Bryan Caplan  

What's Really Rotten in the City-State of Singapore?

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Economists Are Irrational; Is ... R & R...
Singapore is widely regarded as a dictatorship.  Even the contrarian Gordon Tullock joins in the chorus; in Autocracy, he remarks that, "The dominant form of autocracy has been the non-totalitarian type presented by Franco, Lee of Singapore, or Mobutu of Zaire."  In researching the political economy of Singapore, however, I discovered that these accusations are baseless.  Despite its peculiarities and the near-total dominance of the People's Action Party, Singapore is a democracy.  Legal opposition parties compete regularly in Singapore's free, non-corrupt elections.  They just don't win.

Now that we're on the same page, it's time to play "Truth is Stranger Than Fiction."  Believe it or not, Singaporean Law Minister K. Shanmugam recently relied on my arguments to defend his government at an international conference in New York!
IN CHICAGO, Democratic mayors have won without interruption since 1931. In San Francisco, they have done so since 1964.

And while Democrats have not monopolised the mayor's office in New York City, they have near-PAP dominance of the city council, where they hold 45 out of 48 occupied seats.

'But nobody questions whether there is a democracy in New York,' Law Minister K. Shanmugam said on Wednesday, referring to the frequent questioning of Singapore's democratic credentials given the 50-year dominance of the ruling People's Action Party.

Drawing on arguments by American economist Bryan Caplan in a recent article, he said Singapore was viewed as a deviation from the democratic norm because it was seen primarily as a country.

'This is where most people make a mistake...I have tried to explain that we are different. We are a city. We are not a country,' he told 200 lawyers, many from America, at the New York State Bar Association International Section's meeting here.

Mr M. N. Krishnamani, a panellist and president of the Supreme Court of India Bar Association, asked if it was true that with the ruling PAP in power for some decades now, the opposition was unable to survive or win cases in the courts.

Mr Shanmugam anticipated such a question and came prepared with Dr Caplan's article, published in July. Reading extracts, he told his audience it was the best response he could provide to the question...
As a libertarian, I certainly don't want governments to hide their crimes behind my words.  But truth comes first.  People who call Singapore a dictatorship are factually mistaken, and if the Law Minister of Singapore wants to use my research to correct the record, I do not object.

Still, lest I be mistaken for a PAP apologist, this is a great time to air Singapore's real dirty laundry.  The Singaporean government has many disgraceful policies.  My top picks:

1. Conscription.  Though they laughed at me in Singapore, this is clearly state slavery - and there are plenty of less draconian means to defend the city-state from conquest.  (Like... paying soldiers market wages).  Only a democratic fundamentalist would imagine that the right to vote is more important than the right to say "No" to a job offer.

2. The death penalty for drug trafficking.  Jailing people for capitalist acts between consenting adults is bad enough.  Murdering people for selling intoxicants to willing buyers is sheer barbarism.

3. State ownership.  While Singapore's state-owned companies act surprisingly like capitalist firms, why settle for second-best?  And if you needed further empirical evidence that state ownership undermines personal freedom even if it is "run like a business," take a look at the Straits Times or Singaporean television.

4.  Defamation law.  Letting people sue people who badmouth them is bad enough.  But Singapore takes defamation law to its logical, absurd conclusion: You can't even badmouth government officials unless you can prove that your charges are true.  The problem with these laws isn't that they're undemocratic - after all, Singapore still allows criticism of policies.  The problem is that they violate human freedom.  People should be allowed to say what they like about whoever they like, whether or not they can prove it, and whether or not they're right.

5. Censorship.  The Internet has made Singaporean censorship largely obsolete, but it's still an outrage that you need the government's approval to stage a public performance.

Bottom line: Singapore's critics have plenty of genuine grievances to denounce.  (And under Singaporean law, it's legal to do so - just don't get personal!)  So why do the critics keep complaining about "lack of democracy" when the real story is that most Singaporeans persistently prefer the PAP to the opposition?


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COMMENTS (43 to date)
John writes:

"People should be allowed to say what they like about whoever they like, whether or not they can prove it, and whether or not they're right."

Do you deny that untrue speech has the capability to damage one's reputation, or that one should have the right to sue for compensation for such damage? Is your position that the damage is not actually being caused by the proponent of the speech, but by the ignorance of the believers of the proponent, and therefore there is no one to sue?

