Monday, August 8, 2005

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Will Singapore remain the outlier?

Whenever people start talking about the interrelationships between regime type, the rule of law, economic development, and political corruption, the outlier is always Singapore.

Think that economic development inexorably leads to freedom of the press? Hello, meet Singapore.

Think that authoritarianism automatically leads to corruption? Have you met Singapore?

Think that no government can plug its country into the Internet while still retaining a vast web of censorship? Yes, yes, that is Singapore over there in the corner giving you the raspberry.

[So what do political scientists say whenever the Singapore is brought up as the counterexample to the general rule?--ed.] There are a few options available:

OPTION #1: "Oh, you say a small city-state violates my covering law? I say 'feh.' All statistical relationships will have outliers. The general observation still holds."

OPTION #2: "Unless Lee Kuan Yew can be cloned, this is a unique example of political leadership that doesn't generalize beyond the borders of Singapore."

OPTION #3: "Oh, Singapore won't remain an exception for long. A one party state cannot be combined with information technology and a free market and live to tell the tale. You just wait.... yes, you wait right over there in the corner."

OPTION #4: "Singapore is merely the exemplar to demonstrate that these kind of feel-good generalizations break down when applied outside of OECD countries. Deal with it."

Some of these options are not mutually exclusive.

My thought piece on information technology and regime type takes some steps towards the third position. So I'm pleased to see that Associated Press reporter En-Lai Yeoh is also moving in that direction:

Singaporeans are seeing "Sex and the City" on TV. Actors may utter four-letter words on stage. Opposition parties can gather without police permission--as long as they do it indoors.

Tiny and famously disciplined Singapore is turning 40 on Tuesday, and continuing to lighten up. Gone are the days when chewing gum and long hair were banned. Singaporeans are even being allowed to bungee-jump and dance on bar tables.

In April, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong explained: "We risk being relegated to the second league if we rely only on past achievements. We must continue to reinvent ourselves."

Political analyst Ho Khai Leong of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies says the ruling People's Action Party is being pragmatic without relaxing its grip on power over the island and its 4.2 million citizens.

"It can't remain authoritarian when globalization is on your doorstep," he said. "There is a dynamic to the desire to be more open."....

The Internet puts the government in a quandary. It knows the future depends on an Internet-savvy public but recognizes the Web's power to bypass state-controlled media and foment its own kind of people power.

The Internet effect was evident in June, when an online petition became a driving force behind the ouster of the head of the largest government-backed charity, the National Kidney Foundation, for allegedly misusing funds.

"Rarely have Singaporeans showed such unanimous purpose in demanding change, and it worked--an undeniable plus for democracy," said political commentator Seah Chiang Nee.

I'm not holding my breath anytime soon for displays of Singaporean people power. But this story suggests that maybe there are limits to how far Singapore's exceptional identity can be maintained.

posted by Dan on 08.08.05 at 12:34 PM


Isn't prostitution legal there? Don't ask me how I know this.

posted by: Don Mynack on 08.08.05 at 12:34 PM [permalink]

It's not just about "statistical outliers." Comparing Singapore to a big nation is comparing apples and oranges. Singapore, is, for all purposes, a city government. To compare the level of corruption there to the level of corruption in a three-level heirarchical government that manages 300 million people is nonsense. What about GDP? Again, apples and oranges. You're comparing the wealth of an urban area to the wealth of a mixed urban/rural area. Likewise with internet censorship. I don't know how many bandwidth trunks there are coming into the city of Singapore, but it can't be more than a couple dozen. Makes things a lot easier.

posted by: Josh Yelon on 08.08.05 at 12:34 PM [permalink]

You could see signs of it even several years ago. While Mr Lee was still clearly in control, and opposition politicians were finding themselves in real trouble, it was via bankrupting libel suits, not because they were being taken out and shot. At the same time, the various little infractions (chewing gum, not flushing a public toilet) had let to a popuular tee-shirt saying "Singapore: A Fine City" that made it clear the "fine" in the name referred to what you paid if you were caught.

I'm with you in preferring option #3: I don't think real affluence can be achieved without economic freedom, and I do'nt think political liberties can be permanently supressed in an environment with economic freedom because people will vote with their feet.

posted by: Charlie (Colorado) on 08.08.05 at 12:34 PM [permalink]

In the past, Singaporeans who wanted to vote with their feet had few places to go. A mostly Chinese city surrounded by Malays and Indonesians often hostile to Chinese, Singapore sense of external threat probably made it more accepting of authoritarian leadership than it might have been otherwise. In addition, of course, Chinese political tradition is authoritarian to begin with, and while Lee Kuan Yew did not base his government on a popular mandate he was able to show his people very good results.

A decreased sense of threat and deep exposure to the wider world should over time be expected to lead to a more liberal political climate. I would expect Singaporeans, however, to continue to identify disorder with weakness, which may set limits on how democratic or open politics can get there in the forseeable future.

posted by: Zathras on 08.08.05 at 12:34 PM [permalink]

Zathras, I can see your point, but my impression (continuing the city-state analogy from above) that Singapore is already comparable in real freedoms to a "machine" town, like Mayor Daly I's Chicago and probably a bit ahead of turn of the 20th century Kansas City.

