Commentary / World

Can Singapore save democracy?

by Pankaj Mishra


Next Sunday, Singapore celebrates the 50th anniversary of its independence. There’s much to celebrate — for some at least. The city-state is indeed “exceptional” (as its leaders like to say) as a global hub for finance, trade, travel, and shipping. Its mix of languages, which include English and Mandarin, has made it the perfect gateway to an economically resurgent Asia.

At the same time, inequality is rising. A Malay minority continues to lag behind Chinese and Indians. Antediluvian laws against gay sex and chewing gum remain in place.

Most damagingly, Singapore has a democratic deficit. The same party has ruled it for 50 years. The media is compliant. Politicians have long used defamation suits to bully dissenters and even intimidate the foreign press.

But it is complacent, and even dishonest, to judge the place without also asking what democracy really means today — and what it could mean for a small city-state like Singapore. The moral high ground should not be so easily accessible to citizens of present-day democracies.

Democracy has not been much in evidence in the workings of the European Union’s technocrats, or indeed among the radicals of Syriza. Feckless wars, special-interest lobbyists, and political dysfunction have made the United States resemble late Byzantium rather than the small-town civic haven witnessed by Tocqueville. The runaway candidacy of Donald Trump exposes a growing constituency for demagogues in the world’s oldest democracy.

India, routinely described as the world’s “largest democracy,” has been undergoing its own disturbing mutations. During the decades that Lee Kuan Yew pulled Singapore out of economic backwaters, many in the Indian middle class longed for a leader like him: an authoritarian technocrat who could make big decisions about economic development without going through parliamentary democracy’s messy and arduous processes of deliberation, debate and consensus.

After flirting with one authoritarian prime minister (Indira Gandhi) and two technocrat-type successors (Rajiv Gandhi and Manmohan Singh), middle-class Indians may have found their ideal leader in Narendra Modi, who concentrates power at the top while shopping fantasies of squeaky-clean smart cities and bullet trains.

Modi is unlikely to match Lee Kuan Yew’s achievements as an economic modernizer. In prosecuting his opponents, however, he has already surpassed the Singapore patriarch.

Lee deployed stern libel laws against his detractors; he did not resort to large-scale subversion of Singapore’s genuinely meritocratic and honest bureaucracy. The ongoing campaign against Teesta Setalvad, one of Modi’s most resilient critics, has revealed yet again that the Hindu nationalist right won’t balk at undermining India’s very few sacrosanct institutions while settling political scores.

Any criticism of Singapore’s democratic deficit should begin by acknowledging that there’s hardly any resemblance between the original idea of democracy and its current incarnations in India, Europe and the United States.

In its classical Athenian form, democracy was a political regime where the equality of citizens was taken deeply seriously. The idea of citizenship itself was restrictive: It excluded women and slaves. But citizens in the Athenian city-state enjoyed a degree of control over their lives and protection from harm that their modern counterparts can only dream of.

The demos, the people, held actual power in the absence of such mediating institutions as a professional bureaucracy, executive, and legislature. By contrast, today’s democratic states concentrate too much power in a few institutions and individuals.

The “traditional” media, mostly owned by corporate interests allied with political elites, and prone to sensationalism, was always a poor substitute for the Athenian assembly of free citizens that facilitated open discussion and debate. Social media seems more suited to self-promotion and slander than democratic symposium. As for routine elections, they increasingly validate Rousseau’s sneer that the English were free once every seven years.

Rule by and for the people seems to have been replaced in many formal democracies with rule by and for the rich and powerful. It’s clear now, after decades of rhetoric about democracy, that its original ideal — a community where human beings live together without holding power over another — can only be realized, imperfectly if at all, in small states.

Here, Singapore has a huge advantage over centralized and dysfunctional democracies. It’s actually a functional city-state with a relatively small (5.5 million) and highly literate population, and it has no enemies.

Astute management appears to have assured Singapore’s economic future. It can weather the shocks that make both haves and have-nots elsewhere crave the sweeping broom of authoritarianism.

The conditions certainly exist for Singapore to move from being a showcase of efficient authoritarianism to an exemplar of that much-invoked but nearly extinct thing: democracy. Its insecure leaders may feel no sense of urgency to change the status quo. But it’s never too late for a 50-year-old nation-state to grow up.

Pankaj Mishra, a Bloomberg View columnist, is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” among other books.

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