Democracy, Singapore-Style? Biden’s Summit spotlights questions of how to categorize regimes

Academic Views, Explainer / Monday, December 20th, 2021

Putting aside the Summit’s controversial invitation list, how do experts characterize Singapore’s political system? AcademiaSG editor and political scientist Chong Ja Ian surveys more rigorous measures that are widely used.

Singapore’s recent non-invite to the US-organized Summit for Democracy has created some discussion about the country’s regime type and status, including some debate over the US political system and how the Biden administration defines democracy. Some foreign voices have weighed in, even as a former foreign minister took to the nationalistic PRC tabloid, the Global Times, to describe what he sees as liberal democracy with Singaporean characteristics. The Global Times piece was elaborated upon in reporting by Singapore’s state-supervised mainstream Mandarin-language paper. This consternation is unsurprising given that Singaporeans are used to receiving external validation through international ranking tables. Furthermore, Singaporeans normally think of the moral legitimacy of their political system in democratic terms. The republic’s national symbols, pledge, and even politicians reference the country in terms of democracy, after all.

Given the positive association usually attributed to the term “democracy,” even the PRC government demonstrated significant displeasure at being excluded from the Summit for Democracy, insisting that it already has a unique, Chinese-style democracy. Beijing’s protestations parallel with claims in Singapore’s political establishment that Singapore is a democracy, perhaps an illiberal one, but simply one falls outside the narrow definitions used by the current US administration.

I want to be clear that the Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy is a political exercise meant to stake its claims on the moral high ground while fulfilling a campaign promise. A result is the inclusion of some states whose democratic credentials may be the subject of some controversy. The summit’s in/out binary classification is very different in both motivation and methodology from the various indices and measures of democracy that experts use to compare countries, which look across multiple variables and provide more gradation. Many of the indices make serious attempts to introduce methodological rigor, replicability, and transparency in their measures, considerations that are less evident in the drawing up of an invite list. Coders also take into account developments such as elections, re-districting, constitutional amendments, and the passage of legislation such as POFMA and FICA. As will be shown below, these expert assessments tend to agree that Singapore is less than democratic. Just because there is convergence in the classification of Singapore, however, does not mean that all approaches to evaluating democracy are equally robust and rigorous.

Democracy can be a highly contested concept. Political scientists who study democracy and democratization continue to debate the quality and necessary features of democracy, as well as ways to adequately measure such characteristics. One common, basic standard is whether there can be a peaceful turnover in executive authority through free and fair popular elections, as this vests the ability to change government in the hands of a popular electorate. Another standard that could apply in off-election years might be the degree to which the public can restrain the exercise of executive power, through the legislature and courts or directly through referenda and civil society.

Efforts to study democracy resulted in the development of indices such as Polity and V-Dem, which provide tools with which to analyze patterns and trends over time and space. Research using this data can enrich understandings about the social world in which we inhabit. They help explain that democratic features do not guarantee income and wealth equality or clean government, for example. They also support research revealing that embedded in democratic forms of governance can be found deep-seated discrimination and racism, even if processes to address such problems exist. Findings using such data also indicate the social welfarist approaches can co-exist stably with capitalist features within democratic systems, and that liberal democracies tend to avoid war with each other.

Other indices lend themselves to advocacy work or to informing commercial decisions. Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Index is a means to promote compliance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, just as Reporters Without Borders use their World Press Freedom index to call for greater press freedoms and the protection of journalists. The South African-based NGO CIVICUS uses its monitor to provide information about civil society repression in different countries, while the Sweden-based Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance uses its Global State of Democracy Report to support free and fair elections. The collaborative Academic Freedom Index seeks to track, monitor, and advocate for greater respect for academic freedom. Privacy International uses its index to advance the protection of privacy around the world. Reports like The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, the Bertelsmann Transformation Index, and Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index can provide useful information about the business environment in a country.

Even if the various indices use liberal democratic norms as their baseline points of reference, they are often not primarily designed as mechanisms for international point-scoring or naming-and-shaming. These indices, together with other forms of qualitative research, provide valuable sources of knowledge on various aspects of governance and their effects.

Classifications and ratings are only helpful, however, when users take the trouble to understand why and how they were developed. To this end, I provide below brief explanations about various sources of data that are commonly used for international comparisons of political systems. These reports on democracy are by no means perfect and are the subject of lively debates, but they do provide some common ground on which to begin understanding governance and regime type. Useful to recall at this point is the fact that regime type does not have to be an impediment to cooperation, including collaboration with the United States. Washington has few qualms about cultivating a close working relationship with Saudi Arabia, for example.

