Dancing on Tables in Singapore's Guided Democracy

By Puri, Anjali | Contemporary Review, June 2003 | Go to article overview
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Dancing on Tables in Singapore's Guided Democracy

Puri, Anjali, Contemporary Review

Editor's Note: When the panic about the SARS virus swept through Asia, Singapore took swift and drastic preventative measures. This response follows the tradition of the country's 'Guided Democracy' as shown in this article.

DANCING on tabletops in bars is an activity some might consider amusing and others banal. But dangerous? In tiny Singapore, this pastime is banned for-yes--safety reasons, acquiring a symbolic significance in a debate on whether to loosen decades-old social and political controls.

Last year, a junior minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, told Parliament, in a speech also addressed to young Singaporeans asking for more personal and political space: 'While I support the liberalisation of the policy, I also want all of us to be aware that there is a price to be paid for liberty'. People could die, he told incredulous Singaporeans, if the dancing got out of hand and tempers rose.

Balakrishnan heads a high-profile committee which is leading public consultations on the socio-political and cultural 'remaking' of Singapore. A similar committee is crafting new economic strategies for the island-state to reposition itself in an increasingly challenging global environment. Both were pledged by the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) in the 2001 General Election, held during Singapore's worst recession since independence.

The minister's remarks were therefore heard with care and taken as a signal that ardent reform-seekers should lower their expectations. The government would accommodate change in the calibrated way it has been doing for the last decade--and within limits. Leading politicians have cited religious and racial issues, geopolitical vulnerabilities and the protection of social values among the reasons for not dismantling Singapore's famous controls too fast.

Clearly, the regime--architect of one of the most successful economic experiments of the twentieth century--is balancing economic imperatives for reform with equally strong imperatives to preserve a political system it has dominated for over 40 years.

Singapore epitomises what political scientists from the Institute of Development Studies in Britain have termed 'democracies with adjectives'--among them, incomplete, fragile and no-party. The adjective most commonly used for Singapore is 'guided'. And the researchers consider whether states like Singapore, Botswana, Malaysia and Mauritius would have enjoyed sustained economic growth if they had had 'unfettered democracy'.

The Singaporean system is a hard-to-classify blend of democratic and authoritarian features. Elections are held regularly, voting is secret and counting is fair. The PAP always wins them because it has a formidable political mandate. However, the PAP, as a 1999 US State Department report put it, also maintains its dominance by 'manipulating the electoral framework, intimidating organised political opposition and circumscribing the bounds of legitimate political discourse and action'. Election campaigns are short; and rules and electoral boundaries are changed at short notice. Opposition leaders say they have little access to the government-controlled media, and libel laws are among the tightest anywhere.

These controls are often justified as being part of an informal social contract -- liberty traded for peace and prosperity. The PAP has delivered its part of the bargain with decades of dazzling economic growth. Per capita income exceeds many European countries and Singaporeans are a nation of homeowners: 86 per cent of the population live in low-cost public-financed housing schemes, and 93 per cent of the occupiers are owners.

Singaporeans have delivered their part of the bargain, too -- there is little evidence that they wish for a redistribution of power, even if they do seek fewer controls.

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