The Role of Citizen Political Participation in Hong Kong and Singapore


Both Hong Kong and Singapore are city states that traditionally have
lacked broad political participation, instead political decisions were left up
to a small group of leaders. Historical factors were critical in determining the
role of political participation in both city states. Hong Kong's history of
colonial rule and the strength of the People's Action Party (PAP) in Singapore
acted to keep broad citizen participation in government to a minimum.
Hong Kong after World War Two remained a colony of England and it's
government remained under colonial rule. Unlike in other Asian nations such as
Singapore their existed no major anti-colonial movement and the Colonial
government was insulated from political pressure because many residents and
immigrants from China appreciated the commercial opportunities that Hong Kong
had to offer and were afraid that if England gave up control of Hong Kong the
small state would be over run by the newly established and expansionist
communist China to the north. During the years immediately after 1949 China was
expanding, taking over Tibet and Mongolia; Hong Kong's feeling of insecurity was
very real. The Colonial government did in subsequent years establish Hong Kong's
Legislative Council and Executive council, and the Colonial government appointed
prominent and respected local Chinese citizens to serve on these bodies. These
councils although far from democratic did ensure that the Chinese citizenry
would at least have representatives to express their pleasure or displeasure
with the colonial administration. But these representatives lacked any real
power and served only at the pleasure of the Colonial administration. The
government of Hong Kong was administered and run by the English Foreign service
officers that flocked to Hong Kong, the last vestige of English Empire. In Hong
Kong it really was the English that ruled not the Chinese public.
In Singapore following the end of World War Two a single political party
came into power in Singapore, the People's Action Party which was a strongly
anti-colonial left wing party was a made up of communists and more moderate
socialists. After independence Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his allies were
able to steer the party away from communism and toward a more moderate stance.
The People's Action Party tolerated dissent and other political parties because
Lee Kuan Yew felt he had a solid political base. The PAP so dominated politics
that no other political party emerged in Singapore as a strong force. In the
democratically held elections in Singapore the PAP always won by large
majorities. The greatest blow came to the PAP in 1984 when the opposition won
two seats in the 79 seat legislature in Singapore. This was largely due to a
recession during the period and dissatisfaction with the governments economic
policies. The public although given the right to vote had little say in the
government of Lee Kuan Yew because it was nearly guaranteed that he would win.
Because of this in Singapore, politics disappeared and was replaced by an
administrative state run by meritocratic system of bureaucrats. Only recently
has the public been granted more say in government affairs. Following the
election of 1984 the PAP implemented new policies to broaden its base of support.
First, the party steeped up its recruitment of young members. Second, the
administration agreed to discuss the National Agenda and formulation of the PAP
party manifesto with the people of Singapore starting in 1987. Third, the
government of Singapore started televising deliberations of the national
legislative council. These three initiatives stimulated a new interest in
government that had been absent from Singapore for years. The public finally
felt that it could have a say in the governments decisions. What is ironic is it
was the ruling elite's that brought about wider public participation government
not mass demonstrations or citizen outrage. The elite's did this because they
felt that if the public expressed its concerns to the PAP it would be able to
govern more effectively.
Both Hong Kong and Singapore do not have histories of wide spread
citizen participation government. Although Singapore was a democracy for many
years the supremacy and dominance of the PAP party in national affairs had the
effect of eliminating political culture and creating an administrative state.
But recent trends in Singapore have signaled a shift away from its pliant public
of the past. In contrast Hong Kong has showed no such trends toward a
democratization of the political system and the turnover of Hong Kong to China
in 1997 makes the emergence of strong citizen participation in government even
less likely. In both Hong Kong