Singapore’s phoney democracy

Tom Burgis
31 May 2006

We hope it will be taken the right way if we suggest that, in choosing Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore's prime minister, as the winner of the seventh Bad Democracy Award, you, dear readers of openDemocracy, are coming to resemble Holden Caulfield, the disenchanted iconoclast of JD Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.

It is not the sheer violence of the world that outrages you – you have spurned such fiends as Robert Mugabe and Islam Karimov. You did not punish the ruinous but apparently heartfelt zeal of Tony Blair or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

No, the political trait that leaves you apoplectic with wrath – that which marks the Berlusconis, the Howards and the Lukashenkos of this world – is the same that riled young Holden. Lee, like most of our previous winners, is a phoney.

Click here to view this month's list of Bad Democrats, and cast your vote today

Lee is keen to be seen as a democrat. He talks like a democrat. He holds elections.

But, beneath that thin veneer, he and the party he leads, the People's Action Party (Pap), have not the faintest inclination to bend to the will of the Singaporean people.

In May's elections, the Pap scooped eighty-two of the country's eighty-four seats, thirty-seven of which were won uncontested. An outpouring of electoral adoration for Lee? We fear not.

His father, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first prime minister who governed with an iron-fistful of dollars for thirty-one years and who many believe continues to pull his son's strings in his post of "Minister Mentor", reproached those who did not vote for the Pap as "ungrateful".

Just to ensure that voters were clear where to direct their gratitude for the Lee dynasty's selfless service, Lee Snr sued Chee Soon Juan, leader of the Singapore Democratic Party, claiming that his campaigning amounted to "defamation".

In a battling but futile repost, Chee has lodged an application to have the election declared void, on the grounds that his activists say they witnessed government officials doling out cash to prospective voters and telling those Singaporeans who live in public housing – about 85% of them – that investment in their estates would run dry if the local Pap was not returned.

"Politics in Singapore is still very primitive. Fear pervades society."

Intimidation may be conducted with more élan here than in nearby Burma or Indonesia, but nonetheless, Chee argues, dissenters are cowed.

Don't miss the background to our prestigious Bad Democracy awards:



Winner of the first award: Silvio Berlusconi

Winner of the second award: John Howard

Winner of the third award: George W Bush

Winner of the fourth award: Meles Zenawi

Winner of the fifth award: Abu Laban

Winner of the sixth award: Alexander Lukashenko

He has been bankrupted by the litigious Lees. All the same, his party won 23% of the vote in May – in spite of intimidation that saw hotels refuse to host his press conferences and printers too terrified to ink his leaflets.

"Politics has become a crime, human rights is taboo", he says. "The entire atmosphere is poisoned."

Plainly, this is not the height of democratic behaviour. But, the argument goes, what is a little opposition-bashing when Singapore, a city-state with a population of just 4.5 million, has blossomed into the fifty-fourth largest economic entity on the planet, with a GDP bigger than Ireland's and a turnover in excess of Citigroup's? Shouldn't Singaporeans stop grumbling about a spot of disenfranchisement and just get on with living their fabulous lives?

"If that were true, why is the government so scared?" Chee asks. "If we are all more prosperous, the government should have no problem with free elections.

"But why do they sue oppositionists? They already control all the media, but why did they ban podcasting and blogging for the nine days of the election campaign?

"Yes, Singapore has more prosperity. But you have to ask: prosperity for who?"

A pertinent question – especially when one recalls that Singapore is held up as the glinting model of the "Asian values" by which tough governments deliver their people from poverty.

A recent report in the Asia Times found that all may not be rosy enough in Singapore for Lee to rely on the sheer adulation of a wadded electorate to keep him in power.

Since the Asian financial crisis bit in 1997, the gap between rich and poor has widened dramatically. While Singapore has the world's fastest growing number of millionaires, the poorest have seen their incomes halve over the past decade.

The rising tide, as we are incessantly reminded by those who badger governments to keep their noses out of free-wheeling economies, is supposed to lift all boats. It is odd, then, that Lee recently told many of the most needy among his flock that their boats may soon be scuppered, coolly informing them that the unemployment rate was set to rise.

What's more, in his drive to court foreign investment at all costs, Lee has not seen fit to provide a minimum wage or anything else to soften the buffets to the remaining non-millionaires.

As he swore in his new cabinet on 30 May, Lee made all the right compassionate noises, prompting Denise Phua, a Pap MP, to gush: "What is most impressive to me is that he always promises us that no one will be left behind and I'm very interested in this. I hope to be able to contribute to this end as part of his team."

You get the impression that the burgeoning legions of young unemployed and those who work their fingers to the bone for a pittance in a country whose leaders never stop telling them that they've never had it so good have heard that one before.

Click here to read Mr Lee's letter of congratulation from openDemocracy for winning May's Bad Democracy award

Vote for me

And so, speaking of shameless phoneyness, we turn to our next batch of offenders against democracy.

One band of ne'er-do-wells who have shown themselves to be very much of the less-government-more-cash philosophy propounded in Singapore was the senior management at Enron, which heads our latest list of nominees.

Enron's monumental attempts to conceal its crooked ways is in marked contrast to the tactics of our second nominee, the Bulgarian mafia, more given to knee-breaking and extortion but similarly oblivious to any notion of the greater good.

Then we have two real eccentrics of the dictatorship circus: Libya's Colonel Gaddafi, who once observed that "there is no state with a democracy except Libya on the whole planet"; and North Korea's "dear leader" Kim Jong-Il, apparently history's greatest golfer.

The list concludes with those charming rogues of the Taliban and Chad's Idriss Déby, one of Africa's more limpet-like leaders.

As ever, the choice is yours. You can vote for them here and muse on them here. In the meantime, we shall continue to thumb our copy of The Catcher in the Rye and dream up some appropriate way to deal with the winner.

How can Americans fight dark money and disinformation?

Violence, corruption and cynicism threaten America's flagging democracy. Joe Biden has promised to revive it – but can his new administration stem the flow of online disinformation and shady political financing that has eroded the trust of many US voters?

Hear from leading global experts and commentators on what the new president and Congress must do to stem the flood of dark money and misinformation that is warping politics around the world.

Join us on Thursday 21 January, 5pm UK time/12pm EST.

Hear from:

Emily Bell Leonard Tow Professor of Journalism and director, Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia Journalism School

Anoa Changa Journalist focusing on electoral justice, social movements and culture

Peter Geoghegan openDemocracy investigations editor and author of 'Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics'

Josh Rudolph Fellow for Malign Finance at the Alliance for Securing Democracy

Chair: Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief, openDemocracy 

Further speakers to be announced

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData