Foreign Policy Blogs

Democratic Reforms in Lee'apore?



From left to right: Lee Kuan-Yew. former Boss and current Consigliere to his son, current Boss Lee Hsien-Loong of the Singapore "Lee Family"

Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) has long been the institutional embodiment of Lee Family Power.  Using the PAP, Lee family patriarch, Lee Kuan-Yew created a political monopoly,  in the nation of  4.6 million people, that has lasted its entire 50 years of independence.   This monopoly allowed the establishment of a dynasty with the ascension of  Lee Kuan-Yew’s son, Lee Hsien’s Loong to the Prime Minister’s office in 2004.  The elder Lee stayed on in the new position of Minster Mentor, arguably becoming the Patriarch of Singapore.   Maybe for the first time, the Lee Family’s hold on power  is being challenged, not by political opposition, but things beyond their control:  the global economic recession and Singaporean demographic trends.

The stability established by the soft-authoritarian brand of Lee family realpolitik has been the hallmark of Singapore since Lee Kuan-Yew led the PAP to its first victory in 1959 – PAP has never lost more than four seats in any poll since.   Being the most stable nation in its neighborhood, a high trade volume region, made it a logical choice for various multinationals to locate to.   Singapore has not disappointed, now a developed country, which started independence poorer than Ghana, it is widely considered one of the least corrupt nations in the world.  Singapore also has top ratings from Fitch and Moody’s, based on its stability, strong financial system, and  pro-capitalist government.

The government is known for its nimbleness in negotiating the currents of  the dynamic international business environment, which allowed the small nation to overcome its competitive disadvantages.  In response to the current crisis, Singapore has set up a “Economic Strategies Committee”, made up of various business and government leaders whose job it is to create an environment to spur economic growth, and shift Singapore away from manufacturing and into high value service, IT, and tourism industries.

As accurately stated in his own words,  Lee Kuan-Yew has guided Singapore from “third world to first“, but there is a dark side to Lee’s Singapore.   He and his son have long been criticized for oppressive censorship laws that helped facilitate the political and financial destruction of their rivals.  For decades the Lees said these laws were necessary for security; further, they contended that Western style “liberalism” was incompatible with “Asian Culture” (whatever that is).  To reinforce this belief in the population, during the Cold War they demagogued the threat of regional Communist insurgencies and the fact the primarily ethnic Chinese city-state is surrounded by Muslims Malays.  The answer to these problems, not surprisingly, was the political stability the PAP provided.

The Lees may be good social engineers, but the Singapore story would not have been possible without the frugal, filial, and industrious nature of the Singaporean people.  The problem is, in recent years, indigenous Singaporeans are becoming increasingly less fecund.  As a result Singapore has imported millions of foreign workers from surrounding Asian nations, and even the West.

The increase in immigration and the coming of age of a new generation who do not remember the turbulent political and economic times of the 1950’s and 60’s  might do much to force political change in Singapore.   Even Lee Kuan Yew admits that change is likely, but also reveals a level of concern:

Mr Lee said: “We are caught in a bind – we’ve got to decide this is our country, our society and we must remain the majority. Yes, we will take immigrants; yes, we will take talented people, but we must be the majority.

“Otherwise, they will change us if they are the majority. So I think 25 years from now, Singapore will be more cosmopolitan because we’ve got many people from China, India, Malaysia and from the region. We have European children doing National Service…

But I am worried about the quality of people who get into power. Integrity (is) crucial, (and) ability, experience and a willingness to do what is necessary for the people, and not for yourself.”

Despite what seems inevitable, the Lees are not conceeding power.  Recently, Singapore’s legal system fined a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) editor, Melanie Kirkpatrick, S$10,000 (USD $6,600) for printing three articles that Singapore officials stated showed “contempt” for the judiciary.  The articles contained an editorial about democracy in Singapore, a letter from a pro-democracy activist, and another editorial by the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute on the Singaporean judiciary.  In November of 2008, WSJ’s publisher was also fined S$25,000 (the maximum) for articles that had ran.  At one point and time, the Lee family has filed suits against almost every major news publication in Asia. Reporters Without Borders has ranked Singapore at 140 out of 167 countries surveyed in terms of freedom of the press.

This method of intimidation has not only been used against the press, but even more more effectively against political opposition.  The judiciary is seen as politicized and complicit, as Lee Sr. has never lost a suit.  Several opposition leaders have been forced into bankruptcy and even have fled the country when  unable to pay millions of dollars in damages.  Some of the most famous cases are documented in the book “To Catch A Tartar: A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew’s Prison”, by Francis T. Seow.  The last major episode, concluded a long string of arrest of the  Singapore Democratic Party head Chee Soon Juan and his sister Chee Siok Chin, this time for demonstrating illegally.  Public protests are only allowed with government approval in one location in the city.

The situation is so one-sided that even Lee Hsien-Loong is starting to take sympathy on the opposition, or more likely, attempting to difuse increasing anti-governemnt sentiment during a bad economy.  Currently, there are just nine opposition MPs out of 85 members of parliament and only three are voting non-PAP mps.  The government wants to allow the “best performing” election losers to be able to sit in parliament with limited powers.  A type of second-class parliamentarian, which one can argue, the current opposition already is.  Contrary to what some optimist wish, this is not a “180” from Lee the Elder’s oft stated believe that a multi-party state can not work in Singapore.

The PAP is desperately looking for young political starts to fill the ranks for the next generation of leaders.  The government is also trying to expand the role and participation of women in government, with the PAP attempting to field more female candidates.   Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently appointed the first woman minister, Lin Hwee Hua.  That being said most citizens seem to have little interest in politics, not exactly surprising.

During the last four general elections, an average of 54% of Parliament seats were uncontested.

In 2006, voters in 37 wards out of 84 constituencies were mere spectators.

Earlier, in 1991, 1997 and 2001, the percentages of walkovers against total contested seats were 50.4%, 56.4% and 65.4%, respectively.

Two-thirds, or more than 66%, of Singaporeans believed that they had little or no influence at all on national issues.

A whopping 92.7% had never given feedback to the Government, and 94.9% had never written letters to a newspaper.

And 94.5% don’t know what it’s like to sign a petition.

If the populous does not believe they have control over their government and their is a long term crisis, this may not bode well for the future of Singaporean stability.  Is there truly a lion in the heart of the mild-mannered Singaporean or will the next generation continue to show filial respect to the Lee Clan?  The answer might come with the death of  85 year-old Lee Kuan-Yew; then, all bets are off.