Singapore, known locally as the little Red Dot, is not called red because it was or is Communist or left-wing in some respect. It’s just because cities are generally indicated by red dots on world maps, and former Indonesian President B.J. Habibie once referred to the country dismissively as a “little red dot.” Singaporeans, naturally, responded by turning the slur into a mild boast.
Actually, most of the time the politics of the ruling People’s Action Party are described as center-right, maybe because the major opposition party, such as it is, is called the Workers’ Party. But the historic leader of the PAP, the late Lee Kuan Yew, got his political start in the labor movement. So did Singapore’s first Chief Minister, David Marshall. Marshall, who was born David Mashal into Singapore’s old Indo-Iraqi Jewish community, founded the aforementioned Workers’ Party. There never were and still are no explicitly conservative political parties in Singapore, at least none that have made a ripple in its reality. It is rather the society, down under the politics, that is conservative in the temperamental and social sense of the term.
Understand? Not really? Not to worry: We will review the history of Singapore’s labor movement and the PAP’s multi-decadal political trajectory, and how both still bind up with current politics, in a later essay. For now the point that needs making is that no curt, generic description—whether as center-right or center-left, democratic or non-democratic, liberal or illiberal—does justice to the singularity of Singapore’s political reality. Bumper-sticker-length descriptions rarely suffice for any useful purpose, but in this case any such thing is bound to be downright misleading.
Singapore’s political singularity, to be defined anon, is responsible for much of the bad press the country often attracts, because it just doesn’t fit well into any conventional category. For example, a friend (a German national currently working in Washington) referred off-handedly to Singapore as a “police state” in a recent personal email. (She has never been here.) Another friend, an American living in Paris, complained that Singapore is boring, like a modernist “Disneyland with the death penalty.” Yet another friend, a Swedish politician and diplomat who confesses to liking her visits to Singapore, expressed guilt about her admiration because Singapore is not a democracy. (She is understandably mistaken, of which more below.) Some Western expats here jokingly refer to Singapore as the sleekest, toniest, best-fed maximum-security prison in the world. They are quick to say they know it’s just a joke, but then why tell it?
Personal missives and anecdotes aside, Singapore’s bad press also turns on some objective realities that run up against the grain of standard-issue Western meliorist sensibilities. Few if any of these realities have anything to do explicitly (or otherwise) with ideology, as Westerners understand the term. They have more to do with a mash-up of certain seemingly enduring characteristics of Chinese culture, with personality (Lee Kuan Yew’s, mainly), with dictates emanating from the conjunction of Singapore’s very small size and its neighborhood, and with certain historical path dependencies that mainly endure, albeit with some twists.
These base realities issue forth in some off-putting governmental behaviors and social traits, a few of which are apparently silly, others much less so. They extend from the ban on chewing gum and the use of caning as a punishment to draconian laws against drug-running, and the related use of the death penalty; and from the insensitive way that foreign low-skilled workers have been treated in Singapore over the years to the various means by which Singaporean electoral politics are rigged.
But these factoids by themselves do not add up to a coherent view of Singapore, not least because they tend to ignore the social virtues that some of these measures encourage—and yes, there are several. To really understand how the place works, warts and all, you must first understand the three elements of Singapore’s improbability that add together to produce its singularity.
One way to reveal these elements is to examine three interrelated questions: Is Singapore’s existence as an independent country normal? Is Singapore a Chinese country? And is Singapore a democracy?
Only a few sovereign nations of the 195 or so in the United Nations have had independence thrust on them against their collective will. Singapore is one of them, along with the United Arab Emirates in 1971 and the “stans” of Central Asia in late 1991. (Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine may count, as well, depending on interpretations of history.) What does that mean for practical purposes?
The upside is that such nations have little historical baggage to work through and few constraining orthodoxies to overcome. But they also tend to lack a firm national identity, much relevant institutional memory, and cadres of experienced managers and political leaders. Singapore’s experience qualifies as a mixed example. It has always had a singular identity, though one far short of “national” in any realistic sense, as a multi-ethnic free port since Stamford Raffles founded the place in 1819. Within Britain’s Straits Settlements colony, and more so as the British Empire began to deconstruct itself after World War II, Singapore had its own identity long before it gained domestic policy autonomy in 1955.
