The National Democratic Institute (NDI; www.ndi.org), a NGO affiliated to the US Democratic Party had written a report on the 2001 elections in Singapore after some observers from the organisation had come to monitor the event. The following is the conclusion of the report which can be read in full at http://www.ndi.org/ndi/library/1326_sgp_2001parlelect.txt
The PAP government has done much to improve the lives of Singaporeans. The city is safe, clean and orderly. Its citizens are healthy, prosperous, technologically sophisticated, well housed and well educated.
Yet its political institutions are considered by many to be paternalistic and authoritarian, providing Singaporeans with few opportunities to participate effectively in the nation’s public life. Whether Singaporeans want a change in government, or would like the current government to revise its policies, is uncertain. Until opposition parties are permitted to compete fairly for public office and citizens can readily obtain information about potential political choices, no one will know for sure.
Senior Minister Lee has been a strong and articulate advocate of the “Asian Way” in the global debate over democracy and human rights. Resisting political liberalization, he has argued that western notions of democracy, and political liberty, when applied to Singapore and other Asian countries, were a destabilizing force that threatened to upset a social balance that relied on consensus and respect for authority. His rejection of universal democratic principles is firm and unapologetic.
That vision is not shared by a growing number of countries in East Asia, such as Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand have liberalized their political systems as well as their economies. They have recognized that a competitive political system promotes human rights and helps sustain economic growth.
The examples of East Asian countries such as Japan, Korea and Taiwan also challenge the Singapore government’s contention that continued prosperity relies on limited political freedom. Democratic developments in Taiwan, as well as Hong Kong’s growing democratization movement, also challenge the assertion that Confucian or Chinese values are necessarily incompatible with competitive elections and opposition parties.
The Singapore government’s vision is also not shared by the nation’s democracy activists. They have paid a high price for the government’s policies, a price that has included imprisonment, harassment by lawsuits and other forms of government retaliation for their expressions of dissent.
Whether Singapore’s “Asian Way” approach to political development will continue to appeal to the nation’s growing middle class is uncertain. Globalization, the need for an educational system that allows people to think critically rather than to conform, and addressing the problems posed by a declining economy will all help shape coming events. These are forces that seem likely to expose Singapore to more external influences in shaping the nation’s political future.