PRC Still Idolizes Singapore, Warts & All

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 5/23/2011 12:02:00 AM
While pointed commentaries in official Chinese publications on perceived slights by Westerners (particularly Americans) against China are common, you often don't see these publications going out of their way to defend others being the subject of foreign defamation. The target in question here is Singapore. A few days ago I commented on various opposition parties gaining a 40% share of the popular vote in Singapore--a one-party state since its inception under Harry Lee Kuan Yew's People's Action Party (PAP). These opposition parties would have gained a larger share of the legislature had a proportional representation (PR) system been in place instead of a first past the post one. You can certainly argue that the minuscule Workers Party gains--6 out of 87 seats--would have been greater had Singapore not been subject to fairly obvious gerrymandering.

It is a well-known story by now how Deng Xiaoping's 1978 visit to Singapore helped set China's authoritarian development plans in motion. Here was a tiny country making its way in the world without its longtime leaders losing their tight control on the reins of power. Not only has the Communist Party of China (CPC) tried to emulate the PAP, but it has also observed how Singaporean politics evolve. From the PAP website, no less:
Ties go beyond such physical developments. In 2002, Zeng Qinghong, an alternative member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) Central Committee and a member of the CPC’s Central Committee Secretariat put it in a nutshell when he received in Beijing a delegation led by PAP Central Exco member Lim Swee Say.

He said: “The CPC values learning from the PAP’s experience of governance. This has become an important element of the exchanges between both parties.” To this end, Chinese officials have sat in at meet-the-people sessions and noted PAP MPs’ familiarity with citizens’ concerns. They have gone back and launched their own regular meetings with the public.

As China’s political reforms continue, they keep returning to observe how Singapore handles other issues.
So perhaps it was never going to be the case that Singapore's recent election results would go down well with Beijing's powers-that-be. After all, here was a one-party state that delivered a high standard of living to its citizens being reprimanded by these very citizens. At the very least, let's say it's not quite conducive to continuing processes of Chinese political reform aimed at broadening public input following Singapore.

So, in this China Daily op-ed, the response is one of blaming Westerners for blowing the Singaporean elections out of proportion. Linking events in Singapore with those in the Middle East is particularly given short shrift. In a nutshell, "Westerners don't understand us Asians":
The opposition in Singapore's parliamentary elections made a breakthrough on May 7, winning six out of 87 seats in the parliament for the first time. Shortly afterwards, Lee Kuan Yew and [former PM] Goh Chok Tong announced that they would quit the cabinet, drawing more attention to the political situation in Singapore.

Many Western media agencies quickly associated the political system of Singapore with the retirement of Lee and Goh as well as the setback that the ruling party suffered in the parliamentary elections. A British media outlet published an editorial under the headline "Singapore is taking the First Steps to True Democracy," and another Western media outlet claimed in its report that Singapore has never had a "real two-party system."

The Western media said directly that the existing political system of Singapore is not "true democracy," implying that only Western democracy is the genuine democracy. Some Western media reports even related the political changes in Singapore to the unrest in West Asia and North Africa, claiming that they were all the results of the global wave of democratization.
Then the op-ed begins to conflate democratic processes with economic development:
It seems that the Western media have forgotten about Singapore's remarkable economic achievements in recent years. Singapore's GDP grew nearly 15 percent in 2010, making it the fastest-growing economy in the world, and it surpassed certain Western countries in terms of per capita income and social security coverage. However, these facts were seldom mentioned in Western media reports.

Obviously, the Western media are not interested in how Singapore achieved great economic progress because the Eastern country's successful development mode is not in line with Western democratic standards. People can be reminded of the Western media's stereotyped viewpoints by the fact that even now they still call Singapore a "dictatorship" or "quasi-dictatorship."

Objectively, the changes reflected by the elections in Singapore are mainly from two aspects. The first is the start of the adjustment to the leadership succession within the ruling party through the appointment of new leaders and the retirement of old ones. The second is the changes in the demand of the new generation of voters who hope to raise the voice of the opposition in the parliament rather than expect another party to replace the ruling People's Action Party. The adjustment and changes does not represent major unrest in Singapore's political system.
It then gets murkier with the suggestion that Singapore's woes are political rather than economic alike those of many Western countries:
Logically speaking, Singapore is already a developed country and should have the same status as developed Western countries, an assertion about which Western media agencies appear to disagree. Some Western countries are facing much more severe unrest compared with Singapore. Some European countries are deeply trapped in the debt crisis that will possibly cause a severe impact on the world economy.

However, are there any Western media agencies that have analyzed the problems in these countries from the angle of their political system? The issues facing Asian countries are surely issues involving their political systems, while the issues facing Western countries are limited to economic ones. Does this result from prejudice or ignorance?

Singapore does have its problems, but the problems facing Singapore are the ones that are emerging after it has developed to a rather high level. Public complaints about housing prices and the rise in the number of foreign workers are partly because of the higher demand generated by the people after they have led better lives and gained many benefits from development.

The future of Singapore does face challenges, but the challenges will surely not involve whether Singapore's political system will be closer to Western democracy or whether reforms coveted by some will occur. The real challenge is whether Singapore can continue the way of development that has been consistent with its context.

The political changes in West Asia and North Africa have made some Westerners more irrational about their political system and sharpened their sense of moral superiority. Such misconceptions and superiority are evidently not something constructive to the increasingly polarized world.
It's an odd mix: On one hand you have attempts towards self-reassurance--this is only a temporary setback for the PAP which has traditionally been responsive to the Singaporean people's concerns, China chose the right path in emulating Singapore, etc. On the other hand, movements towards democratization in the Middle East have also prompted suggestions that Western cultural imperialism is at work when foreign commentators mention Singapore's election results and Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and the rest in the same breath. Doesn't raising GDP per capita justify political continuity?

In the end, there's little denying that China filters through the prism of Singapore the ides of (Arab) spring. Just as the Chinese leadership successfully navigated through the events of 1989 to outlast the Soviet Eastern bloc, so too does it see Singapore as a proxy for the durability of the (mostly economic) reforms it has undertaken since then.

Make no mistake: 1.3 billion-plus person China very closely follows political-economic evolutions in comparatively tiny Singapore and its slightly more than 5 million citizens. In turn, do not forget which country commissioned a commemorative statue of Deng Xiaoping (see image at top). This is a mutual admiration society with more than a little narcissism shared by both mentor and mentee.