Opinion Politics & Protest World

Why Singapore’s mix of authoritarianism and democracy is a warning for Hong Kong

The landslide victory for the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) in Singapore’s September 11 general elections shocked many within the PAP, the opposition parties, Singaporeans and foreign observers. The PAP won 70 per cent of the popular vote and 83 of 89 seats, 10 percentage points and two seats more than the last general election in 2011.

Such results would be the envy of any political party in many democracies. Yet judging by the massive turnout at the rallies of some opposition parties and the more tepid attendance at the PAP’s rallies, one can be forgiven for thinking the opposition should have won more seats and votes.

As a Singaporean living in Hong Kong, I made a short visit to my country while campaigning was in full swing in early September. I attended the rallies of three opposition parties: the Reform Party, the Workers’ Party and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). The SDP rally in Raffles Place in Singapore’s financial district on September 7 was packed, while a huge crowd filled the large field at the Workers’ Party rally on September 5.

A much smaller crowd was present at the Reform Party rally on September 4. Although I did not attend any PAP rally, reports on the Internet and social media said most PAP rallies attracted far fewer people than the Workers’ Party and SDP rallies.

Workers' Party rally

Supporters at a Workers’ Party rally at Serangoon Stadium on 29 April 2011 during the 2011 general election. Photo: Wikicommons.

Why have the big crowds at some opposition rallies not translated into votes for the opposition?

One key reason is the opposition was the victim of its own success. The massive crowds at the rallies of the Workers’ Party and SDP made the prospect of the PAP losing many seats or even losing power all too real in the minds of many Singaporean voters.

For the Singaporean voters who did not attend opposition rallies, the message was brought home to them in a front page story in the Straits Times, Singapore’s main newspaper, on September 8, quoting a Singapore minister, Khaw Boon Wan, saying there was no guarantee the PAP would remain in government after polling on September 11.

The story was accompanied by a big photo of the SDP rally in Singapore’s financial district with the huge crowds.

Singapore's political parties. Photo: HKFP.

Singapore’s political parties. Photo: HKFP.

Many Singaporeans want opposition politicians in Parliament to check the PAP, but are not mentally prepared for any other government besides the PAP. Having been ruled by the PAP for 56 years, which have seen Singapore grow to be one of the world’s richest cities, many Singaporeans view the PAP as their guarantor of prosperity—although some may grumble against the authoritarian aspects of their government, such as restrictions on freedom of expression and demonstrations.

Hence, the latest election in Singapore was somewhat like mathematical game theory.

Each Singaporean voter attends an opposition rally and looks at the large numbers of other voters also attending the same rally. Each voter thinks that on one hand, he would like more opposition candidates voted into Parliament; but on the other hand, if everyone in that big crowd including himself votes for the opposition, then the PAP risks getting booted out of government.

Thus the Singaporean voter decides to play it safe and vote for the PAP. Add together all the Singaporeans who thought this way and you get the big swing to the PAP that we saw on September 11.

PAP supporters

People’s Action Party supporters at the Bukit Panjang SMC and Holland–Bukit Timah GRC nomination centre. Photo: Wikicommons.

The results of Singapore’s latest elections offer some lesson and questions for Hong Kong.

Singapore has universal suffrage but much less freedom of expression compared to Hong Kong. If critics complain of the Singapore government’s limitations on freedom of expression, the Singapore government can point to the majority who voted it into power. Hong Kongers, who have never had full democracy, resort to a free press and demonstration to air their grievances.

Hong Kong has seen huge demonstrations, sometimes numbering hundreds of thousands, such as the Tiananmen vigil, the July 1 pro-democracy march and other demonstrations calling for universal suffrage.

The question is, will such huge demonstrations translate into substantial support among Hong Kongers or result in any real political action?

Suppose Hong Kong gained universal suffrage one day. Suppose an authoritarian, pro-Beijing party gets voted into power in Hong Kong by a huge landslide, as with the PAP’s recent landslide win.

If a pro-Beijing authoritarian party got swept into power in a landslide victory, will it tell the protestors that they are a noisy but irrelevant minority?

Perhaps both Hong Kong and Singapore need a more nuanced relationship between demonstrations and democracy. Citizens of both Asian cities should be able to make their voices heard, their concerns known and exert their power through both the rally and the ballot box.

Why Singapore's mix of authoritarianism and democracy is a warning for Hong Kong