A meaningful democracy in South-east Asia

Singapore, for all its achievements, is always nagged by Western media as needing to effect real democracy. However, it may well have a more meaningful democracy than its neighbours'.

As a South-east Asian foreign guest, I find myself envious of the election which ended last week. Candidates talked about track record, accountability for financial management, and healthcare and pension policy, amid rooster and cruise ship analogies. Political parties presented manifestos and action plans. Voters demanded to see credentials. Entertainers are banned from performing at rallies. These are as alien to Singapore's neighbours as the good governance it has enjoyed for decades.

I grew up in the Philippines, the former American colony that is South-east Asia's most liberal democracy. We treasure our rambunctious US-style free speech, we who were Rudyard Kipling's "white man's burden" and President William H. Taft's "little brown brothers". My parents stood in the streets in the peaceful Edsa People Power revolution in 1986 that ended Ferdinand Marcos' two decades of dictatorship.

Mr Ferdinand 
Marcos Jr with 
his mother, 
Philippine first 
lady Imelda 
Marcos, during 
her birthday 
celebration in 
Laoag City, 
Ilocos Sur 
province, last 
year. Mr Marcos, 
the son and 
namesake of the 
late Philippine 
dictator, is now 
touted as a 
possible future 

I sadly admit that a Tharman Shanmugaratnam or a Chen Show Mao would never get elected in the Philippines. Voters in the Philippines might quip that a candidate who is too smart might be too well equipped to steal from them, and the Filipinos previously elected a president who did not even finish secondary school.

When our customs commissioner, who had worked in Goldman Sachs and has a Princeton degree, recently resigned in frustration, there was no outcry about our government too readily discarding its best and brightest young civil servants. A young lawyer such as He Ting Ru would never be taken seriously as a candidate unless she was a scion of a political dynasty.

Singaporeans of all political inclinations vocally hold their Government accountable even for everyday things such as a three-hour MRT disruption.

In the Philippines, derailed trains and being stuck in Manila traffic for hours the moment it rains is a common occurrence. It will never be an election issue, even if armed highway police and commandos from the unit we sent into the jungles to hunt down terrorists were deployed to direct traffic in the streets.

No Philippine president or opposition leader would ever stand in a rally to talk about fiscal and foreign policy issues, nor would these be seriously listened to.

There is no single memorable Philippine political speech after our peaceful 1986 revolution, and Filipinos are more familiar with United States President Barack Obama's speeches.

When Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew passed on, young South-east Asians like me reopened his biography.

He lamented how Filipinos are so blessed with natural and human resources but are overly emotional and forgiving - Ferdinand Marcos Jr is now touted as a possible future president. He criticised how our free press has not checked corruption, our democracy has not developed a truly independent judiciary, and our best young men and women are constrained to seek opportunities abroad.

Filipinos openly sigh about how they have never had their own LKY. Months after his passing, we still share on Facebook what he said at a conference in Manila over 20 years ago: "I believe that what a country needs to develop is discipline more than democracy." Singapore's election gives us a new set of lessons to reflect on along with Mr Lee's original advice.

My Singaporean peers now openly debate the merits of policy proposals presented at the rallies and feel empowered to the point of publishing online essays on the elections or volunteering with a political party. These peers gave serious thought to their vote, especially by Philippine standards.

And absent from Singapore's election were the racial politics, populist demagoguery and more extreme excesses of other Asian elections all the way to outright vote buying. The late Mr Lee said he wanted the right kind of opposition in Singapore politics and it may well emerge, along with other developments, in what is known as the new normal.

Singaporeans should realise that regardless of what the Western media says, their South-east Asian peers do not necessarily see their society through the same lens. Take it from someone who stood with his peers in the so-called "Edsa 2" revolution in 2001 and admires Singapore's evolving democracy.

• The writer is a lawyer who is also a legal columnist with the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2015, with the headline 'A meaningful democracy in South-east Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe