The Singaporean blog TR Emeritus recently reprinted my “How I See Singapore,” prompting critical response.  The main complaint is that I ignorantly claim that Singapore is a democracy. 

I understand the pushback.  Singapore gets mediocre scores on international democracy ratings like Polity IV and Freedom House.  My post affirms a very different conclusion with no real explanation. 

In my defense, the point of the post was to describe my personal reaction to Singapore, not to justify it.  But my “Two Paradoxes of Singaporean Political Economy” (a longer version of my essay for Ethos) defends Singapore’s democratic credentials at length.  Here goes:



The “Singapore as a thinly-veiled
dictatorship” theory coheres neatly with Western stereotypes about the
city-state, and elegantly resolves my two puzzles.  Unfortunately, the dictatorship thesis
ignores three basic facts.

First, Singapore has several legal
opposition parties, including the Workers’ Party of Singapore, the Singapore
Democratic Alliance, and the Singapore Malays National Organization.[1]  The only illegal party is the Communist Party
of Malaya.[2]  As Mauzy and Milne observe:[3]

The Singapore government has not committed any
serious violations of civil rights. 
There have been no extrajudicial killings or political disappearances,
and there are currently no political detainees.

The worst that Freedom House can say
about Singapore’s democracy is that: “[T]he opposition is hamstrung by a ban on
political films and television programs, the threat of libel suits, strict
regulations on political associations, and the PAP’s influence on the media and
the courts.”[4]  Activists in opposition parties face many
minor indignities, but hardly live in mortal fear of the PAP.[5] 

At the margin, of course, PAP
pressure deters some political talent from joining opposition parties.  But this is a feeble explanation for the
opposition’s near-total failure to gain political office.  After all, there are many countries that have
vigorous electoral competition even though their opposition candidates face
great dangers.  In Pakistan, for example,
the reins of power have repeatedly changed hands via electoral channels even
though opposition candidates have frequently faced arrest, execution, and

Second, while the PAP does place
unusual restrictions on political expression, these restrictions shield people from criticism, not
policies.  Opposition candidates who
avoid personal attacks against PAP politicians can and do freely attack PAP
policies as ineffective or unfair.  An
opposition candidate could safely campaign on a platform to abolish Electronic
Road Pricing or slash immigration. 
Indeed, an opposition candidate could safely campaign on a platform to
rein in politically-motivated defamation suits. 
In the Median Voter Model, embracing these positions would quickly usher
opposition politicians into power – assuming, of course, that the median voter
genuinely wants the changes in question.

Third, there is virtually no
evidence that Singapore’s elections are corrupt.  Indeed, international observers have
consistently rated its government as one of the least corrupt in the
world.  The World Bank’s Governance Matters data set, for
example, gives Singapore stellar scores in “Rule of Law” and “Control of
Corruption.”[6]  Despite Freedom House’s negative assessment
of political freedom in Singapore, it grants that “elections are free from
irregularities and vote rigging.”[7]  The Global Barometer country report for
Singapore finds that 86% of Singaporeans believe that their country is either
“a full democracy” or “a democracy, but with minor problems.”[8]  The same percentage agrees that the last
election was either “completely free and fair,” or “free and fair, but with
minor problems.”[9]  Yes, decades of one-party electoral dominance
is normally is a strong symptom of electoral corruption, but not in Singapore.[10]

Evidence from the World Values
Survey, administered in Singapore in 2002, reinforces this conclusion.  18.7% of Singaporeans were “very satisfied”
with “the way the people now in national office are handling
the country’s affairs” and another 72.7% were “fairly satisfied”; the
comparable numbers for the United States in 1999 (the survey year closest to
2002) were 6.9% and 60.2%.
[11] Similarly, when asked whether their country “is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves,” or
“for the benefit of all the people,” only 20.4% in Singapore say, “a few big
interests,” versus 63.3% for the U.S.
[12]  International
observers may say that the United States is much more democratic than
Singapore, but Americans are markedly less likely than Singaporeans to feel
like their government delivers the results the public wants.

I do not mean to deny the many peculiarities of Singaporean
politics.  In most democracies, leading
members of the opposition have successful careers and a serious chance of
winning.  In most democracies, the
members of the ruling party respond to their opponents’ verbal abuse with more
verbal abuse – not lawsuits.   The
government of Singapore partially owns the main newspapers and television
stations, and practices a moderate form of censorship.[13]  My point, though, is that these peculiarities
are largely irrelevant as far as the Median Voter Model is concerned.  In Singapore, voters are free to vote for
opposition candidates, and opposition candidates can safely advocate the
elimination of unpopular policies.  In
the Median Voter Model, this is all you need for the will of the people to

[1] See generally Mutalib (2004).

[2] Mauzy, D. K, “Electoral Innovation and One-Party
Dominance in
Singapore,” in Hsieh, John Fuh-sheng and Newman David, eds. How Asia Votes
New York: Chatham House Publishers, 2002): p246.

Mauzy, D., and R. Milne, Singapore Politics Under the People’s Action Party. (New York: Routledge, 2002): p128.


[5] See generally Mauzy (2002): p241-245; Mutalib
(2004): p239-267.



[8] Tan, E and Z. Wang, “A Comparative Survey of
Democracy, Governance and Development”, 
Asian Barometer Working Paper Series, No.35, p4. 14.6% of the
Singaporeans say “full democracy”; 71.5% say “a democracy, but with minor

[9] Tan, E. and Z. Wang, “The State of Democracy in Singapore: Rethinking Some Paradoxes.” (Paper presented at
conference entitled, “The Asian
Barometer Conference on The State of Democratic Governance in Asia” organized
by Asian Barometer,
Taipei (Taiwan), 20-21 June, 2008): p6.

[10] See also Mauzy and Milne (2002): p141: “There is no
ballot rigging, intimidation of voters, inaccurate counting of ballots, or
manipulation of the electoral rolls to produce so-called ‘phantom’ voters or
multiple voters in
Singapore.  The US State
Department regularly reports that ‘the voting and vote-counting systems are
fair, accurate and free from tampering,’ while noting as well the ‘formidable
obstacles’ facing the Opposition… Similarly, Michael Haas, a critic of the PAP,
writes that “… there is no doubt that substantive, majoritarian democracy
exists at the polls,’ and that ‘the voters of
Singapore baffle many observers by supporting the PAP at each
election with huge majorities.'”

[11] World Values Survey variable identifier E125.  While one might think that the Lewinsky
scandal artificially depressed Americans’ 1999 response, they were actually substantially
less satisfied with their government
in 1995, the year of the previous survey. For details see 

[12] World Values Survey variable identifier E128.

[13] As Mutalib (2004): p307 puts it, “Not only are
journalists issued accreditation cards by the authorities, government nominees
sit in all major media corporations such as the MediaCorp companies, and, as
illustrated earlier, the SPH [Singapore Press Holdings].”

If I’m right, where do international democracy rankings go wrong?  Simple: By defining “democracy” to exclude countries with free and fair elections if they don’t like their political outcomes and/or policies.  While I try to avoid definitional arguments, this is misleading.  Singapore has plenty of room for improvement, but lack of democracy isn’t the problem.