Singapore's late founding father, Lee Kwan Yew, walks alongside U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsefeld in 2002.

Singapore’s late founding father, Lee Kwan Yew, walks alongside U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsefeld in 2002.

“It was a good result for the PAP, but an excellent result for Singapore.” So spoke Lee Hsien Long, Singapore’s prime minister, upon the victory of his People’s Action Party in the recent September 2015 elections. Lee’s words are indubitably optimistic, and justifiably so—the PAP won almost 70 percent of the vote.

Context is particularly key when examining Singapore’s elections, however. While a single party winning 70 percent of the vote in the United States or Western Europe today would be exceptional, in Singapore the same result is not nearly as meaningful. The PAP has been in power for the last 50 years—since Singapore’s inception—and has presided over an authoritarian regime.

Especially with the death of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founder and longtime ruler, earlier this year, it appeared as though this year’s elections might have been a pivotal moment for democratization in the nation-state. Opposition parties looked poised to capitalize on the significant gains made in 2011. Yet the reversal of those gains suggest that one-party rule in Singapore is as alive as ever.

The PAP’s longstanding and undemocratic dominance is particularly interesting because it positions Singapore, among the world’s richest countries, in direct opposition to one of the most established models in political science—that democracy is a direct effect of economic development. There are certainly no conclusive answers to this enigma, but by comparing Singapore to another Asian country, South Korea, a number of important insights can be gained.

Economic Similarities, Political Differences

Of the countless “rags-to-riches” stories told throughout the ages, there are none as astounding as those that have played out in South Korea and Singapore over the past half-century. Once in the company of the world’s poorest and least developed, the two countries have thoroughly transformed themselves into ultra-wealthy hubs of global commerce. In terms of GDP, South Korea ranks 13 in the world, with an economy of $1.4 trillion. Singapore, meanwhile, is the 36th richest country with an economy of $307 billion. The global median GDP is around $33 billion. Moreover, South Korea has a GPD per capita of $34,355 and Singapore a whopping $82,763, far exceeding the global median of approximately $11,000.

Although Singapore and South Korea have progressed to relatively similar positions of economic power today, the same cannot be said of their respective political climates. On one hand, South Korea has abandoned its authoritarian past and has flourished into one of the world’s foremost democracies. On the other, although Lee Kuan Yew’s reign ended almost 25 years ago, Singapore retains much of its founder’s authoritarian influence through both the PAP and the current presidency of Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Kuan Yew’s son. Singapore today is still fundamentally undemocratic.

Democracy, as NYU political scientist Adam Przeworski has put it, is a system “in which incumbents lose elections and leave office if they do.” More theoretically, the disparity between the two countries can be understood in the context of Freedom House’s Freedom in the World rankings, which track the status of political rights and civil liberties, two significant indicators of democracy, in every country in the world. While South Korea scored 2 on the 1-7 scale in both political rights and civil liberties, placing it firmly in the “Free” category, Singapore was ranked as only a 4 in each category, giving it the label of only “Partly Free.”

All About Elections

One of the most compelling explanations for the disparity between South Korea and Singapore is the way elections are run in each country. After the ouster of Chun Doo Hwan, South Korea’s final dictatorial leader, and the election of Roh Tae Woo in 1988, every election in the country has seen veritable contestation between different parties. Truly, the lack of state intervention in electoral politics is exemplified by the fact that the South Korean populace has elected candidates who possess views often completely variant or antithetical to those of their predecessors and that smooth transitions in power have occurred in such elections.

This degree of separation between elections and governmental officials has been possible only as a result of institutional mechanisms that guarantee entirely free and open elections. The most important of these is the National Election Commission, a nonaligned agency specifically mandated in South Korea’s constitution and on independent from the country’s legislature. The NEC’s elaborate, four-tier framework has allowed it to effectively conduct and monitor both national and local elections, thereby preventing fraud and ensuring enfranchisement for all South Koreans.

The state of electoral affairs in Singapore, at least to western eyes, is not nearly as promising. It is true that through its promises to the Singaporean populace to address specific issues of concern the PAP has maintained a level of popularity that would likely ensure its victory even in a completely free election. Nevertheless, this fact lends little legitimacy to the country’s elections because it is evident that the ruling party retains a substantial amount of control over the electoral process. For example, instead of being an independent agency the, Singapore Elections Department is a body within the Prime Minister’s Office, and it often operates without transparency. The structure of Singapore’s parliament also seems to prevent opposition parties from being able to win in elections. The vast majority of seats in the parliament are group representation constituencies, in which at least one member of parliament is of a minority race. While this organizational system is effective in allowing for racial diversity, because weaker PAP wards are often paired with stronger ones in a constituency, minority parties are unable to compete because of their lack of resources relative to the PAP.

Disparities in Civil Society

Aside from electoral considerations, a second notable factor in the materialization of democracy in South Korea and lack thereof in Singapore is the presence and vigor of civil society in each country. In large part, the election of Roh Tae Woo to the South Korean presidency in 1988 was a result of the coalescence of labor activists, students, and the middle-class into a widespread coalition named the June Democratic Coalition, which vocally opposed the authoritarian rule of Chun Doo Hwan and called for democratization. Civil society organizations have remained active in the political culture of South Korea, especially as spaces to bring forth issues neglected by politicians, such as human rights in North Korea.

Meanwhile, although present to some degree, civil society plays a much less active rule in Singapore’s political sphere due to governmental attempts to stifle civil society’s maturation. Specifically, the institutions that constitute Singapore’s government are largely structured to undermine the expression of critical voices. Not only are the vast majority of media outlets controlled by the state, but the country’s Sedition Act also criminalizes any publication or even expression that seeks “to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the Government.” One striking example of this legislation brought into action was the arrest of a teenager who fulminated against Lee Kuan Yew and celebrated the leader’s death on YouTube earlier this year.

The current state of Singapore’s electoral institutions and civil society certainly suggest that there is no reason to expect that the PAP’s 60-year monopoly on power will end anytime soon. But there is some evidence that the seeds of change have been planted. Despite the continued parliamentary dominance of the PAP, it is important to note that Singapore’s 2015 election marked the first time every single seat was contested. In addition, while the government’s relationship with individuals who criticize it certainly remains uneasy, there has been some cooperation between civil society organizations and government agencies, and civil society as a whole, slowly but surely, continues to grow. If these trends continue—which appears increasingly likely as the government fails to adequately address issues like income inequality and the rising cost of living—Singapore will find that it may someday resemble South Korea on the political spectrum and not just the economic one.

Image source: Wikimedia // R.D. Ward

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