Introduction to Comparative Politics
Dr. Emanuel Richter
Dept. of Politics and Society
University of California, Irvine

Midterm Exam

 

Essay Topic: Please describe some of the political  characteristics of contemporary United States in comparison to other political systems in the world.

 

 

For this paper, I have chosen the political system in Singapore to compare with the US political system. The reason for that is that between the years of 1959 and 1990 - the period during which Lee Kuan Yew  was prime minister - the country became one of the most prosperous nation in Southeast Asia. I found that particularly interesting…

 

The contemporary political system of the United States is the two-party political system . The two dominant parties in the US are the Republicans and the Democrats. The two-party political system is one in which the electorate gives its votes largely to only two major parties and in which one or the other party can win a majority in the legislature.

Within the two major parties in the United States, many factions are struggling for power.

 

The presence of divergent interests under a single party canopy masks a process of struggle and compromise that under a multiparty system is out in the open.

In addition to the single-member-district system, in the United States the presidential system induces parties to seek majority support. No fractional party can elect its presidential candidate, and third parties in national politics have proved to be protest

movements more than serious electoral enterprises.

 

The two-party system in the US is said to promote governmental stability because a single party can win a majority in the parliament and govern. The stability shown by the government of the United States has not been entirely due to its party system, it has been argued, but has been promoted also by the fixed tenure and strong constitutional position of the president.

 

The two-party system moderates the animosities of political strife. To appeal for the support of a majority of voters, a party must present a program sympathetic to the desires of most of the politically active elements of the population. In the formulation of

such a program an effort must be made to reconcile the conflicting interests of different sectors of the population. This enables the party, if expedient, to resist demands that it commit itself without reservation to the policies urged by any particular extremist element.

In effect, the party is a coalition for the purpose of campaigning for office. With two major parties of similar views and of approximately equal strength competing for control of a government, it is possible for governmental control to alternate between the parties without shifts in policy so radical as to incite minorities to resistance.

 

The framers of the Constitution were especially concerned with limiting the power of the government and securing the liberty of citizens. The separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, the checks and balances of each against

the others, and the explicit guarantees of individual liberty were all designed to strike a balance between authority and liberty—the central purpose of U.S. constitutional law.

 

Singapore's electorate includes every adult citizen who is a registered voter, and voting is compulsory (as opposed to the US). A number of parties contest elections, but since 1959 Singaporean politics have been dominated by the People's Action Party (PAP). The PAP's ability to maintain its control largely has been attributable to Singapore's rapid economic growth and improved social welfare. In addition, the PAP often has suppressed and co-opted domestic opposition--notably through internal-security laws that allow political dissidents to be held indefinitely without trial--and it has promoted a national paternalistic ideology through a variety of laws and corporate institutions. The emphasis of this ideology has been a rigid public morality focused on personal appearance and cleanliness, political loyalty, and family planning. The Singaporean society is based on communitarian values. In other words, the interests of society take precedence over that of the individual as opposed to the individualism of America. Ralf Dahrendorf  described (with a hint of sarcasm) the Singaporean political society as “Law-abiding citizens who assiduously attend to their own affairs and otherwise live inoffensive private lives need not fear the wrath of their leaders… But those who criticize government for its unaccountable power, those who use their freedom of speech to expose nepotism, those who dare put up alternative candidates in elections – these people are in trouble”.

 

Lee Kuan Yew (politician and lawyer) was prime minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990. During his long rule, Singapore became the most prosperous nation in Southeast Asia. Lee brought his country an efficient administration and spectacular prosperity at the cost of a mildly authoritarian style of government that sometimes infringed on civil liberties. By the 1980s Singapore under Lee's guidance had a per capita income second in East Asia only to Japan's, and the country had become a chief financial center  of Southeast Asia. Keeping in mind the long years of English colonialization of Singapore, that was an impressive achievement.

 

I, personally think that it cannot be argued which political system is “better” as such. In Singapore family ties are very strong - it’s part of the culture of all Asian countries. As a result, Singaporeans have a natural tendency to be apathetic about politics and the government. For that reason, it’s better for their society that the government be strong, otherwise, a chaotic clan-like society will result.  Americans in contrast are very individualistic, and their constitution had to be built such that that individuality was protected. The soft form of authoritarianism exercised in Singapore would not work in the US because it would infringe upon the individual freedom of expression. Americans are more free to express themselves - the price to pay: drug problems, high crime rates, torn families. Singaporean society is “cleaner” at the expense of more curbs on freedom of expression. I conclude that both countries are very prosperous from an economic point of view.

 

 

 

References:

 

1.     Encyclopedia Britannica: Miscellaneous articles on the US and Singaporean political systems.

 

2.     “A Communitarian Critique of Authoritarianism” by Daniel Bell.

 

 

3. “Culture Is Destiny - A Conversation With Lee Kuan Yew” by Fareed Zakaria.