Singapore Model

Political Editor Chua Lee Hoong of the Strait times wrote on the 15th August :

SINGAPORE is small enough to be a suburb in Beijing, but it has something in common with the mammoth People’s Republic. The little red dot and Red China are both countries the West loves to hate.

There are those who wish bad things to happen to the Beijing Olympics. Likewise, there are those who have had it in for the Lion City for years.

What’s eating them? The easy answer is that both China and Singapore are authoritarian states. The freedoms taken for granted in the West – freedom of speech and assembly – come with more caveats in these two places.

But things are not so simple. There are plenty of authoritarian states around, but most do not attract as much attention as Singapore and China.

The real sin: Singapore and China are examples of countries which are taking a different route to development, and look to be succeeding.

Success grates, especially when it cocks a snook at much-cherished liberal values.

As Madam Yeong Yoon Ying, press secretary to Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, said last month: ‘Singapore is an example to other countries of how the free market plus the rule of law, and stable macro-economic policies, can lead to progress and success, but without Western-style ‘liberal’ democracy.’

Don’t believe her words? Read these lines from British journalist John Kampfner, writing in The Guardian last month, lamenting the spread of what he calls the Singapore model.

‘Why is it that a growing number of highly-educated and well-travelled people are willing to hand over several of their freedoms in return for prosperity or security? This question has been exercising me for months as I work on a book about what I call the ‘pact’.

‘The model for this is Singapore, where repression is highly selective. It is confined to those who take a conscious decision openly to challenge the authorities. If you do not, you enjoy freedom to travel, to live more or less as you wish, and – perhaps most important – to make money. Under Lee Kuan Yew, this city-state built on a swamp has flourished economically.

‘I was born in Singapore and have over the years been fascinated by my Chinese Singaporean friends. Doctors, financiers and lawyers, they have studied in London, Oxford, Harvard and Sydney. They have travelled across all continents; they are well-versed in international politics, but are perfectly content with the situation back home. I used to reassure myself with the old certainty that this model was not applicable to larger, more diverse states. I now believe this to be incorrect.

‘Provincial governments in China send their brightest officials to Singapore to learn the secrets of its ‘success’. For Russian politicians it too provides a useful model. These countries, and others in Asia and the Middle East are proving that the free market does not require a free society in which to thrive, and that in any battle between politics and economics, it is the latter that will win out.’

Mr Kampfner seems in a genuine intellectual funk. He cannot quite understand why otherwise normal, intelligent Singaporeans would trade certain freedoms for economic progress, and accept the Singapore political system for what it is.

But perhaps he has got the wrong end of the stick. The problem lies not in the Singaporeans, but in his own assumptions. Namely: If you speak English, if you are well-educated and well-travelled, you must also believe in Western-style democracy. They are a package.

I was on the receiving end of similar assumptions when I was in the United States in 1991-1992. When Americans asked me, ‘Why is your English so good?’, often it was not out of admiration but bewilderment. Their next question revealed all: ‘Why then do you (i.e. your Government) ban chewing gum?’

Another telling indicator of Western assumptions about Singapore comes from a remark by Singapore’s Ambassador to Washington, Professor Chan Heng Chee, who went to the US at the tail end of the Michael Fay saga.

One year into her posting there, in 1997, she arranged for a retrospective of the late choreographer Goh Choo San’s works. Her Washington audience was awed.

‘People suddenly remembered Choo San was a Singaporean. They may have known about Goh Choo San, but to connect him with Singapore was not so obvious for them,’ she said.

Sub-text: World-class choreography does not fit their image of a country with corporal punishment.

So the real difficulty for the West is this: We are so like them, and yet so not like them. We speak, dress, do business and do up our homes very much the same way as them. Yet when it comes to political values, we settle – apparently – for much less.

One observer draws an analogy with Pavlovian behavioural conditioning. So conditioned have Westerners become to associating cosmopolitan progress with certain political parameters, they do not know how to react when they encounter a creature – Singapore – that has one but not the other.

So they chide and berate us, as if we have betrayed a sacred covenant.

Adding to the iniquity is the fact that countries – rich and powerful ones too, like Russia and the Gulf states – are looking to the Singaporean way of doing things to pick up a tip or two.

I can imagine the shudders of Singapore’s Western detractors should they read about a suggestion made by Mr Kenichi Ohmae this week.

