Bryan Caplan >> Guest Author
The Online Citizen thanks Professor Bryan Caplan of George Mason University and the Civil Service College for permission to reproduce this essay. This essay was quoted by Law Minister K.Shanmugam at a recent dialogue with the New York State Bar Association. This essay was first published on ETHOS
Introduction: Singapore versus the Median Voter Model
Officially, Singapore is a democracy. When you compare it to almost any other democratic country, though, Singapore has two deeply puzzling features.
Puzzle #1: Singapore frequently adopts the kind of policies that economists would call “economically efficient, but politically unpopular.” For example, Singapore has (nearly) unilateral free trade, admits unusually large numbers of immigrants, supplies most medical care on a fee-for-service basis, means-tests most government assistance, imposes peak load pricing on roads, and fights recessions by cutting employers’ taxes.[i] In most democracies, advocating any of these policies could easily cost a politician his job. In Singapore, policies like this have stood the test of time.
Puzzle #2: Even though it follows the forms of British parliamentary democracy, Singapore is effectively a one-party state. The People’s Action Party (PAP) has held uninterrupted power since the country gained Home Rule in 1959, and has never received less than 60% of the popular vote. Even more strikingly, the PAP has a near-monopoly in Singapore’s Parliament. In many electoral cycles, this party literally won 100% of the seats; it currently holds 82 out of 84.
To put these puzzles in perspective, we need to review the Median Voter Model, the workhorse of modern political economy. In the Median Voter Model, two political parties compete for votes by advocating a “platform” – a bundle of policies. Citizens in turn vote for the party with the platform closest to their ideal policy bundle. Setting aside various complications, [iii] the Median Voter Model has two strong and intuitive implications:
First, competing parties offer policy platforms that maximally appeal to centrist voters. To be more precise, they offer the platform that the median voter regards as ideal. If one party deviates from the preferences of the median voter, its rival can win for sure by sticking with the platform most desired by the median voter.
Second, no single party can consistently win elections. A rival party can always match a dominant party’s electoral success – i.e., win with 50% probability – simply by mimicking the platform of the dominant party.
Although the Median Voter Model abstracts from a great deal of institutional detail, it usually fits the facts well. In democracies around the world, political parties strive to identify and support policies that are moderate relative to public opinion. As a result, parties rarely achieve lasting political dominance. If one party’s policies turn out to be more popular than its rivals, those rivals quickly adjust their platforms to regain the public’s favor.
Now it should be clear why Singaporean political economy is so puzzling. It persistently adopts policies that the democratic process would overturn almost anywhere else on earth, but the same party keeps winning election after election by a landslide. Why doesn’t a rival party promise to abolish the PAP’s unpopular policies and soar to power? How, in short, is Singapore’s political-economic equilibrium possible?
Explanation #1: Singapore is Not Really a Democracy
The most obvious solution to these puzzles, to be blunt, is that Singapore is a thinly-veiled dictatorship. Despite its Westminsterian pedigree, it must officially ban competing parties, informally terrorize political rivals, and/or rig its elections. Lack of electoral constraints in turn allow Singapore’s government to adopt unpopular policies. In most dictatorships, of course, the government opts for policies that are economically inefficient and politically unpopular. But the Singaporeans got lucky: Its despots have been benevolent, or at least have a long time horizon.
The “Singapore as a thinly-veiled dictatorship” theory coheres neatly with Western stereotypes about the city-state, and elegantly resolves my two puzzles. Unfortunately, the dictatorship thesis ignores three basic facts.
First, Singapore has several legal opposition parties, including the Workers’ Party of Singapore, the Singapore Democratic Alliance, and the Singapore Malays National Organization. [iv] The only illegal party is the Communist Party of Malaya. [v] As Mauzy and Milne observe: [vi]
The Singapore government has not committed any serious violations of civil rights. There have been no extrajudicial killings or political disappearances, and there are currently no political detainees.