RL writes:

If Singaporeans have genuine grievances (or would if they desired to maximize liberty) and yet the PAP wins year after year, why does no self-consciously freedom-oriented opposition party develop that offers a platform of "1. All these things the PAP does right, plus 2. More freedom on these issues."

Is it that no one thinks they can mount a credible campaign against the PAP (despite your points it really is a true democracy) or is it that Singaporeans don't really want freedom in some areas?

Artturi Björk writes:

I would imagine that most if Singapore's critics don't oppose the policies you outlined and that they in fact welcome them.

david writes:

There is a similarity here between #3 and #5; while letting state-linked companies run like a private company allows the state to gain most the benefits, there is an undeniable strategic advantage for the state in retaining control.

Whenever a crisis occurs, the institutions that make up a market may themselves come into question, and this is exactly the time at which the government must retain utterly unambiguous authority (at least in the point of view of the government). And nominal ownership works excellently for this purposes, presumably.

Likewise the Singapore government likes to show that it has censorship muscle, but tends to pick on targets that are irrelevant as political threats (e.g., playboy.com is blocked in Singapore. The government also sued the Far Eastern Economic Review in 2006; FEER of course had a circulation of less than ten thousand and generally read by the politically docile upper class) Showing off your potential ability to act in a time of crisis may avert a crisis even before it happens.

david writes:

@RL

The PAP has perpetuated the notion that there is a tradeoff between freedom and (PAP-lead) prosperity (a concept that begins to appear in elementary-level local history textbooks and is often repeated in later education and the state broadsheets).

Whether or not this notion is true, I venture that most Singaporeans buy into it, to the level of it being folk wisdom, and that anything else must be idealistic foolishness.

It probably helps that traditional Chinese culture already tends to support an attitude of a conflict between idealism and good state leadership (e.g., 少不读水浒,老不读三国).

Lauren writes:

Editorial remark on david's Chinese quote:

For those who don't read Chinese, the saying 少不读水浒,老不读三国 translates as "The young do not read Water Margin; the old do not read the Three Kingdoms." As a saying, it roughly captures the idea that people don't study what they are already familiar with in their lives.

Water Margin is sometimes compared to the Robin Hood stories. On the surface, it is a tale of a band of outlaws around 1100 A.D. That general period--the Sung Dynasty--followed the Mongolian-run, court-oriented T'ang Dynasty. The element of protest against centralized authority is more evident in Water Margin than in the Robin Hood tales. The T'ang was a period of high intellectual culture; but the collapse of the T'ang was followed by the original blooming of a thousand flowers--a period when technology and innovation burgeoned.

The history work The Three Kingdoms is from an earlier time, 220-280 A.D., which represented a temporary collapse of the Han Dynasties that had for 400 years created a single nation out of China. It might be compared to Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War. The work describes internecine battles, strategizing, brutal carnage and loss of life, and agonizing personal decisions during war among the three emperors who each wanted claim to the whole of China. The complicated costs of heroism, principles, sacrifice, and rebellion against domination are not lost on readers.

Thus, the idea that the young do not read Water Margin reflects that the young are not enticed to bother with reading accounts of the benefits of rebellion because they themselves glory in rebellion; and the old do not read The Three Kingdoms because they well know the concomitant costs. The costs and benefits of this tension between protest and centralized authority both matter, and the tradeoffs are not simple. Which, I believe, is david's nicely-stated point.

jr. writes:

There were genuinely good dictators who were willing to listen to critics and who knew to control themselves. For example, the 2nd Emperor of Tang Dynasty who ruled around 650 AD. But is it evidence that Tang was a democracy?

On the other hand, there are certainly numerous examples of malfunctioning democracies. And democracies that elected themselves to dictatorships.

It's not about Truth comes first. It's your theorizing that is at fault.

Kelvin Tan writes:

I am a Singaporean.

It is hard for many Singaporeans to truly understand all your points. Our educational system does a very good job in convincing many Singaporeans that

1) Conscription is necessarily because Singapore cannot "afford" a regular army. (Don't tell us about opportunity cost!)

2) If having death penalty, harsh laws, harsh defamation laws etc etc, makes the street safe for me to walk at 3am in the morning, so be it.

Come to think of it, we can use the response in (2) to also respond to 3-5 hehe. Don't tell us about Benjamin Franklin's famous no long term tradeoff between liberty and security hehe.

