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American v. Singaporean Politics: Democracy or Political Stability?

When locals hear I’m from the US, they’ll ask me about how things are going under President Trump. Sometimes with a sympathetic face, other times with a joking snicker. And although I do my best to be honest with them about my opinion, I usually ask in return, “How are things socially and politically in Singapore?”
I expect positive reviews: the economy is always growing, race relations are peaceful, and there is actually enough public funding to go around to support public services. Instead, locals usually respond with a grimace and start with something along the lines of “I know I should be grateful to live here, but…”
Living in a self-authoritarian country highlights the democratic ideals I’ve been taught in America my whole life. Start with how different their national history is from ours: here, political revolution isn’t embraced, it’s feared. Instead, the country’s colonial ties to Britain are celebrated, with dozens of streets and buildings named after Sir Stamford Raffles, the man who negotiated for British ownership of Singapore from the Johor Sultanate. The idea is that markers of European influence must remain in Singapore so that European trade partners don’t feel “unwelcome.”

This painting of an elite Singaporean man during Singapore’s colonial period is the first thing you see when you walk into the National Museum of Singapore’s exhibit called “Modern Colony,” which boasts about the rapid modernization and westernization of Singapore as a British colony.

The differences don’t just end with the 20th century. Did you know that in Singapore today, homosexual intercourse entails capital punishment? That women under 35 can only purchase public housing if they are married? Or that a group of individuals that wants to peacefully protest must first submit an application to the government, who may or may not reject their application? In discussions with peers at mealtimes, I feel their frustration at the political disconnect between younger liberals and older conservatives in government, as well as how powerless they feel in creating social change. To make things seem better, they tell me they “just have to wait for the older generation to die out before things can change.”
This silence isn’t always explicit in Singaporean legislation. A local student casually told me once, “The government says we live in racial harmony, but it’s really just racial co-existence.” Over dinner, I had a conversation with locals who paralleled the “lower” status Malay Singaporeans hold and the exploitation of their culture to that of Black and Latinx Americans and discussed how Singaporeans still managed to self-segregate by race. Racial inequality isn’t something I’m unfamiliar with, but the refusal of a government to acknowledge its existence is something I’m unfamiliar with.

Singapore has an annual “Racial Harmony Day” dedicated to celebrating the peaceful coexistence of different races in Singapore. This cartoon-like image simplifies the complexities of racial relations in Singapore.

Every day that I read American news, I’m reminded of how dramatic and complex current American politics are. But through day-to-day conversations about Singaporean politics and culture, I’ve gained a valuable insight that I take for granted in America. Democracy comes at a hefty price, but so does political stability.


Posted by Arya on

Great article Michelle!! 😀

Posted by mjz927 on

Revision: “…homosexual intercourse entails capital punishment” should instead say “homosexual intercourse entails imprisonment for up to two years.” Thanks to a local Singaporean, Deesha Menon, for catching this mistake for me.

Posted by Meg on

I lived in Istanbul for nearly 16 years. I remember going to the American consulate on one occasion and being treated almost as a pariah because of my ex-pat status. But living outside of America in Turkey–and you in Singapore–makes you realize how lucky one is to be an American, with all it faults. The democracy we experience is unlike any in the world. I am happy you have had a taste of that.

Hope you are making friends and confidantes.

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