Democracy in authoritarian states? Political change and regime stability in Malaysia and Singapore
In Political Science literature, Malaysia and Singapore have consistently been classified as semi-democracies; combining elements of democracy such as regularly-held elections with restrictions on civil liberties more reminiscent of authoritarian regimes. Semi-democracy or competitive authoritarianism in both countries have been relatively stable with extended periods of strong economic performance. However, recent developments in the country’s political scene have cast some doubt on the resilience of such a system. In the case of Malaysia, the last two elections have shown a consistent loss in support for the ruling Barisan Nasional or National Front coalition which has been in power since independence in 1957. It also appears that restrictions on civil liberties have been lifted, albeit partially. The ‘complacency’ that existed among the middle class previously has largely given way while civil society is playing a much more prominent role in public discourse. Singapore has also experienced similar developments, though not to the extent to the extent of the ‘political tsunami’ in Malaysia. Nevertheless the ruling PAP had its lowest share of the popular vote in decades in the 2011 elections and Singaporean society is increasingly vocal about grievances regarding income inequality. Keeping in mind that there has been little structural change to the electoral system that still heavily favours the incumbent government and that key institutions of the state are still controlled by the ruling party, are both countries in a transition process to a more democratic system or will the ruling coalition retain power through these structural and institutional arrangements for the foreseeable future? In other words, will two of the world’s longest-running competitive authoritarian or semi-democratic states be resilient enough to withstand the pressures for change?