Bryan Caplan  

Democracy in Singapore: How Is One-Party Rule Possible?

Singapore Gives Thanks... Spotted on the Walls of the Si...
Americans often describe Singapore as a "dictatorship."  I've occasionally done so myself.  After further study, though, I've concluded that this view is simply wrong.  Singapore is a democracy in practice as well as theory.  Yes, the ruling People's Action Party has 82 out of 84 seats, and has held the reins of power for the country's entire history.  But Singapore follows the rules of British parliamentary politics.  Opposition is legal.  It just doesn't win.

Like most Americans, my natural reaction to these facts is to assume massive corruption.  No party can win 82 out of 84 seats honestly, can it?  But when you delve deeper, you'll find almost no supporting evidence for these suspicions.  Singapore gets stellar scores on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.  Even more amazingly, the World Bank's Governance Matters index gives Singapore near-perfect scores in every area except "Voice and Accountability."  Neutral observers basically say that Singaporean democracy is honest but unresponsive.

Learning these facts left me even more puzzled than I started.  Singapore seems to be sui generis; where else on earth does honest democracy lead to total domination by a single party?  After extensive reflection, though, it hit me: Instead of comparing Singapore to other democratic countries, I should compare it to other democratic cities.  There are many major cities in the United States where one party wins supermajorities year after year.  Democratic mayors have continuously ruled in San Francisco longer than Singapore has been an independent country!  And while corruption plays a role in American urban politics - think of the notorious Daley machine - corruption is hardly necessary for one-party rule.

Why is it easier to have a one-party city than a one-party country?  There are probably a lot of reasons, but the most obvious is that smaller polities (measured in terms of both population and land area) are less diverse.  3 million people squeezed into a few square miles might converge on a single worldview.  300 million people spanning a continent almost certainly won't.

Notice, moreover, that size matters on both the demand and supply sides of politics.  On the demand side, smaller polities have less voter disagreement about the kind of politicians they want; on the supply side, smaller polities have less diverse candidates to offer.  If Singapore had a hundred times as many people as it does, it would be a lot more likely to contain a Ross Perot ready to spend his fortune to challenge the status quo.

Question: I've named one mechanism underlying one-party urban democratic politics; what are some others?

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COMMENTS (29 to date)
Eddy Elfenbein writes:

With cities, people have already have voted with their feet. The Republicans who used to live in SF or NYC moved out. The gay person from the provinces took his place. The population is there because of the one-party rule. The population of cities is by definition far more transient than small towns or rural areas.

Mysterious commenter writes:

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Dave writes:

Can it be possible that rulers in smaller polities are more accountable to their constituents?

Alan Forrester writes:

The consequences of the government's actions may take a shorter time to work themselves out in a small place than in a large place and so the connection between policies and outcomes may be more obvious.

Sima Qian writes:

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Steve Roth writes:

Slightly tangential to this post, but vis a vis this one and preceding ones:

Your swooning over private enterprise in Singapore strikes an odd note, given that a large proportion of those enterprises are at least partially owned, and controlled, by the government.

One study (US Embassy Singapore Country Commercial Guide FY 2001) said that the government controls companies (government-linked companies or GLCs) that account for 60% of GDP. The government countered that, asserting that the correct number is 13%.

The government chose to use a production rather than expenditure GDP measurement, which may be more valid. But a look at their other reasoning has to raise your eyebrows.

If the government owns 50% of X, and X owns 30% of Y (so 15% indirect ownership), they don't count Y as a GLC--even though that 30% could easily control that company. Their definitional cutoff point for a GLC is 20%.

And they don't count any "third-tier" or lower GLCs. It's not hard to imagine government control exerted through many layers of ownership.

If that kind of government ownership and control over the means of production existed in the U.S., your posts would exhibit a quite different tenor, don't you think? (Arnold would be apoplectic, proclaiming how much better we'd all be doing if those enterprises were controlled by private parties.)

What say you?

Kurbla writes:

At one point, depending on activity in question, fear of being outsider is strong enough that people do not want to identify with minority and society collapse to single culture.

Probably Singaporeans cannot easily escape that trap, just like Western men cannot dress skirts easily.

Steve Sailer writes:

On the downside, the Lee family uses libel law suits and other forms of harassment to punish dissenters and opponents. On the upside, they've done a very good job of ruling, all in all.

Boonton writes:

1. A valid point, why couldn't voters opt for a single party? What law of nature requires two, three or more?

2. Is it possible that there are multiple parties but they are hidden inside of one party?

publius writes:

It's amusing that a "government-linked company" in Singapore is one where the government owns 20% of the shares. In the U.S., government taxes 34% of the economy, and is the silent partner in all economic enterprise not in the black markets.

MattYoung writes:

Cities have matching term structures to the underlying economy, their finance is complete and closed over the economy.

