Bryan Caplan  

Democracy in Singapore

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The Singaporean blog TR Emeritus recently reprinted my "How I See Singapore," prompting critical response.  The main complaint is that I ignorantly claim that Singapore is a democracy. 

I understand the pushback.  Singapore gets mediocre scores on international democracy ratings like Polity IV and Freedom House.  My post affirms a very different conclusion with no real explanation. 

In my defense, the point of the post was to describe my personal reaction to Singapore, not to justify it.  But my "Two Paradoxes of Singaporean Political Economy" (a longer version of my essay for Ethos) defends Singapore's democratic credentials at length.  Here goes:

The "Singapore as a thinly-veiled dictatorship" theory coheres neatly with Western stereotypes about the city-state, and elegantly resolves my two puzzles.  Unfortunately, the dictatorship thesis ignores three basic facts.

First, Singapore has several legal opposition parties, including the Workers' Party of Singapore, the Singapore Democratic Alliance, and the Singapore Malays National Organization.[1]  The only illegal party is the Communist Party of Malaya.[2]  As Mauzy and Milne observe:[3]

The Singapore government has not committed any serious violations of civil rights.  There have been no extrajudicial killings or political disappearances, and there are currently no political detainees.

The worst that Freedom House can say about Singapore's democracy is that: "[T]he opposition is hamstrung by a ban on political films and television programs, the threat of libel suits, strict regulations on political associations, and the PAP's influence on the media and the courts."[4]  Activists in opposition parties face many minor indignities, but hardly live in mortal fear of the PAP.[5] 

At the margin, of course, PAP pressure deters some political talent from joining opposition parties.  But this is a feeble explanation for the opposition's near-total failure to gain political office.  After all, there are many countries that have vigorous electoral competition even though their opposition candidates face great dangers.  In Pakistan, for example, the reins of power have repeatedly changed hands via electoral channels even though opposition candidates have frequently faced arrest, execution, and assassination. 

Second, while the PAP does place unusual restrictions on political expression, these restrictions shield people from criticism, not policies.  Opposition candidates who avoid personal attacks against PAP politicians can and do freely attack PAP policies as ineffective or unfair.  An opposition candidate could safely campaign on a platform to abolish Electronic Road Pricing or slash immigration.  Indeed, an opposition candidate could safely campaign on a platform to rein in politically-motivated defamation suits.  In the Median Voter Model, embracing these positions would quickly usher opposition politicians into power - assuming, of course, that the median voter genuinely wants the changes in question.

Third, there is virtually no evidence that Singapore's elections are corrupt.  Indeed, international observers have consistently rated its government as one of the least corrupt in the world.  The World Bank's Governance Matters data set, for example, gives Singapore stellar scores in "Rule of Law" and "Control of Corruption."[6]  Despite Freedom House's negative assessment of political freedom in Singapore, it grants that "elections are free from irregularities and vote rigging."[7]  The Global Barometer country report for Singapore finds that 86% of Singaporeans believe that their country is either "a full democracy" or "a democracy, but with minor problems."[8]  The same percentage agrees that the last election was either "completely free and fair," or "free and fair, but with minor problems."[9]  Yes, decades of one-party electoral dominance is normally is a strong symptom of electoral corruption, but not in Singapore.[10]

Evidence from the World Values Survey, administered in Singapore in 2002, reinforces this conclusion.  18.7% of Singaporeans were "very satisfied" with "the way the people now in national office are handling the country's affairs" and another 72.7% were "fairly satisfied"; the comparable numbers for the United States in 1999 (the survey year closest to 2002) were 6.9% and 60.2%.[11] Similarly, when asked whether their country "is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves," or "for the benefit of all the people," only 20.4% in Singapore say, "a few big interests," versus 63.3% for the U.S.[12]  International observers may say that the United States is much more democratic than Singapore, but Americans are markedly less likely than Singaporeans to feel like their government delivers the results the public wants.

