Dwindling Faith in Democracy?

by singaporearmchaircritic

A Hong Kong journalist was in Singapore recently to interview a Malaysian taking over as chief editor of Ming Pao, one of Hong Kong’s most influential Chinese language daily. The journalist, who managed to track down her interviewee at his Singapore residence, was told by her local contact that she might land herself in trouble for doing so (read report in Chinese).

How could this be? She asked, noting that in Hong Kong it is the norm for reporters to knock on the doors of interviewees to verify tip-offs. It is also inconceivable to her that fellow journalists in Singapore consider it their duty to promote government propaganda and give a wide berth to government scandals.

Why be a journalist then? She questioned her local media friends, who responded that it is hard to survive in Singapore if one goes against the government. On her return journey, she asked the Singapore cabbie if he reads the local dailies. Yes, he said, but he reads them with a pinch of salt, mainly to find out how far news reports have departed from reality.

Disturbed by the cabbie’s revelation, the Hong Kong journalist mused: Is today’s Singapore tomorrow’s Hong Kong?

She was, of course, referring to the precarious state of press freedom in Hong Kong.

Ming Pao’s recent announcement to replace its editor with Chong Tien-siong, the former chief editor of Malaysia’s Nanyang Siang Pau who is said to have friendly ties with Beijing, has stirred anxieties over media independence in Hong Kong. Yet the Chinese daily’s controversial move all but follows a discernible trend. In 2012, the appointment of a Mainlander to helm South China Morning Post prompted local newspapers to declare that the Post has turned “red.” The city’s free-to-air broadcaster ATV has also been acquired by Mainland interests. In its 2011 press freedom index, Reporters without Borders demoted Hong Kong from the 34th position to the 54th on the observation that “Arrests, assaults and harassment worsened working conditions for journalists to an extent not seen previously, a sign of a worrying change in government policy.”

Today, Hong Kong ranks 58th in the 2013 press freedom index. Singapore, where all local media is heavily regulated by the government, ranks 149th, just ahead of Iraq and Burma.

Will the two cities close ranks, and how so?

As a political watcher of Hong Kong and Singapore, I, too, have often mulled over their political paths. Both my Hong Kong friend and I agree that the prospects for democratization are brighter for Singapore. This may confound political analysts who know Singapore to be a longstanding authoritarian regime that has maintained an iron grip on power. Although we have universal suffrage, the political playing field is so uneven that the incumbent party had practically breezed through elections, “winning” almost all parliamentary seats uncontested. For nearly five decades in our young nation’s history, the opposition had never held more than four seats in parliament.

That was till the watershed General Election in 2011. Since then, things have been looking up for the opposition. Today, there are seven opposition party members elected into the Singapore parliament, no mean feat if you consider our political landscape where access to resources, media and law is still overwhelmingly skewed toward the incumbent party – draconian laws such as the Political Donations Act severely constrains the opposition’s ability to raise funds; news coverage is, as always, biased and partisan in our heavily regulated mainstream media. So the puzzle is: how did the opposition surmount the hurdles to contest in elections and wrestle more seats from the incumbent?

The breakthrough may be attributed to a fundamental shift in voters’ political orientation. A post election survey in 2011 shows that younger and better-off Singaporeans desire greater political pluralism, and the percentage of the electorate who prefer the status quo has been declining. What triggered this shift is not just social development but also controversial government policies that alienated the populace. Just as pivotal, if not more so, is the emergence of online media which liberates Singaporeans from the propaganda-laden mainstream media. The interplay of these dynamics has emboldened more men and women to stand in elections as members of the opposition. Singapore’s entrenched climate of fear is slowly receding.

What is happening in Singapore is crucial amid the gloomy outlook that democracy is in retreat around the world. In Asia, the qualitative decline in democracy as well as the middle class’s disillusionment with the system seem to be borne out by the situation in Thailand, where the urban middle class has proposed an unelected “people’s council” to replace the elected government. Yet such a view is facile because Thailand’s urban middle class has lost faith not in democracy per se but in flawed institutions that are democratic in form but not in substance.

Similarly, in Singapore and Hong Kong, the yearning for democracy runs deep. Eighty percent of Singaporeans, especially those in the higher income bracket, believe it is important to have an elected opposition in parliament. An opinion poll shows that 66% of Hong Kongers support public nomination of Chief Executive candidates in the 2017 election; this percentage goes up to 94% in a civil referendum held on this new year’s day.

In these two cities that have a clean government, an efficient civil service, the rule of law, an economy in good shape and no deep ethnic or religious fault lines, the conditions for democracy are ripe. However, the ruling elites are obstructing democracy to maintain their grip on power. The Singapore government has recently extended its stringent media controls onto the Internet while Beijing seems adamant to pre-screen candidates before they run in Hong Kong’s 2017 Chief Executive election.

Singapore’s case is also important because China has long been an admirer of the “Singapore model” that combines stable authoritarianism with economic growth. China Central Television has even filmed a 10-part documentary on the topic.The Singapore experience, however, shows that as a society progresses, people will begin to see the pitfalls of trading freedoms for prosperity and eventually demand for greater democracy. The lesson here for China, with its rapid development and a burgeoning middle class, is that the Singapore model has limited usefulness and that democratization cannot be put off indefinitely.

Besides, why look to Singapore as a model? Why not look closer home for inspiration? Hong Kong today is increasingly mired in a political gridlock that has undermined its governability. Granting Hong Kongers universal suffrage in electing their own leader would ease political tensions and improve governance. Moreover, a successful, democratic and well-governed Hong Kong can be part of the much touted “China dream,” a beacon for a future China that is admired by the world not only for its economic might.

As a Singaporean, I also look forward to the day when the two cities may converge politically, not because Hong Kong has slid toward authoritarianism but because Singapore has become freer and more democratic.