In the USA and large economies, the term structure would not be a stable covering and they would shift between parties or regions.

manuelg writes:

> I've named one mechanism underlying one-party urban democratic politics; what are some others?

Consider the Mexican single dominating party of the 20th century: PRI

If a political party absorbs into its ranks with *paying* jobs _every_ young adult with _any_ interest in politics, it will be effectively unchallenged. At that age, they can be bought off very cheaply, and kept comfortable and turned compliant.

eric writes:

I was in Singapore, which I found wonderful: cheap, free, safe, educated. I noted that the senior officials in the government made around $1MM per year. I'd pay our Senators $1MM if they behaved like Singaporeans.

Andrew Garland writes:
Learning these facts left me even more puzzled than I started. Singapore seems to be sui generis; where else on earth does honest democracy lead to total domination by a single party?
As chance would have it, there is an article at the WSJ about suppression of the press and dissent in Singapore, and a lawsuit against the WSJ Asian Edition.

That is why there is one party rule: political oppression of free speech and the assembly of an opposition. Is it enough that the trains run on time?

The article is at Singapore Strikes Again

Gary writes:

Putin rigged the last parliamentary election in Russia, but independent polls suggested that his party would have won even if the election had been fair.

Maybe it's easy to consistently win elections if a party can influence the media and use the courts to limit opposition. Singapore and Russia do both of those things.

Blackadder writes:

It seems implausible that a single party could maintain such dominance over a government for such an extended period of time. If the success of the ruling party is due chiefly to its policies, then one would expect other parties to adapt, adopting many of the policies of the ruling party, while differing with them on their unpopular proposals (like congesstion pricing). This is what happens in Western Democracies, and I don't see why it wouldn't happen in Singapore.

It's true that there are some cities and states in the U.S. that have been one party dominated for a similar amount of time. But this seems dependant on their being competing national parties. A Republican in San Francisco might run as a Democrat clone, but he can't change the fact that the national party holds positions that are obnoxious to most San Fran voters, and thus the adaptation strategy doesn't work.

Philipp writes:

The state of Bavaria (12 mio.) in Germany was for nearly 50 years ruled by one party, although they have elections every four years.

Question: As far as I know there is no real press freedom in Singapore. Is that correct. Might be a factor.

David writes:

The PAP won 82 out of 84 seats in the 2006 General Election. However, it only won 66% of the popular vote. The results of the 2001 GE were similar - 81 seats, 65% vote.

The local politics journalist Cherian George noted that there has been quite a lot of redrawing of electoral boundaries going on, so the two are probably quite related. This and the bizarre nature of the opposition (populist cultural conservatives and liberal democrats, not really a stable alliance) is probably the reason why the PAP retains an insane supermajority instead of just a supermajority. Like Russia, they'll probably win anyway, but they're not prepared to take the small chance they'll lose.

The PAP slaps around opposition leaders with libel lawsuits, and foreign observers tend to seize on this as suppression. This isn't really quite accurate - the problem is that frustrated opposition leaders tend to make statements alleging that certain PAP leaders are corrupt and therefore walk into a libel suit. You can say that they're incompetent, or that they're oppressive, or whatever, but it turns out that they're really not corrupt, so the PAP confidently uses defamation lawsuits as a public factfinder.

John Smith writes:

I am a singaporean undergrad student.

In all likelihood, the PAP will win in a legit election, following western rules of play. In such a case though, their majority will inevitably reduce to a much lower proportion.

However, they engage in various acts which improve their election standing. For instance, frequencly adjusting electoral boundaries, withholding public funds to opposition wards, arresting and detending opposition members through the legal system when they made what is deemed to be "libel" remarks, paying a high salary to attract the mainstream talents, thereby reducing the opposition partys to being primarily a bunch of whackjobs nutcases since only the extreme will oppose the government under such harsh enviroment and last of all, but rather significant, a strong implication that people better follow the govt line if they know what is good for them. That it is mostly all right to complain and grumble so long as it is quietly and not in order to arouse the public, but that if the actions go beyond that, it would not be too benefital to these people.

John Smith writes:

An addition.

And to be fair, they govern very well, ignoring the ignorant wishes of the public and putting in place wise policies which ensures maximum social benefits. Though on occasion, they are rather adrupt/questionable/dishonest in their tactics.

superdestroyer writes:

If you look at the trends in the United States, the U.S. will soon be a one party state. The Republican Party is unsustainable in the long term. The long term cultivation of all non-whites by the Democratic party has create the perfect situaiton for a one party state. As blacks and Hispanics grow as a percentage of the population they will make more state and local election districts one party.

Eventually people will realize that the Republicans have zero ability to affect policy. When the government is 1/3 of th GDP and has 100,000's pages of regulations, it will be impossible for any group to be out of power for every long. Thus, every will vote in the Democratic primary to affect who the blacks and Hispaniccs automatically vote for.

Salaam writes:

How about the old game of defining democracy by the results, not the process? I prefer to think of democracy in terms of the level of synergy between the government and the people. So it might be the case that the constitution, electoral system, and other governing institutions are not so 'democratic', but in the end, the people are happy with their government. In fact, Singaporeans may be much happier with their government than Americans are with theirs!

Good point about cities. Ralph Klein ruled over Calgary (with no mafia) with approval ratings of over 90% for a decade before he went on to provincial politics.

Biff writes:

Lots of interesting things to think about here. At first I was thinking that American cities tend to have just one real part is mostly due to there being just two national parties. If local politicians still have to belong to a national party (and apparently they do), then in cities that are a great majority of one party or the other, then that party will be the only one with any influence there.

On further reflection, I agree with the idea that a smaller less diverse state will have fewer parties, and potentially only one. But I have no idea if the minimum population for multiple parties would be 100, 100k, or 100M.

It is also possible that the electoral procedures determine that Singapore has one party. In a US-style system of course there will almost always be two parties each with about half the vote. And apparently in standard parliamentary systems you get many parties which cluster into two shifting coalitions. But Singapore seems to have a system where 65% of the vote gets 95% of parliament. If having 95% of parliament for many years is way more powerful than having about 50%, then maybe having one popular party is a stable strategy.

Blackadder writes:

The interesting thing is that the methods PAP apparently uses to give it an advantage (gerrymandering, punishing "libel" by the opposition, etc.) were also used by the Federalists prior to the 1800 election. When the Federalists tried these tactics, the result was that they were destroyed politically, and it was their opponents who enjoyed one party rule for several decades.

Elia Diodati writes:

Your assertion that "Singapore is a democracy in practice as well as in theory" neglects to mention that

i) the party that has consistently won has sometimes had to resort to questionable tactics like

a) gerrymandering
b) promising material gains for constituencies that voted for them, like upgrading projects for public housing estates
c) and in at one famous case, pressing charges to get rid of an opposition leader who won a district. Look up the Anson by-election of 1981 and Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam.

ii) in general elections, not everyone gets to vote. Many districts run uncontested and then a walkover is declared.

iii) the presidency is a mere figurehead post with no actual power, despite the constitutional rights of office.

a) President Ong Teng Cheong famously had a run-in with his own party when he tried to exercise his presidential rights to examine the state ledger, and had had a showdown with the Accountant-General's office just to get even an incomplete summary.

b) Attempts at running for elected presidency have been marred by high-profile candidates being disqualified on unclear grounds. The example I am thinking of is Andrew Kwan's candidacy for the 2005 presidential election.

iv) constitutional changes can and have been executed by Parliament without a public referendum or even a public hearing. The democratic institutions that normally provide checks and balances don't seem to exist.

v) Ministerial salaries are extremely high by international standards, more so considering the relatively low national average wages. The public has no say on how these salaries are determined.

vi) Despite your rosy picture of Singapore, masses of skilled young Singaporeans are leaving the country in droves. The government refuses to disclose exact figures for migration and Singaporeans giving up their citizenship. Surely that must tell you something.

Nigel Kearney writes:

A couple of points:

1. I suspect the Democrats only remain united in SF because they are opposed to Republicans in the rest of the country. Otherwise, there would be a left and a far left faction battling it out.

2. A previous commenter is correct about the media. Tbe TV and print news in Singapore just doesn't look like anything you would see in a Western democracy. They don't criticize the government much and the opposition is hardly mentioned.

C writes:

One possible explanation is that these political parties are only a political vehicle. If you are a serious person and want a realistic chance of your pet policy being implemented, why would you waste your time in sitting in opposition where it has zero chance. Join the ruling party, start making friends, and your odds get infinitely better.

peezedtee writes:

You haven't mentioned the electoral system. Singapore has inherited first-past-the-post from Britain (America also uses it). The PAP gets 65% of the votes but 95% of the seats.

If Singapore used the single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies (PR/STV), the much fairer system used in Ireland, PAP would still have a parliamentary majority but it would be a far narrower one, reflecting the actual reality of opinion. The opposition would be much more visible and would be seen to have some chance of working towards overturning PAP at a future election. In turn, this would enable a viable opposition to develop experience and ideas.

PR/STV would also make any attempts at gerrymandering the constituency boundaries much less significant.

Mark D. Fulwiler writes:

"1. I suspect the Democrats only remain united in SF because they are opposed to Republicans in the rest of the country. Otherwise, there would be a left and a far left faction battling it out."

Well, actually that is how things play out in San Francisco. Almost everyone is a Democrat, but the Democrats split into "center-left" and "progressive" factions. The "progressive" Democrats currently have a majority on the (officially) non-partisan city council, but that is balanced by a "center-left" Democratic mayor.

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