I am sick and tired of reading the western media’s statements that Singapore is not a democracy, but is instead ruled by autocracy or a benevolent dictatorship. This convenient but lazy stereotype needs dismantling. And here’s the proof (extracted from Wikipedia):
For every election since Singapore’s independence, the PAP has won at least 60% of the popular vote. This averages at 69.5% of the popular vote over the decades. In other words, approximately 2 out of 3 Singaporeans want the PAP, compared to the alternative political parties.
The facts speak for themselves. PAP rules by popular consent.
Contrast this with the definition of autocracy (government in which a supreme power is concentrated in the hands of one person, whose decisions are subject to neither external legal restraints nor regularized mechanisms of popular control). You can vote out the PAP. We are not an autocracy.
How about dictatorship? (government where political authority is monopolized by a single person or political entity, and exercised through various mechanisms to ensure the entity’s power remains strong). There are other opposition parties in Parliament and you can always vote in more. We are not a dictatorship.
Retort 1: But the opposition gets virtually zero representation despite gaining over 30% of the popular vote!
That’s because we adopt the “First-Pass-the-Post” system that we inherited from the UK. It’s a winner-takes-all system, but it is also a democratic system. Unless you are insinuating that the UK is not a democracy too?
There’s also the issue of gerrymandering. While this is indeed a problem, it should be noted that other democratic societies like the USA have this problem too, but you wouldn’t use this as an excuse to say that the USA is not democratic.
Retort 2: The opposition performed poorly because the PAP fixed them!
Mr LKY himself has admitted that he has come down hard on the opposition. But this action does not sufficiently explain the opposition’s poor performance. Why? Because the disgruntled voter can see all that discrimination happening and protest against it by either voting for the opposition, spoiling their vote or refusing to vote.
The data shows that even if we include spoilt or non-votes, the PAP still has the majority popular vote.
Voters are not blind and stupid. If they are truly upset at the PAP for “rigging elections”, they can still voice their disagreement by not voting the PAP and spoiling their vote. And indeed, the results show that people have done so. There are clearly not enough dissatisfied people to vote out the PAP. This is an inconvenient truth for opposition supporters. It is still a fact that the PAP has popular consent.
Retort 3: The lack of a free press hampers democracy. If there was a free press that could criticise the PAP, and the voters would not have voted for the PAP.
It is dangerous to assume that a free press would necessarily be in the opposition’s favour. People who make this argument should be careful for what they wish for.
The reason is simple. The press is a profit-making entity. Reporters write to get viewership, which in turn generates revenue to keep the reporters paid. Yes, there are reporters that write in search of truth and to provide an impartial view. But we cannot forget that there are reporters who are paid to write (or incentivised to write), regardless of truth or impartiality.
For proof, look at Fox News in the United States. Fox News was created by Rupert Murdoch, media magnate, in response to a gap in the American media industry. He created a media outlet that was specially designed towards the tastes of conservative (Republican) voters. Fox, with its conservative slant towards reporting and commentary, soon became the dominant news outlet for Republican voters. By giving conservative voters what they want to hear, Fox News has guaranteed its survival and profitability.
Free press can contribute to a politically polarised society, one where voters are stuck in an echo chamber where they only hear the opinions they identify with, ignoring other viewpoints. This is not the foundation of a good democracy.
It is easy for a free press in Singapore to create an echo chamber because it is profitable to do so. If Singapore already identifies as ~60% voting for the PAP, then isn’t it possible for a free press to spawn news outlets that are strongly pro-PAP (even more so than SPH today)? That could in turn make it even more difficult for the opposition parties to be voted in.
I emphasise this. It is dangerous to assume that a free press would necessarily be in the opposition’s favour. It might work in their favour, or it might not.
Actually, Singapore also has its own “unscrupulous” free press. The Real Singapore is a site that blatantly steals articles about Singapore for re-posting on its website, in order to maximise advertising revenue. Anyone who think TRS is some kind of bastion of free press need to re-examine their thoughts.