The worst that Freedom House can say about Singapore’s democracy is that: “[T]he opposition is hamstrung by a ban on political films and television programs, the threat of libel suits, strict regulations on political associations, and the PAP’s influence on the media and the courts.” [vii] Activists in opposition parties face many minor indignities, but hardly live in mortal fear of the PAP. [viii]
At the margin, of course, PAP pressure deters some political talent from joining opposition parties. But this is a feeble explanation for the opposition’s near-total failure to gain political office. After all, there are many countries that have vigorous electoral competition even though their opposition candidates face great dangers. In Pakistan, for example, the reins of power have repeatedly changed hands via electoral channels even though opposition candidates have frequently faced arrest, execution, and assassination.
Second, while the PAP does place unusual restrictions on political expression, these restrictions shield people from criticism, not policies. Opposition candidates who avoid personal attacks against PAP politicians can and do freely attack PAP policies as ineffective or unfair. An opposition candidate could safely campaign on a platform to abolish Electronic Road Pricing or slash immigration. Indeed, an opposition candidate could safely campaign on a platform to rein in politically-motivated defamation suits. In the Median Voter Model, embracing these positions would quickly usher opposition politicians into power – assuming, of course, that the median voter genuinely wants the changes in question.
Third, there is virtually no evidence that Singapore’s elections are corrupt. Indeed, international observers have consistently rated its government as one of the least corrupt in the world. The World Bank’s Governance Matters data set, for example, gives Singapore stellar scores in “Rule of Law” and “Control of Corruption.” [ix] Despite Freedom House’s negative assessment of political freedom in Singapore, it grants that “elections are free from irregularities and vote rigging.” [x] The Global Barometer country report for Singapore finds that 86% of Singaporeans believe that their country is either “a full democracy” or “a democracy, but with minor problems.” [xi] The same percentage agrees that the last election was either “completely free and fair,” or “free and fair, but with minor problems.” [xii] Yes, decades of one-party electoral dominance is normally is a strong symptom of electoral corruption, but not in Singapore. [xiii]
Evidence from the World Values Survey, administered in Singapore in 2002, reinforces this conclusion. 18.7% of Singaporeans were “very satisfied” with “the way the people now in national office are handling the country’s affairs” and another 72.7% were “fairly satisfied”; the comparable numbers for the United States in 1999 (the survey year closest to 2002) were 6.9% and 60.2%. [xiv] Similarly, when asked whether their country “is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves,” or “for the benefit of all the people,” only 20.4% in Singapore say, “a few big interests,” versus 63.3% for the U.S. [xv] International observers may say that the United States is much more democratic than Singapore, but Americans are markedly less likely than Singaporeans to feel like their government delivers the results the public wants.
I do not mean to deny the many peculiarities of Singaporean politics. In most democracies, leading members of the opposition have successful careers and a serious chance of winning. In most democracies, the members of the ruling party respond to their opponents’ verbal abuse with more verbal abuse – not lawsuits. The government of Singapore partially owns the main newspapers and television stations, and practices a moderate form of censorship. [xvi] My point, though, is that these peculiarities are largely irrelevant as far as the Median Voter Model is concerned. In Singapore, voters are free to vote for opposition candidates, and opposition candidates can safely advocate the elimination of unpopular policies. In the Median Voter Model, this is all you need for the will of the people to prevail.
Explanation #2: Singapore’s Voters Are Unusually Economically Literate
Many of Singapore’s policies are unpopular around the world, but they persistently survive the democratic test in Singapore. Once we accept reject the dictatorship hypothesis, the next obvious explanation for Singapore’s unusually efficient policies is its unusually economically literate public opinion. In my The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies [xvii] I find that even in the relatively market-oriented United States, the market mechanism is unpopular, especially in international and labor markets. But why couldn’t Singapore be the exception that proves the rule? Who says there can’t be a country where the man in the street embraces the market mechanism, even for international and labor markets?
