Has Rajaratnam's 'democracy of deeds' idea gone beyond words?

"What you have done may not get as much publicity as the utterances of professional oppositionists, but long after these have gone, what you have done will strengthen the democracy of deeds and not words."

- S. Rajaratnam (Aug 14, 1971)

It has been 45 years since Mr S. Rajaratnam spoke those words to grassroots volunteers and coined the phrase "democracy of deeds". It encapsulates his views on one of his deepest political preoccupations: the sort of democracy and society that Singapore should strive for.

More fundamentally, it animates Singapore's search for a model of governance that would safeguard the small country's survival and advance the welfare of its people in a harsh and unpredictable world.

Known as the ideologue among the first-generation Cabinet leaders, Mr Rajaratnam advocated what he termed a "problem-solving democracy", oriented towards solving the problems of the people in practical ways - as opposed to a democracy of words, engaged in empty rhetoric and political confrontation.

When he first broached the idea, it was a turbulent time when Singapore's survival as an independent country was far from assured. His phrase "democracy of deeds" has since been stamped onto the political lexicon.

The question is, has it progressed beyond words?

It is useful to first unpack what he meant by "democracy of deeds". While he did not specifically define the concept, a close analysis of his various expositions on the subject reveals its key features: A democracy of deeds is based on public-spirited action in solving society's myriad problems, a sound understanding and appreciation of the country's external and internal realities, and a devotion to the public good.

For this approach to take root, it is essential to involve the participation of as many citizens as possible in trying to solve "practical problems in practical ways". Indeed, real democracy is "one in which the various activities in a society are distributed as widely as possible among the people", he argued.

Furthermore, he believed that, by getting the people involved in solving problems, they would better understand the constraints and challenges facing Singapore. Hence he hailed the Government's move to empower people to run town councils in 1988, calling it an important stage of Singapore's democratic process. "This stage would be the most difficult because Singaporeans would have to learn to be responsible for their mistakes... They would also find that exercising authority would not mean popularity and total freedom," he said.

At the heart of his "problem- solving democracy" was his deep-rooted belief that good governance was about action and results. Hence, the important factor in politics was the "quality and character of the parties concerned - whether in government or opposition". What Singapore needed was "problem-solving parties".

As for the critics of the day, he fretted about the "persistent tendency for critics of government policy to view its actions as though Singapore were an island cut off from the rest of the world". However, he would welcome "meaningful, constructive criticisms as a problem-solving approach", and expressed the hope that "criticism as a problem-solving approach may grow in the years to come".

Underlying Mr Rajaratnam's problem-solving approach was his deep concern that, in being mired in internal squabbles, Singaporeans would lose sight of how sensitive Singapore was to external developments and its need to be flexible and forward-looking.


The external threats at that time presented one of the most dangerous periods in Singapore's history since independence: Britain's accelerated withdrawal of its troops from Singapore by the end of 1971 amid a volatile geopolitical landscape.

The pullout posed serious threats to the country, already battered by the shock of separation from Malaysia. The strategic shifts in the era of the Cold War, intensified by America's decision to withdraw from the Indochina War, turned the region into a focus of rivalry for ambitious powers such as China, the Soviet Union and Japan.

The Singapore leadership's sense of crisis was compounded by the realisation that, in dealing with the new challenges, the country was on its own. A deep strategic thinker, Mr Rajaratnam as Singapore's first foreign minister was only too aware of the country's vulnerable position. Observing the moves in 1971, he warned sombrely that "some of these changes portend trouble for Singapore".

There were other troubles: the resurgence of armed communist activity in Malaysia in 1968 as the tide of revolutionary armed struggle swept across South-east Asia. He feared that the withdrawal of the British and American troops from the region would give a fillip to the communists' efforts to subvert Malaysia and Singapore. Already, an increasing number of left-wing disturbances had been troubling the island.

If the situation were allowed to escalate, it would poison Singapore's efforts to attract the foreign investments that the country so desperately needed to provide jobs and a better standard of living for its people.

From the crucial years of 1968 to 1971, Mr Rajaratnam took on a second portfolio as minister for labour to push through tough labour laws to restore stability in the country's economy.

To compound the pressures on Singapore, this period also witnessed high-wire drama with Malaysia and Indonesia. With memories of the 1964 Malaysia- Singapore race riots still raw, there were anxious moments as Malaysia's racial troubles from 1969 to 1971 played out. Then there was Indonesia's anger at Singapore's execution of two Indonesian marines in 1968 for their role in the 1965 bombing of MacDonald House in Singapore. Foreshadowed by the experience of Indonesia's Confrontation, it was a tense period for Singapore as it stood up to a neighbour many times its size.


Mr Rajaratnam's quest for a "democracy of deeds" could hardly have begun in less favourable circumstances. Indeed, it could be argued that, in the difficult 1960s and 1970s, the conditions were not ripe for the realisation of this vision.

While Mr Rajaratnam had progressive instincts, he believed that in tough, uncertain times - times like the 1960s and 1970s in Singapore - ensuring the nation's survival should constitute the highest morality. Everything else was secondary.

While this hard-headed approach was not without its controversies, few can deny that it has reaped remarkable results for Singapore. It overcame the challenges posed by the British pullout and other severe problems, and turned the country into a success story of grit, determination and imagination.

With a more stable and resilient nation today, it is timely to revisit Mr Rajaratnam's concept of a democracy of deeds. Singaporeans are better educated, more demanding and more vocal. In this age of social media and mobile technology, there are more opportunities for the public to organise themselves and get involved in shaping society. However, it is still far from clear whether all these will translate into a democracy of deeds, and not of words.

Going forward, it is necessary to focus on the ways in which the state joins hands with citizens and institutions of civil society to help foster the constructive culture needed for such a problem-solving democracy to flourish - one based on meaningful action, a sound understanding and appreciation of the country's realities, and a devotion to the public good.

Ultimately, its progress depends on the political will of the citizens as a people and also of the national leaders.

There is reason to be optimistic about its development as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his new generation of leaders advance Mr Rajaratnam's vision within the framework of a more inclusive society. However, as Mr Rajaratnam would have us remember, never lose sight of the country's external realities.

•Irene Ng, a former MP, is Writer-in-Residence at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. She published the first volume, The Singapore Lion: A Biography Of S. Rajaratnam, in 2010 and is currently writing the second volume of the biography.

•This is an abridged version of the essay, "Revisiting S. Rajaratnam's Democracy of Deeds", published in Commentary 2016 by the National University of Singapore Society.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 14, 2016, with the headline 'Has Rajaratnam's 'democracy of deeds' idea gone beyond words?'. Subscribe