To understand better our strange attitude towards western style democracy, it is just like the attitude the average North Korean have of the evil USA.

What would it take for a North Korean to be convinced about the truth of their Dear Leader? Remember, they have been taught from the day they were born how great their Dear Leader is and how evil the West is.

jr. writes:

"Thus, the idea that the young do not read Water Margin reflects that the young are not enticed to bother with reading accounts of the benefits of rebellion because they themselves glory in rebellion; and the old do not read The Three Kingdoms because they well know the concomitant costs. The costs and benefits of this tension between protest and centralized authority both matter, and the tradeoffs are not simple. Which, I believe, is david's nicely-stated point."

To editor: this interpretation is probably wrong. But there probably isn't a standard interpretation either. My understanding (I am a Chinese.) is that it is not ADVISED for the Young to read a book about violent acts; and it is not ADVISED, or ONE SHOULD NOT ADVISE the old to read a book about cunning and deceit. Simply, it's about cynicism.

Now, one can argue that cynicism is that same as cost/benefit analysis. To that, I point to the difference between normal and positive economics.

jr. writes:

@Kevin Tan:

It's really easy for a North Korean to be convinced. Just bring one to U.S. Or, to convince you, just ask a North Korean who escaped. It's hard for me to believe that you can't think through this yourself.

That being said, I do agree with you that the obviously biased libertarian metric used by Bryan is somewhat silly. In an argument, you do not tell the other party what you believe and then expect that they agree with you, do you?

Lauren writes:

Hi, jr.

You wrote:

To editor: this interpretation is probably wrong. But there probably isn't a standard interpretation either.

I'm very open to the idea that my interpretation of the saying may be wrong. I wonder if you know when the saying originated?

The way the saying is phrased--as if in classical Chinese--did give me pause. I read it as if it was an old and perhaps household saying. But if the saying originated in the 20th century, I'd be inclined to agree with you that it has a connotation of what one should or should not read.

I am not Chinese, but I do have some classical training. I've read some of 水浒 (Water Margin)and 三国 (Three Kingdoms)in the original, though years ago. I think my translation of the saying and my description of the works is probably accurate; but I'm very open to hearing more about the origin of the saying, how it is used, and any corrections you may have to offer.

jr. writes:

To editor:

QUOTE: "For those who don't read Chinese, the saying 少不读水浒,老不读三国 translates as "The young do not read Water Margin; the old do not read the Three Kingdoms." As a saying, it roughly captures the idea that people don't study what they are already familiar with in their lives."

The alt translation (and I would say the correct trans., but...) is: The young should not ...; and the old should not .... And as a saying, it captures the idea that people should not study what might lead them astray. It's implied that the young are not patient enough for cunning and deceit, and the old are not strong enough for violent act.

QUOTE: "Water Margin is sometimes compared to the Robin Hood stories. On the surface, it is a tale of a band of outlaws around 1100 A.D. That general period--the Sung Dynasty--followed the Mongolian-run, court-oriented T'ang Dynasty. The element of protest against centralized authority is more evident in Water Margin than in the Robin Hood tales. The T'ang was a period of high intellectual culture; but the collapse of the T'ang was followed by the original blooming of a thousand flowers--a period when technology and innovation burgeoned."

The Tang Dynasty can hardly be described as run by Mongolians. And even if we only concentrate on the first half of Water Margin, it can hardly be interpreted as against centralized authorities as a system. And, the book is written about 300 hundred years after the time period depicted. For a book that talks a lot about daily lives, it's a point worth to be noted. Say it bluntly, the author probably knew less than modern scholars about daily lives 300 hundred years before his time.

QUOTE: "The history work The Three Kingdoms is from an earlier time, 220-280 A.D., which represented a temporary collapse of the Han Dynasties that had for 400 years created a single nation out of China. It might be compared to Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War. The work describes internecine battles, strategizing, brutal carnage and loss of life, and agonizing personal decisions during war among the three emperors who each wanted claim to the whole of China. The complicated costs of heroism, principles, sacrifice, and rebellion against domination are not lost on readers."

The Three Kingdoms is a popular book written more than 1000 years after the historic period. It's a novel based on history books (and quite a lot of imagination and folk stories accumulated during the thousand years). The history books might be compared to Thucydides's and they were written only 1 or 2 hundred years after the time period. But the novel is far from that. It's quite different. It might be like Gone with the Wind and the history of U.S. Civil War. And The Three Kingdoms, I'd say, talks very little or in a really different way, about individual emotions.

jr. writes:

To Editor:

QUOTE: "The way the saying is phrased--as if in classical Chinese--did give me pause. I read it as if it was an old and perhaps household saying. But if the saying originated in the 20th century, I'd be inclined to agree with you that it has a connotation of what one should or should not read."

I don't know when it's originated. It is a household saying. But 20th century had really very very little to do with the start of censorship and self-censorship in Chinese culture. I mean, it's always there. You can trace it back to at least 2,300 years ago. And every hundreds years, it's brutally reinforced. When it's not brutally reinforced, it's gently reinforced.

Lauren writes:

Hi, jr.

You are sure setting me to work! Good going.

I quite accept as an alternate your suggested translation of "should," as in "The young should not read Water Margin; and the old should not read the Three Kingdoms." That is certainly a legitimate reading.

All the same, I wish we could find an approximate date when the saying got started. I think that would help put it in context. There is a connotational difference between its being a centuries' old household saying that got co-opted in the 20th century, and a newly-coined expression used only in the 20th century, say under Mao. Whether the saying is best translated as "do not" or "should not," and how it is implicitly understood when used in common speech, may hinge on when it got started and how it got handed down.

About your history summaries, I agree on every important count; but I'm not fully with you on the lack of emotional content in Three Kingdoms. Maybe the selections I read in my years of study were ones to which I was guided in order to emphasize the emotional agonies and poetic justices and injustices. I'm going to need some time to think on this. Feel free to guide me. The books are on my shelves. Help me find where to look.

ajb writes:

Bryan Caplan is a libertarian. Most people in Singapore and around the world aren't. Who knew?

If this is the bulk of Bryan's criticism it boils down to his values being at odds with most people who are more collectivist and (in this instance) more utilitarian than Bryan.

If freedom must be reduced to limit crime and protect order, then within a certain range people find that acceptable and desirable. [He sounds like libertarians who say ALL taxation is theft. They may believe that but shouldn't be surprised if those views fail to influence most people.]

Though Bryan seems to be an absolutist on individual freedom he wishes to condemn those who do not share those views.

Doesn't sound that different from those who say that Singapore doesn't match up with their ideas on democracy, which combine formal rules on voting with social norms on individual liberty.

jr. writes:

@david: "It probably helps that traditional Chinese culture already tends to support an attitude of a conflict between idealism and good state leadership (e.g., 少不读水浒,老不读三国)."

The traditional Chinese culture only has one kind of idealism and that is good state leadership.

CJ Smith writes:

Kind of sad when the topical digressions are more interesting than the original topic, but I really do find the discussion between jr. and lauren very informative.

Kelvin hits on an even better true irony regarding libertarians and real politics: What do you do when people could concievably implement the "perfect" social schema (libertarianism in this instance), and instead say, "Thanks, but I'd rather be safe, so I'll voluntarily give up a portion of my liberties." What makes it even more galling is that the choice is non-coerced, informed - and contrary to everything you beleive in. There ought to be a law...

8 writes:

I concur with jr. My Chinese friends told me this when I said I was reading Three Kingdoms, that old people should not read it because of all the cunning and deceit carried out by politicians and generals, and they are in a position to use this knowledge. Similarly, the young should not read a novel about martial violence. (Just like the complaints about children and violent media and video games in the West.)

Though tangential to this post, I think the above highlights a key feature of government: culture. Not only are Singaporeans not libertarians, they're not even Western. I think some of the criticisms highlight an East/West divide, such as Eastern laws that support social harmony.

guthrie writes:

@ Kelvin

I presume most Singaporeans are reasonable people, so if one were presented with information or evidence or challanges contra their education, they would at least consider it, right? Regardless of the source (east or west)?

I have a couple of compound questions per your points:

1) How much martial danger does Singapore face? And has anyone in Singapore conducted a cost-analysis of maintaining a conscripted standing army as opposed to a privately-run operation? In other words, how does Singapore know for sure she can't 'afford' it?

2) How does the death penalty for trafficking keep the streets safe? Where is the objective connection? How, further, do defamation laws have anything at all to do with walking safe streets at 3am? Making statements about someone, even unfounded ones, is hardly the same as pointing a gun at them. I'd contend that it's not even as bad as spitting gum on the sidewalk. Am I mistaken?

