Singapore goes to the polls today to re-elect the government of Lee Hsien Loong, prime minister since 2004 and leader of the country since the death of his father, Lee Kuan Yew, in 2015. Lee’s People’s Action Party has never lost an election, and certainly won’t be losing this one.
It’s always fun to beat up on Singapore’s sham democracy, and by implication on the hypocrisy of its supporters in Australia. (For example, here’s my report on the 2011 election.) But there’s a hollowness to it this year. By comparison with the way much of the rest of the world is going, Singapore no longer looks so bad.
The comparison with its long-time rival, Hong Kong, is especially poignant. British colonisers created both in the nineteenth century as city-states off the Asian coast. Singapore gained independence in the twentieth-century wave of decolonisation (as part of Malaysia in 1963 and on its own two years later), and has been a prosperous if authoritarian state ever since.
But Britain held onto Hong Kong. Its geographical position was much more precarious, and the greater part of its territory had never actually been ceded by China, only granted on a 99-year lease. Its continued economic success was guaranteed not by a local dynasty but by British colonial bureaucrats.
They mostly did a good job. While both prospered, businesses that depended on the free flow of information preferred Hong Kong; its courts enforced the rule of law, which could never be relied on in Singapore where the interests of the regime were at stake.
As the 99-year deadline approached, Britain negotiated with China on Hong Kong’s future, and got the best deal that it felt it could. Hong Kong’s distinctive institutions – its market economy, its judicial system, its qualified democracy and a suite of individual rights – were guaranteed for fifty years. But everyone knew that there was nothing but the Chinese government’s own self-interest to ensure that the guarantee would be observed.
Martin Lee, the leader of the city’s democracy movement, when visiting Australia in 1996, the year before the handover, told of being asked by a Hong Kong tycoon whether he would be staying on under Chinese rule. Lee said that he was. “Good”, said the tycoon. “When they arrest you, it will be time for me to leave.”*
Lee was arrested last April, although he was later released on bail. “One country, two systems” has lasted much longer than most people expected. But this year, with democracy in retreat and the world in turmoil, China’s rulers have decided to bring it to an end, in reality if not in name.
No doubt that will be a boost for Singapore, but what it will do for its political system is unclear. There had already been some signs of liberalisation in recent years, and a record number of opposition parties are contesting today’s election. On the other hand, the government has a well-honed stock of dirty tricks, and many campaign restrictions that are ostensibly justified by the threat of Covid-19 are expected to disproportionately hamper the opposition.
It would be nice to think that the fate of Hong Kong might alert Singaporeans to the importance of democracy and the rule of law, and press them to move their country in that direction. But of course it might also lead them to be simply grateful for the real if limited amount of freedom that they have, and decide that this is not the time to be rocking the boat.
After all, things in Singapore could be a great deal worse. It has a functional opposition, and genuine criticism of the regime can sometimes be heard. At worst, its activists risk bankruptcy and imprisonment, not torture and death. And for those who are willing to accept the government’s terms, life is pretty good.
Yesterday at Inside Story, Antony Dapiran contemplated the likely fate of Hong Kong’s opposition under Beijing’s new dispensation:
We may see them go the way of opposition parties in other Asian states, relegated to the position of an irrelevant and marginalised sideshow, ignored by the government as a minor irritation, their views deprived of oxygen in the mainstream conversation.
Very probably he had Singapore in mind; certainly it’s a good description of how Singapore operates. Chances are that, after today, it still will be.
* Thanks for this story to Michael Warby, who was there.