Bryan Caplan  

Hitting a Nerve in Singapore

Arnold Kling on Money... Book Update...
After Singapore's Law Minister used my article in Ethos to rebut international criticism, Singapore's Online Citizen asked permission to run a longer version of "Two Paradoxes of Singaporean Political Economy."  Reactions were... mixed.  Several readers backed me up:
I would say that resignation explains the paradox of Singapore's political economy. Even the supposedly "rebellious" SDP are more or less jogging on the spot. Opposition politics is a broken record in a Singapore. This actually shows the Opposition Parties' lack of energy in vision.

People, we only have ourselves to blame for the current situation.

Why get upset and work out over an article. We should not blame the writer but 66 pct of Singaporean that make it happened.

Most readers, however, were not happy campers.  One common complaint is that I am just repeating the propaganda of the civil servants I met:

Through his own admission, his views were mainly based upon the inputs given to him by the 80% of his time spent with top civil servants. These civil servants, as Singaporeans know, are either secret PAP members, pro-PAP, pro-government (which cannot be otherwise because they are working for the govt and their paymaster is the govt), pro-establishment, under bondage, relatives of those PAP members in power, or beholden one way or another to at least one of the people in power, or a by character balls-carriers and sycophants. Most important of all, these civil servants have not experience the sufferings and problems Singaporean commoners and opposition politicians have been suffering.

My response:

1. While I did spent a lot of time talking to civil servants, they were happy to distinguish between their own views and the broader public's.  When I tested their claims against the available Singaporean public opinion data, they held up.  The data show that that Singaporean "commoners" are very satisfied, not "suffering."

2. The civil servants I met in Singapore were much more willing to criticize their government and entertain contrarian views than they would be in the U.S.

Other readers accused me of ignoring important undemocratic features of Singaporean politics.  Highlights:
[T]he PAP has created a thought-control system that Goebbels would be proud of. By controlling the media and most forms of input, the PAP can shape the thoughts of the young. This is manifested through simple things like singing national day songs, equating Singapore with the PAP and the muzzling of dissenting views.
My reply: Even if Singapore used to have a Nazi-level system of thought-control (and it certainly didn't), the internet has destroyed it.  It is now easy for Singaporeans to hear and voice anti-PAP views.  But this doesn't seem to have made a dent in the PAP's dominance.  So how important could this thought control have been in the place?
A Singaporean's sole loyalty is to himself. So, he votes for the party that he thinks can secure his personal survival and prosperity. He has no regard for what is good for his neighbor or for his country.
My reply: Even if Singaporean voters are selfish (which I doubt), there's nothing undemocratic about selfish voting, and little reason to think that selfish voting leads to bad outcomes.

Here's the single strongest list of my sins of omission, with my replies interspersed:

1.) GRC system (number 1 offender), gerrymandering and last minute redrawing of boundaries, very few days given for political rallies and host of minor things that is detrimental to opposition getting votes.

True, but in many other countries, far more severe electoral disadvantages fail to keep the opposition from winning elections.  What's different about Singapore?

2.) Total control of Mass Media, such that PAP is always portrayed positively and opposition portrayed negatively.

If the Mass Media is so biased and out of touch, why don't Singaporeans just switch to the web?

3.) Control of many companies providing essential services. Being the largest employer means voters working for the government and PAP will hesitate to rock their rice bowl.

Fair enough.  But if these companies are ripping off the rest of Singapore to buy their workers' votes, why don't the victims prefer the opposition?

4.) Intimidation of opposition and supporters, using ISA laws to unfairly detain people of credibility, making them migrate or a fugitive of the law. If ISA is not used, then other things like tax evasion or defamation will be used.

True, but see my reply to #1.

5.) The use of fear. By putting numbers on voting slip, some who wants to vote for opposition are afraid to do so for fear that it would be tracked and they will suffer consequences for it. Also scaring voters to think that if PAP is no longer government, Armageddon will happen the next day or if their constituency is managed by opposition, it will become slums.

I'm skeptical about the first fear.  If I asked random Singaporeans off the record, how many would actually tell me they're afraid of being "tracked"?  The second fear is more credible.  But it's just another way of saying, "Voters believe that the PAP will do a much better job than the opposition."

Meta-question: How should the fact that Singaporeans are even having this conversation affect your evaluation of our arguments?

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (21 to date)
Anon writes:

"The second fear is more credible. But it's just another way of saying, "Voters believe that the PAP will do a much better job than the opposition.""

The fear that one's CONSTITUENCY will become a slum actually refers to the PAP practice of pulling infrastructure funding from opposition districts. Because of government dominance in the housing sector, this can impose significant hardships.

johnleemk writes:

Anon hit the nail on the head. The government basically says "If you vote for the opposition, we will withhold development from your constituency until you vote our candidate in." They've said it many times, explicitly, in pretty much the same words.

My view is that Singaporeans are satisficing -- they're satisfied enough with the PAP and though they know all too well the problems Singapore has with human rights and freedom of thought or expression, they don't feel they're really impacted enough to be impelled to vote the PAP out on this basis alone. There's nothing about the present situation in Singapore really galvanising voters to support the opposition in droves and with furious passion.

The obvious question is why is the PAP managing the country so well -- usually governments with powers as extensive as the PAP's fall prey to power-hunger. I think it is hard to underestimate Lee Kuan Yew's influence in Singapore, especially here. Lee has single-handedly created a culture where corruption and incompetency are stigmatised. One of Singapore's great "national myths," courtesy of Lee, is that it is a meritocracy -- a great deal of sentiment is attached to the fact that the most capable will triumph, and that it is the government's role to reward the intelligent.

Arix @UK writes:

Mr Kaplan,

It is - and was - my view that Resignation is the key reason for the PAP's dominance, which is somewhat qualitatively different from your argument of "either loyal, deferential or resigned". So mine is only a partial support, not a total support.

Moreover, I would identify the cause of the resignation as what you gave as reason 1: that Singapore is not a true democracy. Stereotypes may be exaggerated, but as many of your "detractors" would tell you, stereotypes do contain a grain of truth. The tough part is locating and accepting that grain of truth.

As an example - and you will not get this from another outsider - at a recent government scholars' seminar in London, one of the Permanent Secretaries told the crowd assembled that the "your role as a scholar is to submit to your superiors in the government". Now how democratic do you think that is?

The available Singapore public opinion is often not very reliable because of the nature and size of the samples involved.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

After reading the comments, my judgment is that people are confusing liberty with democracy. They point to draconian laws and limited free speech as evidence of non-democracy. This simply isn't the case. Democracy is not a sufficient condition of liberty, nor is liberty a sufficient condition of democracy.

Arix @UK writes:

Responding to more specific issues:-

(1) The GRC system. Agreed that some other countries (e.g. in Africa) might face apparently more severe restrictions on electoral matters, but these restrictions are usually skin-deep; they are not systemic restrictions written into the law, like the GRC system is. The GRC system preys on the lack of Opposition politicians vis-a-vis PAP politicians to discourage people from joining the Opposition from the resigned sigh that "we are too small to win".

(2) The Mass Media. Behind the gleaming advertisements by the Economic Development Board about Singapore's global connectivity, there is a digital divide prevalent in Singapore, between the younger generation and the older generation, and between the upper middle-class and the lower middle-class. I believe that you can find data for this if you look hard enough. Plus, there is still a minor linguistic divide in Singapore.

(3) Why do workers appear to prefer the companies that are ripping them off? For the sake of personal and economic security. The GRC system is actually a hidden "tyranny of the majority", and so it works the same for GLCs.

The full answer is an analysis of 3-dimensional Prisoners' Dilemma, where each person does not know what the other two are thinking. Rationally, the person then picks what appears to be the safest option, which then turns out to be a poor-quality option. Between being ripped-off and being made into an economic pariah, what would you prefer?

(4) The point is accumulation.

(5) Probably none would answer that they fear being "tracked", but such an answer would not be certain. If Singaporeans thought that you were a secret agent of the ISD, they would reply like that to avoid being punished for political incorrectness. This kind of question is a loaded question in the political atmosphere of Singapore.

(6) The answer to your meta-question: It is irrelevant. The internet (apart from tunnelling software) provides a sheltered environment that abstracts from real life, so that the same discussion expressed vociferously on the internet under pseudonyms would not be expressed as vociferously - or even not at all - on the physical streets.

Arix @UK writes:

Mr Virissimo,

Liberty is not a sufficient condition for democracy, but it is a requisite condition. Whether democracy is a condition at all for liberty is another question altogether.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

"Liberty is not a sufficient condition for democracy, but it is a requisite condition."

I very much disagree with this proposition. Ancient Athens was very much a democracy (even more so than modern countries like the USA). When constitutions limit what government can do to individuals, this is in effect a limitation upon democracy (and therefore, would be less democratic than a country which has no such limitations). You seem to be doing the very thing I was criticizing in the post I made above. Are you not simply conflating democracy (majority rule) with liberty (freedom from coercion)? It seems to me, that these are distinct concepts and have only recently (within the past two centuries) been seen to exist largely side by side.

Of course, perhaps this is simply a semantic issue, and what you call "democracy", I would call "democracy AND liberty".

The Pariah writes:

Through Singapore's 44 years of independence and bearing in mind that General Election voting is compulsory by law in this country, it is likely that half of Singaporeans have never voted at all in our adult lives. Does Mr Kaplan know of this?

Also, does Mr Kaplan know that our vote is tied to priority ranking of public housing estate upgrading works? A vote for the ruling party will improve that electorate's priority qualification for HDB Lift Upgrading Programme.

Laws (just and unjust) are passed by a Parliament of 82:2 with very rare occasions for lifting Party whip. Which MP within a GRC should take up my concerns as a citizen when he/she votes to pass/repeal such law? Are these cogent, Mr Kaplan?

The Pariah,

Kelvin Tan writes:

Maybe us Singaporeans suffer from some kind of Stockholm Syndrome.

After all, our founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, told us before not to think that we can change the ruling party.

Since we know that we cannot change the ruling party, even though we may be unhappy with the PAP for one reason or another, we learn to develop a sympathy, convincing ourselves that the PAP is for the best, and even develop a liking for it.

