Will Singapore follow Taiwan and be split politically?

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By Augustine Low

A fracturing of the elite in Taiwan led to the country becoming a full-fledged democracy. Can the same happen in Singapore?

This is a question discussed in the just-published book, The Ruling Elite of Singapore – Networks of Power and Influence, by Australian academic Michael Barr.

Taiwan and Singapore bear comparison because of key similarities. Taiwan is a Chinese society that was ruled for decades by a single party (Guomindang, GMD), which was the vehicle for an elite that was just as dominant as Singapore’s PAP. The GMD had single-handedly built the institutions of political, industrial and commercial power and had entrenched itself through them.

But an open, full-fledged democracy has since emerged in Taiwan. This is the result of a serious fracturing of the ruling elite. In his book, Barr recounts how the incumbent President, Lee Teng-hui of GMD, endorsed the Democratic People’s Party (DPP) opposition. Then a GMD “loyalist” who was unhappy with how the system was developing under Lee left the GMD to form his own party, thus splitting the GMD vote three ways in subsequent elections. The DPP won those elections, but the GMD has since seized back power democratically.

Barr writes: “It would be courageous to be very definite in predicting any path of political development in Singapore, but the example of Taiwan suggests that if full democratisation is to have much chance of developing in Singapore, it is most likely to result from a series of incremental steps that begin with fractures in the elite itself and where in the early stages at least, electorates will have the opportunity to choose between two wings of the current elite, each of which would have a substantial degree of legitimacy in the existing corridors of power.”

In the view of the author, while such a split in Singapore’s elite is possible, it is still a far-fetched scenario, for several reasons.

One: The Taiwan experience hinged on the machinations of a single member of the elite (Lee Teng-hui) and a unique sequence of events.

Two: Singapore is much smaller than Taiwan and therefore it is easier for the national elite to exercise control, including self-control.

Three: The Singapore elite is more homogenous than Taiwan’s ever was. In the decade before the split, the Taiwanese elite was riven with factions, rival lines of patronage, and a major ethnic divide between Chinese Taiwanese and indigenous Taiwanese.

Four: Singapore’s economy is more fragile than Taiwan’s. This vulnerability makes Singapore’s elite more sensitive to the dangers of instability. In political terms, this translates into extreme risk aversion that significantly reduces the chance of an open split, whatever may happen behind closed doors.

After weighing all the factors, the author’s assessment is this: “Unless he fails in health or seriously missteps politically, Lee Hsien Loong is probably there to stay for as long as he wants, free of challenge from within the elite. He may never achieve the absolute hegemony that his father did at his peak (though it is always possible), but it is clear that his position is now secure – there is not likely to be anyone with the courage, the means and the motivation to challenge him.”

Short of an external upheaval that shakes things up dramatically, it is likely that the current networks Of power

and influence will be entrenched for the forseeable future.

The author’s final reckoning: “Regardless of who occupies the seat of power, it is clear that Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy will be easily recognisable in a post-Lee Kuan Yew Singapore.”