How Pragmatism Drives Democracy, Digital and Discourse in Singapore

Lessons from Singapore’s election campaign for India are enormous. Source: internationalaffairs.org.au

(Part I of a two-part series)

Since the pandemic hit, Singapore has had an unprecedented four budgets to protect businesses and jobs. It has released over a hundred billion dollars to shore up the economy, drawing from its reserves in this black swan public health emergency. This response has been rapid and forceful, and Singapore flexed its famous financial muscles this tentative poll year as the general election had to be called before April 2021.

Democracy and governance cannot be paused for a pandemic: state capacity and political capital are most at work during a crisis. A renewal of voters’ mandate is necessary even in this much criticised democratic system, especially when an election is near. So, as Singapore goes to vote on 10th July 2020, we wonder, how does a country even the size of Singapore hold an election, campaign and voting processes, amid a pandemic?

The answer lies in an ‘Internet Election’ in the words of Straits Times Editor Warren Fernandes. As social distancing norms have restricted physicality, the Internet has made the election campaign all-encompassing. Credit also goes to Singapore’s high Internet penetration and data speeds, among the highest in Asia, and with a chatty populace looking for a vent to express, it creates vibrant digital public sphere. When digital becomes quotidian, it becomes culture.

Unfortunately, mainstream Indian media has hardly covered Singapore’s elections. As the largest democracy of the world, India must pay attention to the fully online election happening in its neighbourhood. Moreover, Singapore is not just any country; it has significant Indian diaspora and it shares close cultural ties with the state of Tamil Nadu, Tamil being one of its four national languages. As such, Indian media and Indians need to be abreast of Singapore’s elections.

The ‘Uniquely Singapore’ Democracy: Setting the Context

Singapore is known for many firsts in Asia, but democracy, unfortunately is not one of them. The western liberal elite fetes the prosperity, safety, and security of the island, but is highly critical of its genre of democracy. In Singapore, one party, namely The People’s Action Party (PAP) has run the city-state like a super productive quasi-corporation since 1959 (Singapore gained independence in 1965).

Singapore’s technocratic governance makes its democratic process look uneventful to the outsider. This is a terrific contrast to ‘vibrant’ (read chaotic) multi-party democracies such as India. Singapore does not let trivial party politics get in the way of strategic goals of the nation. India can borrow Singapore’s laser-sharp focus on policy delivery and outcomes, but to a limited extent given the range of differences including scale and size.

The PAP’s worst performance in 2011 general elections fetched it a mandate of 60% plus votes. This is often the dream of any ruling party, but in a ‘uniquely Singapore’ case, this was a ‘freak election’ as the opposition Workers’ Party won a Group Representation Constituency, although in a cliff hanger and with a slim margin. I was up post-midnight, following live updates on Facebook as my activist friends prayed for a win.

Singapore’s democratic mechanism ensures there are opposition voices in parliament even if they suffer washout, which has often been the case in the period of the Late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (1965-1990), the chief architect of the nation.

His party’s grip continues to be firm; the Singaporean State is the ‘PAP State’. Party members man all branches of the state as PAP and government are deeply intertwined. The Al-Juneid GRC has been under the opposing Workers’ Party for the last two terms, but even there, PAP cadres maintain their presence through grassroots organisations, quasi-affiliated with the government, providing hyperlocal public goods.

In Singapore, one cannot miss the PAP. It is omnipresent. Hence, for the opposition, carving out a space of total hegemony for itself is, presently, at best daunting and at worst, a hopeless initiative. A constituency won in a general election can be lost the next time. Opposition politicians have been financially bankrupted via libel for challenging stalwarts from the government.

The mainstream media is aligned with the state and until the advent of the digital, there were few outlets for dissent. One must apply for a police permit to hold an assembly or a protest. Activists have held symbolic protests with a banner, emoji or a painting which have attracted jail time. In the digital era, Singapore has invoked a fake news law (POFMA), which the civil society has critiqued for its potential implications on freedom of expression.

Even opposition parties with a base, such as the Workers’ Party, have been publicly called ‘PAP Lite’ by Foreign Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan. PAP candidates are traditionally super high achievers in line with the ethic and ethos of meritocracy, as well as elite rule. They are sourced from the armed forces, the civil service and also the private sector. Stellar examples are a minority woman Malay candidate, Mariam Jaffer (Stanford and Harvard Business School alumnus) who is a Managing Director with the Boston Consulting Group, and Carrie Tan of Daughters of Tomorrow, an NGO. The resumes will put the private sector recruiter to shame.

Singaporean democracy is grounded in survivalist instincts and pragmatism, with an acute awareness of its small size, no natural endowments, and larger neighbours. It firmly believes in meritocracy which is its guiding ideological compass and has a ‘workfarist’ system, instead of the European social, democratic, welfare-based system, where a job is considered the best welfare.

As Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, technocrat poster boy and economic wise sage of Singapore, once quipped, Singapore offers a ‘trampoline’ (which enables people to bounce), and not a ‘safety net’ (which is static) to its people. These are clever verbal gymnastics articulating Singaporean ethos of self-reliance, loud and clear.

Singapore’s technocratic governance is based on planning for the future at various levels of the bureaucracy through robust utilisation of ‘scenario planning’. Due to its small size, Singapore plans to win decades ahead. It saves for a rainy day through systematic reserves which it uses in an emergency after taking presidential consent.

As a Chinese-majority country in a mostly Muslim neighbourhood, it has complicated geopolitical realities, where ethnic Chinese are politically perceived as outsiders. In this context, the country has outperformed its worst critics who had bet the odds in 1965 when it was asked to leave Malaysia. As the Late Lee Kuan Yew writes:

“Whereas it is the inalienable right of a people to be free and independent, I, Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister of Singapore, do hereby proclaim and declare on behalf of the people and the government of Singapore that as from today, the ninth day of August in the year one thousand nine hundred and sixty-five, Singapore shall be forever a sovereign, democratic and independent nation, founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of her people in a more just and equal society.”

These 90 words changed the fate of Singapore forever.

(Read Part II of the two-part series here)

Manishankar Prasad

Manishankar Prasad is an environmental engineer, sociologist, researcher and writer. He has studied at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has published across numerous national and international platforms such as the New Indian Express and the Huffington Post, been a panellist on Al Jazeera International and BBC World, and has been interviewed by Forbes and The Guardian.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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