Malaysia and Singapore: Winds of Change? (I)

by singaporearmchaircritic

Of late the going-ons in Malaysia have stirred up some excitement in Singapore. I am talking about the series of reforms Prime Minister Najib Razak rolled out recently. Last week, Najib announced that the Sedition Act will be repealed and replaced with the National Harmony Act; in April, the infamous Internal Security Act (ISA) was replaced with a new legislation – the Security Offences (Special Measures) 2012 Act (SOSMA); a minimum wage policy was also introduced ahead of May Day; earlier, Najib also annulled a law that required newspaper owners to renew their printing licenses annually and amended other laws that curb public assembly and student participation in political activities.

The abolishment of the ISA, in particular, resonated with liberal-minded Singaporeans. The Online Citizen re-published a 1991 report which cited the then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong saying Singapore “will seriously consider abolishing the Internal Security Act if Malaysia were to do so.” And with Malaysia joining Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Mongolia, China and Hong Kong with the introduction of a wage floor, Singapore has become the odd-one-out in the region (yes, even Myanmar is drafting a minimum wage bill).

Singaporeans seem to presume that our government will be pressured to implement political reforms in the footsteps of our neighbor. But will it really?

Sibling Rivalry?

Najib’s recent moves have cast the spotlight back on Malaysia, long seen by Singapore as our “lesser” neighbor. Since the 1970s, our GDP growth has surpassed that of Malaysia, as can be seen in this excellent comparison spanning the past decades. Economically, the relationship between Singapore and Malaysia is more of interdependence than competition. Malaysia is one of the top three destinations for Singapore’s direct investment and our largest trading partner in 2011. In the region, the economic rival we seek to outshine is Hong Kong, not Malaysia.

But politically?

Our history and geographical proximity mean that we share more similarities than differences in the political realm. According to Dan Slater, an expert on Southeast Asian politics, both Malaysia and Singapore rank high in these aspects: state capacity, party strength, military cohesion, and authoritarian durability (Ordering Power, p. 8). The ruling regimes also propound the dogma that democracy is “destabilizing.” Despite their frequent disagreements, two of the region’s longest reigning political leaders Mahathir and Lee Kuan Yew, are strong proponents of “Asian Values,” a culturally-relativist justification of why “western” values of human rights, freedoms, and democracy are not suited for Asians (?!!). Malaysia and Singapore are also often cited as “anomalies” in political science, being authoritarian regimes in which a high level of economic development has not led to a democratic transition.

So you see, Malaysia and Singapore are friends rather than foes in sharing the same political beliefs, stubborn resistance to democratization, and draconian laws like the ISA and others. Our authoritarian governments don’t try to outdo each other in democratizing, except maybe in rhetoric. In fact, the recent political reforms in Malaysia have been more symbolic than substantive. You can read about the criticisms here and here. That’s why apparent liberalization in Malaysia alone will not have a rippling effect on Singapore.

Not unless Barisan Nasional (BN) loses power or suffers another major setback in the coming general election.

Reason for Optimism?

Although it seems clear that Najib’s moves are election gimmicks, they also indicate one thing – that BN feels threatened by the opposition. If we look at the percentage of votes for the government from 1965 onwards, BN’s popular support plunged from 63.9% in the 2004 GE to 51.2% in the 2008 GE, also termed a “watershed” election by observers of Malaysia’s politics. The ruling coalition recorded its worst performance since 1974 despite an electoral system that disadvantages the opposition. It now holds 140 (63%) of the 222 parliamentary seats, and governs 8 of the 13 states. Given the very slim margin it won in the 2008 GE, the ruling coalition should be worried. Yet because stakes are so high, you can be sure that the ruling regime will go all out to secure its power – this is evident not only in Najib’s cunning maneuvers to broaden BN’s appeal to liberal-minded voters in Malaysia, but also the renewed action against charismatic opposition leader Anwar.

Sources: Singapore elections; Centre for Public Policy Studies.

In 2011, PAP also recorded its worst ever performance in our own watershed election since Independence. How will PAP react if BN loses the coming election? Will it speed up political reforms in Singapore for fear of a “freak election result” a few years down the road? For that Malaysia’s impending general election, which has to be held by April 2013, will be very exciting to watch.

Next week we’ll look deeper into the prospects of democratization for the two countries. In the meantime, readers are welcome to share their thoughts on BN’s chances of winning the coming election, and how the Singapore government may react.