May 20, 2011

China misreads Singapore model

Interesting article in the Hong Kong based Asia Weekly magazine on the 2011 General Election, see through the eyes of a Chinese political academic. The original article (in Chinese) can be found here.

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Retuning to Beijing from Singapore to observe the 2011 General Election, Chinese political academic Li Fan remarked: "The Chinese government's interpretation of the "Singapore model" (of governance) is wrong, they only see the surface and are ignorant of the fact that Singapore law also controls their ministers, allowing civil rights, and the right to form parties, including opposition parties."

Specializing in "election studies", Li Fan also found a mirror of reflection for China. The Director of the World and China Institute (WCI) made a trip from Beijing to Singapore specifically to observe the elections. He spent nine days in Singapore observing and comparing the election process to that in China.

On May 10, just before boarding the flight back to Beijing, he told Asia Weekly excitedly:

"I recognized that these Singapore elections will be especially important, and sensed that historic changes will take place. As an academic who studies China elections, I felt I should be part of the Singapore elections. And as expected, breakthrough changes did in fact take place, this trip was worth every cent."

For the past number of years, China has sent batch after batch of officials and academics to Singapore to observe and learn the "Singapore model" of governance. Li Fan explained that in the eyes of the Chinese government, the "Singapore model" meant continual economic development in a ideally harmonious society where the citizens could live in safety and find enjoyment in work; a clean government free of greed and corruption; no democracy where the ruling party rules with a monopoly on power, with the opposition never winning over governance of the country; Singapore's laws have effectively controlled society, and create an obedient populace.

China's leaders have taken a seemingly logical stance: "Look, it doesn't matter if a country has no democracy, so long as there is a comprehensive framework of law to control society, and control it with an iron fist. As long as the government is clean and there is continuous economic growth, the people will be happy, and it wouldn't matter if there is democracy or not".

Li Fan pointed out that besides the features pointed out above, the Chinese government has ignored an important aspect of the "Singapore model", where Singaporeans enjoy the basic civil rights, and have the right to form political parties and societies, including opposition parties. The Chinese don't understand that Singapore has so many opposition parties, where China has none. Singaporeans have the right of conscience, although it cannot be denied that the Singapore government still welds strict control over the media, its laws are not as the Chinese government sees it as only controlling the citizens, it also severely restricts its own officials. The very fact that the opposition could have this breakthrough, is due to the election rules which makes it hard for the incumbent to play dirty. The Chinese Communist Party's interpretation of the "Singapore model" is wrong.

Li Fan said: "(For China) to really learn from Singapore, the first thing is to give the citizens basic civil rights. China does not have the right to vote, freedom to form political parties, nor freedom of speech. Fortunately we still have the Internet in China, but it is not as free and open as that in Singapore. Although Singapore is lacking in democracy, society does not go into chaos even though the incumbent party has been ruling for so long, because the people have these basic civil rights."

Academics from China coming to Singapore to observe the elections include those from the Shanghai East China University of Political Science and Law, Shenzhen University Singapore Research Centre, and Shenzhen University School of Management, mostly by invitation of the NUS East Asian Institute. Some of the Chinese mainstream media, like the Nan Feng Chuang and China News, have also sent correspondents to Singapore for coverage. The following is an excerpt of Asia Weekly's interview with Li Fan:

After observing the most hotly-contested election in Singapore since independence, could you give us a summary of the main points of this election based on your observations?

I will summarize it in two main points. The first is the election breakthrough. The PAP have blocked the opposition from entering parliament for a long time, and the opposition parties have organized themselves very successfully in this election to achieve an important breakthrough with the Worker's Party winning a historical record of six seats.

A GRC requires that candidates form a group to contest a large constituency where winner takes all. The opposition Worker's Party consolidated their star candidates into one team with Secretary General Low Thia Kiang at the helm and won the Aljunied GRC. Since the introduction of the GRC system since 1998, this is the first time the opposition has won a GRC, and handed heavy losses to the PAP. Three ministers were unseated as a result of the loss of one constituency, which included Foreign Minister George Yeo.

But most importantly, one of the ruling party's young candidates who was slated to be a 4G future leader, also lost the election. To the ruling party, this must be the biggest loss of all. For decades, the opposition has finally made a breakthrough, and this is obvious for all to see.

And your second point?

The second point is very important, and is my personal observation. Singapore has made a great leap forward in terms of freedom, and at the core of it is the elevation of civil rights. I've attended multiple opposition rallies, and they constantly encourage the voters to vote bravely and not be afraid.

The voters were quite worried in the beginning, because the government made some changes in the election system for this election and added serial numbers to the voting slips. Actually, this change prevents election rigging and election fraud. But because there was a serial number there, voters were afraid that the government would be able to know who they voted for and give trouble to them. From an elections angle, the serial number is actually a good thing for the opposition. The opposition has also explained this, but there are still many voters who are worried. But the final results showed that voters still dared to exercise their rightful vote.

