Have constructive discourse on what democracy means to us

In a BBC interview earlier this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was asked what he would do if Britain decides to use trade deals as leverage to pressure Singapore on human rights issues.

PM Lee answered: "I would not presume to tell you how your Press Council should operate. Why should you presume to tell me how my country should run?"

A quick glance on social media would reveal that many netizens were proud of PM Lee for "standing up to arrogant Western journalists".

Some drew parallels with another BBC interview two decades ago, when founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew lambasted his interviewer for assuming that the Western style liberal democracy was the "right" form of democracy.

Netizens trumpeted these as victories against Westerners who think they are entitled to tell Singapore what democracy is.

Indeed, few in the Western world would consider Singapore democratic.

They accuse Singapore of being a de facto one-party state, having state-controlled media and not respecting basic human rights.

Often, my gut reaction is to defend our democracy.

I argue that Singapore holds transparent, unrigged elections, that limitations on human rights prevent greater evils like racial discord, and that our "democracy with Singaporean characteristics" is customised to suit our societal values.

Inevitably, I resort to the same argument: "Who are you to tell us what is democratic and what is not?"

It is true that the West has no right to decide for us what the "correct" form of democracy should be.

In Mr Lee Kuan Yew's time, it was unfair for the West to impose First World values of liberal democracy on a developing Singapore. We had the excuse of needing a strict government to ensure social and economic stability as Singapore was growing.

But we no longer have that excuse today.

Instead of instinctively vilifying anyone who dares to suggest that Singapore is undemocratic, we should reflect on whether their criticisms have any merit.

By refusing to acknowledge potential flaws in Singapore's democracy, we lose opportunities to engage in meaningful discussions on what democracy means to us.

Accepting criticism does not mean we have to become more like the West.

A Western-style liberal democracy might not be for us, but that does not prevent us from having constructive discourse on the kind of democracy we want for our future.

Lam Chi Tun

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2017, with the headline 'Have constructive discourse on what democracy means to us'. Print Edition | Subscribe