I certainly dn't think those were desirable situations, but Singapore seems way ahead of, for example, Malaysia.

posted by: Charlie (Colorado) on 08.08.05 at 12:34 PM [permalink]

Tyler Cowen, in Marginal Revolution [] compared some days ago Singapour to a corporation to explain the reasons of its outlier behavior. It could be understood as a slight modification of the first hypothesis (city-state)or as a completely new hypothesis (have cities and business similarities in governance?).

Here [] more comments about this topic (sorry, in Spanish).

posted by: Juan Freire on 08.08.05 at 12:34 PM [permalink]

I just got back from Singapore a few hours ago. I actually disagree with a lot of the posts here. I think that in the era of transnational terrorism, transnational pollution, mass migration and ethnic conflict as well as hyper-capitalism--it just may be that the other First World will become more like Singapore. Let me explain.

Against the kind of transnational threats that we face, a highly regulated, restrictive, yet capitalistic environment may be the best barrier against the new kinds of external threats we face. On this visit, my second this year, I was struck by how well-insulated SG is from many of the problems the First World is facing. It comes at a cost, but it's one that I think the West will eventually want to pay in order to keep its prosperity.

Future Patriot Acts, Energy Crises, and security requirements could easily lead to Western societies putting up with a lot more government intrusion in order to keep the markets opening. It's already happening but people are still living in their Cold War paradigm and thinking this is just government overreach and overreaction.

If SG gets too lax, they may be making a serious mistake. The message they should be learning perhaps is not that they have to become more "open" to compete in the globalized world, but rather that they need to remain somewhat closed to protect themselves from the coming anti-globalization backlash (islamic militancy, ethnic tensions among citizenry, environmental pollution, etc.).

We tend to think that the choice is either between freedom and succesful globalization or repression and economic loss---what if neither is the case. What if the future lies somewhere in between. In fact, I think it does. It's either that or closing the borders, putting up trade barriers and setting the stage for conflicts like WWI and WWII.

Yes there is prostitution there now (legal in certain places) and illegal (from Chinese and Eastern European women).

posted by: Patrick on 08.08.05 at 12:34 PM [permalink]

We have good friends in Singapore (military we met while they were training here in the states). The young people certainly are looking forward to a more free society. Hundreds if not thousands of their best and brightest are spending years in the US and then returning. They return home as carriers of new attitudes and a more relaxed approach to almost everything.

posted by: Bob on 08.08.05 at 12:34 PM [permalink]

I'm not sure I agree with Patrick or Bob upthread, but I do appreciate that they write about Singapore as if it were a real place inhabited by real people. I wonder sometimes if Dan's political science colleagues, intent on their theories and worrying over an exception that might call them into question, have this clearly in mind.

posted by: Zathras on 08.08.05 at 12:34 PM [permalink]

I'm more inclined to agree with Patrick, as the US and UK have been intent on moving towards trading human rights/freedom for security (Patriot Act, deportation requirements, etc.), an end-state that Singapore has been practicing with the use of its Internal Security Act.

Can a country protect itself from "transnational terrorist threats" only with this "inexorable" movement away from freedom? Seems to be the international trend now, and in that aspect, Singapore has been THE example.

Can Singapore continue to keep its political and media monopolies? I am skeptical of Dan's Option #3, because Option #3 cannot explain why Singapore exists as a counterexample until the time when the change occurs.

My two cents' worth.

posted by: cestvita on 08.08.05 at 12:34 PM [permalink]

"Think that economic development inexorably leads to freedom of the press? Hello, meet Singapore."
"Think that authoritarianism automatically leads to corruption? Have you met Singapore?"
Methinks the first is because of the second. Since the .sg government actually is actually doing a fairly good job of serving the people, it is able to get away with little dispute to it's political dominance.
Option#2 sounds like the the most likely, although I would extend it to a culture within the ruling party, as soon as the culture changes for the worse I'd expect .sg will stop being the outlier.

"Think that no government can plug its country into the Internet while still retaining a vast web of censorship? Yes, yes, that is Singapore over there in the corner giving you the raspberry."
Erm, from what [1] says, .sg censorship is exactly the same type that Australia has, and doesn't affect that many sites. Calling it a 'vast web' is rather misleading.


posted by: Factory on 08.08.05 at 12:34 PM [permalink]

Did you know that the US specifically negotiated for the right to have US citizens chew gum in Singapore? Yes, as of July 1, 2004, US citizens may buy gum in Singapore without a permit...

posted by: Chris on 08.08.05 at 12:34 PM [permalink]

Yes yes yes! Whenever anyone tells me that Iraq is
about "promoting freedom and democracy", I ask,
"so when are we going invade Singapore" ?

posted by: richardcownie on 08.08.05 at 12:34 PM [permalink]