What is the significance of this?

The significance of this, is that people do not care about the repercussions (of voting opposition) any longer. Therefore, elections and the improvement of human rights goes hand-in- hand: human rights pushes elections forwards, and elections in turn enhances human rights. Overall, this gives more freedom to the people, and this is a major trend where democracy and human rights in Singapore move forward interchangeably.

What lessons will these Singapore elections bring to China?

In these Singapore elections, I've often heard the opposition say that they want to let the citizens voice be heard, and allow ordinary citizens to participate in policy making. If China wants to learn from the real Singapore, it should guarantee the basic rights of its citizens, then push for the development of democracy. This is the first point. Secondly, in the course of the elections, the ruling party expressed a wish to become more open and reform itself. It initiated changes to the elections system half a year ago, redrew the SMCs and GRCs, added serial numbers to the voting slip, and introduced a "Cooling Off Day" before Polling Day. These measures helped the opposition to win seats in the election. An example, besides the 87 parliamentary seats, there were a total of NCMP seats reserved, up from three previously, where the best losers from the opposition could enter parliament, albeit without voting rights.

Ruling party initiates reforms

Actually, this tells voters that the changes in the election system is advantageous to the opposition, and were initiated by the ruling party in order to better gauge voter sentiment. During the hustings, Lee Hsien Loong said that his father Lee Kuan Yew should keep his mouth shut, these incidents have allowed the opposition to make a historical breakthrough, and has major significance to China. Singapore can read change in the ground and hope itself up to reform and respond to the dissent in its citizens. If China is to move forward, it must do the same as well.

You mentioned Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. What is your impression of him?

Lee Hsien Loong is an exceptional man, who is brave enough to apologize to voters for things that had gone wrong. Since when has the PAP openly apologized for anything? How can the Communist Party of China possibly say "Sorry" to its citizens? Lee Hsien Loong reiterated that this election is a watershed for Singapore, and marks a point where politics in Singapore will enter a new age.

How did the Singapore media fare in these elections?

The Singapore media played a big role in allowing the opposition to score a breakthrough. In the past, the media only reported on the ruling party's views, and even though a large part of media coverage still centered on the ruling party, it started to report on the opposition in a large way. Also the effect of new media, the Internet, Facebook and Twitter, which the ruling party could not control, the majority of young people on the Internet supported the opposition.

In summary, how will these elections inspire China?

For China, firstly, the government must have an open attitude and allow citizens to have dissenting voices. In this modern age, it is impossible for the government to totally control society and its citizens, so it is better to maintain an open attitude. As Premier Wen Jia Bao recently said, "We must create the conditions to allow ordinary citizens to criticize the government."

Secondly, I believe the best way is to enter parliament to express dissent. The Singapore opposition only could criticize the government outside the system before, and finally have the chance to do so in within the system. The government should now be aware that if you let the populace scold you outside the system long enough, they will topple you one day when push comes to shove. '

Thirdly, give the citizens more civil rights, and allow them to organize themselves.

Fourthly, I hope the Chinese government will keep an open attitude towards the upcoming grassroots level elections, and allow grassroots voters to stand up and voice their real concerns. In the long run, China should concentrate on developing a civil society, and expand civil rights.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

This article shows that the writer still does not fully understand Singapore, even though there has been some progress.

For example, Li Fan claims: "(The PAP) initiated changes to the elections system half a year ago, redrew the SMCs and GRCs, added serial numbers to the voting slip, and introduced a "Cooling Off Day" before Polling Day. These measures helped the opposition to win seats in the election." These changes were not designed to help the opposition nor did they help the opposition. Instead, they were designed to prevent an even greater victory by the opposition. This was no magnanimity by the ruling party. Moreover, serial numbers are not a new phenomenon: they have been used for a long time.

Anonymous said...

Li Fan's observation of Singapore was right at the beginning, but she her misinterpretation started from:

"What lessons will these Singapore elections bring to China?

Secondly, in the course of the elections, the ruling party expressed a wish to become more open and reform itself. It initiated changes to the elections system half a year ago, redrew the SMCs and GRCs, added serial numbers to the voting slip, and introduced a "Cooling Off Day" before Polling Day. These measures helped the opposition to win seats in the election. An example, besides the 87 parliamentary seats, there were a total of NCMP seats reserved, up from three previously, where the best losers from the opposition could enter parliament, albeit without voting rights."

Wrong all the way down.

ahmad said...

If you take it from the writer's perspective, coming from an even more oppressive political environment that is China, the changes made by the PAP to the elections system would seem huge, something that
China Communist Party would never contemplate doing.

I agree he doesn't understand the Singapore political climate fully, but if GE2011 inspires people like Li Fan (who advises on small local elections in China) to push for more election reform in China, why not?

xl pharmacy said...

I've heard different versions of this stuff since ever, and at the end nobody do anything to change it... So I'm sure this is gonna be the same crap.