It’s hard for me to understand how vulnerable we truly are. Perhaps it’s because I was born after the tumultuous decades of the Cold War, but before China’s hegemonic intentions are fully realised – ensconced safely in a brief period of unprecedented peace and prosperity for Singapore.
The Singapore I know is one where the exceptional has been woven into the daily fabric of reality. Twenty years ago, the prospect of water self-sufficiency would have been a pipe dream. Today, it is almost taken for granted that Singapore will soon be entirely water secure. From extensive land reclamation to strategic militarisation, the government has worked tirelessly to remedy our acute geographical vulnerabilities. Yes, we still remain a tiny Chinese-majority city-state trapped in a volatile and unpredictable region. But thanks to adroit domestic policy and foreign diplomacy, we can sleep sounder knowing that Konfrontasi has been replaced by compromise.
I don’t dispute that Singapore remains vulnerable, to both global economic shifts and sudden geopolitical developments. A quick glance at the haze-filled sky demonstrates how helpless we are in the face of unfavourable international circumstances. But I do doubt the conventional wisdom that authoritarianism will continue to be the answer for our endemic weaknesses. In fact, it is precisely because we are vulnerable that greater socio-political freedoms are needed to safeguard our future.
By doubling down on illiberalism, the government creates needless internal vulnerabilities. Supporting the PAP is as much a wager on Singapore’s future as supporting the WP. You are effectively trusting a single party to identify, recruit, and groom an entire nation’s worth of leaders every single generation. You are trusting that a party which has only ever undergone two leadership transitions will nail its succession planning without fail. And you are trusting that the party will be so perpetually incorruptible, no alternatives are necessary. To borrow from a popular metaphor, you’re gambling with your country’s future no matter who you vote for. The question is whether to go all in on a low-risk option, or to diversity your options to buffer against the possibility of going bust.
Stifling political opposition makes it nearly impossible to seek change when the status quo no longer meets expectations. Many talented Singaporeans see the high costs of joining an opposition party and decide to stay away from politics. The few brave enough to step forward find themselves frustrated by the difficulty of establishing a credible grassroots network, and the opacity of the public sector.
But most worryingly, it creates a civil service that is utterly inexperienced in dealing with a handover of power. The delineation between civil service and political leadership exists to provide continuity and resilience to a country’s institutions regardless of electoral outcomes; but in Singapore it’s becoming increasingly difficult to determine where the public sector ends and the political government begins. In times of exceptional leadership and foresight, this is fine. But to assume this will always be the case reeks of complacency.
There is a disturbing circularity to the logic which the state has used to justify its semi-authoritarian tendencies. Society is not ready to deal with the cacophony and chaos of liberal democracy, and hence the government must keep things in check until we mature. In other words, subtle repression is needed because Singapore is vulnerable. Yet, this repression indirectly diminishes the quality and fervour of the opposition, and makes Singapore ever more dependent on the entrenched ruling party. This makes us even more vulnerable if the ruling party were to lose power, which in turn justifies further prolonging illiberal democracy.
However, there probably are much stronger arguments for why political stability minimises external vulnerabilities. Given our precarious geopolitical context, any government will have to juggle its allegiances to both China and the United States, while at the same time play a strong supporting role in keeping ASEAN together to ward off undue big power influence in the region. And given that inter-state relations often rely strongly on personal relationships between leaders, it makes sense to have continuity and predictability when it comes to our leadership.
That being said, it’s not true that single-party dominance is the only way to ensure sound foreign policy. The experiences of Israel, Taiwan, and Switzerland with democracy suggest that frequent changes of political leadership may lead to occasional instances of friction, but business generally goes on as usual. Israel, a country in constant existential danger, is governed by a coalition government which holds a majority of two seats in the Knesset. While both Israel and Taiwan rely heavily on American aid to guarantee their sovereignty, one must admit that Singapore would also depend on big power intervention if we were invaded by hostile countries. If China were genuinely intent on making us a client regime, no amount of political stability is going to prevent that.
Essentially, I do think that Singapore suffers from systemic vulnerabilities which will plague our government for decades to come. But I’m not sure that our current model of semi-autocratic democracy is the best, or only, way to compensate for these issues. It feels as if the government is drawing contentious conclusions from a factual reality, but passing off the entire argument as gospel truth. You don’t always need a political strongman to cover your weaknesses.