How Authoritarian Is Singapore?

By Li Yuhui, published: March 25 2015

Depending on which way you compare, Chinese who demand a Singapore model in China will in all likelihood end up in jail.


In China and elsewhere, people associate Singapore and the late Lee Kuan Yew with the notion of “rule of law without democracy,” “enlightened despotism,” or “modernization under authoritarianism.” Most of those who question the so-called Singapore model, including Amartya Sen, have focused their analyses on the uncontrolled variables, demonstrating that Singapore’s economic success did not derive from authoritarianism, but from a variety of elements, such as the geography, historical lineage, commercial model, and advantages specific to a small city-state. To a large degree I adhere to these analyses, but I believe many people have neglected a more important aspect: Is Singapore really as undemocratic as many people believe?

Well, if you compare Singapore to much of the world today, yes, it is rather poorly democratized. But compare Singapore to China, where people enthuse about Lee Kuan Yew? Once you change the frame of reference, Singapore is every bit a democratic country. You don’t know about this country if you don’t see the democratic elements of the Singaporean political system and the role this bit of democracy has played to make it a modern country.

Does Singapore have multi-party elections? Of course it does, and it has had them since the founding of the country. All of its congressmen are directly elected in regular elections, and the Congress has the right to appoint or dismiss the head of the executive branch. The ruling party has been taking all sorts of measures to limit the seats of the opposition parties to only a few, but at least the elections are real. Can you imagine registering an opposition party in China and taking part in the elections of people’s representative, fake elections at that, even on the county level? Let alone in the elections of the national congress.

In 2011, there are a few dozen Chinese “independent candidates,” scattered in a few cities in China, hoping to compete for seats in the district or county congress of people’s representatives (the attempt was more symbolic than not since these bodies have no real political power). Most of them were unable to get on the ballet to begin with, and the few who did get on the bullet lost because of rigging. In contrast, opposition parties in Singapore can freely register their parties, and can make their names appear on ballets. This alone can put quite a bit of pressure on the government.

Political parties are a part of democratic politics, their roles including spreading candidates’ policy direction through the name of the party and its platform, consolidating interest groups through organized activities, and achieving scale through the complimentary influence of politicians. Independent candidates cannot possibly have the power of holding the ruling party politically accountable as opposition parties can. Just imagine: if there were opposition parties in mainland China, and they could take part in elections. Even if they end up winning no seats, how much would the authorities restrain themselves? Would they dare to demolish properties by force? Would they dare to carry out forced abortions? Would they dare to issue so many death sentences and engage in organ traffic? The Communist Party is not an idiot, and that’s why as soon as anyone discusses organized actions online, he or she would be thrown into jail immediately.

As for suppression of political expression, it’s serious in Singapore, but again, it depends on whom you are compared with. With a casual search, I found a thesis about control of free speech in Singapore. It listed a few typical cases of government suppressing unapproved opposition assemblies and protests. When I saw the punishments ladled out, I laughed: “an $800 fine,” “a $1,400 fine,” “12-day detention,” “a $4,000 fine in addition to a 5-year deprivation of electoral rights.” In the most severe case, the offender was “detained for 5 weeks for refusing to pay the fine.” Are you kidding? What would Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波), Gao Zhisheng (高智晟), Hu Jia (胡佳), and Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚) think when they see these Singaporean punishments? In Singapore, those punished were real opposition leaders, while Liu Xiaobo, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison, Gao Zhisheng who was in prison for 3 years, Hu Jia who served 3 and half years, and Chen Guangcheng who served 4 years and 3 months, merely wrote articles or helped people in their lawsuits. Not to mention the house arrest and torture they have been subjected to.[1]

Despite its suppression of expression, in Singapore, at least, there is no Great Fire Wall and no limits on foreign media. This alone exerts huge pressure on governmental behaviors. At least it wouldn’t dare to implement policies so egregious that scandalize the international media. On the contrary, can you imagine China’s GFW being dismantled, even for a week? Rumors about and spoofing of the Chinese leaders alone will make them faint in their bathrooms.

What do these examples tell us? Even if you believe Lee Kuan Yew’s “authoritarianism” is a good thing, it cannot be adopted by the Communist Party, because the two have absolutely nothing in common! Those who use the Singapore model to defend the CCP’s practices should remember that, if you demand that the CCP emulate Singapore’s political system, you are not far from getting yourself into jail. According to Freedom House’s latest Freedom in the World ranking on political rights, on a scale of 1 to 7, 1 being free and 7 being not free, typical western democracies are rated 1, Singapore is rated 4, and China 7 among the least free countries. Those who desire and extol the Singapore model of moderate authoritarianism can begin by persuading the CCP leaders to move China’s political freedom 3 leaps forward to where Singapore is now.


[1] Editor’s note: In two of the best-known cases of Singaporean dissidents, Said Zahari, a newspaper editor, was held for 17 years without trial from 1963 to 1980. He currently lives in Malaysia but retains his Singapore citizenship. A documentary about Zahari’s detention was banned in 2007 by the Singaporean government. Another opposition leader, Chia Thye Poh, was detained for 23 years without charge and placed under house arrest for another 9 years from 1966 to 1998.


李宇晖Li Yuhui (李宇晖) is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at UC Davis.



In Lee Kuan Yew, China Saw a Leader to Emulate, the New York Times, March 23, 2015.


(Translated by China Change)

Chinese original


2 responses to “How Authoritarian Is Singapore?”

  1. tarasherab says:

    Reblogged this on tarasherab.

  2. Dickson says:

    We don’t have “congressmen”, we have Members of Parliament. There is a first past the post, Westminster Abbey system in place since 1965.

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