What's Really Rotten in the City-State of Singapore?
By Bryan Caplan
Singapore is widely regarded as a dictatorship. Even the contrarian Gordon Tullock joins in the chorus; in Autocracy, he remarks that, “The dominant form of autocracy has been the non-totalitarian type presented by Franco, Lee of Singapore, or Mobutu of Zaire.” In researching the political economy of Singapore, however, I discovered that these accusations are baseless. Despite its peculiarities and the near-total dominance of the People’s Action Party, Singapore is a democracy. Legal opposition parties compete regularly in Singapore’s free, non-corrupt elections. They just don’t win.
Now that we’re on the same page, it’s time to play “Truth is Stranger Than Fiction.” Believe it or not, Singaporean Law Minister K. Shanmugam recently relied on my arguments to defend his government at an international conference in New York!
IN CHICAGO, Democratic mayors have won without interruption since 1931. In San Francisco, they have done so since 1964.
while Democrats have not monopolised the mayor’s office in New York
City, they have near-PAP dominance of the city council, where they hold
45 out of 48 occupied seats.
‘But nobody questions whether there
is a democracy in New York,’ Law Minister K. Shanmugam said on
Wednesday, referring to the frequent questioning of Singapore’s
democratic credentials given the 50-year dominance of the ruling
People’s Action Party.
Drawing on arguments by American
economist Bryan Caplan in a recent article, he said Singapore was
viewed as a deviation from the democratic norm because it was seen
primarily as a country.
‘This is where most people make a
mistake…I have tried to explain that we are different. We are a city.
We are not a country,’ he told 200 lawyers, many from America, at the
New York State Bar Association International Section’s meeting here.
M. N. Krishnamani, a panellist and president of the Supreme Court of
India Bar Association, asked if it was true that with the ruling PAP in
power for some decades now, the opposition was unable to survive or win
cases in the courts.
Mr Shanmugam anticipated such a question
and came prepared with Dr Caplan’s article, published in July. Reading
extracts, he told his audience it was the best response he could
provide to the question…
As a libertarian, I certainly don’t want governments to hide their crimes behind my words. But truth comes first. People who call Singapore a dictatorship are factually mistaken, and if the Law Minister of Singapore wants to use my research to correct the record, I do not object.
Still, lest I be mistaken for a PAP apologist, this is a great time to air Singapore’s real dirty laundry. The Singaporean government has many disgraceful policies. My top picks:
1. Conscription. Though they laughed at me in Singapore, this is clearly state slavery – and there are plenty of less draconian means to defend the city-state from conquest. (Like… paying soldiers market wages). Only a democratic fundamentalist would imagine that the right to vote is more important than the right to say “No” to a job offer.
2. The death penalty for drug trafficking. Jailing people for capitalist acts between consenting adults is bad enough. Murdering people for selling intoxicants to willing buyers is sheer barbarism.
3. State ownership. While Singapore’s state-owned companies act
surprisingly like capitalist firms, why settle for second-best? And if
you needed further empirical evidence that state ownership undermines
personal freedom even if it is “run like a business,” take a look at
the Straits Times or Singaporean television.
4. Defamation law. Letting people sue people who badmouth them is bad enough. But Singapore takes defamation law to its logical, absurd conclusion: You can’t even badmouth government officials unless you can prove that your charges are true. The problem with these laws isn’t that they’re undemocratic – after all, Singapore still allows criticism of policies. The problem is that they violate human freedom. People should be allowed to say what they like about whoever they like, whether or not they can prove it, and whether or not they’re right.
5. Censorship. The Internet has made Singaporean censorship largely obsolete, but it’s still an outrage that you need the government’s approval to stage a public performance.
Bottom line: Singapore’s critics have plenty of genuine grievances to denounce. (And under Singaporean law, it’s legal to do so – just don’t get personal!) So why do the critics keep complaining about “lack of democracy” when the real story is that most Singaporeans persistently prefer the PAP to the opposition?