Divergent Paths: The Future of One-Party Rule in Singapore

By Chen, Meng | Harvard International Review, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Divergent Paths: The Future of One-Party Rule in Singapore


Chen, Meng, Harvard International Review


Is democracy always the most fitting model of governance, or can circumstances justify a more authoritarian approach for the sake of securing the country's material wealth? The parliamentary republic of Singapore has been under international scrutiny for its stringent one-party rule by the People's Action Party (PAP) and suppression of the media and minority parties that oppose its control of the government. However, many attribute Singapore's rapid rise to first-world status and economic prosperity to the same set of ideologies the PAP used to build up the state following independence from the United Kingdom. Since 1959, the first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has had an important say in who would govern the country and how. Now, as Lee, the current leader of the PAP, approaches the age of 87 and shows signs of a worsening heart condition, many around the world have begun to question the nation's unclear future, specifically its path of succession. A public conference was even held on April 21, 2009, to discuss Singapore's path after Lee's death. Will the dynastic pattern of succession continue beyond Lee Kuan Yew's son, incumbent Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long? Will there be changes to government practices pertaining to press freedom and political opposition? As the older Lee eventually leaves the country in the hands of younger generations, Singapore must face the decision of whether to continue Lee's legacy or embrace sociopolitical reform.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The Self-Renewal of the PAP

Although the extraordinary success of the PAP has helped Singapore rapidly grow in the past, the country now stands at a crucial juncture with this new generation. Indeed, the system may be particularly vulnerable to the internal self-renewal of the PAP itself, as Ho Kwong Ping, Chairman of Singapore Management University, suggests. Elections are held every five years in Singapore; the next election in 2011 will test the PAP's ability to maintain its grip on the government in the years to come, but Lee remains unfazed. "I don't see any problem in the next election or probably in the next one after that," he says. However, Lee does express concern that if the younger generation of politicians is unable to form a good team by then, the PAP will be at risk of being overtaken by a well-organized opposition party. Kishore Mahbubani, Dean and Professor of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, believes that there are three scenarios post-Lee Kuan Yew: first, a smooth transition and continuation of the current political system; second, a significant reversal of Lee's legacy; third, continued domination of the government by the PAP, but with greater opposition. According to Mahbubani, destabilizing change seems unlikely due to seven factors that should perpetuate the patriarch's legacy: a quality education system, national service, strong public institutions, a victory-prone political party, ethnic harmony, meritocracy, and a firm anti-corruption policy.

A key factor pointed out by Mahbubani in the PAP's success in elections is the current lack of opposition. The party's ability to be "victory-prone" acts as a stabilizer against government reform from the outside. As a testament to the party's infallibility, the unicameral parliament currently has 82 of 84 seats occupied by PAP members, the other two held respectively by the Singapore Democratic Alliance and the Worker's Party. The current president, Sellapan Ramanathan, took office in 1999, endorsed by Lee, after all opponents were disqualified by the Electoral Committee; in 2005, the same scenario occurred and the scheduled election was never held.

Although the PAP's governing system is still less than democratic, many Singaporeans say that they do not speak against it, solely out of respect for the contributions of the country's iconic founder. Journalists have noted that even the country's youth, ignorant of the beginnings of Singapore's post-independence transformation, harbor a certain sentiment of gratitude towards Lee, thanks tothe country's astonishing economic success and stability and the strength of his personality. …

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