A defence of Singapore-style democracy

Lee Kuan Yew, Minister Mentor, speaks during an interview with Bloomberg in Singapore, on Tuesday, 29th April, 2008. Photographer: Munshi Ahmed/Bloomberg News

Contributed by Daniel Chai and Gregory Koh. The views expressed in this article are their own.

Summary: Singapore’s pragmatic approach to democracy has led it to reject liberal democracy for three reasons: multiculturalism, economic development and security. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Singapore’s government, led by the People’s Action Party (PAP), rejects Western style liberal democracy in favor of its own form of democracy. While Singapore’s performance on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) democracy index has improved over the past decade [1], moving from a ‘hybrid regime’ to a ‘flawed democracy’, Singapore still draws international criticism for the state of its democracy.


In short, it means the rule of the people, by the people. However, liberal democracy, synonymous with Western democracy, has more elements to it. According to the philosopher John Rawls, characteristics of a liberal democracy include, fair and free elections between multiple distinct political parties, the rule of law in everyday life as part of an open society, and the protection of human and civil rights and civil liberties, as well as the freedom religious belief and political association for all people [2].

Singapore’s Parliament is modelled after the UK Westminster model [3], with local variations. We are a representative democracy with a government elected through regular election cycles. In this respect, Singapore can be considered a democracy.

Singapore however, does not adhere to the standards of Western liberal democracy, leading to the EIU’s classification of a ‘flawed democracy’. ‘Flawed democracies’ have fair and free elections and protections for basic civil liberties but may have issues in other democratic aspects such as low press freedoms, an underdeveloped political culture, low levels of political participation, and issues concerning the functioning and transparency of governance. Perhaps a more accurate description of Singapore’s government would be the term ‘illiberal democracy’ – a system of governance whereby elections take place, citizens are cut off from the knowledge about the activities of those who exercise real power because of the lack of civil liberties [4].


In interviews with American journalist Fareed Zakaria, Lee Kuan Yew expressed his admiration for American inventiveness and creativity [5]. He also liked the openness between people across all walks of society and the transparency and accountability of the government [6]. Lee, however, criticized the ‘breakdown of civil society’ in Western nations due to the propagation of liberal democratic ideas and the affirmation of the individuals’ rights to behave or misbehave as they pleased at the expense of an orderly society. [7]

To this end, Lee said, “Democratic procedures have no intrinsic value. What matters is good government.” He believed that the government’s primary duty is to create a “stable and orderly society” where “people are well cared for, their food, housing, employment, health”[8]. This pragmatic ideology was echoed by other Singaporean politicians such as former Foreign Affairs Minister, George Yeo, who said in 1992 that “the test of democracy is not how we measure up against someone else’s theoretical construct, but what works for us given our history and circumstances. It is a Darwinian test. What succeeds will endure.” [9]


Singapore’s form of ‘illiberal’ democracy is a balance between Western style liberal democracy and Singapore’s pragmatic needs, aimed at the preservation of Singapore as a state above all else. [10]

While Singapore ranks well in many categories the World Bank’s measures for ‘good governance’ in areas such as basic safety and security provided by law, Singapore’s one-party government is often criticized for its curtailment of the socio-political spaces accorded to civil liberties and other forms of political association and pluralism beyond that of the government [11]

Other criticisms of Singapore’s democracy include the curtailment of the freedom of expression, assembly and association through broad legal provisions on security, public order, morality and racial and religious harmony through a slew of legal statutes such as the sedition and the Internal Security Act (ISA) [12]. The Singapore government has also been criticized for its use of strong defamation laws and the offense of “scandalizing the judiciary”.[13] One prominent example of the use of these laws was against blogger Roy Ngerng, who was sued by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for making defamatory remarks about Lee and the Central Provident Fund (CPF) policy. [14]

Despite these laws, Singaporeans are increasingly turning to social media to voice their opinions on political matters through numerous online blogs and alternative news platforms; though as the Roy Ngerng case demonstrates, there are still stringent guidelines to be followed.

Singapore receives human-rights-related criticisms as well. Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization, has criticized Singapore on several issues including the use of corporal punishment, including caning (deemed as torture), the death penalty, and the restriction of the civil rights of homosexuals under Section 377A of the penal code, which criminalizes sexual acts between homosexual men [15].

The Singapore government maintains that these laws and punishments are put in place because Singapore values its order and social harmony over ideological and intangible ideologies [16].


Despite international criticism, Singapore appears to have strong reasons for rejecting Western style liberal democracy. While Western style liberal democracy has its merits, it also comes with disadvantages. Considering Singapore’s early history as well as its vulnerable position in the world, Singapore has strong reasons to adopt a realistic and pragmatic approach to governance, and prevent any negative consequences of Western style liberal democracy from hindering her progress and survival.

Singapore’s reasons for its rejection of Western Style Democracy can be divided into 3 main areas: multiculturalism, economic development, and security.


Singapore is home to a diverse mix of cultures and races with a 70% Chinese majority, as well as Indian and Malay minorities. This diverse mix has the potential for racial tension and conflict, as evidenced in the years surrounding Singapore’s independence. As a result, it is imperative that the Singapore government takes a tough stance on the freedom of expression, especially regarding sensitive racial remarks. A recent example of the use of the Racial and Religious Harmony Act was against the authors of online alternative news site ‘The Real Singapore’ for attempting to sow discord amongst the different communities when they published a false article claiming that an incident had occurred between the police and some members of the public during a Thaipusam procession sparked by a Filipino family’s complaint that the drums played during the procession upset their child [17].

On the other hand, there have been incidences of racial and religious strife in European countries that champion Western liberal ideals, and protect the freedom of expression. Prominent examples include the controversy surrounding the Danish Prophet Mohammed cartoons, and the Charlie Hebdo incident.

These examples give Singapore’s government a strong reason to reject elements of Western style liberal democracy in the interest in the interest of preserving social harmony and stability among Singapore’s multicultural populace.


Being a small state with a Chinese majority, Singapore is placed in a vulnerable position in the Southeast Malay peninsula[18]. It is therefore imperative that Singapore maintain strong bilateral ties with its surrounding neighbors and respect their cultural and religious sensitivities. To this end, restrictions on the freedom of expression and the press need to be put in place to prevent the press or social media from being irresponsible in the way it reports on Singapore’s relationship with its neighbors such as Malaysia and Indonesia. As these countries represent some of Singapore’s biggest trading partners,[19] Singapore has an economic incentive to maintain positive relationships with these countries.

Singapore’s small size and population makes Singapore vulnerable to external threats. In a symposium by RSIS’ Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, highlighted the serious threat of ISIS and growing extremism in the region, stressing on the need for the continued limits on the freedom of speech in Singapore who may target Singapore in retaliation to an offensive statement or post originating in Singapore compromising Singapore’s safety[20].

Economic Development

Singapore’s economic growth has been attributed to its societal and economic stability[21] in comparison to its regional neighbors such as Malaysia, and Thailand. In Malaysia, anti-government protests calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak in late 2015 along with divisions within the ruling party has fueled Malaysia’s deteriorating economy.[22] In a similar vein, frequent clashes between the ‘Red Shirts’ and ‘Yellow Shirts’ in Thailand has hampered Thailand’s economic growth[23].

Given Singapore’s lack of natural resources, Singapore relies on heavily entrepot trade and foreign investment for survival. Any instability within Singapore would cause Singapore to lose its key economic advantage over its neighbors if investors pull out of the country, and this will in turn threaten its survival. In terms of balancing between centralizing enough power to deal with external threats and maximize economic opportunities against promoting individual liberty in order to foster creativity and individual expression, it is understandable that Singapore’s government prioritizes stability and growth over Western liberal democratic values.


While Singapore can be classified as a democracy insofar as it allows for religious freedom (to a large extent), and having free, fair and regular elections. Singapore does not fit the standards of Western style liberal democracy as the electoral process favors the ruling party, and there are still restrictions on the freedom of expression as well as the press.

However, Singapore has strong reasons for doing so. The Singapore government rejects Western style liberal democracy to the extent that it threatens Singapore’s survival, citing economic development and survival, security and multiculturalism as reasons for doing so. With these issues at stake, it is unlikely that Singapore will ever meet the standards of Western style liberal democracy – and that need not necessarily be a bad thing.

