Singapore and the People’s Action Party

by Sam Shugart, ’15

In the past decade, the world has seen a series of revolutions leading to the fall of over twenty authoritarian regimes. This decade’s youth has grown up watching images of protesters staging mass protests and, sometimes, successful overthrowing regimes.  From the colored revolutions of Yugoslavia, Georgia and others, to the Arab Spring of Tunisia and Egypt, the story of the popular uprising is all too familiar.  Yet this is not always the story, for every regime that falls to the chants of angry protesters, another quietly soldiers on. It is in this unnoticed space that intelligent authoritarian regimes have adapted and in some cases, even thrived.  This is the case in Singapore, an extreme example of a hyper-successful authoritarian state.

Singapore represents an authoritarian regime in which one party has gained and consolidated power through economic performance, meritocracy, the co-opting of civil society and a unique approach to “calibrated coercion.”  This has resulted in the paradox of an authoritarian regime being considered one of the most economically free countries, a concept that runs counter to a number of traditional political theories on regimes.

A brief history of one of the most successful parties of all time

Understanding Singapore’s future requires a thorough understanding of the past.  Singapore is one of the smallest countries in the world  and has few natural resources needed to ensure economic development. At its founding, few observers thought that the state of Singapore could survive, much less economically prosper.  Initially, Singapore’s political sphere was home to variety of groups, including a large communist movement.  Over the course of the 1960’s, the People’s Action Party emerged as the sole victor of these struggles. What differentiated the PAP from other authoritarian parties is that the PAP quickly adopted pragmatic values emphasizing multiculturalism as a means to unite the various groups in Singapore into a coherent nation).  This led to a series of near absolute victories for PAP that has continued to this day.  These victories have created a hegemonic one party state, the PAP has overwhelmingly won every single election in Singapore’s history and maintained control of all parts of the Singaporean government. The PAP created a governing style that focused on trade and integration to the global economy and prosperity as a means of survival for the regime. This focus on “strategic pragmatism” in encouraging development and investment, combined with a strong state, led to decades of sustained economic growth.


Economic and Social Freedom in an Authoritarian Nation?

This sustained emphasis on trade policy has resulted in Singapore achieving unparalleled economic freedom. In 2013, it was ranked 2nd on the Index of Economic Freedom, a ranking system that measures government interference and regulation in economies, while theUnited States is ranked 12th on the scale. This counters the traditional theory on authoritarian regimes, which states that ruling leaders and parties will use government interference to reward supporters, punish opposition and enrich themselves.  (Having one of the most free economies in the world ensures that the PAP cannot use political influence to exert control.

In terms of social links, in 2012 over 161,576 citizens of Singapore entered the United States. When compared with other countries, China for example, had 1,756,747 citizens enter the United States; we see that the population of Singapore travels disproportionately frequently for a country of 5.3 million people. (Singapore has around 26 people per 100 with broadband internet connections, a number comparable to European countries. In terms of the percentage of total people using the internet, in 2011, 75% of the population had access putting Singapore well on the developed side of the “digital divide” between developed and developing countries. This once again runs counter to the traditional theory on authoritarian regimes, normally assumed to be active in limiting citizens access to technology.  Travel to other countries can help open citizens minds, while the internet can help activists share information and organize. By restricting their citizen’s ability to travel and access to alternative forms of information, such as the internet, authoritarian regimes (can stifle dissent and opposition.


The failure of structural explanation

In political science, these arguments are commonly known as “structural” arguments that claim if a state has certain structural factors it will only be a matter of time before democracy starts to take root.  In one of the most well-known books on “Hybrid Regimes,” two scholars, Levitsky and Way, argue that if a state has strong economic and social “linkages” to Western powers, it will inevitably democratize. However, structural explanations are not limited to simple economic or social linkages. Other scholars have argued that natural resource wealth and high defense spending lead to the persistence of authoritarian regimes.


Elite Based Explanations: Is it all the people in charge?

Now that we have looked at how structural explanations of authoritarian regimes fail to explain the durability of Singapore, we will move on to elite based regime theory.  Elite based regime theory argues that authoritarian regimes persist because elites stand to benefit from the status quo. Many scholars such as Ghandi and Lust-Okar argue that elections in strong party authoritarian regimes primarily serve as a means to distribute patronage and power to elites while serving to isolate any elites that would stand in opposition to the regime. In the following section we will see that Singapore once again runs counter to these theories.

Since it’s founding, the People’s Action Party (PAP) has created an ideology structured around an efficient and clean government based solely on merit, rather than the patronage system traditional cited by scholars of elite theory. The PAP pulls from the top tier of society by offering “market value” incentives for high level officials.  Singaporean civil service officials are among the highest paid government officials in the world.  Cabinet Minister’s salaries are pegged at the median income of the top 1,000 earners who are Singaporean citizens, with a 40% “public ethos” discount.. Exceptionally high pay is not only serves to (attract the best talent, but to prevent corruption)..  Singapore has made integration into the global economy a critical part of its national strategy and is considered to be the easiest country in the world to do business in.  This is the result of an emphasis on the conduct of government affairs on a purely rational basis that ensures confidence in predictable and non-biased outcomes running counter to the idea that a regime must use corruption to reward its elite supporters.

Anti-corruption measures are carried out by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), an independent branch of the police force that reports directly to the Prime Minister.  The CPIB has the power to investigate any suspect, as well as the suspect’s family or agents, for corruption, or any offense disclosed in the course of a corruption investigation.Rather than serve as a means of political repression, as one would expect in an authoritarian regime, the CPIB has a decade’s long track record of upholding a high standard of transparency and independently applying punishment across all levels of public and private sectors

As we can see from these unique institutions, the regime is not buying elite loyalty and support through corruption or patronage. While civil servants are paid very high compared to others in the world, the entire payment system takes place in clear and transparent system. If structural explanations for authoritarianism do not provide a sufficient explanation and elite explanations fall equally short, how has the PAP maintained its unbeatable streak?


“It’s the economy stupid”

“It’s the economy stupid” is a famous phrase first coined by a Clinton staffer James Carville during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign.. The slogan has since come to represent the importance of economic performance on an incumbent party’s election prospects. A study into the link between incumbent reelections and economic performance in the U.S. found that, in states without a large farm population or natural resources, there is a causal chain between state-wide macroeconomic conditions and incumbent’s reelection prospects.

We can clearly see the influence of economics at work in PAP’s undefeated streak.  Upon its separation from in 1965, a third of its citizens squatted in slums on city fringes.  Over the next four decades, Singapore’s real growth averaged 8.0%.  By the 1980’s Lee Kuan Yew, who had served as Prime Minister since independence, could comfortably claim that under his party’s leadership over 80% of Singaporeans had now joined the middle class. This combination of massive and sustained economic growth and a reputation for efficiency and clean governance has led to high degrees of trust in the PAP.  This trust has created an interesting dynamic in Singaporean civil society’s support for the PAP, which we will explore in the next section.


On Civil Society and Civil Liberties

Traditionally scholars, such as Larry Diamond. have argued that the a strong civil society will act as a democratizing force over time, regardless of the amount of repression the ruling party uses on civil society.  Jamal provides an interesting analysis of civil society and trust in the government by examining how civil society actors support authoritarian regime in the Arab World.  Jamal focuses on Palestinian civil society and finds that in many cases, a stronger civil society results in a stronger authoritarian state because citizens are more interested in preserving their state and receiving patronage through civil society organizations.

This is perhaps one of the best explanations for the persistence of authoritarianism in Singapore.  While civil society organizations do not typically distribute patronage, they give their members important access to the PAP and allow the PAP to gauge support for policies.  Many Singaporean civil society institutions serve in this “consultative” competency, giving their members the ability to provide feedback and input to government structures.  While occasional groups may challenge the government, the majority of civil societies are dedicated to an apolitical reciprocal relationship with the government. Instead of providing patronage, civil society groups allow constituencies to have their voice heard to “correct policy errors by reflecting citizen discontent,” all without the messy process of democracy.

In this context, popular civil society involvement represents a limited threat to the PAP’s dominance.  Instead, we could see the consultative nature as complementary to the party’s goals. These civil organizations can also provide mobilization support and help funnel new blood into the PAP, ensuring that PAP organizers have roots in their communities.  The success of co-opting civil society has even lead to the President calling for Singapore to develop “social reserves” through volunteerism and social entrepreneurship.  An excellent example of this can be found in a case study of environmental nongovernmental organizations and their interactions with PAP officials by Hobbison. She finds government controls combine with the behind-door consultations “friendly” organizations to prevent centers of opposition from emerging.

Through a variety of channels, the Singaporean government has worked to promote cohesion among the many ethnic groups to ensure regime survival and economic prosperity.  The PAP’s legitimacy from managing Singapore from a small island in crumbling empire to one of the most powerful trading states has allowed it conflate political opposition as inefficiency. Rather than openly decree opposition as “enemies of the regime,” the PAP works towards portraying this opposition as detrimental to Singapore’s success.   Scholars agree that the exceptionally high standard of living and low crime rate could not be as easily achieved over time without the surrender of civil liberties.

How to rig elections in a free country

With its economy solely dependent on trade, any blatant political repression could trigger negative repercussions.  The PAP has anticipated this and has created an elaborate system of checks to, as Levitsky and Way would argue, “tilt the playing field” without actively engaging in political repression. Singapore uses a combination of gerrymandering to disperse opposition districts and a first-past-the-post electoral system to ensure that opposition actors must generate large number of region specific votes to have any hope of electoral victory.

In addition to electoral controls, the PAP utilizes a variety of state media outlets and “calibrated repression” to limit the opposition. The PAP ensures denial of permits for forums or rallies and strategic control of local media to ensure that opposition groups cannot effectively organize.  Through its power and connections, the PAP is able to coerce everything from the press, to universities to even trade unions to limit challengers.  Secondly, CC must be adaptive.  Most authoritarian regimes would be content with the scope of power at the PAP’s disposal, yet the PAP treats these basic repressive tools as means of last resort.  The PAP is constantly adapting to potential challenges through measures such as the aggressive policing of blogs. Finally, CC encourages the use of forces are assumed to be outside the rulers control such as the structuring the internet or newspaper market to ensure control over the possible outcomes


What then lies in Singapore’s future?  

While the PAP will likely maintain a majority for years to come, a strong grassroots opposition exists that is committed to deepening and expanding nongovernmental and civil society organizations.   Opposition groups are beginning to solidify from loosely organized protest coalitions into institutionalized political machines and human rights organizations. Additionally, the online networking has been able to evolve faster than the PAP’s control mechanisms.  Earlier we saw the PAP’s domination of the 2011 election and Prime Minister Loong celebrating.  Although, they did indeed win, they had little celebrate.  The 2011 election saw the worst ever election result since independence in 1965 thanks to young voters.  Furthermore as George notes, there have only been three Prime Ministers in Singapore’s history, all of whom worked to train their successors in the art of calibrated coercion. Future leaders will inherit the same system regime the PAP has constructed, but they may not have the long term vision or foresight necessary to strike the delicate balance between control and legitimacy.


Despite this new opening, Singapore is still a strong hegemonic one party state.  The combination of the PAP’s ability to deliver sustained growth, manage elections, co-opt civil society and excellent use of “calibrated coercion” means that it could be several generations before we will see regime turnover.   Many of these indicators are hopefully however, and the seeds of democratization are beginning to slowly but surely sprout in Singapore.