Its like how many male Singaporeans actually defend the need for conscription.

The Pariah writes:

Typo in Mr Caplan's name in my previous posting. My apologies.

Over our 2009 National Day, we learned from MM Lee's response to NMP Viswa Sadasivan's high-falutin' maiden speech that our National Pledge comprises mere "aspirations".

Then two months or so later, our Law Minister affirmed that we are in fact "a city, not a country".

Hey, nobody has even breathed that - when push comes to shove - we are possibly only a garden, and not even a city (much less a city in a garden)!

Arix writes:

Mr Virissimo,

I would ask you if "majority rule" is a sufficient definition for democracy. I would follow the opinion in the International Encyclopaedia of Social Sciences that democracy is "both a set of ideals and a political system", and hence argue that the set of ideals includes liberty, or rather is founded on the basic principle of liberty.

Arix writes:

By the way Mr Kaplan, where are you?

leesjuanpat writes:

Kaplan, only Singaporeans can understand the politics of suppression with 'psychological intimidation' to the average citizens in the form of ostracising an opposition ward and what not.

The mechanism of fear and bullying tactics of the government are prevalent.

Most establisments are planted with the 'president's men'. And the grassroot organisation and People's Association are but tools of the PAP's mouthpiece. All are balls carriers of the ruling system.

leesjuanpat writes:

Bryan Caplan, only Singaporeans can understand the politics of suppression with 'psychological intimidation' to the average citizens in the form of ostracising an opposition ward and what not.

The mechanism of fear and bullying tactics of the government are prevalent.

Most establisments are planted with the 'president's men'. And the grassroot organisation and People's Association are but tools of the PAP's mouthpiece. All are balls carriers of the ruling system.

Die-hard Singaporean writes:

Hi Professor Caplan

As a Singaporean I am genuinely heartened that an American academic thinks so highly of my country. Thank you!

On the question of government behaviour though, I beg to differ from your observation and opinion that Singapore is not unlike the USA or other western countries.

I suggest a very small piece of research as a litmus test.

Press-gang a public sector chief executive, or one of your academic colleagues, to criticise, say, six significant policies of the Obama administration or the New York mayor on a soap box in Central Park. Hand out flyers in Central Park a week prior to the event advertising it.

Do the same in Hyde Park, London with a UK public sector chief executive or academic.

Repeat it is Hyde Park, Sydney.

Then finally, do it in Hong Lim Park in Singapore.

Publish the findings on your website and The Online Citizen re the response of the governments in the respective countries. The results would prove or disprove your hypothesis to a significant degree.

Over to you.


Die-hard Singaporean

wee writes:

Loud as it may be, the voices here do not represent the majority of Singaporean's view.

I thought I should drop a note to highlight that there are Singaporeans who do think and feel that the PAP (ruling party) and the singapore government has done a great job despite all the short comings. And these people are the majority. BTW, Singaporeans would agree with this - socially, it just isn't hip to be pro-PAP; and hence you don't see many people speaking up for PAP.

In my own mind, what Singapore has achieved economically since independence is nothing short of a miracle. People may disagree with how that was achieve, and whether the means justify the end. But give me bread and a future to look forward to any day compared to the so called democracy we see with our neighbours (thailand, philippines, indonesia and malaysia are our immediate neighbours). We started with much less compared to these neighbours and look where we are now.

Singaporean is still a work-in-progress and we are opening up. Singaporeans need more patience.

wee writes:

Third paragraph - i meant "ends justify the means".

Arix (@UK) writes:


You are sure of what you are saying? And yet, there is so much whining on the streets.

I am almost ashamed to share the same surname as you.

wee writes:


I write what i believed in. If you feel that you are right and I am wrong, feel free to point out to me. Convince me with facts and logic. If you explain yourself more, I might take you more seriously. I am just not used to being told.

I am born and breed in Singapore and hence I lived in the "street" here. Whine as they might, at the end of the day, the majority of Singaporeans voted for the PAP (or course you are free to postulate that they were forced to vote for PAP). Everyone has their little complains, but at the end of the day, on balance, many still voted for PAP.

BTW, which "streets" are you hearing the whinning from, and care to share what you based your comments on?

BTW, I am proud of my sirname. Judging from your rudeness, I think the feeling is mutual.

Wang writes:

Prof Bryan

To encapsulate there are issues in Singapore.
The basic thesis remains that it for ruling parties to lose elections and not that opposition parties are involved.

Come what may, the majority would still vote for the ruling party although as pointed out this is accentuated by the 1st past the post system


Joe writes:

It appears that yet again the system of voting in another country is yet again frowned upon by american society. Allow me to focus on the word "another". While I know that our voting system must seem vastly different and much more civilized, I still see it as another version of hyper-democracy. The five points all have some truth and usage in our own voting system. I can't help but seem cynical here but don't our political parties basically try and slander each other to grab an advantage? With the recent election, the number one fear in my peers was that if this candidate was elected, America would become a giant slum and if the other candidate would be elected, the country would prosper. Mass Media is readily available to the general public here, but for the most part, only "credible" sources are really payed any attention to, such as the news circuit stations.

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