Despite making “a very small improvement” in its total score last year, Singapore remains in the “flawed democracy” category, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)’s Democracy Index for 2020.

The city-state ranked 74 on the index globally last year, with an overall score of 6.03.

In the Asia and Australasia region, Singapore ranked at 15th place, one place behind Thailand and one place above Bangladesh.

On the global list, Singapore fell in second-last place in the ‘flawed democracy’ category, just one place above the South American nation of Guyana.

Singapore came close to falling below the threshold of 6.00, which could have classified it as a “hybrid regime”.

Flawed democracies are described by the EIU as nations in which free and fair elections are held, and “even if there are problems such as infringements on media freedom, basic civil liberties are respected”.

However, significant weaknesses in other aspects of democracy are present in flawed democracies, “including problems in governance, an underdeveloped political culture and low levels of political participation”.

Hybrid regimes are characterised by “substantial irregularities prevent the countries from being both free and fair”.

Government pressure on opposition parties and candidates may be common in hybrid regimes. Pressure on civil society and the media is typical, where there is harassment of and pressure on journalists. The judiciary is not independent of the executive and the legislative body in such regimes, the EIU stated.

The other two categories — both on the extreme ends of the four types — are full democracies and authoritarian regimes.

In full democracies, basic political freedoms and civil liberties are respected. Effective systems of checks and balances exist. The judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislative, and media — the Fourth Estate — are also independent. There are only limited problems in the functioning of democracies.

In authoritarian regimes, state political pluralism is absent or heavily circumscribed, with many being dictatorships.

“Some formal institutions of democracy may exist, but these have little substance. Elections, if they do occur, are not free and fair. There is disregard for abuses and infringements of civil liberties. Media are typically state-owned or controlled by groups connected to the ruling regime. There is repression of criticism of the government and pervasive censorship. There is no independent judiciary,” according to the EIU.

Nations on the EIU Democracy Index are evaluated based on criteria such as electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties.

PAP losing a number of seats in GE 2020 “a positive development for political contestation” in Singapore: EIU Democracy Index 2020

While political restrictions remain in Singapore, according to the EIU, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) losing a number of seats in the general election (GE) can be seen as “a positive development for political contestation”.

The Worker’s Party (WP) was formally recognised as an opposition grouping in Parliament, the EIU added.

Singapore held the GE — despite calls for postponement from multiple alternative parties and segments of the public — in July, which still saw PAP securing a supermajority.

However, the PAP obtained a lower vote share, dropping to 61.24 per cent — the lowest since GE2011.

WP became the highlight of the election after winning over an entire group representative constituency (GRC) — the newly-carved Sengkang, where resident demographics skew toward younger people.

The Sengkang team, helmed by 37-year-old He Ting Ru, comprises 44-year-old Jamus Lim, 33-year-old Louis Chua and 27-year-old Raeesah Khan. All four Sengkang GRC MPs were elected to WP’s central executive committee in an internal election on 27 December.

In the 2020 general election, WP’s recorded the best performance by an alternative party in Singapore’s history so far in terms of overall contested vote share with 50.49 per cent of the votes.

Academician Lily Zubaidah Rahim opined that the WP securing the Sengkang GRC and, in general, alternative parties having an overall higher share of votes, signal the Singapore electorate’s demand for the PAP’s democratisation.

Dr Lily, whose areas of specialisation include authoritarian governance and Southeast Asian politics, posited that Singapore’s authoritarian political landscape “may well be shifting away from one-party dominance, in line with neighbouring Indonesia and Malaysia and the Northeast Asian democracies of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan”.

In the EIU Democracy Index last year, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan moved from the “flawed democracy” category and entered the “full democracies” grouping.

Japan and South Korea ranked 21st and 23rd place respectively on the index last year.

Taiwan, in particular, emerged as the “star-performer” in the EIU’s 2020 Democracy Index after rising 20 places in the global ranking from 31st place to 11th.

The country’s score rose by more than any other country in the 2020 index, the EIU noted.

In terms of the COVID-19 pandemic management, Singapore — alongside China and South Korea, among other nations — went “much further than the rest of the world in tracking and policing their citizens and locking them down” in the process of curbing the spread of the virus, the EIU noted.

COVID-19 pandemic “likely to further accelerate the shift in the global balance of power towards Asia”: EIU Democracy Index 2020

Asia gaining three new “full democracies” in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan last year, compared to Western Europe losing France and Portugal, signals the “shift in the global balance of power from the West to the East”, the EIU remarked.

The COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, has “accelerated” the said shift, it noted.

“Asia lags behind the West in democratic terms, having only five “full democracies”, compared with western Europe’s 13, and the region also has seven “authoritarian regimes” while western Europe has none.

“Yet the Asia region has, so far, handled the pandemic much better than virtually any other, with lower infection and mortality rates and a fast economic rebound,” said the EIU.

Asian governments’ past experience with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak, according to the EIU, have prompted them to react decisively during the COVID-19 pandemic, “albeit deploying coercive powers in some cases”.

Governments in Asia, the EIU added, “benefited from well-organised health systems and retained the confidence of their populations”.

“By contrast, European governments were slow to act, some health systems came close to collapse and public trust in government declined,” the EIU said.

Europe’s handling of the pandemic did not bode well for its advocacy of democracy, which is “something that authoritarian China did not fail to point out”, the EIU noted.

“The pandemic has highlighted the widening gap between a dynamic East and a declining West and is likely to further accelerate the shift in the global balance of power towards Asia,” said the EIU.

Correction: This article previously listed Guyana as an African nation. It has been amended to reflect its position as a country in South Americe. We apologise for the error.

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