The state of democracy in Singapore: Sg Review interviews Garry Rodan

Sg Review
4 Aug 07

Garry RodanThe SG Review (, a website carrying political commentary, interviewed Professor Garry Rodan, head of the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University, Australia as part of its series on The state of democracy in Singapore:

Q: Among other issues, your insights include politics in Singapore. What do you think is the status of democracy in Singapore now, compared to 10 years ago? Is the Singapore experience unique?

A: Singapore does not have a democratic political system. It has an authoritarian system that systematically obstructs genuine political competition for the exercise of state power. In the last 10 years, though, this has been combined with various new opportunities for Singaporeans to engage in PAP-controlled or sponsored forms of political participation. In effect, authoritarian rule has become more sophisticated but the scope for competing with the PAP hasn’t significantly changed.

Q: The PAP has come back to power election after election. The PAP argues that they won the elections fair and square. But it might not be that simple. Despite the election, is Singapore really democratic as the PAP claims?

A: The elections cannot be a meaningful political contest while an independent civil society is systematically blocked in Singapore. Without opportunities for opposition parties to forge links with such organisations they are unable to build effective social bases and embark on political mobilisation. Meanwhile, the PAP has at its disposal an abundance of state-controlled or affiliated organisations, including the NTUC. The ready use of defamation suits by the PAP against opponents and the fact that all domestic media are government-controlled further limits the opportunity for a serious contest of ideas and scrutiny of the ruling party.

Q: Has the way the PAP curbed its political opposition changed much? Is co-option still the preferred route in eliminating challengers to the PAP? Will defamation law suits remain the main form of intimidation?

A: Administrative law has become an important means for blunting political opponents. The licensing system for public rallies is a prime example of this. What has happened over time is that the PAP has relied more on legal and administrative techniques to curtail serious political opponents, while adopting various new forms of co-option (notable expanded avenues for political consultation through the NMPs scheme, feedback unit/reach, committees of inquiry etc.) To try and preempt any swelling of opposition ranks.

Q: The Singapore Government prefers the term “civic society” to “civil society”. What are the implications on political activism and the democratisation process in Singapore?

A: The Government does not accept the idea of genuinely independent extra-parliamentary groups that could became a base for oppositional politics. Yet it is prepared to accept or even promote social groups that are supportive of the PAP or not in serious competition with its ideas. The implication is that instead of the political space of civil society expanding, it is the political space of the state that is likely to grow.

Q: How can the “civil society” in Singapore grow and grow to the point that it can make a real difference?

A: A genuine civil society, that is independent, is arguably illegal under the Societies Act. Therefore, either the repeal of that law or the defiance of it would be necessary to achieve civil society in Singapore.

Q: Despite the Government’s attempts to control the Internet, how optimistic are you about the role of the Internet in bringing about political change in Singapore?

A: Unless the Internet is being harnessed by or to the development of collective organisational activity it will have a limited significance for political change. Individuals may be able to criticise the Government or raise some good ideas. But without a capacity to convert this into political mobilisation in support of concrete reform programmes it will pose little threat to the ruling party.

Q: To what degree can Singaporeans grow democracy in Singapore by themselves? What kind of outside help is or not suitable given the PAP’s authoritarian streak?

A: Democracy has to be internally generated. It cannot rely on a white knight from outside – especially as the ruling party in Singapore delights in depicting liberal democracy as an alien, ‘western’ phenomenon and exploits any hint of ‘outside political interference’. Nevertheless, struggles for democracy in any country can be externally supported (not driven or initiated) by sympathisers in other countries. In the Singapore case, international legal bodies are among those that can play a role, since many of the techniques that constrain political competition are based in law. The PAP craves international recognition for the integrity of its legal system.

Q: To conclude, what advice do you have for activists involved in the democratisation process for Singapore?

A: None. As an academic, my role is not to prescribe political strategies for Singaporean activists but to offer explanations for anyone who is interested of how political dynamics there are developing and why.

Dr Garry Rodan is the author of Transparency and Authoritarian Rule in Southeast Asia (RoutledgeCurzon2004), The Political Economy of Singapore’s Industrialization (MacMillan, 1989), the editor of Political Oppositions in Industrializing Asia (Routledge 1996), Singapore Changes Guard (Longman 1993) and Singapore (Ashgate 2001), and the joint editor of The Political Economy of Southeast Asia (Oxford University Press 1997, Revised editions 2001 and 2006) and Southeast Asia in the 1990s: Authoritarianism, Capitalism and Democracy (Allen & Unwin 1993).

He has published dozens of book chapters and journal articles, including-recent pieces on the political economy of the international media in Asia in Democratization, Internet and political control in Singapore in Political Science Quarterly and on transparency reform in Singapore and Malaysia in The Pacific Review and New Political Economy

%d bloggers like this: