Brave New Singapore

Singaporeans go to the polls tomorrow to vote in what for the first time appears to be a real election – for the presidency, a largely ceremonial post that now could become considerably less ceremonial.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the race is that it is a national one, extending across the entire island. The PAP has been able to engineer districts and group constituencies so that it holds 81 of the 87 elected seats in the Parliament despite receiving only 60.1 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections held earlier this year. For what appears to be the first time, Singapore is involved in a straight contest that should provide a true test of the government’s popularity. It is not possible to gerrymander the presidency.

There are four Tans running. The most interesting is Tan See Jay, who was once principal private secretary to then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong before eventually joining the Singapore Democratic Party – the opposition. The second is Tony Tan, the smooth political face of modern Singapore and the PAP.

Because the president can’t belong to a political party, Tan See Jay has resigned from the SDP. His campaign to become a non-PAP president includes checking absolute parliamentary control by the PAP with “moral pressure on the PAP government by speaking up.” He claims that his presidential campaign can “raise the profile of all non-PAP forces and this will help in our outreach to the people in the run-up to 2016,” when the next general election is due.

It would be interesting to see how Singapore, and especially the Lee family, which has in effect run the country since independence, would handle it if Tan See Jay wins.

Singapore has all of the notional trappings of democracy – an elected parliament, a judicial system theoretically in place to keep the parliament honest, regular parliamentary debate, regularly scheduled elections, a privately-owned press, multiple newspapers and television stations, a strong civil service in which promotion is a meritocracy. The elections are clean, the votes counted scrupulously, all of the forms observed in a legalistic and orderly society that has none of the hallmarks of violence or vote-buying that have blighted democracies in the Philippines or Thailand or any of the other countries in Southeast Asia.

But is this a democracy? In a democracy, all of the eligible voters are expected to have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives, with theoretically equal participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law. But through a long series of threats against districts that go against them, electoral regroupings and gerrymandering, the PAP has managed to keep a hold on parliament that could far outweigh its actual popularity with the voters, given the party’s overwhelming parliamentary majority.

In large measure, the Singaporean government arguably has done a better job of governing than any other country in Southeast Asia, perhaps all of Asia. In a conventional sense, it is by far the least corrupt government in Asia and ranks with Finland and New Zealand at the top of Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index. Its per capita gross domestic product by purchasing power parity (PPP) of US$62,100 is among the highest in the world. It has taken better care of its environment than any country in the region if not much of the world. Its education system excels at producing skilled workers, although its schools have been criticized for its inability to produce creative ones.

This is after all a consumer society with access to almost any of the goods and services one needs or wants to maintain an upscale lifestyle. Singapore has often been described by its detractors as Orwellian, or even Kafkaesque. But it is neither of these. Its leaders do not seek to brutalize or bludgeon the population into submission but to lull them into a kind of self-satisfied acquiescence. It is more Huxleyan. As the British author and thinker Aldous Huxley said in his 1958 essay on his original 1931 novel Brave New World: “a completely organized society complete with a scientific caste system (and in Singapore’s case, a political caste system as well), methodical conditioning to eliminate or at least dull the exercise of free will, the orthodoxies drummed in by nightly courses of sleep-teaching.” That of course is a little over the top. In Singapore’s case, a full panoply of feel-good press, television and wholesome activities are designed to keep the constituents happy.

Its leaders are firm in pointing out that its newspapers and magazines can publish anything they want about the outside world—and given the nature of the news business, that is largely bad news, while Singapore remains a well-ordered oasis of hermetically sealed calm, since neither the international press nor especially the local ones are allowed to report anything bad.

Despite all of that, there are irritations in Singaporean society that spring directly from the lack of democratic leadership. It is clear that native Singaporeans resent the hundreds of thousands of émigrés being brought in from other countries. There are about 1.5 million temporary workers in Singapore today. Non-citizens comprise 36 percent of the population.

There is the question of how much the political leaders pay themselves – by far the highest salaries in the world. There is the question of state capitalism – more than 60 percent of the means of production is owned by the state, a classic definition of socialism rather than capitalism.

There are some signs that the government, concerned that Tan See Jay might actually be elected, which even so is believed to be a long shot, would seek to circumvent his decisions. The Law Minister says his decisions are to be “guided” by the advice of a panel of presidential advisors who are appointed and/or nominated by the government or the cabinet. So what role would the president then play?

With Singapore’s highly paid ministers and civil servants, do they have accountability and willingness or preparedness to step down from policies that have failed to deliver or failed to meet their mark? Temasek Holdings and other GLICs have made vast losses and their executives have not been forced to account for their failures. No journalist would ever demand in Singapore that a government official step down unless the government was to order a press campaign.

One supposes real democracy, as the late US President John F. Kennedy once said of the citizens of East Berlin, involves their tendency to vote with their feet. In Singapore they have done, in numbers that have alarmed the government.