Monday, November 08, 2010

Singapore and democracy

A few weeks ago, the wife and I attended a local production of the play "Boeing Boeing" (starring amongst others, Wendy Kweh, who some of you might more readily remember as DC Susie Sim on The Bill). Because the play had been customised to the Singapore audience, I didn't get all the jokes, but one of the highlights of the evening was when a Singaporean character was interacting with the British friend of the play's hero:

S: "Do you know what makes Singapore great?"

B: "Err... Democracy?"

S: "Don't try to be funny lah!"

In an evening when the mostly young audience did a lot of laughing, this was the exchange that got the biggest laugh of the evening.

I was reminded of this when in response to my recent tweet/facebook update suggesting that the London Underground should ring Singapore and ask how to do driverless metros, I was effectively accused of giving succour to dictatorships.

This is simply nonsense - I don't like dictatorships and I am passionate about freedom but more to the point, Singapore is not a dictatorship. It holds elections every four or five years, and there's no suggestion that the voting process itself is in any way corrupt. Another election is due before February 2012 (in the Singapore system, like the British one, the Prime Minister effectively gets to set the election date). It is guaranteed though that the PAP will still be in power in March 2012, regardless of when the election is held.

There are a number of reasons for this though - most of which would still hold even if freedom of the press was the same as it is in the US or the UK. The first and most obvious is that whatever else one can say about the PAP, noone can deny that as a party, they have been immensely successful in developing Singapore since the city state seperated from Malaysia in 1965. They have managed the feat of building a modern city despite having few natural resources, an education system that is the envy of the world (or at least the pre election Conservative Party!) and generally managed to punch above their weight at an international level. They've done this while managing to keep Singapore as one of the least corrupt countries on the planet, and their politicians seem to actually believe they have a duty and responsibility to the country. The opposition in the last election only bothered even putting up candidates for just over half the seats - presumably the ones where they felt they had the best chance of winning - and still only got less than 40% of the vote!

Indeed, the opposition is one of the reasons why the PAP are so strong. Not long after arriving here, I was out at lunch with my in-laws and my daughter. We were approached by a group of opposition activists - including their candidate who I later found was seen by some as their party's next leader. I was not particularly impressed by them[1]. Not that long afterwards, my wife and I attended a post budget dialogue with one of the local MPs[2] who despite being a backbencher, was impressive, intelligent, and had a good command of her brief. In addition, she also came across as a pretty decent human being - defending the presence of foreign workers and saying we had to remember they were people too. She wasn't afraid of saying things that weren't going to make her popular either.

The final point though that needs to be remembered is liberal democracy is not something that comes naturally to societies. Political cultures don't always take it for granted - in 1932, the winners of the Irish election turned up for their first day at work with guns in their pockets in case the previous government wouldn't step down voluntarily (the memories of the civil war were still fresh). A year later, German voters decided to put a stronger emphasis on strong leadership rather than maintaining democratic freedoms. Singapore is still a young society (though maturing fast) with a lot of internal tensions. Up until the 1950s the decisions were made by a group of people accountable to London's colonial office, not the residents. It's not surprising that many voters and citizens put a higher priority on maintaining that stability and comfort than on political freedoms.

[1] I may be slightly unfair here - they were wearing "Singapore for the Singaporeans" teeshirts which come a bit too close to the slogans of racist parties like the BNP back home. They then approached us and I got asked a couple of questions about my intentions to take Singapore citizenship (highly unlikely at this point and even more so when I'm less than a month in the country) and I just ended up feeling like I was offending these guys for giving my kids a chance to interact with the Singapore half of their heritage.

[2] The event was "graced by" her presence. One of the wierd things about Singapore is the level of respect shown to politicians! Also, no one gave me any hassle at all about being presented, though I was ignored by one activist who leaned accross me to talk to my wife about something.

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