At the outset, it is worth pointing out that the “unusual economic literacy” hypothesis largely fails for the country where it is most plausible: Hong Kong. Consider: Hong Kong has been ranked the freest economy in the world since 1970, the earliest year covered by the Economic Freedom of the World data set.[xviii] Under these laissez-faire policies, Hong Kong enjoyed decades of remarkable economic growth. One would expect this excellent performance, combined with status quo bias, would lead to popular support for laissez-faire policies. It does not: Lau Siu-kai and Kuan Hsin-chi find that a majority of Hong Kongers want to change many of its most distinctive policies: 57.6% favor a minimum wage, 68.4% favor price controls for necessities, 74.7% want more progressive taxation, and 75.5% want to “protect local industry against foreign competition.” [xix] Decades of success have failed to convince the citizens of the free trade capital of the world of the merits of free trade.
Given Singapore’s many economic, political, and cultural similarities to Hong Kong, it seems unlikely that Singaporean public opinion would be significantly better. Unfortunately, nothing comparable to the Hong Kong survey exists for Singapore. To the best of my knowledge, public opinion researchers have never conducted a detailed survey of Singaporeans’ economic beliefs. Still, the 2002 World Values Survey contains a few questions that allow us to assess the “unusual economic literacy” hypothesis in a preliminary way.
The evidence turns out to be mixed at best. Singaporeans are more likely to accept inequality to provide good incentives. When asked whether “incomes should be made more equal” or whether “we need larger income differences as incentives,” (higher scores on a 1-10 scale indicate greater support for incentives) Singaporeans’ average answer was 6.88, versus 5.72 for Americans. [xx] Singaporeans and Americans have virtually the same beliefs about the social benefits of competition.[xxi] But Singaporeans are actually less sympathetic to private enterprise than Americans. When asked whether private ownership or government ownership should be increased (higher scores on 1-10 scale indicate greater support for government ownership), the average answer in Singapore was 4.75, versus 3.62 for the U.S. [xxii]
While there is little public opinion data for specific policy questions, there is solid evidence that Singaporeans do not support Singapore’s unusually open immigration policy. In fact, Singaporeans favor a sharply more restrictive approach than Americans: Only 4.0% favor open borders, and just 24% are willing to admit immigrants “as long as jobs [are] available”; the comparable numbers in the United States are 12.4% and 44.8%.[xxiii] Mauzy and Milne confirm this pattern: “[A] 2000 poll of 500 Singaporeans conducted by Channel NewAsia found that 78 percent of respondents preferred a cut-back on immigration, mainly out of fear for their jobs.” Opposition parties clearly view anti-foreign populism as a vote magnet.[xxiv] As Mauzy and Milne (2002: 152) note: “All the opposition parties complained about jobs going to foreigners while Singaporeans were being laid off, and the SDP called for a ‘Singapore First’ hiring policy.”
Although there is little reason to believe that the Singaporean electorate is unusually economically literate, there is admittedly some indication that Singaporeans are unusually concerned about economic performance. 58.8% of Singaporeans say that “a high level of economic growth” should be their nation’s top priority; 48.6% of Americans say the same.[xxv] Similarly, only 37.9% of Singaporeans – versus 65.2% of Americans – think it would be a “good thing” if people put “less emphasis on money and material possessions.”[xxvi] Once Singaporeans recognize the economic benefits of a policy, they seem more willing to support it; there just isn’t much evidence that their beliefs about polices’ economic benefits are especially astute.
More research is necessary to decisively reject the “unusual economic literacy” hypothesis. Surveys about the popularity of Singapore’s most distinctive policies would be helpful. Singaporean versions of high-quality instruments like the General Social Survey[xxvii] and the Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy would be especially informative.[xxviii] Still, at this point the case for the “unusual economic literacy” hypothesis looks rather weak.
Explanation #3: Singapore’s Voters Are Unusually Loyal, Deferential, and/or Resigned
Even if Singaporean public opinion were unusually economically literate, it would still be hard to explain the dominance of the PAP. In the Median Voter Model, opposition parties’ best response would be to mimic the policies of the PAP, leaving voters indifferent. Singaporean politics plainly doesn’t work this way. It is hard to name any other democratic country where the ruling party has held power so firmly for so long.
