Unnoticed by the rest of the world, something significant happened in Singapore on Saturday: former Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan has, not surprisingly, won victory in a field of five candidates to become the country’s seventh president. But it was a narrow victory, with Mr. Tan getting about 35 percent of the 2.1 million votes cast.
This somewhat untidy result, in contrast to the 99.8 percent victories typically recorded by third-world dictatorships, is further evidence of the fact that, if still in many ways harshly authoritarian, Singapore has quietly moved a long way toward genuine democracy. It is, by Asian standards, an open society.
In a world apparently dominated by gloom and disaster and apparently run by people enthralled to irrational ideas, it is refreshing to see Singapore gradually moving from one-party authoritarianism to a genuine multi-party state, and continuing to give its people a good standard of living while doing so.
The thing that strikes me in most developing countries is the cult of leader-worship, often taken to grotesque extremes. In the Singapore national museum a diorama shows the first opening of the island’s independent Parliament. Lee Kwan Yew, the great architect of Singapore’s government who for long had the undisputed last word in everything, is shown as a tiny model figure.
This, as far as I know, is the only statue or representation of Mr. Lee to be found anywhere on the island. This is in glaring contrast to the monstrous statues of the reigning dictator dominating the plazas of the Third World, plainly destined to be hurled down by vengeful mobs the moment the dictator is destroyed or overthrown.
The musical fountains at the theme park of Sentosa Island play music each evening to a backdrop of illuminated water-sprays: there are no pictures of the Great Leader. There are, instead, some large representations of the “Merlion,” half-mermaid, half-lion, which has been selected as Singapore’s symbol. Among the tourist attractions advertised is not the great leader’s birthplace but rather a chimpanzees’ tea-party at the local zoo.
It is ironic but fitting that, because he will have nothing to do with the creation of any cult of personality, Lee’s personality and reputation has dominated Singapore from the first days of its independence. It should, by all the portents, have evolved into another crazy, fly-blown dictatorship.
When it took power in 1959, Lee Kwan Yew’s People’s Action Party (PAP) was a fearsome, apparently leftist machine which dominated politics. There were absolutely no natural resources (even drinking water had to be imported from a sometimes unfriendly Malaya). With most of Singapore’s population ethnic Chinese, the Communists had high and apparently well-founded hopes for power.
However, it didn’t work out like that. Despite the bleating of Western clergymen and other leftists, many of whom have been conspicuously silent over the little matters of the Communist killing-fields in Cambodia and the Gulags of Laos and Vietnam, Singapore prospered.
Today’s British visitor, coming from the squalid chaos of Heathrow, finds the sparkling, palatial, miraculously efficient Changi Airport something of a rude cultural shock — and unlike the airports of some developing countries, it is no Potemkin village effort. Certainly, some of the Nanny State provisions have been onerous, including the banning of the fireworks beloved by the Chinese.
Other bans, such as that on chewing gum, make a good deal of sense for people who do not want their suits ruined. Signs in elevators warn against urinating in them, and durians, the sweet-tasting but evil-smelling fruit, are banned on the underground railway system.
One T-shirt on sale bears the slogan “Singapore is a fine city,” proceeding to list the things for which one can be fined. It is not hard to imagine the fate of anyone wearing a T-shirt making equivalent complaints in Burma or North Korea.
Artistic and intellectual life has been dull and conventional (like Plato, Lee Kwan Yew seems to have distrusted the arts) but this is gradually changing. The university carries out important research.
There are plenty of complaints to be heard, especially among the legal profession, but at least there is freedom to complain, and sometimes the complaints result in action. Further, it is hard to know how deeply these complaints affect the essential idea of Singapore, and Lee Kwan Yew’s stated goal of creating a “rugged society.”
On frequent visits since 1969, I have been able to see the press gradually becoming freer and more critical. Further, the generally fairly docile nature of the press has at least as much to do with Confucian cultural ideas of politeness as it has with censorship.
President Tan has said the Presidency is above politics and he was not officially endorsed by the PAP, though he is clearly supported by it. The election result shows the people want change, but they want it in a decent, peaceful and democratic manner. From nothing, they have built a little island nation to be proud of, and while further reforms are inevitable, they would be crazy to do anything to imperil that achievement.