Ignacio writes:

Brian:

I have a friend from Singapore and she explained to me that voting in this city-state is not secret (i.e., the government records who you voted for). Since the government controls many companies and even rents out the homes where people live, this means that the "wrong" vote may affect if you get that job, promotion or apartment.

Even in the Sovie Union, they did not need to shot those who criticized the Kremlin. It was easier and just as effective to fire them from their jobs. Harsher penalties are left for special cases.

I think Singapore does not need to be more drastic because they have the perfect tool to cause obedience. This is a little like the PRI in Mexico, which ruled the country for 70 years and did not always need to rig local elections. Everyone knew that if you elected a mayor or governor who was not from the party, your state or city would not receive assitance from the federal government or other agencies.

Rich writes:

But what about the median voter theorem? Why don't opposition parties move closer to the PAP?

Ignacio writes:

My apologies to Bryan for mispelling his name in my previous post.

a platonic charisma writes:

CJ Smith:

Voluntarily trading liberties for security is not inconsistent with libertarianism. If you want to lock yourself up in a box with a feeding tube, go for it - just don't force anyone to join you.

areate writes:

Bryan,

I respond here suggesting that while I agree with you in general, I think that your argument is not clear enough to come to a clear moral opposition on any points besides your first two.

johnleemk writes:

Hi, Malaysian here. I have a fair number of Singaporean friends and lived in Singapore for quite a few years. Malaysia is not much better than Singapore in terms of repression (criticisms #2, #3 and #5 apply to Malaysia as much if not more than they apply to Singapore -- we've also recently started a "national service" program which is more community service, but still sort of a draft, so I don't know if #1 applies, and we don't need #4 because the government just tosses its critics into jail without trial).

I think Bryan's missing the bigger picture here. The problem with Singapore is that like most corrupt political machines in big cities, it perverts the democratic process to its advantage as much as it can. It uses group representative constituencies to magnify its electoral advantages (basically it just enlarges most constituencies, disadvantaging smaller opposition parties which lack economies of scale to campaign across big areas). The government openly says it will not improve the infrastructure of constituencies which support the opposition.

There is a lot of social pressure to either support the government or be quiet about dissension -- the political climate is such that even though many Singaporeans aren't fond of their government, they are keenly aware it's career suicide to materially support the opposition. I'm not sure how true it is that the government knows who you vote for, but in Malaysia, it is definitely possible to identify individual voters' ballots and who they voted for.

Freedom of assembly and association are significantly infringed -- the joke is that a family of five cannot legally picnic in Singapore (and actually it's the same in Malaysia). The Registrar of Societies is very picky about registering organisations which might go against the government.

And of course, "censorship" doesn't exactly describe just how much Singapore restricts freedom of speech and conscience. The Internal Security Act means the government can throw anyone in jail without trial or judicial review. The Sedition Act is also broadly worded to the point that it has a similar effect. The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act means the government basically controls everything that is printed in Singapore -- if it doesn't like what you print, it will retract your licence. The laws are such that opposition parties can't even upload videos to Youtube (this isn't a joke).

I agree with Bryan that Singapore is a democracy -- it's a very illiberal one, but it is one nonetheless. People can vote and to a very limited degree express themselves. But the government actively seeks to pervert the democratic process to keep itself in power -- the popular vote shows about a third of the population consistently votes opposition, but you don't see this reflected at all in Parliament or government because the heavily gerrymandered/malapportioned constituencies deny representation to most of this one-third. The government seeks to tame and neuter public discourse instead of fostering it; it creates a climate where people are afraid to express their opinions because it is bad for their economic prospects and because in most cases, their voices will never be heard.

To people who wonder why no party moves in to get rid of the illiberal policies we're discussing, I think the obvious answer is that many Singaporeans are perfectly happy with what they have. Singaporeans are well aware of how repressive their government can be, and how silly some of its illiberal policies are, but it's not something that particularly excites them. The PAP also does a good job of co-opting intelligent people who recognise problems with the system, and encourages them to effect change from within, so to speak.

Phil writes:

"...the popular vote shows about a third of the population consistently votes opposition, but you don't see this reflected at all in Parliament or government because the heavily gerrymandered/malapportioned constituencies deny representation to most of this one-third."

