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 assassination.

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 prevail.

[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.

[3] 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 problems.”

[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.