Singapore is a huge contradiction. Western, yet eastern. English is the official language, but you’ll most often hear Chinese dialects spoken. It is incredibly modern, yet traditional. Ultra expensive shopping and dining sit alongside kiosks and street food. Gambling and prostitution are legal, but drug possession can carry a death sentence. It is a capitalistic Heaven, diverse ethnically and religiously, and celebrated for having one of the highest qualities of life of any nation on the planet, and yet it is authoritarian.

It is this last contradiction that I find myself thinking about weeks after returning from the Lion City. Can a country be both authoritarian and good? Can it be worthwhile giving up some freedoms in exchange for a high quality of life? And can this be sustained?

Since its inception, Singaporean politics have been dominated by the People’s Action Party, or PAP. While the state engages in elections, the PAP has easily won in nearly each district for Parliamentary seats, and the Singaporean government is headed by the Secretary-General of the party with the most seats. Without any real competition, that has always been the PAP.

In 1959, PAP founder and Secretary-General Lee Kuan Yew became the first Prime Minister of Singapore. He was followed in turn for both of those positions by Goh Chok Tong in 1992, and then by Lee’s son Lee Hsien Loong in 2004, who remains the leader of the island nation today.

Party ideology has not been completely stagnant. Originally a fairly Leninist party, subsequent evolutions rejecting staunch nationalism and embracing individualism have converted it into a fairly merit-based system, and the PAP resigned from the Socialist International in 1976. While some aspects of socialism do still exist (the government offers subsidized housing, socialized medicine, and free education), the main driving factors of Singaporean policy under the PAP have focused on economic freedom and development.

So what have been the results of this policy? In 1960, shortly after inception, Singapore had a gdp per capita of $1,310. In 2014, that had risen to $71,318. This bears focusing on for a moment. This is a 5444% increase in less than two generations, something that is unheard of anywhere else in the world. And much of that wealth has been invested back into the country, through the social programs mentioned above and some of the world’s leading infrastructure. (For comparison’s sake, the gdp per capita of the United States in 2014 was $55,599.)

More than 7,000 multi-national corporations have offices in this country of 5.8 million inhabitants, and approximately 60% of those have their Asian or global headquarters in Singapore. Again, this is an astounding figure!

Not all of this money is seen in salaries, though as of 2014, Singapore ranked 13th in the world in average household income, at just under $52,000 (compared to the US at just under $57,000). This does not factor in the importing of day laborers, most of whom commute in from Malaysia across the causeways. Cost of living in 2017 was about 10% higher in Singapore than in the United States, but comparable to many of the major American metro areas. (The lack of a countryside outside the city hurts Singapore in this area.)

The World Happiness Index, which measures happiness of civilian populations in UN countries, had Singapore 26th in 2017 (though first in Asia). The United States was in 14th position. It is worth noting that Singapore’s ranking is still well higher than the European average, which would have come in 43rd.

These are all good things, so what is the downside of living in Singapore?

As an authoritarian regime, the PAP government of Singapore doesn’t really allow dissent. While there haven’t been instances of executions of people speaking out against the government, there have been criminal charges pursued against those people. Freedom of speech, press, and assembly are restricted. A 2016 law, the Administration of Justice Act, codifies much of this. The law prohibits even the discussion of ongoing court cases – let alone the disagreement of verdicts, which had long been prosecuted – and allows the government to remove content from websites without notifying the person owning the content. Demonstrations against the government are illegal, but so are demonstrations against any particular religion or ideology. Fines and jail sentences await those who violate these statutes. Singapore’s Internal Security Act has been used similarly to the United States’ Patriot Act to hold suspects without charges filed, and abuses have been detailed.

Laws against protest are severe. Assemblies cannot be held without permit, and a 2017 amendment to the Public Order Act allows permits to be rejected for any “cause-related” event if any foreigners are involved. Even if a demonstration is allowed to be held (a rare occurrence given the aforementioned restrictions), an observer is considered to be a participant, and so a foreigner observing a protest can be arrested and prosecuted under the Public Order Act. (Note to travelers that this is enforced.) Singaporean citizens are allowed to protest without permit in one corner of a local park, called Speakers’ Corner. However, the area is monitored by CCTV, making it intimidating for many, and organizers are required to check the identification of all in attendance, making sure no foreigners are there, or risk being prosecuted for an unlawful gathering.

So we return to our earlier questions. Can giving up some of these basic freedoms be worthwhile in order to have the high standard of living Singapore allows?

As Americans, we are conditioned to immediately say no. We are taught that without freedom, there can be no happiness. But is this fully accurate?

