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Western Outlier, Colonial Rule? Human Rights and ‘Stability’ in Singapore

Photo by Swapnil Bapat on Unsplash

I believe the choice between economic rights and human rights, between economic security and national security, is a false one.” In 2000, US President Bill Clinton expressed what many US and international human rights observers at the time believed: that economic freedom, democracy, and respect for human rights are intrinsically linked. Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, points to the democratic transitions of South Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia as proof of economic growth and free trade promoting civil society. Historically, there has been a positive correlation between GDP per capita and Human Rights Protection scores across the world. Confounding that trend is Singapore, a highly developed, capitalist city-state in Southeast Asia whose government is notoriously paternalistic and whose human rights violations are frequent and well-documented.

For those who still draw from President Clinton’s developmental perspective, Singapore seems like a bizarre outlier; its authoritarian government is unwilling to give up power while its people prosper economically. Thus, many human rights groups criticize Singapore on moral and political grounds, arguing its government undermines its “obligations under international law to protect, promote, and fulfill human rights.” Such criticism removes Singapore from its context in postcolonial Asia, where a turbulent history informs the technocratic philosophy—where political and economic stability do not necessarily correlate with social freedom—behind Singapore’s stringent government. In Singapore, it is not enough for human rights advocates to advance their causes as righteous under a Western-democratic model; to effect policy change, their advocacy must incorporate the principles of stability upon which Singapore’s government rests.

Singapore’s national history is especially fraught, even for an ex-colony in Southeast Asia. Originally an ethnic-Malay island, Singapore was colonized in the 1800s by the United Kingdom and remained under direct British rule for over a century before finally moving towards independence during the 1950s and 1960s. In its constitution, Singapore established a democratic Parliament and staked out Western-liberal ideals such as freedom of expression and equal protection under the law. Yet, Singapore continued to grapple with many of the challenges facing other postcolonial Asian countries, including economic hardship, frequent riots, strained race relations, and the shadow of the Cold War. Above all else, Singaporeans desired stability, security, and a new national identity. 

When Lee Kuan Yew and the People’s Action Party (PAP) rose to power in the 1950s, they established a “soft authoritarian” system of government with the express goals of promoting order and prosperity. In contrast to Western governing ideals, Lee embraced a system of “Asian values” or “Confucian values,” arguing Singaporeans must sacrifice individual freedoms to provide collective security. As Prime Minister, Lee remade Singapore’s government in the image of those values. Democratic elections were replaced by illiberal Parliamentary reforms (like the introduction of non-elected representatives) and strongarm election tactics, which undermined the political opposition and ensured the PAP stayed in power. Freedom of expression and movement were sharply curtailed under the Internal Security Act, which gave the government strong police powers and sweeping legal authority over Singaporean society (Lee would serve as Singapore’s PM for over three decades; the PAP has enjoyed hegemony over Parliament since 1968.).

Lee used his power to reshape Singapore’s free markets and promote pragmatic policymaking, aiming for long-term economic success. While Singapore was a trade hub long before independence, Lee’s investments into sectors like banking and electronics helped it become one of Asia’s booming “tiger economies,” with its GDP per capita increasing from less than $500 in 1965 to over $55,000 in 2013. Today, Singaporeans enjoy strong social services, including healthcare, housing, and one of the world’s best-performing education systems. The government pays special attention to cohesion across racial and ethnic lines, making diversity a core tenet of Singapore’s modern identity. By supporting its economic development, Singapore produced a high degree of social peace and stability.

Why, then, did Singapore’s economic growth not translate to political and social liberalization, as in Korea or Taiwan? For starters, Singapore’s government is technically a representative democracy, albeit a highly illiberal one. From the 1960s onward, people in ex-colonies across Asia have turned to dictators and demagogues to unite their respective nations and bring “stability” to political and economic emergencies; however, many of those dictators ruled solely through autocratic tactics, eschewing any form of a popular mandate. Meanwhile, the PAP’s economic success, combined with a record of incorrupt governance and a (supposed) tolerance for political pluralism, has translated to genuine and sustained political support among Singaporeans — an unusual status for Asian autocrats. Singapore’s authoritarian capitalism is seen as a product of its stable political and legal institutions, rather than the dictatorial violence and repression that helped fuel democratization movements in Korea, Indonesia, and the Philippines

The PAP further views genuine political opposition as a threat to domestic stability, as evidenced by the turmoil gripping Western democracies; as Lee Kuan Yew argued through his “Asian values,” the Western framework of development, morality, and freedom is not indigenous to Singapore or the rest of Asia. In such a view, the democratic transitions in Korea and Taiwan are Asian outliers: In both cases, the citizens of each nation accused their authoritarian government of generating more instability than it prevented, and Western (namely American) geopolitical influence played an outsize role in shaping their domestic affairs. 

Lee Kuan Yew and other Asian leaders did not turn to autocracy because they opposed human rights or hated democracy; instead, authoritarian governance and rigid legal codes were seen as the most efficient way of promoting economic growth and social stability. As a result, human rights advocates cannot treat democracy as a natural next step for Singapore. Instead, they must place Singapore and other postcolonial nations within their own geopolitical context. In doing so, they can present human rights issues as the next step in pragmatic governance, where supporting human rights also supports principles of stability.

For instance, international rights groups recently blasted Singapore for ordering the execution of Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, a Malay national with an intellectual disability. Under Singapore’s draconian drug laws, Mr. Nagaenthran was sentenced to death for smuggling heroin; however, rights groups argue his disability prevents him from being held responsible for that crime. Despite international pressure against the Singaporean justice system and their death penalty, Singapore only stayed Nagaenthran’s execution after he produced a positive COVID test. Such a move, again, stems from Singapore’s longstanding principle of pragmatic and stable governance, not a concern for basic rights. Singapore uses the same principle of stability to justify recent, wide-reaching laws like the Foreign Interference Bill, which could bar international criticism over the Nagaenthran case under the guise of “fake news.”

In view of this principle, human rights advocates may be able to save Nagaenthran’s life—and push Singapore to reconsider its death penalty—if they can demonstrate such a legal policy leads to instability. Rather than threaten economic instability (such as by calling for sanctions), rights groups could argue the death penalty causes young people to grow disaffected with the PAP, causing Singapore’s government to lose credibility. In fact, this shift may be happening right now: young Singaporeans—who only know their nation as prosperous—lean more liberal than their parents on social and political issues, including the death penalty issue behind the Nagaenthran case. Discontent with Singapore’s status quo has spiked under the COVID pandemic, with the opposition Workers’ Party taking home 10 of 93 seats in Singapore’s 2020 elections. 

While these election results suggest the PAP does not face any immediate threats to its power, Singapore’s government must adapt to a new generation’s hopes, dreams, and worries to best preserve domestic stability, as it has done throughout its turbulent history. This time, upholding human rights can be Singapore’s most pragmatic option—but human rights advocates, within and outside the country, must play their part in making it so.