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 and Singapore democracy and rights have not been a major issue to the populace who have been far more concerned with stability and industrial progress; but these trends could change with the changing dynamics of Asia in the coming years as Singapore's populace becomes more educated and affluent and Hong Kong comes under the control of China.