I do not mean to deny the many peculiarities of Singaporean politics.  In most democracies, leading members of the opposition have successful careers and a serious chance of winning.  In most democracies, the members of the ruling party respond to their opponents' verbal abuse with more verbal abuse - not lawsuits.   The government of Singapore partially owns the main newspapers and television stations, and practices a moderate form of censorship.[13]  My point, though, is that these peculiarities are largely irrelevant as far as the Median Voter Model is concerned.  In Singapore, voters are free to vote for opposition candidates, and opposition candidates can safely advocate the elimination of unpopular policies.  In the Median Voter Model, this is all you need for the will of the people to prevail.

[1] See generally Mutalib (2004).

[2] Mauzy, D. K, "Electoral Innovation and One-Party Dominance in Singapore," in Hsieh, John Fuh-sheng and Newman David, eds. How Asia Votes (New York: Chatham House Publishers, 2002): p246.

[3] Mauzy, D., and R. Milne, Singapore Politics Under the People's Action Party. (New York: Routledge, 2002): p128.


[5] See generally Mauzy (2002): p241-245; Mutalib (2004): p239-267.



[8] Tan, E and Z. Wang, "A Comparative Survey of Democracy, Governance and Development",  Asian Barometer Working Paper Series, No.35, p4. 14.6% of the Singaporeans say "full democracy"; 71.5% say "a democracy, but with minor problems."

[9] Tan, E. and Z. Wang, "The State of Democracy in Singapore: Rethinking Some Paradoxes." (Paper presented at conference entitled, "The Asian Barometer Conference on The State of Democratic Governance in Asia" organized by Asian Barometer, Taipei (Taiwan), 20-21 June, 2008): p6.

[10] See also Mauzy and Milne (2002): p141: "There is no ballot rigging, intimidation of voters, inaccurate counting of ballots, or manipulation of the electoral rolls to produce so-called 'phantom' voters or multiple voters in Singapore.  The US State Department regularly reports that 'the voting and vote-counting systems are fair, accurate and free from tampering,' while noting as well the 'formidable obstacles' facing the Opposition... Similarly, Michael Haas, a critic of the PAP, writes that "... there is no doubt that substantive, majoritarian democracy exists at the polls,' and that 'the voters of Singapore baffle many observers by supporting the PAP at each election with huge majorities.'"

[11] World Values Survey variable identifier E125.  While one might think that the Lewinsky scandal artificially depressed Americans' 1999 response, they were actually substantially less satisfied with their government in 1995, the year of the previous survey. For details see 

[12] World Values Survey variable identifier E128.

[13] As Mutalib (2004): p307 puts it, "Not only are journalists issued accreditation cards by the authorities, government nominees sit in all major media corporations such as the MediaCorp companies, and, as illustrated earlier, the SPH [Singapore Press Holdings]."

If I'm right, where do international democracy rankings go wrong?  Simple: By defining "democracy" to exclude countries with free and fair elections if they don't like their political outcomes and/or policies.  While I try to avoid definitional arguments, this is misleading.  Singapore has plenty of room for improvement, but lack of democracy isn't the problem.

COMMENTS (9 to date)
Daublin writes:

"No extra-judicial killings" is a better record than the U.S. The U.S. is up to a few thousand per year.

Tom West writes:

By defining "democracy" to exclude countries with free and fair elections if they don't like their political outcomes and/or policies.

I suspect that what makes various organizations uncomfortable with Singapore is a problem with process, not with the current outcome. Give Putin the same power as Lee Kuan Yew, and there might be a very different story.

When any one person or party rules for too long, it's very rare for the duty of responsibility to rule not to eventually devolve into an entitlement to rule as one pleases.

The fact that that it has not devolved as such for essentially a generation is praiseworthy, but no guarantee that the next generation won't use the powers (both legal and cultural) more forcefully.

I don't think it's healthy for *any* country to have a party in power indefinitely. It's why, while a Liberal supporter in Canada, I was relieved for the party and for the country when the Liberals finally lost, even though I like their policies a lot more than the current government.

Glen S. McGhee writes:

Singapore is important for other reasons, if you read Stephen J. Appold, “The Weakening Position of University Graduates in Singapore’s Labor Market: Causes and Consequences” in Population and Development Review, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Mar., 2005), pp. 85-112.

