An unnatural country's take on democracy

The Singapore skyline.
The Singapore skyline.ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

IN THE last decade, Singapore has been frequently cited as a model of success. One hears references to the “Singapore model”, whatever the speaker may mean. Mr Yasser Arafat proudly asserted that he wanted Palestine to be the “Singapore of the Middle East” and Mr Shimon Peres suggested Gaza could be the “Singapore of the Middle East”. The Gulf states at one time or another aspired to do a Singapore. Caribbean states have regularly expressed great interest in becoming a Singapore.

All see a Singapore that enjoys sustained economic success. The average growth in the first three decades of Singapore’s history was around 7 to 8 per cent. That was no mean feat.

The 1970s and early 1980s saw double-digit growth. Singapore’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) today is around US$50,000 (S$63,000), depending on the exchange rate. This puts Singapore on a par with some states in the United States and higher than many European states. It is higher than Britain. Singapore is well-governed, well-run, effective, with good long-range planning and solutions, and a good education system that is referenced constantly. The United States Department of Education invites Singapore to lead discussions at their Education Summits. We are known for non-corruption, and rank among the top five countries in the world. We prosecute senior people if they are found to be guilty of wrongdoing.

No doubt Singapore’s democracy is much tighter than the US. But Singaporeans find their Government responsive and swiftly so. Things get done, problems are solved. Economic and social rights are expanded. There is greater openness in government. Accountability and transparency were always there and now more so... That is what democracy is about – responsiveness of the government.

Increasingly, we are noted for taking up the knowledge industries and doing cutting-edge stuff. So something right is going on in Singapore.

Then I read that some Yale professors are not at all happy that Yale should establish a joint Yale-NUS campus in Singapore. They worry about academic freedom.

Why this fear and anxiety particular to Singapore? In 1901, Yale set up a Yale-in-China programme in China, then hardly a thriving democracy. In the 1950s, this moved to Hong Kong. In 1979, after normalisation, the programme went back to Wuhan and English teachers and medical personnel were exchanged. In the 1990s, Yale-in-China expanded into new areas and programmes outside the historical bases of Hong Kong, Changsa and Wuhan.

If Yale can go to China to teach and set up programmes, why is it so controversial to go to Singapore? Singapore is a democracy. Information flows freely and there is freedom of expression; not like the US, but there is increasing room to express oneself. Today, establishing campuses overseas is something universities do the world over. We all know one imparts values with education. That is what educators do. I will always value my time in Cornell. Presumably Yale can also learn from Singapore.

Singapore has changed a great deal in the last 15 years, but most of all in the last five years. Singapore is a democracy, it is egalitarian and it is meritocratic. Critics will point out that it falls short of an Anglo-American democracy. And they are right. We are not your average Anglo-American democracy. The Singapore political system is founded on a Westminster parliamentary model. Ours is a prime ministerial government, not a presidential government. The recent elections showed confusion in this among some Singapore candidates for the presidency.

Before I became a diplomat, I was a political science professor. Democracy is a concept best understood in reality as elastic. There are basic criteria that must be met. The most important is free and fair elections. Beyond that, countries have more or less democracy – some countries are more democratic than others. The United States is more democratic than India, and India is more democratic than Singapore in some respects, but not others. We are more egalitarian and meritocratic. Mr Fareed Zakaria has drawn a distinction between liberal and illiberal democracies. Many Asian democracies would have less liberal norms on what is allowed on screen, touching on religion, sex, or violence.

The birth of nations do not come with a clean slate. Societies have history, traditions and different ethnic and religious mixes and endowments of natural resources. Democracies evolve. Our first generation leaders wanted a political system that would help, not hinder, the development of the unlikely nation. It was a matter of survival.

The link between democracy and growth is not so simplistic and the link between democracy and successful economies is not so clear-cut. Consider the four dragons in Asia: South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, which were a 1970s and 1980s phenomenon achieving rapid and real economic success and development under authoritarian governments. South Korea and Taiwan are now strong competitive democracies, Singapore increasingly so. Hong Kong was a British colony, now enjoying limited democracy.

Singaporeans vote on the performance of government, less on identification with tradition like Democrats and Republicans and Conservative or Labour in Britain. There is a People’s Action Party (PAP) base and a sliver of Barisan left-wing base.

