JURIST Staffer Eric Linge, Pitt Law '10, studied for a year in Singapore…
In the Western media, the tiny island nation of Singapore is typecast as conservative. In January, a man and woman attracted the attention of the international news media for taking a stroll through a busy pedestrian street in Singapore wearing nothing but flip-flops. The stroll ended in arrest. Invariably, foreign news sources remarked how shocking such an incident is in a country which has become famous for its strict criminal laws (e.g. it is illegal to sell chewing gum here) and harsh punishments. A common form of punishment is caning, where Singaporean men (and in 1994 an 18 year-old American named Michael Fay) are struck numerous times with a bamboo pole.
Singapore's supposed conservatism and stern criminal justice system are part of its "soft-authoritarian" constitutional model where some personal and political freedoms are traded for economic growth and a high standard of living. The flip side of Singapore's stern criminal justice is a country where crime is remarkably low and neighborhoods feel safe. When Singapore makes the foreign news, its transparent business laws, clean streets, rapid economic growth, and modern and high-tech appearance are often mentioned. Various regulations maintain this modern appearance — for example, cars of a certain age will not receive a license to be driven on the roads.
More in-depth Western publications might mention Singapore's lack of "liberal democracy." Singapore's government ministers — always from the People's Action Party (PAP) — will readily admit that there is no "Western-style" democracy. They explain that Singapore is not a Western nation, but rather an Asian nation, whose residents hold Asian values which may not necessarily align with Western thought. Singapore is a "Neo-Confucian" state, where the parents are the leaders and know what is best for their children, the citizenry. The PAP "manages" democracy with a seemingly permanent and overwhelming parliamentary majority and an emasculated political opposition. This governing style is called soft-authoritarianism.
For a Westerner, soft-authoritarianism may sound distasteful, but an engaged Singaporean will likely reply that outsiders do not know the struggles of that country. Under the rule of the PAP, Singapore evolved from a newly independent nation marred by homelessness and slums to the rich nation of today in four decades. There are more Ferraris and Lamborghinis on the streets than anywhere in the United States, except perhaps Beverly Hills.
Strong, centralized leadership is also supported because tiny Singapore (population 4.5 million) cannot help but perceive its vulnerability. With no agricultural hinterland and negligible natural resources, this densely populated island nation is completely dependent on imports, including water and food. Before World War II, Singapore was a British colony that was supposedly an impenetrable fortress. However, during the war it was quickly and easily overrun and occupied by the Japanese. The nation faced further instability when it won its independence from Britain, along with the other Malay colonies in 1963. Two years later, Singapore was summarily ejected from the unhappy Malay federation and unwillingly forced into independence from Malaysia. The federation was unstable at its base because of ethnic friction: Singapore's population is largely Chinese, while Malaysia's majority is made up of Malay.
The most interesting thing about Singapore's modern soft-authoritarianism is that it is all done legally within a constitutional framework. Government corruption is near non-existent and it is consistently ranked as one of the top five least-corrupt countries in the world. The government is a meritocracy, and ministers earn salaries that are very high (so high, they don't need to steal). The judiciary disposes of cases with speed and efficiency, using night courts and information technology to improve accessibility. However, judges are paid handsomely and generally lack tenure, thus relying on the executive for reappointment. There is a notable pro-government bias in the judiciary, and there is only limited judicial review of the decisions made by government ministers. When the maintenance of public order demands, laws authorize the curtailment of individual liberties. Freedom of speech, for instance, is guaranteed in the constitution but is highly restricted through both formal and informal means. Meanwhile, the PAP is almost always able to win elections through favorable electoral laws and gerrymandering. Since independence, the PAP has never held less than a powerful majority in parliament.
Singapore's older residents still remember the times of poverty and uncertainty. It is possible that younger Singaporeans who have known only a nation of first-world living standards may someday successfully agitate for liberal democracy. For now, however, the consensus remains that portions of freedom can be traded for a comfortable life. And honestly, even for this American, life in Singapore is not so bad at all.
Photo Credits: Christine Chen (photos of the Esplanade and Merlion Fountain), Eric Linge (photo of Raffles Hotel)
Li-ann Thio, "Rule of Law Within a Non-Liberal â€˜Communitarian Democracy: The Singapore Experience," in ed. Randall Peerenboom, Asian Discourses of Rule of Law: Theories and Implementation of Rule of Law in Twelve Asian Countries, France, and the U.S. 183 (London, 2004).
Li-ann Thio, "Taking Rights Seriously? Human Rights Law in Singapore," in eds. Randall Peerenboom, Carole Peterson, and Albert H.Y. Chen, Human Rights in Asia: A Comparative Legal Study of Twelve Asian Jurisdictions, France, and the United States 158 (New York, 2005).
Naked couple surprises diners in stroll, Reuters, January 28, 2009
Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.