The year 1987 was a pivotal one for both Taiwan and Singapore: martial law was lifted in Taiwan, ending 38 years of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) repression, elections would be held and opposition parties, once outlawed, were legalized.
The same year, the People’s Action Party (PAP)-led Singaporean government was faced with a “Marxist conspiracy”: Sixteen people were arrested on accusations of plotting to topple the government through communist “united front” tactics. The accused were arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA), which enabled the government to swiftly act against what might be threats to national security — such swiftness would mean detention without trial. The anti-communist sweep was named “Operation Spectrum.”
“Justice, the rule of law and transparency are bedrocks of Singapore society,” wrote Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh of Singaporean news site the Mothership. “In Operation Spectrum, the worry is that all three were suspended.”
The government’s response to dealing with such a threat might have been — at that time — what it deemed to have been a necessary response. Operation Spectrum had stifled the growth of Singaporean civil society and discourse, as people employed self-censorship in fear of crossing boundaries — many such sentiments still linger in Singaporean society today.
However, 1987 for Taiwan seems to be a moment of triumph for democracy in Asia. After decades of one-party rule and martial law, then-president Chiang Ching- kuo (蔣經國) lifted martial law and led Taiwan into a democratic future.
However, it is essential to recall the brutal experience that Taiwanese had to endure during the initial stages of KMT rule.
The 228 Massacre of 1947 is engraved in Taiwan’s collective memory as a national tragedy. The imposition of martial law and the anti-communist “White Terror” that followed were a clear suspension of justice, the rule of law and transparency.
Singapore and Taiwan have experienced domestic tumult; it is worth highlighting that both islands have been under threat by their larger neighbors, Malaysia and China respectively.
Singapore, since gaining its independence through its suspension from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965, has seen its sovereignty tested throughout the decades. With most of Singapore’s water supply coming from its northern neighbor, Malaysia has often threatened to turn off the tap when it felt necessary to prod the island.
And just last year Malaysia anchored its vessels in Singaporean waters, questioning the legitimacy of agreed-upon maritime demarcations. Such developments would generate a “rally-around-the-flag” sentiment throughout Singapore, strengthening national solidarity and identity.
Similarly, Taiwan has faced decades of threats to its sovereignty. Most notable of such instances was the First Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1954 to 1955, when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army seized islands in the Taiwan Strait, sparking armed conflict between Taiwan and China.
A second and third Strait crisis would follow, creating animosity between the two neighbors and striking fear into Taiwanese.
With external pressures, Taiwan and Singapore have experienced immense securitization. Both islands still maintain conscription. Taiwan’s neighboring threat had injected domestic fears of communist infiltration during the White Terror era, and similarly Singapore sees its security with caution and vigilance.
Despite the two islands’ similarities, they have taken starkly different paths toward democratization. Singapore remains stagnant in its democratic development. Freedom House has labeled Singapore as “partly free” with an aggregate freedom score of 51 out of 100, Taiwan has been labeled “free” with an aggregate freedom score of 93 out of 100.
Reporters Without Borders, in its 2019 World Press Freedom Index, ranked Singapore at 151 out of 180 and Taiwan at 42 out of 180. Held on the same standard, the two islands stand far from each other.
Chiang’s willingness to reform and relinquish total power has demonstrated that such changes are constructive to both a nation’s political maturity and economic development. With the air of oppression a memory of the past and greater freedoms granted to people, Taiwan has unlocked the great potential of what free minds can do, strengthening its innovative and creative ability.
While some governments view democratization with apprehension, the political history of Taiwan has shown that democracy works in favor of the ruling party as well. The KMT has been able to openly criticize the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) just as the latter could do to the former, both — at least hopefully — improving themselves along the way.
Similarly, Singapore’s PAP would have more to gain from efforts to reform the city-state’s democracy. A more consultative and transparent government would build further trust between the PAP and the public.
There have been calls to lower the voting age from 21 to 18, opposition parties, notably the newly launched Progress Singapore Party led by former PAP legislator Tan Cheng Bock (陳清木), has championed this call, to which Singaporean Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing (陳振聲) responded that “the government currently does not plan to lower the voting age,” on the grounds that “a person’s rights and responsibilities gradually increase as one matures, until the common-law age of majority of 21, when a person comes of age to make decisions as an adult and engages in activities that involve significant personal responsibility.”
With the age for national service at 18, many have also wondered why a teenager would be mature enough to hold a rifle, but not a ballot paper.
If the PAP were to execute greater reforms, people would be less inclined to vote for opposition parties. Already fragmented and disunited, the opposition parties still struggle to find a common platform and campaign as a coalition for an alternative Singaporean vision.
While such disunity remains advantageous to the PAP, pushing for greater changes would debase the entire opposition platform and could be a boon to the ruling party’s electoral performance.
Even after the first full-fledged elections of 1992 in Taiwan, the KMT remained victorious over the DPP with one new seat in the Legislative Yuan. The Taiwanese democratic experience has proven that such a strategy works.
Democracy and freedom remain elusive principles that nations and peoples are still trying to define. Taiwan has reached some degree of a conclusion and the upcoming presidential elections might redefine it once again.
However, most Singaporeans remain comfortable with the “status quo”; that is not to say that immediate changes need to happen, but one must wonder where Singapore is to go beyond its material and monetary successes.
Taiwan is fighting to defend its identity and sovereignty, Singapore needs to rekindle its democracy, although only moderate shifts are likely to take place in the near future.
Nicholas Walton, in his book Singapore, Singapura: From Miracle to Complacency, writes: “If Singaporeans ever take to the streets, it is likely to be a furious protest about the money in their pockets, rather than any squeezing of political expression.”
Nigel Li is an alumnus of the Singapore American School.
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