In 1943, Abraham Maslow created his “Hierarchy of Needs.” It is a pyramid, and his assertion is that each of the lower levels must be achieved in order for the one above to be the primary concern. The levels are, from bottom to top: physiological needs (sustenance, shelter, clothing, sleep, etc…), safety (personal, financial, and health-wise), love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. I would classify the freedoms of speech, press, and assembly that are restricted in Singapore under esteem, or that basic concept of being respected by oneself and others. So according to the Maslow Hierarchy, one should be willing to sacrifice this “higher” need in return for those lower down. But would I? I don’t know.

I have always been someone who has spoken my mind, and valued that ability. I am not sure that I could give up that right in exchange for sustenance and security, though I am fortunate to be from a good middle-class, or upper-middle-class, family, and have never had to worry too much about those things. If I were in a different set of circumstances, I suppose I’d have to think longer and harder about those priorities.

One of the hardest things with an authoritarian regime is the lack of balances. If those in power use it for good – as can potentially be argued in the case of Singapore, though we will cover more on that in a moment – the lack of gridlock in a one-party system allows for policy to be quickly and efficiently implemented for the bettering of society. But what if those in power stop caring about the average member of the State? In that case, the lack of any sort of check on their power could easily be used for harm.

It can be argued that, 60 or so years into Singapore’s existence, those in power have largely used that power to enhance society. Quality of life is good. There are social programs to help maintain that. While methodology – restricting freedoms we take for granted in the US – might not be ideal, so long as the lives of the average citizens are good and continued to be made better, it could be said that the government is acting for the public good. But is this model sustainable?

There have been other examples in world history of benevolent dictators – and yes, I realize that there is a big difference between authoritarianism and dictatorship. Without fail, they have been followed at some point by those who have usurped that power for personal gain. Can this happen in Singapore, and are there any indications that it will?

Again, I don’t know. Singapore is fairly unique in the world. It is small, an island city-state of under 6 million citizens, and history has shown that things considered impossible to implement successfully on a large scale (true communism, for instance) can be done on a smaller and more local level with good results. (It has been done on the “city” level with the kibbutz movement in Israel, for example.) Furthermore, unlike most authoritarian regimes which tend to be fairly isolated, Singapore is the definition of a connected nation on the international scale. Its very existence as an economic and financial hub depends on its stability and participation in that international system. Perhaps this is enough for its political infrastructure to also retain stability and even positivity.

For travelers, these are both-thought provoking issues as well as practical ones. Restrictions on speech and assembly for foreigners are stringent, and a visitor must be careful, and even more so if the laws become more restrictive than they are currently. There is also the moral question of whether visiting a country is showing support for its policies. Is adding your tourism dollars to Singapore an endorsement of its government, or at least its political system? Again, I don’t know, but it’s something to consider.

So can a country be both authoritarian and good? In the short term, it would seem the answer is a qualified yes, though the long term answer has yet to be written. It will be interesting to see if there is a crossover point in Singapore, where the lack of freedoms no longer outweighs the quality of life for those living there.

What do you think? Can a country be both authoritarian and good? Would you sacrifice freedoms for gains in quality of life? Please comment!

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6 thoughts on “Can a Country Be Authoritarian and Good?

  1. To answer the title-question in a word, “Maybe… Maybe for now, but what will sustain that good into the future? What checks and balances ensure a state from becoming abusive?”

    The skeptic in me answers, “No! Authoritarian by definition means, ‘no checks and balances.’ Don’t be fooled by short term kindnesses while times are good!”

    The optimist in me a answers, “Yes, this is a hybrid government/business. Its business model is staked on the government’s behavior being ‘Good!'”

    The realist in me answers, “Maybe.The current business model is to be ‘Good,’ and the country is heavily invested in that ‘Good.’ The concern is that Singapore’s ‘Good’ nature is only linked to its economic prosperity.”

    In my heart I know how this story ends… like those of all authoritarian states. I hope time proves me wrong.

    1. I largely agree with you. It will be interesting to see what happens when economic growth slows. Do you think at that point the country would become more democratic since it would need something to give citizens who now don’t have the prior advantages?

  2. your blog reminds of what my european history teacher told us once. The French didnt care about the excesses of Louis the XIV because he made sure they had bread.
    I think most people wouldnt care how the government is run so long as their needs are met. Food first, then housing. Like the pyramid that you mentioned in this post

    1. Good comparison, to a point. I don’t see excesses in Singaporean officials enriching themselves…

      It is also a good note that the French monarchy later collapsed when it was less “benevolent”. Will that happen in Singapore?

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