Richard, if Singapore is the first place that occurs to you as an example of someplace without freedom and democracy, you badly need to get out of your mother's basement more.

posted by: Charlie (Colorado) on 08.08.05 at 12:34 PM [permalink]

As a first hand student of Singapore's remarkable ability to confound the great truth's of Western capitalist democratic theories (which I for the most part buy) I think this thread is forgetting two important fundamentals. Singaporeans' resignation in trading political freedom for unprecedented economic benefits and stability (in a regioni prone to serial, brutal, racial violence on a massive scale) is hugely reinforced by basic confucian respect (and in many cases, desire) for central authority. And more important, Singapore has only just embarked on the second generation of PAP leadership. Literally -- Lee Hsieng Loong is Lee Kuan Yew's son after all. There has only been one interim Prime Minister who was as close to a founding father as Lee pater would have allowed. The very fact that nepotism has played a role in selecting the head of state shows that the PAP teeters at the brink of a slippery slope of corruption already. Living in Singapore has a destinct narcotic effect -- "How nice that the trains are running on time. It's safe. I'm prosperous. What could go wrong?" But once you get to know talented, worldly and informed Singaporeans it becomes clear that it is unsustainable and the internet will only accelerate the inevitable. The current state of the country is due to Dan's #2 and ultimately, Dan's #3 is right.

posted by: PStack on 08.08.05 at 12:34 PM [permalink]

Interesting that no-one has mentioned creativity yet. In Singapore today, there is a realisation that entrepreneurism and creativity needs to be encouraged if the economy is to continue to hold its position as a rich society. The old days of providing an educated and compliant workforce to the country's civil service and selected MNCs (if we build the infrastructure, they will come!) no longer guarantees the economic growth and wealth of the past.

This is why we have seen the encouragement of entrepreneurism (it was only 4 years ago that a senior civil servant in the Ministry of Manpower told me that they didnt want to encourage entrepreneurism!) and the announcement of 2 casinos, the building of a large arts complex and the encouragement of a local media industry (Lucas Films was recently attracted to establish a presence here).

Of course, creativity cannot be developed overnight, it is a generational issue and one linked to the education system. As I heard said once, "you do not breed Quentin Tarantino without suffering from a graffiti problem!"

posted by: Fraser Dinnis on 08.08.05 at 12:34 PM [permalink]

"Yes yes yes! Whenever anyone tells me that Iraq is
about "promoting freedom and democracy", I ask,
"so when are we going invade Singapore" ?"

...And you are lynching Negroes.

Well not openly anymore, but that's beside the point. Singaporeans have very considerable civil rights. The Singaporean government may not be a an ideal of democracy, but considering the actual conservatism of society as a whole, that may not be a bad thing.

A truly reflective government would probably continue to ban homosexuality, support integration of church and states, etc. Case in point: After a constituion gets rammed through, America might be the direct cause of setting secular law and women's rights in Iraqs decades back.

posted by: CdG on 08.08.05 at 12:34 PM [permalink]

In reply to Don Mynack: yes, prostitution is legal here. A pragmatic choice made by the government a long time ago, and one that it's not too keen on telling the world about. But we still hang drug offenders, and that seems to have kept the rampant Southeast Asian drug trade at bay.

posted by: kungfuzi on 08.08.05 at 12:34 PM [permalink]

How can Kungfuzi states, "But we still hang drug offenders, and that seems to have kept the rampant Southeast Asian drug trade at bay. " when over 50% of the prison population is there because of drug related offences in Singapore?

posted by: steven on 08.08.05 at 12:34 PM [permalink]

And I believe that the notion that Singaporeans have an exceptional national identity is the myth that keeps foreign calls for reform in Singapore to a minimum. It reminds me of some how referring to the Japanese nation as if it comprise of of single homogenous identity.

Those 'bizarre Singaporeans'. They are no more bizarre or united than any other nation, the Singaporean government would however like us to believe that they speak with one voice, with one goal and one aim, and one method.

The myth as a result of the internet and as a result of action by Singaporeans is beginning to be slowly eroded.

posted by: steven on 08.08.05 at 12:34 PM [permalink]

Speaking as a Singaporean... government - and politics - is something that holds little interest to most people. Singapore gives it's citizens a stable society. Most Singaporeans are happy with a nice job, a house, good food and other simple things. Stick with friends and family and simple joys in life like paychecks and relatives.

Of course, that's a generalization, but it seems to be true for much of the population so far.

If there are problems with political freedom and expression - just ask Amnesty International - well, a) price to pay for stability, and b) people can vote with their feet and move. Like to Australia. Although admittedly there is a small bunch of politically-minded bloggers and opposition politicians who stay on and have problems (refer to Amnesty International - Google is your friend).

Basically, the government does it's job and the citizens do their jobs and live, with the two usually not interfering with one another that much. A lot of people are satisfied. Things work.

posted by: shaun on 08.08.05 at 12:34 PM [permalink]

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