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.
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.