Apparently, the work-status of ethnic groups and migrant workers is strictly controlled. Maybe this is why they aren't a democracy.

David R. Henderson writes:

I think you responded well to the complaint about your belief in democracy. I notice, though, that you didn't respond at all to his first of two complaints, the one about open borders with Malaysia. He claims the borders are open. I don't know. What do you think?

Emil writes:

I've lived in Singapore for almost a year. Intriguing place but not very democratic.

Most of the native Singaporeans live in public housing, that are of a pretty high standard compared to what you'll find in the region. They have a maintenance / upgrade program where every estate is upgraded every so often on a rolling schedule.

The Singaporean government however, openly, " rewards" those estates where the majority votes for the PAP by re-arranging the upgrade schedules so that those areas where a majority voted for an opposition candidate are moved down to last in the queue for upgrades. The choice for normal people thereforw becomes to either except to live in the slum or to vote for the PAP. this is just one example.

The PAP have, so far, done a good job with managing S'pore but democratic, in the normal sense it ain't. (It's probably true that the threat of "new entrants" in case they mess things up seriously is functioning as a decent deterrant for them.

Doug writes:

[Comment removed for crude language. Email the to discuss editing your comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

James A. Donald writes:

Singapore is more free than the US.

In the US, on most of the issues that people care about, one point of view is "racist", "sexist", etc, and in many fields if a company employs a "racist", or a "sexist", that company is likely to suffer legal repercussions.

In the US, universities require applicants to provide an essay and extra curricular activities which demonstrate one's political point of view, and those activities and that essay have to appear to demonstrate commitment to left wing causes and values.

This results in the creation of numerous extra curricular organizations that purportedly support left wing causes, but in fact do not. Non leftists apply for prestigious universities act as if they CIA agents attempting to infiltrate the communist party, and, in order to do so, have created front organizations that present a radical left appearance while furtively being conservative.

Singapore also suppresses disturbing views on race, but the suppression is far less severe than in the US.

johnleemk writes:

As a Malaysian I don't know if I'd say we have super open borders with Singapore. They're open to a reasonable degree for neighbours, I suppose, but it's nothing at all like the Schengen zone (with zero border controls) or even the EU (where EU citizens can enter, live, and work in non-Schengen states like the UK as of right). Malaysians remain subject to regular passport controls and there are long queues to get in, although immigration control is generally not as feared by Malaysians or Singaporeans as it is by, say, lawful immigrants in the US (I've been on all 3 sides here, I speak from personal experience).

I suspect TR Emeritus believes open borders exist because people on both sides of the Straits work and study on the other side quite freely. It's true that Malaysians in Singapore do get preferential treatment for things like work permits and such. But I think these are to be expected for any countries as geographically (let alone historically) close as Singapore and Malaysia. Canada, Mexico, and the US all have somewhat unified border control arrangements (as a green card holder I don't need a visa to travel to either Canada or Mexico, even though virtually all other Malaysians do). Still, this is all a very far cry from a Schengen zone-like or EU-like arrangement.

AXW writes:

Professor - A few quick questions - I feel the point about democracy is not the main problem with your argument. Rather, that as a libertarian, I think your stated belief that the PAP government has "The best policies in the world" is incomprehensible and undermines the credibility of the rest of your reasoning. I don't know much about libertarians but I thought the idea was about small government and personal freedoms? How does small goverment fit in with 85% of people living in government subsidised housing? When the government uses your government subsidised house as a stick to beat you with at election time? When the company that builds those houses is owned, along with 60% of the economy by the a government linked company?

Further, as an economist, I suppose you understand the importance of saving for retirement. In Singapore the government legislates that all citizens and "permanent residents" have to save for retirement by buying government debt, the interest rate on which is lower than inflation. Small or big, as an economist I wonder how you can justify this as anything other than appalling government? What was that phrase again ... "best policies in the world". Can you justify that please?

I have written in more detail elsewhere on the topic of why I disagree with you about Singapore being a democracy - all the other percularities of the Singapore system notwithstanding - in and of itself the use of detention without trial to imprison political opponents disqualifies any government from claiming to be a democracy in my humble opinion.

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