A while back Daniel Frank emailed me about the essay I published about Singapore, and he was skeptical of the idea that the international community would act as a deterrent against authoritarianism in Singapore:
First, I don’t think this applies to most countries (for example, look at the muted Western protest to changes in countries like Turkey and Poland).

Secondly, I specifically think doesn’t apply to Singapore. The two most influential nations/blocs on Singapore are China and ASEAN. China speaks for itself, and ASEAN adheres to a principle (the ASEAN way) of non-interference in domestic politics of its member countries.

This is a good point. Pressure from the international community is not a silver bullet, it's simply one piece that makes me more optimistic about Singapore not going horribly far on the side of human rights abuses.


There are a lot of layers to this question, places where the international community acting as a deterrent could break down:

  1. Information about abuses could not be disseminated enough for them to realize what’s going on.
  2. It could be unclear whether they really are abuses, creating a layer of uncertainty that decreases willingness to act. Also, the international community may just not care.
  3. Many of these things require cooperation among multiple groups. A single actor may not be confident enough that the others will act, rendering their own actions irrelevant but still costly. And the actors may just plain have opposing interests.
  4. The community may think—perhaps correctly—that they can’t make a difference. If a country benefits on certain industries and types of relationships, this may be more or less true.

To view each of of the layers I mention above though the lens of Singapore:

  1. Singapore’s press is fairly controlled by the government, which is concerning. However, the city state is also open to the internet, and (to take just one niche) blogging has risen in prominence. It seems unlikely that clear abuses would be suppressed for long. On the other hand, Singapore knows how to play its numbers well. As I mentioned in the original post, migrant workers are excluded from a lot of metrics. I can only assume they’re excluded from other important narratives too. This raises the risk that their stories are ignored, that onlookers think they have the whole picture but actually they’re missing a critical chunk of the story. People are aware of this omission, but without knowing the extent it’s hard to know how much to weight it or to dig in. It also generally provides a layer of plausible deniability to the government and society which allows abuses to persist, even though every does kind of know what’s happening. This is the one I think is most problematic, i.e. the thing that most likely that the international community be defanged with regards to abuses in Singapore. Raises the question of how could we gain greater visibility into these issues? What structurally could we do to draw out information about these obscured narratives?
  2. As one example of what I mean by #2: Singapore has a free market economy (mostly). This unbridled competition can be brutal, but also “fair" under certain value systems. If we see bad outcomes, there may be less confidence/agreement that they are wrong, since they are not coercive, at least in the libertarian sense of the term. Note that I’m not arguing a free market can’t result in human rights violations, though neither am I arguing that it does—I’m simply pointing out that it clouds the conversation, which makes it less likely that people act effectively to change it.
  3. Because Singapore is so small, I suspect a single actor could unilaterally have real influence on the country. This is especially true at the scale of a single other country, even if it’s on the smaller side, since Singapore is basically just a city, but it could also be true for a large multinational company. Multilateral action is probably relatively aligned too if people did need to make a coalition—Singapore specializes in trade and finance, which are both “rising tide lifts all boats" kinds of industries, so while on any specific issue they may be at odds with other countries/companies, on net all actors way sort of the same things. This seems like it could be more challenging for export-oriented nations that focus on a particular good. (Would be curious to dive into research on this though! Pure speculation)
  4. Again, Singapore is small, and it generally wants to present itself as a stable, forward-looking country. They’re wiling to do odd things like ban chewing gum, which looks odd to the international community, but I don’t think they’d be willing to go so far as to truly abuse their citizens. I don’t think the leaders want to, and more relevantly it wouldn’t fit with the brand they’ve worked so hard to build up. Many dictators and other nations seem to care less about this reputational component, so do think this is a valid question to raise, but Singapore doesn’t fall into that bucket. It definitely cares about reputation.

We can think of this as a series of leaky buckets, with the output of one going into another. All four conditions must hold for the international community to act effectively:

  1. They have to know what’s going on.
  2. They have to be confident that what’s going on is actually wrong.
  3. They (may) have to coordinate in order actually affect change, and while each individual actor may lament the abuses they may not be able to muster sufficient cooperation.
  4. They have to be able to be sufficiently convincing/powerful to make the difference, which can’t be taken for granted even if all cooperation and resources are mustered.

Each step of this funnel loses a bit of potency. In Singapore’s case, I think the first and second steps are the most important, but other countries likely have different levels of leakiness in the funnel. For instance in China, the Great Firewall probably means #1 is relatively more important. In Brunei, a tiny sultanate with immense oil and gas reserves, #4 may be more relevant (though I say this with very low confidence, as I'm just starting to learn about Brunei). For the US, which has a massive and diverse economy, #3 may be the core challenge.

Daniel also pointed out that while blogging is popular in Singapore, the internet is still closely monitored. He wrote, "For every Amos Lee, there are likely many more Singaporeans who have been 'chilled' from sharing their thoughts." There's also a lot of social pressure that comes from other citizens. A point I especially appreciated and hadn't considered in enough depth before was that shame plays a huge role in Singaporean society. He pointed to STOMP, a site owned by The Straits Times (Singapore's top newspaper) where Singaporeans upload photos and videos of each other indulging in "bad behavior". He wrote, "I think the prominence that shame plays in Singaporean society will both prevent many people from going forward with complaints, and also prevent the public rallying behind those who are deemed to be less than reputable, or enemies of the state." In such an environment, monitored by both the government and your neighbors, it's easy to imagine how Singaporeans might hesitate to voice criticisms of how things are run.

I really do worry about the chilling effect, and I hadn't connected the social/civil elements (e.g. STOMP) that could reinforce the government checks on political speech. No question that there are some people who would speak up if they didn't fear retribution. There's likely a more subtle effect too, where certain people don't even think to speak up because that's just not what's done. They aren't afraid per se, it simply doesn't cross their mind that it is an appropriate response.

So perhaps step 1 of the funnel is a bigger issue than I'd considered fully before. My Singaporean friends don't seen to be stifled by these social and legal checks—they're as (if not more) vibrant and vocal as my friends here in California!—but there's probably some selection bias going on there too...

Do you have a step to add to this funnel? I suspect it’s not a complete model.



A note: Daniel mentioned several times in the email exchange that he's a big admirer of Singapore, just that this is one dynamic worth diving into further.