I finally got around to reading Fareed Zakaria’s 1997 article in Foreign Affairs: “The Rise of Illiberal Democracies.” I really enjoyed his book, The Post-American World and know that he’s a big shot on CNN now. Still, this article far surpasses anything he’s done on TV or books as of late, and it opened my eyes to a very interesting concept, something I hope to expand upon in an academic article in the future.

Zakaria notes somewhat indirectly how Hong Kong and Singapore, both majority Chinese and former British colonies, took very different paths in political development. Immediately I got to thinking about the other two “Chinas,” Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China. They too took very divergent paths in political development. Combined, we have the four majority-Chinese states in the world, each taking a markedly different path. How did this happen? Is Chinese culture really that universal? Or is “Chineseness” simply a farce, at least in political relations? Using some of Zakaria’s terms, I want to look closer into this question.

Zakaria uses the term “illiberal democracy” to define a country that has elections, but they mean close to nothing. “Illiberal” in this sense does not mean conservative, but rather refers to the opposite of classical liberalism. Way before we had the left versus the right, we had royalists versus classical liberals. Liberals like the Founding Fathers believed in freedom of speech, religion, press, and most importantly, rule of law (generally in a constitution). An “illiberal” state, therefore, would have laws made up by the leaders on a whim, limited freedom of the press, and other restrictions on personal expression.

The other half of the phrase, “democracy,” simply refers to popular choice of one’s leaders. After World War II, most countries decided elections were a good thing, even if they were rigged. This would be an illiberal democracy. An autocracy, on the other hand, has no meaningful elections to speak of. Very little is done to imply that the people have any choice, or the elections are for trivial offices. Most authoritarian nations today have rigged elections, or find some way to otherwise suggest they are democratic. The “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” tries for a double whammy, implying both “the people” and “democracy” are involved. In this case, they appear to be overcompensating for their exceptionally oppressive form of government.

This is hardly an exhaustive report, but rather a brief summary. First, Singapore:


Singapore is the illiberal democracy of the group. It has historically been an enormously successful trading post along the Straits of Malacca. Great Britain realized this potential and made it a colony (along with neighboring Malaysia) in the early 1800s. Singapore gained independence after World War II and joined with Malaysia for a few years. Malays have been historically hostile to Chinese, who they feel are interlopers and job-stealers. Even today, Malaysian affirmative action policies are extremely hostile to non-Malays. Singapore was and is very Chinese, and was expelled from the federation as a result. Today the tiny island remains one of the smallest independent nations in the world, with a population of about 5 million.

Singaporean political thought has been dominated by one man since independence: Lee Kwan Yew. Lee’s party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), has been the only party ever to hold power in Singapore. Much like the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party, the PAP isn’t ideological. Instead, they wander the spectrum from far left to far right, whatever will keep the people happy at each point in history. Lee, and his son Lee Hsien Loong, have also been noted for their roles in the development of the “Asian Values” theory. Though largely discredited, the theory implies that Asiatic people are inclined towards hierarchical, authoritarian regimes with a strong focus on communal, versus individual, development. “Asian values” also imply a strong emphasis on economic growth over the preservation of personal liberties, and the primacy of a merit-based society in education and work. With the two major prime ministers of Singapore espousing this theory, it’s little surprise that their political environment doesn’t quite match our own.

Here’s what’s different. Singapore has free elections; there are no stuffed ballot boxes here. However, the PAP’s total dominance of the media and law making structure is abused regularly. The simplest and most telling example comes from the 2006 Parliamentary election, where the PAP won 66% of the popular vote and 82 of the 84 available seats. Singapore doesn’t have a proportional representation system, but this is still pretty remarkable math. Opposition groups have frequently complained about harassment, with perhaps the most extreme example being the defamation of opposition law maker J.B. Jeyaretnam. Despite being the only opposition law maker in the entire Parliament in the history of independent Singapore, the PAP bombarded him with law suits based on entirely phony charges. He was eventually forced to declare bankruptcy, also making him ineligible to hold office. He died in 2008, and spent the last years of his life selling his books on street corners, after book stores were banned from selling his work. A documentary on his life was also banned and would never be shown in Singapore. The Economist wrote an excellent obituary on him that I would encourage everyone to read.

In sum, Singapore has a vibrant, free-market economy where elections are regularly held. However, the judiciary is far from impartial. Substantial restrictions exist on what you can say and print in newspapers. At the same time, Singapore remains one of the least corrupt and wealthiest nations in the world. Does its success give it a free pass from any criticism? I’ve yet to hear American politicians bombard Singapore the same insults they throw at China, yet the two have similar controls on free expression. It’s a matter of degree of course, but Singapore is hardly a shining example of democracy in Asia. Its strong middle class and solid institutional structure provide hope that someday a more liberal democracy will take its place.