Hitting a Nerve in Singapore
By Bryan Caplan
After Singapore’s Law Minister used my article in Ethos to rebut international criticism, Singapore’s Online Citizen asked permission to run a longer version of “Two Paradoxes of Singaporean Political Economy.” Reactions were… mixed. Several readers backed me up:
I would say that resignation explains the paradox of Singapore’s
political economy. Even the supposedly “rebellious” SDP are more or
less jogging on the spot. Opposition politics is a broken record in a
Singapore. This actually shows the Opposition Parties’ lack of energy
People, we only have ourselves to blame for the current situation.
Why get upset and work out over an article. We should not blame the writer but 66 pct of Singaporean that make it happened.
Most readers, however, were not happy campers. One common complaint is that I am just repeating the propaganda of the civil servants I met:
Through his own admission, his views were mainly based upon the inputs
given to him by the 80% of his time spent with top civil servants.
These civil servants, as Singaporeans know, are either secret PAP
members, pro-PAP, pro-government (which cannot be otherwise because
they are working for the govt and their paymaster is the govt),
pro-establishment, under bondage, relatives of those PAP members in
power, or beholden one way or another to at least one of the people in
power, or a by character balls-carriers and sycophants. Most important
of all, these civil servants have not experience the sufferings and
problems Singaporean commoners and opposition politicians have been
1. While I did spent a lot of time talking to civil servants, they were happy to distinguish between their own views and the broader public’s. When I tested their claims against the available Singaporean public opinion data, they held up. The data show that that Singaporean “commoners” are very satisfied, not “suffering.”
2. The civil servants I met in Singapore were much more willing to criticize their government and entertain contrarian views than they would be in the U.S.
Other readers accused me of ignoring important undemocratic features of Singaporean politics. Highlights:
[T]he PAP has created a
thought-control system that Goebbels would be proud of. By controlling
the media and most forms of input, the PAP can shape the thoughts of
the young. This is manifested through simple things like singing
national day songs, equating Singapore with the PAP and the muzzling of
My reply: Even if Singapore used to have a Nazi-level system of thought-control (and it certainly didn’t), the internet has destroyed it. It is now easy for Singaporeans to hear and voice anti-PAP views. But this doesn’t seem to have made a dent in the PAP’s dominance. So how important could this thought control have been in the place?
A Singaporean’s sole loyalty is to himself. So, he votes for the party
that he thinks can secure his personal survival and prosperity. He has
no regard for what is good for his neighbor or for his country.
My reply: Even if Singaporean voters are selfish (which I doubt), there’s nothing undemocratic about selfish voting, and little reason to think that selfish voting leads to bad outcomes.
Here’s the single strongest list of my sins of omission, with my replies interspersed:
1.) GRC system (number 1 offender), gerrymandering and last minute
redrawing of boundaries, very few days given for political rallies and
host of minor things that is detrimental to opposition getting votes.
True, but in many other countries, far more severe electoral disadvantages fail to keep the opposition from winning elections. What’s different about Singapore?
2.) Total control of Mass Media, such that PAP is always portrayed positively and opposition portrayed negatively.
If the Mass Media is so biased and out of touch, why don’t Singaporeans just switch to the web?
3.) Control of many companies providing essential services. Being
the largest employer means voters working for the government and PAP
will hesitate to rock their rice bowl.
Fair enough. But if these companies are ripping off the rest of Singapore to buy their workers’ votes, why don’t the victims prefer the opposition?
4.) Intimidation of opposition and supporters, using ISA laws to
unfairly detain people of credibility, making them migrate or a
fugitive of the law. If ISA is not used, then other things like tax
evasion or defamation will be used.
True, but see my reply to #1.
5.) The use of fear. By putting numbers on voting slip, some who
wants to vote for opposition are afraid to do so for fear that it would
be tracked and they will suffer consequences for it. Also scaring
voters to think that if PAP is no longer government, Armageddon will
happen the next day or if their constituency is managed by opposition,
it will become slums.
I’m skeptical about the first fear. If I asked random Singaporeans off the record, how many would actually tell me they’re afraid of being “tracked”? The second fear is more credible. But it’s just another way of saying, “Voters believe that the PAP will do a much better job than the opposition.”
Meta-question: How should the fact that Singaporeans are even having this conversation affect your evaluation of our arguments?