I'm sure there's quite a bit of gerrymandering going on in the way the constituency boundaries are drawn but there is a much simpler explanation for the phenomenon you talked about: this is a "first pass the post" / "winners take all" system. Therefore, whoever has more votes win the seat. Therefore, even if Party A gets 49% of the votes in every contested seat, as long as Party B gets more for each seat, Part B gets ALL the seats. No mystery here.

johnleemk writes:

Singapore's electoral system accentuates this aspect of FPP. You basically need to be able to win in five different constituencies (for example) to win *anything* -- otherwise you get nil, even if a majority of the voters in two or three of the constituencies voted for you. It's what Singapore calls "group representative constituencies," and the official excuse for them is so they can be used to ethnically balance Parliament -- of all the candidates from a party/bloc running in a particular GRC, at least one must be from an ethnic minority. The opposition is usually able to pick off one or two of the few single-member constituencies left, but because of lacking resources and the nature of FPP, it's all but impossible for them to win anything more. Nearly all constituencies are in a GRC, and you need immense resources to campaign and win in even just one of them.

Kelvin Wong writes:

hi all,

I am born and bred Singaporean, but also a gay activist.

One thing about American democracy proponents is that they always assume that what "works" for them, should naturally work in other countries regardless of culture and history. That is simply egocentric and if you look at so-called democracies in many African countries, life is worst for most people. And even when the ppl democratically elected a government they wanted like in Palestine, Americans are still not happy, because they did not democratically elect the persons they WANT to be elected.

Please Americans should just admit that their hypocritical attitudes towards democracy is not out of love or altruism, but just a big headed white men supremancy idealism, as in I-know-better-than-all-these-dumb-non-white-race.

Yes, American have democracy, but look at the money politics and the waste of resource it takes to get some real issues addresses sometimes. The government, in general, is controlled those who have most money to lobby for their rights, big powerful corporations and people. Only occassionally, do you have the lesser being able to make a dent in the system, kudos to democracy for that.

Having said that, democracy or some sort of it, is not entirely bad or useless, if implemented within a correct context.

Okay, back to Singapore.

1) death penalty. You mean there are NO death penalty in America? But you are right, personally, I don't agree with the drug laws and death penalty and there is small but growing group here trying to convince people to disagree with the death penalty

2) Conscription. Yeah, that the "ME Me freedom nothing but ME" Americans talking. Taiwan and South Korea has conscription, but maybe does not last as long as Singapore. The main purpose of conscription for the singapore government is really social engineering and control (which as been very successful for the govt.), but it also serves as a cohesion glue (not necessarily successful all the time) for the various classes and ethnicity of people in the society. By the way, conscription is not just army, its police force and our civil defense forces too,

The threats is that Singapore is sandwich between two very populous Muslim countries and any rogue Muslim government can choose to attack Singapore out of sheer religiosity and jealousy. We have official secret that even up till the 90s, there are credible threats from the two countries especially from our northern neighbours. Even up till now there is an official policy that distrust our muslim friends from holding high posts in the defense force, simply stated, a lot of muslim still identify themselves firstly with their religion than their country. That is also why you see more muslims conscripted to civil defence forces and police forces than the army. However, I believe that is slowly changing, albeit I suspect it will polarize muslims in to 2 camps, liberals and conservatives.

3) PAP in power. As a commoner, we have all enjoyed the success of well planned policies which have brought security and comfortable to Singaporeans and as a result of PAP being in continuous power to implement those long-term policies like public housing, road system, low taxes, etc. The government services are very accessible and many services are available online and things can get done relatively quickly and efficiently (but not all the time, especially when you meet brain dead civil servants).

Also despite being in power, the govt have liberalized some of their policies over time, if not I will probably be writing this behind an isolated jail cell. There are some genuine care from the dictators with policies uneffected by money politics and lobbies, albeit being rather power hungry.

Having said that if you are at the wrong end of the stick, that is trying to change policies, opposition and views, you will encounters obstacles purposely setup by the govt, through the implementation of laws and their judges, to reduce the impact of what you can achieve. From media control, to election laws to their control of the judiciary. All these prevents public from really seeing opposition in good and proper light, but thanks to the internet this is slowly changing (again if the dictatorship model is that bad, we may not have such access via internet).

The official media policies is always to cast the opposition in bad light, even up to the photos they show on print media. Again, even with media, voices challenging the government are slowly and surely being heard, but this will take time.

