mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Stirrings in Singapore

Singapore is a small city state in a region of emerging superpowers, its presidency is a mostly powerless post, and the winning candidate represents the party that has ruled Singapore without interruption since independence.

Yet Tony Tan’s election as President of Singapore is news.

Singapore at Dusk (Wikimedia)

In a four way race, Tan received 35 percent of the votes cast.  This was enough to elect him, but the news that two thirds of the voters rejected the ruling party’s nominee sends a strong message.  Singapore is outgrowing the one party system that has made it stable and rich, and voters are increasingly interested in finding alternatives to the paternalistic establishment that brought it this far.

Change is unlikely to come quickly.  Singaporeans are naturally and perhaps appropriately cautious about sudden moves in a volatile region.  The ruling party is clever and determined, and is ready to play hard ball: think of the Daley machine on steroids.

But the ruling party (PAP or People’s Action Party) and its founder Lee Kwan Yew are authoritarians of the best (or least worst) kind.  They have used their power to build a strong and capable society.  Compare the failure of Fidel Castro: Cuba today is poorer and farther behind Latin America (to say nothing of the advanced world) than it was in 1960.  Singapore, much poorer than Cuba in 1960, is wealthier than a number of European countries today.  It has an infrastructure that Cubans can only dream about; it is a respected participant in regional politics and enjoys strong relations with both the US and China.  It has accomplished all this as a multicultural society in a tense and difficult part of the world, and while the ruling party has been aggressive and not always Marquis of Queensberry in its protection of its political power, it has not plumbed the depths of repression in Fidel’s social paradise and today’s Singaporeans are more free at home, more able to study what they like and travel abroad and incomparably more affluent than their Cuban counterparts.

Via Meadia is small d democratic by conviction; we believe that the framers of the Declaration of Independence were correct about those inalienable rights.  But we can and do make distinctions between authoritarians who build and those who waste and destroy.  Lee Kwan Yew for all the excesses and faults of the system he created was a builder; Fidel Castro, for all the ideals and ambitions that his movement exploited, was not.

The importance of Singapore in world politics goes farther than the power of its example of phenomenally successful economic development.  Events in Singapore are carefully watched in China and help Chinese officials think through their next steps.  Lee Kwan Yew’s success in modernizing Singapore gave him extraordinary prestige in China and many of the economic policies of post Mao China were borrowed from Singapore experience.  For political reasons the mainland cannot look to Taiwan as a model for anything; Singapore is a Chinese-majority society whose trajectory the Chinese themselves see as relevant — and Chinese officials and official journalist will often tell foreigners that they hope that the Communist Party in China will have a modernizing role similar to the PAP role in Singapore.

Maybe, maybe not, but Singapore is one of those countries Americans need to know more about as we prepare ourselves for a century in which Asian politics will be as important to our prosperity and security as Europe.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Anthony

    “Singapore is outgrowing the one party system….Change is unlikely to come quickly. Singaporeans are naturally and perhaps appropriately cautious about sudden moves in volatile region” – as with Singapore (Asia in general) WRM, Americans need to know more about entire geo-political stirrings as our influence, power, and economic interest are directly or indirectly effected by ongoing acclerated changes.

  • Scott

    I’ve seen Lee Kwan Yew interviewed by Charlie Rose a couple of times. While he is an impressive man, he is unapologetic about rejecting some freedoms we hold most dear, such as freedom of speech. (Yet Heritage ranks Singapore as the second freest country, behind only Hong Kong?)

    He defends restrictions on speech on the grounds that Singaporean society is ethnically diverse and composed mostly of Chinese, Malay, and Indians. He doesn’t want one ethnic group to offend the others, which would stoke racial tensions. It’s also why they force all three ethnic groups to live in the same communities/buildings and attend the same schools. The theory is that if they live, work and go to school together, they are more likely to respect each other and greater racial harmony will emerge. No ethnic ghettos will spring up.

    On the other hand, he wants Singapore to adopt an even more free market oriented economy. He rejects out of hand the Tom Friedman Utopian fantasy of state sponsored capitalism.

    He struck me as very aware that what he has built rests on a very fragile foundation and he worries about Singapore’s future once he’s gone.

  • A Canadian fan

    Prof. Mead,

    You have written extensively in your blog about the challenges to the “Blue Model” and what might replace it. The health care system in Singapore is one option that would be worth exploring for your readers. It is not perfect, but they seem to be able to achieve health and longevity comparable to North American and European standards with health care spending at under 5% of GDP.

    Changing routines and patterns of doing, so that you are able to do better with less, is the goal of all innovation. Understanding real-world alternative ways of achieving public policy goods is the first practical step to figuring out what will replace the Blue Model. Real examples from around the world (and not just the Canadian and European examples in the health care context) should be a bigger part of this discussion.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service