In an interview with Business Times, the Japanese management consultant who first became famous as author of The Borderless World, said Singapore should ‘replicate’ itself in other parts of the world.

What he meant was that Singapore should use its IQ, and IT prowess, to help organise effective economies in other regions, as its own had succeeded so well.

To be sure, his reasoning was economic, not political. But for those who hate Singapore, a Pax Singaporeana would be something to work against and head off.

My comments:

It is very true the westerners assume that free market economy and liberal democracy as they defined it, come together.  Singapore is functioning rather successfully in economic terms with a different model. Some limits seem to differ in their political freedom in comparison to the western counterpart. I sincerely believe that it is their right to be different provided that the majority of the population accept the situation.

I shall always remember the words of my uncle, himself a Singapore citizen, after a court battle with the Singapore Government on the compulsory acquisition of his property. I am mad with the state, they acted unfairly but I do respect them as I was treated equally like all those who were in the same boat. He accepts to be rule by a clement and just dictator and to be administered by an incompetent democrat.

Looks that the Singapore Model is gaining ground in some countries!

The Singapore model

Liberal democracy works for the west – but in south-east Asia, we have different views

The end of the cold war seemed to augur a new era of global convergence. In the battle of ideas and political systems, western liberal democracy had triumphed. But the reality is different, especially in Asia.

Across Asia, western-style democracy has rarely delivered stable, legitimate and effective government. Few Asian countries have achieved good government through open multi-party competition or unfettered, rambunctious media. Many lack a long history of shared nationhood. Some are divided along racial or religious lines. Others have weak institutions and no traditions of civilian rule or civic society.

As a former British colony, Singapore started off with a Westminster-style parliamentary system. But we have adapted it to suit our unique position: a small, multi-racial, multi-religious city in the middle of a turbulent south-east Asia. We introduced multi-member Group Representation Constituencies to ensure multi-racial representation. We created non-elected Members of Parliament from independent groups and opposition parties to ensure diversity of views in Parliament. We instituted an elected presidency to safeguard key state appointments and the nation’s financial reserves.

As English laws evolved after Britain joined the European Union, Singapore has not always followed, because our circumstances are different. Thus, unlike the UK, we have not weakened our defamation laws, which are essential to keeping our public discourse responsible and honest.

This system of democracy has worked for Singapore. Singaporeans enjoy one of the highest standards of living in Asia – 90% own their homes. They are well educated, many in top universities abroad, including in the US and Britain. They know they live in one of the most transparent countries in the world, with a competent and non-corrupt government. Those who disagree with or oppose the government are free to speak out, challenge the government, and contest in free and fair elections.

Had our system not consistently benefited the vast majority of citizens, and given them full opportunities to develop their human potential, the ruling party would have been voted out of office long ago.

China and Russia study Singapore as one possible model for their own development. Whether they can adapt it to their own circumstances will depend on their ability to run a clean, honest and meritocratic system, governing for the long-term good of the country with the support of their people. But ultimately these large countries, with their long histories and ancient cultures, will develop in their own ways. They are not likely to morph into western liberal democracies, regardless of what Singapore does.

Every society has to strike its own balance between individual liberties and the common good. Some in the west like John Kampfner feel a calling to go forth and convert the heathen to western liberal democracy. But the true test is what works in the real world, with real societies. To worship a western model as the only way, and dismiss all other solutions as authoritarian or undemocratic, is surely the ultimate anaesthetic for the brain.


#1 S on 08.16.08 at 4:11 pm

Thanks for blogging again. I read all your posts though I do not always comment.

In my opinion, there is a pact between the Chinese government and its people. Let the communist party govern and let the people prosper. China is intrinsically pragmatic, cool headed and is no longer bound by any ideology. To maintain its ‘harmony’, China has somewhat maintain some control on its population.

In 10 years or less, I believe ‘free speech’ will be more prominent. The CCP will open the valves gradually in order not to over-pressurize its society and risk a revolution. If they can keep corruption under control, the CCP can prevail for many years to come. Otherwise, they could be overthrown.

#2 joseph on 08.16.08 at 6:17 pm

You may well be right for the pact or shall we say the understanding because I believe there is no signed deal between the government and the people as such.
Pragmatism being the essence of the present regime, the government hopefully will know when to release enough pressure for freer freedom of speech and lessen the use of autocratic measures.To a larger extent internet is contributing to a more transparent China.
I love to compare the situation of India to that of China in this score.

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