Singapore seems to be in a class of its own as long as we think of it primarily as a country. But the picture changes radically if we instead think of Singapore as a city. In the United States, big city politics is often about as lopsided as Singaporean politics. Democratic mayors have won without interruption since 1931 in Chicago[xxix] and 1964 in San Francisco.[xxx] While the Democrats have failed to monopolize the mayor’s office in New York City, they have near-PAP dominance of the New York City Council: Democrats hold 45 out of 48 occupied seats.[xxxi] Note that in the Median Voter Model, this cannot be explained purely by the liberalism of urban voters. After all, why can’t the Republican parties in Democratic cities simply move sharply to the left?[xxxii]
In purely formal terms, a modified version of the Median Voter Model can easily account for one-party democracy. You simply need to assume that voters have not only policy preferences, but party preferences as well.[xxxiii] Intuitively, this means that even if two parties offer identical policies, some voters still decidedly prefer one party to the other. If the median party preference favors one party over its competitors, the members of the favored party then have the slack or “wiggle room” to deviate from the public’s policy preferences without courting defeat in the next election.[xxxiv] By itself, of course, “wiggle room” does not improve the quality of public policy; but well-informed and well-meaning politicians could use it to persistently deliver economically efficient but politically unpopular policies.
Why precisely would voters have these “party preferences”? The most straightforward interpretation is that party preferences reflect group identification or loyalty. Voters might see one party as being “their party,” just as they see the local sports team as “their team.” Another interpretation of party preferences is that they reflect deference – a belief in one party’s superior competence and/or intentions. This deference could stem from a successful track record, but it doesn’t have to; voters could also defer to politicians’ current traits, such as intelligence and charisma. A final, more pessimistic interpretation of party preferences is that they reflect resignation. A voter might favor one party over another not because he wants it to rule, but because he feels that resistance is futile. In the United States, people who sympathize with a third party rarely vote for it because “it has no chance of winning.” The same mindset could lead sympathetic Singaporeans to withhold their votes from opposition parties. Why vote for second party when “it has no chance of winning”?[xxxv]
Which interpretation – or mix of interpretations – best fits the realities of Singapore? Once again, it is difficult to resolve this question using current data. Empirical evidence relevant to the loyalty interpretation is particularly scarce. For the deference and resignation stories, however, there is some preliminary evidence to light our way.
Several different sources confirm the importance of deference in Singaporean politics. As mentioned earlier, Singaporeans are actually markedly more satisfied with their national leaders and convinced of their good intentions than Americans.[xxxvi] The Global Barometer survey finds that Singapore’s Prime Minister and National Government enjoy extremely high trust; they are tied for the third most-trusted on a list of thirteen national institution.[xxxvii] Compared to Americans, Singaporeans show little interest in “giving people more say”; just 19.7% make this a top priority, compared to 32.6% of Americans.[xxxviii]
Even critics of the PAP seem to endorse the deference hypothesis. Mutalib, for example, finds it “imperative” to “highlight the success of the government in the economy,” then immediately adds:[xxxix]
Obviously, such a success in turning Singapore into an affluent country accords the government a high degree of “performance legitimacy.” This in turn directly impairs the Opposition’s image and effectiveness and also explains its inconsequential role in this Republic.
Note that “performance legitimacy” is almost synonymous with “deference.” Mutalib goes on to explain that current PAP candidates are widely seen as more competent than the opposition: “[M]any in the Opposition leadership today have neither a university education nor a successful professional career. Elitist as this may sound, this educational factor has proven to rank high in voter preferences, as confirmed by media reports all these years.”[xl] Mauzy and Milne similarly argue that PAP leaders have constantly strived to expand their competence edge over rival parties:[xli]
As early as 1959… Lee Kuan Yew said, “It is a battle of ideals and ideas. And the side that recruits more ability and more talent will be the side that wins.” Lee has always had a strong preference for those who perform well scholastically, particularly in the sciences. Some of the other early party stalwarts had concerns about focusing so narrowly, but his view, modified a bit in the mid-1970s, has prevailed. Therefore, the “combing of every nook and cranny of Singapore” for political talent has typically gone outside the party…
While the deference story does fairly well, there is also considerable evidence that resignation matters, too. Singaporeans’ unusually low professed interest in politics is telling. Only 3.2% of Singaporeans say they are “very interested,” and another 32.8% say that are “somewhat interest”; in the U.S., the corresponding numbers are 18.3% and 47.2%.[xlii] Mutalib (2004: 358) reports that three decades worth of studies of National University of Singapore undergraduates judge them to be “politically unaware, disinterested, and apathetic.” The World Values Survey consistently finds that compared to Americans, Singaporeans are extremely reluctant to engage in even low-level political participation, such as signing a petition or attending a rally.[xliii] The stereotype of the apolitical Singaporean appears to have much basis in fact.