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[1] Tham, R. (2016, January 22). Singapore improves marginally in EIU’s Democracy Index. Retrieved from http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/singapore-improves-marginally-eius-democracy-index

[2] Wenar, L. (2008, March 25). John Rawls. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rawls/#PubRea

[3] Organisation Structure | Parliament Of Singapore. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.parliament.gov.sg/organisation-structure

[4] Zakaria, F. (1997). The Rise of Illiberal Democracy. Foreign Affairs, 76(6), 22. doi:10.2307/20048274

[5] Zakaria, F. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0809/21/fzgps.01.html

[6] Zakaria, Fareed. “Culture is Destiny – A Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew.” Foreign Affairs (1994): n. pag. Web.

[7] Taylor, R. H. (2013). Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World and Lee Kuan Yew’s Strategic Thought. Asian Affairs, 44(3), 497-498. doi:10.1080/03068374.2013.835132

[8] Simha, R. K. (2015, March 27). Why Lee Kuan Yew Believed Democracy Was A Drag. Retrieved from https://swarajyamag.com/politics/why-lee-kuan-yew-believed-democracy-was-a-drag

[9] Yeo, G. (2015, August 07). Any democracy must stand the test of what works. Retrieved from http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1847569/any-democracy-must-stand-test-what-works

[10] Allison, G. (2015, August 05). Singapore Challenges the Idea That Democracy Is the Best Form of Governance. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/graham-allison/singapore-challenges-democracy_b_7933188.html

[11] Vasil, R. K. (2000). Governing Singapore: democracy and national development. St Leonards, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin.

[12] Foo, T. (2014, October 13). Internal Security Act. Retrieved from http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_2014-10-13_105937.html

[13] Liang, C. Z. (2016, August 15). Law on contempt remains largely the same: Shanmugam. Retrieved from http://www.straitstimes.com/politics/law-on-contempt-remains-largely-the-same-shanmugam

[14]  Malinda, K. (2015, August 22). PM Lee asks for ‘very high award of damages’ in defamation case against Roy Ngerng. Retrieved from Channel NewsAsia: http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/pm-lee-asks-for-very-high/1952476.html

[15] World Report 2015: Singapore. (2016, January 25). Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2015/country-chapters/singapore

[16] T. (2011). Singapore’s Presentation to UN Human Rights Council. Singapore. Retrieved from https://www.mfa.gov.sg/content/dam/mfa/images/om/washington/newsletter/APRIL_MAY2011.pdf.

[17] Spykerman, K. (n.d.). The Real Singapore duo slapped with 7 charges under Sedition Act. Retrieved from http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/the-real-singapore-duo/1782756.html

[18] A little red dot in a sea of green. (2015, July 16). Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21657610-sense-vulnerability-has-made-singapore-what-it-today-can-it-now-relax-bit

[19] Statistics Singapore – Trade with Major Trading Partners. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20141021082312/http://www.singstat.gov.sg/statistics/visualising_data/visualiser/trade/trade.html

[20] H. (2016, January 19). Religion, terrorism and threats to Singapore, the region. Retrieved from http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/religion-terrorism-and-threats-to-singapore-the-region

[21] R. (2016, July 12). This Asian Nation Tops Switzerland as the World’s Safest Country to Do Business. Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2016/07/12/singapore-safest-country-world-business/

[22] Roberts, J., & Symonds, P. (2015, September 01). World Socialist Web Site. Retrieved from https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/09/01/mala-s01.html

[23] Weathering the storm: Thailand’s economy after the clashes in Bangkok | Spire Research and Consulting. (2013, April 04). Retrieved April, from https://www.spireresearch.com/spire-journal/2010-2/q3/thailand-economy-after-the-clashes-in-bangkok/

One thought

  1. There is barely even an attempt at a ‘defence’ in this piece. All the author seems to have done is to assert some conception of government (‘stable and orderly society’) which has little if anything to do with democracy, and then adduce 3 reasons to support that idiosyncratic definition of democracy. This is the very definition of a bait-and-switch.

    2ii at best.


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