Is Singapore still the model authoritarian state for China?
Audrey Jiajia Li says both governments rely heavily on strict controls and the willingness of their people to accept curbs on individual liberties. But, as Singapore shows, some loosening is possible without compromising stability
Since the Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) era, Singapore has been the only country admired by all four generations of China’s leadership. Recently, however, friction between the two countries over the South China Sea and the seizure of Singapore’s armoured vehicles in Hong Kong has led people to wonder whether the “Singapore model” remains relevant to China.
Singapore, despite its small size, is known for miraculous economic modernisation, efficient and nearly corrupt-free governance, good urban planning and a well-behaved citizenry. Both the government and people in China have clamoured for all these hallmarks. The Chinese leadership favours Singaporean-style governance as a feasible model for the future, possibly for the following reasons.
First and foremost, Singapore’s “Asian authoritarianism” is believed to have demonstrated the compatibility between effective economic management and one-party rule, raising doubts about the suitability of Western-style democracy for Asian countries.
And, to maintain their grip on power, both governments have sought to exercise strict control over all aspects of public discourse: whether in the education system or, most importantly, the media. Also, the economic success of both countries has been attributed to their one-party leadership. Both ruling parties maintain their legitimacy mainly through raising people’s living standards under their watch.
Furthermore, according to the doctrine of Singapore’s ruling party, the People’s Action Party, a good government is one with the ability to convince its citizens to compromise individual liberties for long-term collective interests. The Chinese Communist Party apparently shares this ideology. Over the past 10 years, for example, it has hosted big events like the Olympic Games and G20 summit, which caused inconvenience to many, but managed to retain popular support for these activities through preaching individual sacrifice for magnificent national achievements.
Compared to some other cultures, more ordinary people in both nations have traditionally placed higher value on so-called bread-and-butter issues than individual freedom. The “climate of fear” also makes people reluctant to fight for their rights. Moreover, the majority of people in both nations are used to regarding the ruling party in their respective country as the only authority capable of governing. The ruling parties have successfully convinced people that they represent stability, while the opposition represents turbulence.
To sum up, a sizeable number of people in the two nations believe in the need for a strong government capable of forging a consensus and deciding on the best interests of society. Interestingly though, the “unique national characteristics” of the two countries are actually opposite to each other. China is huge and diverse, with the largest population on earth; the authorities fear that things could get out of control if they don’t rule with an iron fist. Singapore, on the other hand, is small and vulnerable, and an authoritarian government is seen as necessary to protect it from being bullied in the neighbourhood.
Public life in both countries also shares some similarities, chiefly, the marginalisation of liberal critics and the tightening of control over mainstream media. Opinion leaders, including dissident bloggers, writers, filmmakers and intellectuals, receive tougher treatment.
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In Singapore, the People’s Action Party did it subtly by replacing chief editors of the most important newspapers. In China, the Communist Party has explicitly ordered absolute loyalty of all media. Both governments are getting more proactive in social media. In Singapore, government agencies and the party itself are building up their social media capacities and using social media as an instrument of surveillance. China has gone even further; it has cracked down on independent news reporting on the web, silenced and even imprisoned some “big Vs” – those who have a substantial following on social media.
Riding on nationalism, Singapore in 2015 marked its 50th anniversary of independence and the passing of its founding farther Lee Kuan Yew. The ruling party used these occasions to sow patriotism.
Meanwhile, in China, the Communist Youth League praised the “little pinks” (xiao fenhong), a group of young nationalists promoting nationalism on the internet. They are seen by many as little different from a cyberspace mob.
Although the trend is worrisome to those who cherish individual liberties, some features of the current “Singapore model” can still serve as a role model for China:
● Don’t be afraid of “bad news”: In the past few years, there have been several embarrassing scandals involving high-ranking government officials, like the extramarital affair of the former speaker of Parliament, who stepped down following the exposure. Moreover, public health crises like the Zika virus outbreak were also handled with admirable transparency.
● Stop being arrogant and be responsive to people’s demands: Singaporean politicians have become more humble and have been listening to their constituencies. Legislators now routinely spend at least one evening a week meeting voters face to face. Besides, the civil service is separated from the ruling party. As a result, there is little room for rent-seeking.
● Build an effective legal system. The legendary orderly society in Singapore has been built on a highly educated population and the country’s commitment to the rule of law. For instance, spitting, littering and indoor smoking are very common in China. But in Singapore, the fine could be as high as one month’s salary of a blue-collar worker. An effective legal system is crucial to the success of Singapore’s governance approach and a key reason Singapore stays nearly corruption-free.
● Allow people to express their opinion by voting at the ballot box: there are about 15 active parties in Singapore’s political spectrum. While the opposition forces are not strong enough to challenge the ruling party, they provide an “alternative option” for people to vent their dissatisfaction. Having channels to express anger is one reason Singaporeans are not desperate to take to the streets.
All this is happening in Singapore while it remains stable and prosperous. China could conceivably benefit from adopting such approaches.
Audrey Jiajia Li is a filmmaker and columnist in Guangzhou, China. Research for this project was supported by the Asia Journalism Fellowship in Singapore