18 November 2019
Lee Kuan Yew instituted an authoritarian style of democracy that he thought was more suitable for Singapore than the western kind. Photo: Bloomberg
Lee Kuan Yew instituted an authoritarian style of democracy that he thought was more suitable for Singapore than the western kind. Photo: Bloomberg

Will Hongkongers accept Singapore-style democracy?

What the pro-democracy protesters in Admiralty and Mong Kok are fighting for is clear — a genuine direct election for the next Hong Kong chief executive.

By genuine, they mean universal suffrage and no screening of candidates.

But would achieving both criteria mean true democracy?

The answer may not be so clear if we look at the case of Singapore.

In his column in the Hong Kong Economic Journal, Simon Shen Xu-hu, an international relations scholar, says Singapore has universal suffrage with no screening of candidates. Voters directly elect all 87 members of Parliament and the president.

Now, this is exactly what Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters have been asking for.

But Shen raises the question: will Hongkongers accept democracy as practiced in Singapore?

The People’s Action Party (PAP) has won every election in the city state for more than half a century. It is the only ruling party Singapore has had since 1959.

But critics say the party owes its success partly to its manipulation of the electoral process. For example, the PAP has been accused of systematically redrawing constituency boundaries before an election, a practice called gerrymandering.

The government controls the media directly, through ownership of broadcasting and other outlets, and indirectly, by strict licensing and regulation, so opposition parties and their policies get much less coverage.

The PAP doesn’t have much tolerance for free expression. Foreign media have been fined large sums for critical articles and their circulation restricted.

Stephen Ortmann, professor of Asian & international studies at the City University of Hong Kong, has pointed out that although Singapore is a country with a “one man, one vote” system, it is still a one-party state.

The media has become the mouthpiece of the government, demonizing those who have different views on social issues, he said.

Ortmann’s view represents the way most westerners see politics in Singapore: a fake democratic system, or “authoritarian democracy”.

The government has passed laws that seem over the top to outsiders. Shops are banned from selling chewing gum, and residents face a S$150 fine (US$120) if they forget to flush the toilet, just to name a few.

So is Singapore a democratic country? Yes, in terms of its election mechanism.

But is it a free country? Well, it depends on whom you ask.

Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, a founding father of modern Singapore, adapted western-style democracy and turned it into democracy Singapore style.

Lee said Singapore should be ruled by the elite because they know what’s best for their people.

One big shortcoming of western-style democracy, he said, is that because politicians have to compete for votes, they pitch short-sighted, populist policies, which often do no good for the people in the long term.

So Lee had to figure out ways to ensure his party would retain power so that it could implement policies that would be good for the people but might not necessarily be popular at first.

Too many different voices in a country will only slow down its development, Lee reckons.

Many Singaporeans agree with this point of view.

Despite the country’s restrictive laws, people are generally happy with the mostly incorrupt and efficient government.

The PAP has been winning a smaller share of the vote in recent years, but it still managed to get 60.1 percent in the last parliamentary election, in 2011.

We may not like the authoritarian democracy in Singapore, but we cannot deny that it is one of the styles of democracy. 

Shen urged Hongkongers to discuss what other aspects should be considered essential to democracy.

There are, in fact, many different democratic structures in the world, and it would be virtually impossible to judge if one is definitely better than another.

And as Hongkongers, it’s time to rethink if what we are fighting for will bring the kind of future we want.

What do you think? Is Singapore-style democracy something Hong Kong could, or should, accept?

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EJ Insight writer