Polity V

Polity V is the latest iteration of the Polity dataset commonly used by political scientists and professional analysts and hosted by the US-based Center for Systemic Peace (CSP) and Integrated Network for Societal Conflict Research (INSCR). Singapore has a polity score of -4, which makes it an “anocracy” under this coding scheme.

According to the last CSP Global Report 2017, anocracies, “are societies whose governments are neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic but, rather, combine an often incoherent mix of democratic and autocratic traits and practices.” (p.30) Their descriptive report on Singapore is available here. More about the Polity scheme is available here. The overall score is a composite of a range of more specific measures such as chief executive recruitment, executive constraint, regulation of participation, and competitiveness of participation, among others. Explanation of the coding is available here.


V-Dem, or Varieties of Democracy, is another composite index popular among political scientists and professional analysts. It is run by the V-Dem Institute based in Sweden. Devised as means to conceptualize and measure democracy, V-Dem relies on country experts to do the coding for different countries. You can find a brief description of the project here and its methodology here. V-Dem has an interactive online graphing tool that includes a range of variables. I used several measures of democracy for the chart below. It shows the quality of democracy in Singapore as improving gradually over time but still on the lower end of the spectrum, except for mobilization for democracy which is in decline.

Freedom in the World

Freedom in the World is an index produced by the US NGO Freedom House. It uses in-house analysts, external analysts, and experts from academic, the think tank community, and NGOs to produce measures based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is also available in a dataset. Like the other indices, Freedom in the World considers variables such as electoral processes, political pluralism and participation, and the functioning of government, among others. More on methodology used in Freedom in the World is available here.

Freedom in the World scores lists Singapore as “Partly Free” on its Global Freedom Score, as seen in the table below. Singapore has the same score as Niger and Kenya, and ranks just below Hong Kong (52) and Malaysia (51) but right above The Gambia (46) and Nigeria (45) on the Global Freedom Score, all of which are “partly free.” A more detailed narrative is available here. Freedom in the World also provides additional reporting on internet freedom scores for Singapore, together with a descriptive narrative.

Bertelsmann Transformation Index

The Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) by the German-based Bertelsmann Stiftung also relies on expert coders to look at political and economic transformation as well as governance. They provide their methodology here. According to the 2020 iteration of the BTI lists Singapore as a “moderate autocracy.” Singapore falls 74th on a list of 137 countries for political transformation, 6 out of 137 for economic transformation, and 29 out of 137 for governance. Results for Singapore are summarized below.

Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Democracy Index

The EIU Democracy Index is put together by the Economist Intelligence Unit. The full description with methodology is available here. The EIU Democracy Index too draws on expert opinion and public opinion surveys such as the World Values Survey. According to the 2020 edition of the EIU Democracy Index, Singapore is at the bottom of the list of “flawed democracies”—below Thailand and above Guyana. Guyana is the last state in the flawed democracies list. The next closest category is “hybrid regime,” with Bangladesh and El Salvador topping the list.

Global State of Democracy

Behind the annual Global State of Democracy report is the Sweden-based Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. Their main interest is supporting and promoting free and fair elections. The report uses a combination of expert surveys and standards-based coding by research groups, analysts, observational data, and other composite measures across a range of variables that cover civil liberties, elections, and all three branches of government. Their methodology and data are available here. The 2021 edition of the Global State of Democracy report lists Singapore as a hybrid regime with elements of democracy and autocracy co-existing.

Other Reports and Indices

There are other datasets and indices that are relevant but are not directly related to democracy, so I have not listed them here. These include the World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders and Academic Freedom Index as well as reports by Transparency International, Privacy International, and CIVICUS, among others. I encourage those interested in these topics to explore the data.

Whatever the case may be, democracy is not the only dimension through which to assess states and the performance of governance. Common considerations include everything from economic growth, wealth and income distribution to carbon emissions, education, public health, life expectancy, non-discrimination, and gender equality. Democracy is also not a panacea that takes all problems away. It simply promises a political process that seeks to achieve better overall outcomes by institutionalizing public participation and popular restraint on authority. That said, independent measures run by different organizations in different parts of the world with disparate missions seem to consistently code Singapore’s political system as at best a borderline democracy, if not as soft autocratic.