singapore witnessed in 2011 in the proper historical context, the author overstates the case for change significantly. This is a cause for concern because authoritarian regimes – such as the PAP – typically need to justify themselves on the international stage, and could undoubtably point to articles such as that written by Dr Ortmann as evidence of them having moved towards a more democratic order. Indeed, if we are serious about wanting democratic change in Singapore, we should be careful not to overstate the case and only give credit when meaningful change has occurred. Again, as the author notes, there are many aspects of the Singapore system that prevent it from being described even as an illiberal democracy. If all of these were removed, it would be huge progress. That none have been removed is indicative of there being no real change. If just one or two of the main obstacles (an independent election body would be a good start) were removed then talk of small steps in the right direction would be warranted. Absent those however, we are still waiting for real change in Singapore.