There probably is a solid 25 per cent opposition vote, no matter which election.

All democracies change. Cable 24/7 television has changed politics. Thoughtful Americans are questioning the major role of money in their democracy, grappling with the role of the Super PACs (political action committees). Is democracy becoming more elitist? Is that why there are the populist movements such as the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street?

Singapore is a democracy. Ministers can lose their seats. We lost a very talented Foreign Minister George Yeo in last year’s elections. Democracy has developed because of PAP policies. Singapore now deals with middle class expectations. What will happen down the line? The governing party is trying to win back votes. It has become even more responsive to the ground.

Singapore is an open society. But we are an unnatural country, so solutions and ways of governance must be different. Singapore is smaller than New York City and about the size of Chicago. In 1965, when we became independent, we were 1.9 million people. A red dot. We are one of the 20 smallest states in the world. Today we are 5.4 million people but still a red dot. Bigger neighbours were hostile to us at birth.

Consider these facts: the ethnic mix of the country is Chinese 74.1 per cent, Malays 13.4 per cent and Indians 9.2 per cent. The population at separation was 2.5 million, with 200 million Muslims around us. Now there are 250 million Muslims in the region. Identity politics was always an issue for Singapore.

We have no resources, no oil, no gas. Not even water.

Because of our history – birth, location and ethnic mix – press freedom would be different. The liberty to say whatever you want runs into an angry Muslim population north and south. Rights and freedoms come with responsibilities. There are limits to freedoms.

Professor John Ruggie, in Antimonies Of Interdependence, suggested that smaller states and trading nations tend to go for a corporatist style of government. He cited the Scandinavian countries because they needed greater centralism and unity to react to external exigencies. His model fits Singapore too.

No doubt Singapore’s democracy is much tighter than the US. But Singaporeans find their Government responsive and swiftly so. Things get done, problems are solved. Economic and social rights are expanded. There is greater openness in government. Accountability and transparency were always there and now more so.

The May 2011 elections saw the PAP vote fall to an all-time low of 60 per cent and the opposition parties winning six seats. The psychological breakthrough for the opposition was the loss of a group representation constituency by the PAP.

What was new was the repoliticisation of Singapore, the emergence of so many qualified opposition candidates who wanted to contest and the use of social media. The electorate now is more affluent and the middle class wanted the opposition in Parliament to force the governing party to do better. They wanted a First World Parliament. The PAP embraced the change and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong promised to do better.

Often asked is how globalisation affects democracy. The answer is simple. Globalisation is democratising. But globalisation also creates greater inequality and we have seen its dark side in recent years. There are winners and losers within and among countries. It has hit the US badly. Britain sees the same divisions.

Another question is whether democracy impacts on competitiveness. Many see the rise of China and its rapid growth under a centralised authoritarian government. One of Singapore’s strengths is its ability to move fast, adopt policies quickly, and implement unpopular policies deemed necessary to put the country in a competitive position. Singapore’s Government now needs to be more responsive to a more vocal and politicised electorate.

No country can perform well without a shared consensus between the governed and those who govern. When the social contract is frayed, it must be rebuilt. It is established not only by political elites winning an election and the mandate but by how leaders keep their word and promises. So adjustments must be made in policy. That is what democracy is about – responsiveness of the government. The Singapore Government has been relatively responsive, and now it is to be even more responsive and more quickly. The concern is that Singaporeans may be moving towards demanding more and more entitlements.

It is also true that fewer restrictions and regulations mean greater space for a diversity of ideas, and foster creativity and innovation. Democratic liberal culture can spur competitiveness.

But too much democracy or distortion of the democratic process will affect competitiveness. Looking at the US and Congress and its political discourse, Americans place greater emphasis on the democratic process than on outcomes.

Corporate leaders and leading thinkers worry about the loss of US competitiveness. There is now an inability to get things done. India passed only 28 Bills out of 97 in Parliament last year. It is the same problem of degrading performance.

Democracy is precious. It is important, but so is economic development, and producing a future for the people to live decent lives. For Singapore, used to enjoying good governance and development, I hope we find the right balance. I hope citizens join the debate so we can have the best of all worlds.

The writer is Singapore’s Ambassador to the United States. This is an edited version of a speech she delivered on March 8 to students at the Yale Law School.