But by the early 1960s virtually all of Singapore’s elite expected the island to become part of the new, soon-to-be-launched nation of Malaysia. Lee Kuan Yew was dedicated to the merger, which in fact took place in 1963. But after some bracing race riots here in 1964, the powers-that-were in Kuala Lumpur expelled Singapore from the federation into unbidden independence. When Lee Kuan Yew delivered Singapore’s first address as leader of the new nation, he had to pause at one point to breathe deeply and collect his wits when he spoke of independence—and it was no act he was putting on.
At that point LKY, as he became known, and his colleagues had to make things up as they went along. And that’s when the defining conditions of Singapore’s reality—multicultural society with a dominant Chinese culture and demography, small island in a not particularly convivial neighborhood, and certain historical patterns with regard to political economy—came into play as shaping factors. The PAP leadership did a pretty good job, all things considered, but Singapore also got lucky, in a way (of which more later). As I said in the first essay in this series, we are dealing here with a place that, albeit very small, contains multitudes. Some of those multitudes are Chinese—so, on to improbability factor number two.
Singapore’s citizenry is about 74 percent Chinese, 15 percent Malay, 8-9 percent South Asian (mainly Tamil), and a smattering “other.” What matters here is that Singapore is the only majority-Chinese country that is not in or part of China. No one has a problem understanding that China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong are all geographically, historically, and culturally part of China. But Singapore’s Chinese are all immigrants to what had been basically a Malay island, albeit a sparsely populated one. The PRC claims Hong Kong, Taiwan, and a lot of maritime and air space that does not properly belong to it. It does not claim Singapore.
Not exactly, anyway. You will not be shocked to learn that Chinese diplomats here go about relentlessly whispering to Singapore’s business, government, and military elite that, “You know, Singapore is really a Chinese country,” so why don’t you just reach the inevitable conclusion about Singapore’s future orientation now? And Singapore’s elite are always answering, as politely as possible, “No, it isn’t.” Quoting almost directly from LKY’s aforementioned maiden speech, they answer, “Singapore is not a Chinese country, nor a Malay country, nor an Indian country. It is Singapore, a multi-ethnic and multiracial society.” And they often add, when the occasion encourages them to dare, “—and we mean to keep it that way.” At this, the Chinese diplomats here mostly smile, and gaze down at their Rolexes.
Singapore’s intercommunal harmony is heavily managed, as is almost everything else that matters in this technocratic compression chamber. The motive is overwhelmingly pragmatic. But that doesn’t mean it is entirely insincere; it is on the whole quite sincere. The “one happy kampong” propaganda, visible on billboards, in schools, and in religious institutions, is not just futile eyewash. The government always characterizes social harmony here as an aspiration, not as a done deal to be taken for granted.
That is wise, because not far below the surface there is tension here, frequently expressed in a characteristic passive-aggressive way. Public etiquette is unfailingly proper. I have yet to meet a single truly surly person, even among the infamous “taxi uncles.” But parallel to and hidden from the public devotion to tolerance and fair play is also a tacit “never be a sucker, take care of number one” mentality that dwells on both the individual and communal levels. Called “kiasu” in the Malay vernacular, it stipulates an implicit Social Darwinism believed to be at the root of all relationships. The equivalent modern Hebrew slang, for those who prefer that cultural comparison to chew on, is “don’t be a fryer.”
Tolerant public etiquette and affirmed multicultural ideals notwithstanding, the place feels very Chinese. With nearly three-quarters of the population being and speaking Chinese, it really can’t help itself. Indians and Malays are not mere tokens in the system. Meritocracy is real here; those who make the grade in a competitive society reap the rewards, and no one looks askance at such outcomes. But ethnic glass ceilings do seem to exist at the margins and at the very top of key institutions. As a result, social-shaping cultural characteristics that elite Chinese here do not even evince awareness of—another fish-not-discovering-water phenomenon—show up from time to time in the lens of a foreign observer…like me.
So, then, is Singapore a democracy? Yes, if one hews to a precise definition of the term as just a way to elect leaders in a popular-sovereignty constitutional context. It is not less a democracy, or much less so, than Japan, whose one-party LDP dominance has been nearly as complete as Singapore’s PAP dominance. Unlike, say, Ecuador, no one stuffs ballot boxes here, because there is no need.
But Singaporean democracy is not, by disposition or law, a liberal democracy, or a standard multiparty democracy either. Dissent is circumscribed and in several ways the electoral system is stacked against the emergence of viable competition. Nevertheless, the system produces what any typical Westerner would regard as mainly liberal outcomes. These outcomes are the result of the ruling party’s assessment of what is in its own best political interest as well as that of the country. If there is any sense of altruism in the PAP’s attitudes, and there may well be, it is indistinguishable for practical purposes from the elitist-paternalist-technocratic-managed methodologies of control that enshroud it.
So does that mean that Singapore is just a shiny and wealthy example of what the likes of Viktor Orbán or Racip Tayyip Erdoğan would wish for Hungary and Turkey? No. These gentlemen, and rather too many others like them in today’s world, run one-party illiberal marquee democracies on behalf of avowed nationalist agendas. They epitomize what observers have called “Caeserist” or “civilizationist” ideologies that are in thrall to the desiderata of the ethno-linguistic majority, to what Germans call the Leitkultur, but with a vengeance. Singapore is bucking this global trend in its relentless and, as noted, not insincere espousal of multiculturalism and multiracialism. In today’s context, it’s hard to see how anything could be more liberal leaning than that.
Note too, pace the anecdotal digs listed above, Singaporeans can read, write, and say whatever they want as long as it is not directly aimed at either the government’s fundamental legitimacy or the island’s intercommunal harmony. They can travel whenever and wherever they like. They can buy and sell anything not illicit that they like; Singapore’s is a managed capitalism, but not much more so than that of the United States, and in some ways less so.
And here we must reckon with another improbability in the form of a paradox. The PAP is to some considerable extent the victim of its own success. Younger people have become complacent about Singapore’s “economic miracle,” as it is known here. They take their relatively high standard of living mostly for granted. But the crux of the paradox is this: People here are so confident of the government’s technocratic capacities that they assume that any problem which may arise will be taken care of lickety-split by the government. They needn’t do anything. This kind of passivity is usually a characteristic of socialist societies. It has arisen in Singapore for a confluence of reasons, some of them Sino-cultural. But not least of these reasons is that the technocratically managed character of life in a city-state has engendered a strong social-corporatist sense despite Singapore’s highly competitive, kiasu-tinged capitalist individualism. It’s an amalgam not unique to Singapore; Hong Kong evinces some similar characteristics. But it’s uncommon, and it’s bound to be perplexing to Americans.
That’s not all that perplexes Americans and some other Westerners. Singapore is a “police state”? If so, well, where are the police? One hardly ever sees one, and one never sees a uniformed policeman on a beat on the street. There is no visible acute poverty here, no beggars on the street, no evidence of homelessness, no gun violence, no graffiti, and women can walk alone at all hours of the day and night anywhere on the island without having to worry about being accosted. There are a lot of CCTV cameras here, more per capita than in Britain, no doubt, but that’s fine with the law-abiding Singaporeans, and the vast majority of Singaporeans are law-abiding by deep cultural instinct, not by habituated intimidation on the part of the state.
Speaking of cultural instincts, China today calls itself a socialist country with Chinese characteristics. If that’s a label that makes any sense, then Singapore is a capitalist para-democracy with Chinese characteristics. It seems to me that the “Chinese characteristics” part is in many ways more definitive, in a typically unself-aware manner, than the ideological labels part (but then I am a dyed-in-the-wool Huntingtonian). Put slightly differently, Singapore is, by way of cross-cultural comparison, a “softly” illiberal, oligarchically directed liberalism in some of the same ways that Habib Bourguiba’s Tunisia exemplified a soft dictatorship determined to patiently impose liberal values on a conservative society.
The characteristics that make Singapore improbable—its being thrown into independence against its will, its unique, territorially removed Sinocentrism, its non-socialist social corporatism, and its illiberal-democratic liberalism—are themselves an improbable combination of characteristics. This is what makes Singapore singular, and endows it with such multitudes. It is also what makes it so easy for outsiders to misunderstand and thus stereotype the place, and so hard to truly fathom it. I promise you this: I will keep trying, and you may eavesdrop on my further progress, if any.