Democracy Lessons from Singapore is a study in contradictions

Singapore under Lee curbed dissent, put limits on free speech, and even banned chewing gum

By Hector Kenneth Kumar

“Nehru’s India has become one where, according to media reports, almost half the MPs in the Lok Sabha have criminal charges pending against them, including charges of rape and murder. Though, it is also said that many of these allegations are politically motivated,” said, Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of Singapore.

These lines spoken by the Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong in his speech in the Singapore parliament went viral on social media earlier this week, predictably setting off a diplomatic furor as well.  Within hours of that speech, the High Commissioner of Singapore in India was summoned by the Ministry of external affairs and given a lecture on why India didn’t see the remarks in good light.

The speech was part of the Singapore Prime Minister’s reply to a motion on a committee of privileges on allegations that opposition MPs had lied in Parliament. Lee Hsien Loong also spoke critically of Israel for not being able to provide a stable government as envisioned by its founder Ben Gurion. While the context of the speech may have been an impassioned plea to maintain the standards of democracy in the city-state Singapore the tone of citing India and Israel as sort of ‘failed’ democracies was not taken well by either government. The criticism coming from a state that has seen a single-party rule since they signed the article of separation from Malaysia in 1965 was also a study in contradiction.

After the race riots of the 1960s Singapore separated from Malaysia and formed an independent nation-state headed by Lee Kuan Yew. Lee was a great admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru and he often spoke of being deeply influenced by Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech on Independence Day 1947. He also confessed that he soon realized that he would have to move away from Nehru’s model of democratic socialism if he wanted Singapore to succeed as a nation-state.

Lee was Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990 leading the tiny city-state from a small British enclave to a vibrant global center for finance and industry, all this was achieved by an “iron grip” on the politics of the state where the opposition had little or no role to play. Under Lee Kuan, Singapore was described as being a benevolent dictatorship.

The government curbed dissent, put limits on free speech, and even banned chewing gum. At the same time, the people endorsed Lee Kuan loving him for raising their living standards. A tourist visit to Singapore is incomplete without buying the T-shirt that says “Singapore is a fine city” a dig at the heavy fines imposed on acts like spitting or jaywalking. Lee Kuan Yew was a vehement critic of what he dubbed “Western-style” democracy where total freedom was available to both the press and the public. He is quoted as saying:

Both India and Singapore adopted the Westminster model of governance for their democracies, India walked the path of socialism while under Lee Kuan Singapore chose a pragmatic approach. Lacking significant natural resources in its tiny state, Singapore focused on making the city-state a business center building its port and an airport both of which are amongst the busiest in the world. In doing so Lee cut many corners often accused of suppressing opposition and jailing his opponents or bankrupting them with civil cases in court.

Lee Kwan also ensured that the freedoms of speech and those given to the press were never absolute. He is quoted as saying, “Freedom of the press, freedom of the news media, must be subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore, and to the primacy of purpose of an elected government.”

Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minister of Singapore (1959 – 1990)

According to the Freedom House report, ‘All domestic newspapers, radio stations, and television channels are owned by companies linked to the government. Editorials and news coverage generally support state policies”. Couple this with the fact that the diktats and policies enshrined by the Government are absolute. Any uprisings or efforts to organize were quickly doused a policy that Lee Hsien and his government have duly followed. Free and fair elections are part of Singapore’s democracy but there are several questions on why a single party continues to reign. The same Freedom House report says, “Elections are largely free of fraud and other such irregularities, but they are unfair due to the advantages enjoyed by the incumbent party, including a pro-government media sector, the GRC system, high financial barriers to electoral candidacy, and legal restrictions on free speech.”

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong may find many flaws in Indian democracy, but in India the Idea of democracy is complete and there are no half measures. Elections in India both at the center and at the states have thrown up multiple combinations of political parties in power.

Democracy in India is by no means perfect but with its system of electoral check and balances, the last word always lies with its people. Lee Hsien Loong himself is a product of the system that his father built, a system where the hegemony of a single party has gone virtually unchallenged. Lee Hsien first became deputy Prime Minister in 1990 under Goh Chok Tong who took over as Prime Minister from his father.

Many political pundits attribute his political rise to his lineage. Lee Hsien’s critical appraisal of India in his speech also made an impassioned appeal to the parliament to uphold democratic standards. He would do well to continue to learn from India as his father did, where despite the various contradictions, democracy continues to flourish and ensure that the will of the people is absolute. Yes we have our problems and yes there are MLAs and MPs who face criminal charges but their fate lies in the hands of the people and that’s where India’s democracy stands out like a beacon to the world.

(Hector Kenneth Kumar, a Chevening Scholar – 2001, is a senior journalist based in New Delhi. Twitter: @hk_365)

Images courtesy of (Image Courtesy: HKFP), (Image Courtesy: CNN) and provided

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