Don't be too rush to implement your idealism to us when it took you much more than 100 years (from European immigrants killing off the poor natives indians and taking over their land to the ideal of liberalism and democracy) and you are still perfecting it.

Give us time.

Doc Merlin writes:

@ Rich
You must be an American. In this case the answer to your question is because the ideology of the parties is irrelevant. The parties are a tool to keep power.

Lauren writes:

A couple more side-notes for jr. and david:

First, thanks so much jr. for putting me on to that reading of the saying as an admonishment rather than as an observation. It's always hard to interpret sayings outside of a cultural context, and I'm confident that you are right. So, a better translation might be: "Young, Don't read Water Margin! Old, Don't read Three Kingdoms!"

In that context, though, I think I understand david's comment less than I did before. Reading the saying as an admonishment puts a different spin on what he was saying.

Jr. also noted an error in my quick history summary--of course the T'ang Dynasty was not Mongolian-run. I think I had in mind to type "pre-Mongolian-run" because I was thinking ahead to complications during the Sung and possible motivations for the chafing that led to the writing of Water Margin; but really, that was just irrelevant and came out as an embarrassing error. Thanks for the correction!

Finally, all historical records--contemporary or ex-post--are written with a point of view. A lot of early histories and historically-based tales from both the West and the East were written up after the fact and were financially supported by leaders trying subtly or unsubtly to make themselves out to be great, beloved, and legitimate. The best we can do is to read them all with a grain of salt. All the same, they are documents in their own right from which some general ideas or at least hypotheses about what actually may have happened can usually be gleaned. Sometimes the false is what takes hold culturally--which is what may matter for popular sayings.

phineas writes:

I'm very fond of Bryan's core values, which is one of the reasons I revisit this blog. It's too bad he hasn't a snowball-in-hell's chance of getting democratically elected in just about any developed country today. The five state policies he mentions are not just Singaporean. With minor variations, they're part of today's Weltanschauung across Europe.

Common Reader writes:

It's like the Cold War never happened. Singapore's repressive policies, which seem insane to us in the West, were not developed in reaction to today's radical Muslim threat, as that threat did not exist when they were developed. They were developed because there was a communist insurgency in Malaysia for decades. Nothing about Singapore makes sense if you have Cold War amnesia.

paul writes:

There are a lot of comments here from people who do not know the facts about Singapore.

Singapore has been a wealthy and prosperous city long before the current repressive regime.

In 1922, Albert Einstein came to Singapore to raise funds from the Jewish community in Singapore. He surely would not have travelled all the way to Singapore if it were a swampy fishing village as many of us have been led to believe. Or maybe he was no Einstein :-)

See http://www.onthepage.org/outsiders/einstein_in_singapore.htm

The PAP won freely contested elections in the 1950s and 1960s because of their vision for Singapore which resonated with the public. Then, they enforced repressive laws that jailed or bankrupted their opponents to ensure that they did not have to face a fair fight again.

See http://www.robertamsterdam.com/2009/11/the_repression_of_political_freedoms_in_singapore_the_case_of_opposition_leader_dr_chee_soon_juan.htm

G17 writes:

Singapore's GDP per capita in 1965 was US$500 - in the same ballpark as Panama and Mexico. Japan was at $911 and Australia at $2400, and the US at $3700. And less than 1% of the population had a university degree.

James A. Donald writes:

Singaporeans value economic progress very highly. The PAP has been very successful at delivering economic progress, in part by following economically sound, even though violently unpopular, policies.

It is plausible that the Singaporean public rationally suspect that parties that promise policies more to their liking would also deliver lack of economic competence considerably less to their liking.

Paul writes:

1965 was an exceptional year for Singapore as there was a blockade against Indonesian products which resulted in a sharp decline in trade. This was lifted once independence was achieved.

In 1957, Singapore's GDP per capita exceeded that of Japan.

For more info on how Singapore has performed compared to Hong Kong, check out Alwyn Young's article: http://books.google.com/books?id=kTewc1u50CQC&lpg=PA14&ots=8mw7ht3Nw4&dq=singapore%20gdp%20per%20capita%201957%20historical&pg=PA31#v=onepage&q=&f=false

G17 writes:

Paul

There is nothing exceptional about Singapore's GDP per capita in 1965. In fact, it showed a healthy 10% rise from 1964.

