Singapore – Semidemocracy or Semi-dictatorship?

Decided to place a little extract from a book I am currently studying on the nature of certain non-democratic regimes. Singapore seems to come out rather favourably in this interpretation of the situation up until the year 2000. I am sure that there are some of you out there who will disagree. Although not a fully paid up member of the democracy club Singapore does seem to be slowly shifting in the direction of democracy. What changes though would need to be made and can the ‘survivalism’ argument ever been countered successfully?

The Singapore regime, like the Malaysian, has emphasised that it has developed a form of democracy that suits its country’s circumstances, and has argued that it is important to retain this ‘dominant-party system’ (Rodan, 1993a: 78). However, among Western analysts Singapore is usually seen as less than democratic, and the issue is whether this ambiguous regime should be categorised as a semidemocracy or as effectively a one-party state (Case, 1996; Rodan, 1993a: 78, 86, 103). The People’s Action Party (PAP) regime in Singapore developed in quite different fashion from its Malaysian counterpart, UMNO. The PAP came to power in 1959, in a British decolonising election, by mobilising mass support from the Chinese ethnic majority, but it was a socialist rather than a communal or ethnic party and sought support from the Malay and Indian ethnic minorities as well as from the Chinese majority. Moreover, in 1961 the party’s communist-sympathising (and massmobilising) faction broke away from the PAP and formed the Barisan Sosialis (BS) party. The BS was ‘seriously crippled’, though, in 1963 when more than a hundred leading leftists fell victim to anti-communist preventive detention measures (Chan, 1976: 198), and later in the year a now rebuilt PAP handed the BS a heavy electoral defeat. Within a decade the BS had declined into obscurity, leaving the PAP with an unchallenged electoral dominance. Although in the 1970s– 80s elections there were always five or more opposition parties contesting elections with the PAP, it won every parliamentary seat in the 1970s and thereafter retained all but a few seats, despite its share of the vote falling to 61– 63 per cent.

In fact the development of the PAP regime shows some resemblances with that of African one-party states (see Chapter 4). Like them, the PAP exploited the unique organisational and electoral opportunity presented by decolonising elections. As Singapore’s first mass party the PAP was the first party to establish a link with the bulk of ethnic-majority Chinese voters, and therefore once the challenge from the breakaway BS had been defeated the party had an impregnable electoral advantage over ‘fledgling’ competing parties (Chan, 1976: 229, 218).

Another similarity with the African pattern was the use of cooption and coercion to consolidate the party’s monopoly, but the PAP’s commitment to a formally multiparty system meant that the cooption/ coercion was aimed at parties’ potential leaders and activists rather than the parties themselves. Influential or potential local leaders were appointed to the Citizens Consultative Committees – where they were at least ‘quarantined’ from the opposition parties – while fears of retribution deterred careerconscious individuals from becoming election candidates, or even visible supporters, of opposition parties (Chan, 1976: 144, 219; Milne and Mauzy, 1990: 93). A further similarity with the African one-party states was the manner in which the ‘founding’ head of government elected during the decolonising transition went on to establish a powerful personal position within the post-independence regime. Although he shared power with a small team of other senior ministers/ party-leaders, Singapore’s founding Prime Minister (and founding PAP Secretary-General) Lee Kuan Yew dominated party and state until his retirement in 1990, and thereafter retained a ‘crucial’ personal role as privileged Senior Minister and wielder of ‘considerable influence through less formal means’ (Milne and Mauzy, 1990: 103– 4; Tillman, 1989: 54– 7; Cotton, 1993: 9, 14, 11).

to continue reading

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About soci
Lived in Singapore for 6 wonderful years and has been blogging since 2003, under various names but always on Singaporean issues.

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