Winds of Change (II): Prospects for Democratization in Singapore

by singaporearmchaircritic

“Political Scientists are Lousy Forecasters,” declares a commentary in the New York Times. So in case the reader thinks that the author of this blog post is hazarding a political prediction, let me quickly say that I am not looking into my crystal ball. What I wish to do is to talk about the conditions in Singapore that are favorable for democratization, in view of our socio-economic context and the political developments we see after the 2011 General Election.

Democratization and under what conditions it occurs are a big topic in political science. Early modernization theory based on the experience of western nations suggests that countries democratize as they develop. Extended to other parts of the world, however, the theory fails to explain the presence of anomalies like Singapore and Malaysia.

Subsequent explanations see elite bargaining as critical in initiating democratization. Bargaining or negotiation may take place between hardliners and softliners (reformers) in the ruling camp, and/or between the ruling party and the opposition.

In deliberating whether to, when and how to democratize, elites take into consideration bottom-up forces too. By that we mean societal forces, such as social discontent translating into demonstrations and protests, or lower popular support for the ruling regime, or greater support for the opposition that compel ruling elites to embark on political reforms for their own survival. Exogenous shocks, such as a global economic crisis, often jolt a non-democratic regime into transition although political transformations away from authoritarianism may not end in complete democratization.

Signs of Liberalization?

In Singapore, what shook up the ruling elites was, of course, the 2011 General Election results (so kudos to the 40% voters!). But are there signs of our government opening up after the election?

Let us take a quick look at what political and policy changes have been installed since the watershed election:

1. Leadership

2. Immigration

  •         Increases in foreign worker levies
  •         Stricter requirements for employment passes, work permits
  •         Reduced quota for foreign workers a company can hire
  •         Stricter rules for foreign workers’ dependents
  •         Proposed bill to criminalize marriage of convenience and introduce a good conduct condition for PRs
  •         At the same time, however, work permit limits are extended

3. Housing

4. Others

  •         Singaporeans to get priority over PRs in primary one balloting
  •         Review of the death penalty
  •         Government engaging netizens through social media (hmm…)

As you may glean from the above, the ruling party has made a number of policy changes post-election. According to the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Post Election Survey 2011, cost of living was among top five concerns of voters and the “foreigners and immigration” issue was important to half of the voters, in particular the younger and better off. The policy shifts in 2 and 3 are efforts to address voters’ concerns in the 2011 GE that had caused PAP to lose votes and a GRC for the first time in Singapore’s history.

But are there any indications of political liberalization, as in less government restrictions on citizens’ political activities and the granting of previously denied liberties? Sadly, I am hard pressed to find any from the above changes. The only hint of liberalization is the review of the death penalty but even that is just taking a tiny step forward as it continues to be applied to most offences. Calls to abolish the Internal Security Act (ISA) have also gone unheeded.

What about the state media? Are they still political tools, or, ahem, “poor prostitutes” of the ruling party? Discerning readers here would have no quarrel with Low Thia Khiang’s views on the quality of media reports on the 2012 Hougang by-election. Enough said.

And we have no doubt that the government is closely watching its critics on the Internet. The recent action against Alex Au, a proposed Internet code of conduct, and the formation of the euphemistically named “Media Literacy Council” (Miniluv no??) despite netizens’ rejection of a code of conduct show that old habits die hard – the ruling party’s obsession with control is acting up again.

Conditions Favorable for Democratization

In the midst of all these somewhat depressing developments, is there any cause for optimism? There is. Consider these:

  1. Singapore has a robust state apparatus (state agencies and institutions) that will function as usual even if there is a regime change, i.e. if one day an there is an alternation of power or a ruling coalition.
  2. We also have a mature electorate and well-educated citizens that embrace democratic values (as early as in 2002, see Chart below), love orderliness and are averse to radicalism. This means no opposition party will play the ethnic card because that will only repel our voters. And I bet Taiwan or South Korean-style fist-fights in the legislature won’t happen here when we do have two or more well-represented political parties in our parliament.
  3. No significant and immediate external threats: I quote Dan Slater (2012, p.32), “The frequent PAP refrain that authoritarianism is necessary in Singapore due to external threats appears laughable in comparative perspective: Taiwan and South Korea face immeasurably greater and more immediate geographic foes, yet each was able to democratize without compromising national security.”

Source: World Values Survey (Singapore 2002)

These strengths and advantages mean democratization in Singapore will not lead to instability. Singapore and Singaporeans are ready for democratization, but what about our leaders?

The post-GE leadership changes and the latest cabinet reshufflement are certainly out-of-the-ordinary. Short of being “sweeping changes“, they do signal a retreat of the old guards and the hardliners who were in the second Lee Hsien Loong Cabinet. Will this pave the way for reform?

If our Prime Minister shows Singaporeans that he indeed has the will to implement political reforms and liberalization, I believe we can be a little more patient and understand that our system, like all others, is path-dependent and change cannot happen overnight.

But the government needs to send clearer signals. Not forcing a code of conduct on netizens will be a good start. And why not rope in opposition MPs and more netizens for the Media Literacy Council, if the Council is really necessary? Reports in the state media could be fairer and freer. Plus spare us the brain-deadening crap please; don’t insult our intelligence anymore.

Time will tell if the restructured Ministries are just new bottles for old wine.