Overall, it looks like the solution to the paradoxes of Singaporean political economy lies within the family of “party preference” stories. The challenge is figuring out which variant or variants best fits the facts. Deference and resignation seem to play major roles in Singapore’s politics. But more systematic evidence is necessary to cement these conclusions – and test whether pure loyalty to the PAP matters too.
In the West, Singapore is widely perceived as a benevolent dictatorship. From this starting point, social scientists have little to learn from Singaporean political economy: The explanation for Singapore’s success is simply that it had the good fortune to be ruled by the smartest, nicest dictators on earth.
Once one corrects Western misconceptions about Singapore’s democratic credentials, though, the city-state looks curiouser and curiouser. Singapore seems to contradict everything that economists and political scientists think they know about democracy: How can any party honestly win election after election – much less a party committed to many economically efficient but unpopular policies?
Given the scarcity of data, I can only begin to answer this question. Still, there is little reason to believe that Singaporean voters are markedly more economically literate than voters in other countries. The secret to Singapore’s success seems to lie in its electorate’s “party preference” for a ruling party that happens to take economic reasoning seriously. Party preferences in favor of the PAP give it enough slack to impose policies that would not survive a direct popular vote. There is convincing evidence in favor of both the deference and resignation interpretations of Singaporeans’ party preferences, but the topic deserves further study.
Understanding the paradoxes of Singaporean political economy sheds new light on political economy in general. While most democracies have frequent partisan turnover at the national level, sub-national democratic politics are often as one-sided as in Singapore. In the broader world, though, one-party democracy does not seem to depend on the delivery of remarkable economic performance. Is this because the relative importance of loyalty, deference, and resignation varies? Or did Singapore simply have the good fortune to put blind trust in men who coincidentally deserved it?
Once political economists have a better handle on one-party democracy, they will be ready to take a second look at national politics. Why exactly is it so hard for one party in a democracy to stay on top at the national level? One interesting hypothesis is simply that people are more interested in – and therefore less resigned about – national politics. But this raises further questions: What determines whether a given democratic contest will catch voters’ interest? And under what circumstances does greater interest lead to worse policies?
It is easy to find fascination in Singapore. Observers around the world have been intrigued by its economy, history, policies, culture, cuisine, and architecture. My research on Singapore has convinced me that its political economy deserves to be added to the list of “the most fascinating things about Singapore.” It is an illuminating challenge to time-tested models of how democracy works. But more importantly, the mechanisms underlying Singaporean political economy are probably at work in every democracy. These mechanisms are not unique to Singapore, just uniquely visible.
Notes[i] See especially Ghesquiere, H., Singapore’s Success: Engineering Economic Growth (Singapore: Thomson Learning, 2007). [ii] Mutalib, H., Parties and Politics: A Study of Opposition Parties and the PAP in Singapore (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, 2004): p5. [iii] See e.g. Cooter, R., The Strategic Constitution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000): p17-49. One seemingly strong assumption – that preferences are one-dimensional, has received a surprising degree of empirical confirmation. See e.g. Poole, Keith and Rosenthal, Howard, Congress: A Political-Economic History of Roll Call Voting (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). [iv] See generally Mutalib (2004). [v] Mauzy, D. K, “Electoral Innovation and One-Party Dominance in Singapore,” in Hsieh, John Fuh-sheng and Newman David, eds. How Asia Votes (New York: Chatham House Publishers, 2002): p246. [vi] Mauzy, D., and R. Milne, Singapore Politics Under the People’s Action Party. (New York: Routledge, 2002): p128. [vii] http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=22&year=2008&country=7486 [viii] See generally Mauzy (2002): p241-245; Mutalib (2004): p239-267.