As the figures below show, Singapore's GDP per capita in the early 1960s was 1/7th of AMerica's and 1/5th of Australia's.

1960 - US$395
1961 - $438
1962 - $430
1963 - $472
1964 - $464
1965 - $512
1966 - $561

From 1965 to 2008, Singapore's GDP per capita grew 70x to 74x in US$ terms. And this was on the back of huge pop growth. Can't think of many countries which beat this record, but I am sure there is only a handful. Perhaps South Korea, which grew faster from a lower base.

wee writes:

CJ Smith writes:
Kelvin hits on an even better true irony regarding libertarians and real politics: What do you do when people could concievably implement the "perfect" social schema (libertarianism in this instance), and instead say, "Thanks, but I'd rather be safe, so I'll voluntarily give up a portion of my liberties." What makes it even more galling is that the choice is non-coerced, informed - and contrary to everything you beleive in. There ought to be a law...

Mr Smith,

you asked "what do you do?"

As a Singaporean, my response is - just do what we Singaporeans think is right. If we made the informed choice of giving up libertism (like you said), what is wrong? Because it goes against what YOU or America believes in? Does western values or beliefs really speak for all of mankind?

Give us a break.

fpc writes:

This is a joke?

Fair elections?

Has he seen one conducted in Singapore?

Rubbish.

A&E writes:

Waterboarding was "factually" legal, wasn't it, by the definition of the previous administration.

Apparently, Mr Caplan shares the feeling that there are lots of things in Singapore which are legal and yet offend one's sense of rightness or logic, and vice versa.

I am keen to get Mr Caplan's take on the GRC system. By what measure does he claim that most Singaporeans prefer the present government?

Omega Lee writes:

"If we made the informed choice of giving up libertism (like you said), what is wrong?"

Like selling one's soul to the Devil? What is wrong with that. As a Singaporean, I object to any decision taken on my behalf, much less by a proven incompetent government.

As for conscription, I can understand why a gay male activist is so keen for a 99% male army forced to live together for 2 years and for a week per year thereafter. The rest of us are not willing to sacrifice our personal freedoms for an army designed for "social control" and "ethnic bonding" purposes, instead of what a PROFESSIONAL army is supposed to do, protect the citizens from foreign invasions.

The Pariah writes:

A&E's Q: "By what measure does he (Mr Caplan) claim that most Singaporeans prefer the present government?" This very pertinent question deserves an answer.

As I've posed in another blog: "Does Mr Caplan realize that a likely 50% of Singaporeans have never voted even once in their adult lives in 44 years of our nationhood, bearing in mind that voting is compulsory by law in Singapore?"

The Pariah, www.singaporeenbloc.blogspot.com

Jonathan writes:

In my opinion, there really is no perfect way of running a State just as there is still no perfect State (or country, for that matter).

What we regard as perfect or not perfect, imposing or not imposing cannot, like some has mentioned, have the same impact on every State or nation. Although there is an ideal way to run a government, the errors of man and his scheming-ly egoistic motives make it impossible - unless man can put down his own selfish agenda.

Corruption, for instance, makes any system unworkable. Someone did say, "its not the system that is corrupted but the people running it." Corrupted governments have been the cause of many misery around the world - not the lack of the freedom of speech nor the right to vote.

A few thousand years on history available to us today reveal to us that up till now, no one has succeeded in coming up with a perfect system/ideology (can anyone name just one that existed or that exists?) - not that there is a lack of ideals, no, but there is a lack of good men and women running it - by "good", I do not refer to being intellectually capable. I am referring to truly righteous, unbiased men and women.

Communism is an ideal too, it means basically "all having in common so that all should enjoy equally" but it has gained itself a very bad name - not because its flawed, but those in power are flawed.

What is better and what is not better is often made with the wrong comparisons, wrong denominations, etc. We always have the tendency to think that the grass is greener on the other side, until we got there ourselves, that is.

The above being said, whether a system works would have to be judged/measured by results within the said community. Lots of countries in the world claim to have so-called democracy, their people have "the right to vote" yet the same people suffers injustice on a daily basis. Why, because a powerful minority have manipulated democracy (and not just governments, but also those with some economical influence as well) to the disadvantage of the people who strives for it. The same fate awaits libertism or any other "isms" unless the common denominator is changed - man's selfish heart.

To be continued...

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