Does the UK have a Singaporean future?

28 Feb 2016


It is often easy, I think, to forget how foreign English-speaking countries truly are to us here in the UK. As a case-in-point look at British incomprehension in the face of American debates on gun crime or healthcare. A shared language – and to greater or lesser extents shared histories – on first glance obscure deeper, fundamental differences in national psychologies and perspectives.


A recent visit to Singapore re-enforced this perception. The country – one that has existed for barely half a century as a nation independent from Britain – has the traces of Englishness reminiscent of so many of our country’s former colonial possessions in the East. The language, the architecture, the names of stations on the underground – all hark back to an earlier age when this part of the globe tinged pink on maps to signify its part of the largest empire the world has ever seen.


These connections are interesting enough in their own right. However, it is the emergent differences that are of more interest to me here. Last year, three momentous events – the death of the state’s first leader Lee Kuan Yew, the SG50 celebrations of 50 years of independence and the General Election in September all served to highlight Singapore’s differences with its former colonial master. 


In the Singaporean General Election last September, the People’s Action Party (PAP) won close to 70% of the vote, 83 out of 89 seats in Parliament – and thus another five years in power. This was hardly a surprise. The party has controlled Singapore since 1959. Whilst thoroughly and clearly democratic, Singapore is for all intents and purposes a one-party state.


The reasons for this have been much discussed. The PAP is legitimately popular, having transformed Singapore from a colonial trading post to one of the wealthiest, most efficient and productive cities in the world. It is also a relatively homogenous society – its three million citizens have relatively similar ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds (and therefore political priorities). It also, through control of communications and much oversight of the education system, loses no chance to weave its own cause with that of the nation. Moreover, opposition parties have never really campaigned with the intention of governing – they are, in effect, a professional opposition in the truest sense of the word, rather than an alternative government.


All this may yet change in the coming decades. Yet, despite the evident differences between the pluralism of British democracy and the single-party dominance of Singaporean politics, the models of the two nations may be starting to converge. Indeed, with the SNP north of the border and the Tories south, both seem to be exercising power with the bullish confidence that they face no cohesive political opposition.  


This is not to say that they have no constraints on their actions – take the fiasco over tax credits as a case in point. But, the constraints placed upon them take the form of public opinion, social unrest, economic indicators and so on, rather than the threat of electoral defeat.


This is, in part, an inescapable result of the decline of Labour as a viable alternative government either in the UK or the devolved parliament in Holyrood. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader signifies a form of opposition that is more Singaporean than British: passionate, principled and occasionally successful – but fundamentally not focused on attaining executive power.


Many nationalists and conservatives have said that this lack of proper opposition is a bad thing for the country, regardless of party interest. However, actions speak louder than words, and the slashing of short money, cuts to trade union funding and a parliamentary boundary review can only be viewed as a direct result of Labour’s fundamental inability to hold the Tories to account.


Labour was so recently the only true party of Britain, with a breadth and depth of representation across the mainland of our country and strong links to the SDLP in Ulster. Its decline therefore is symptomatic of our country’s weaknesses and should not be celebrated by any patriot.  


A lack of opposition, with near permanent control of the legislature and therefore executive by one party leads to a decline in the relevance of democracy and a false conflation of party interest with the national one. As Nick Cohen recently said, this is a process that is already happening, with the negative effects already felt.     


Whether Britain will continue to become a Singapore of the West remains to be seen. It is in many ways not a bad thing to aspire to emulate one of the most efficient, most well-supported governments in the world. But, it is a more autocratic, less democratic path. And it is a path that takes us away from the concepts of individual liberty and democratic accountability that this country currently rests upon. Whatever the appeal of Singaporean politics, that for me is a price not worth paying – and yet it is the result we shall get unless we change our current course.

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