Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Too much democracy is bad for Singapore? Stop the self-serving claptrap

Ambassador Chan, there is simply no excuse to sacrifice democracy

Ng Kok Lim

TR Emeritus, May 7, 2012 (source1, source2)

Dear Ms Chan Heng Chee,

I refer to your 8 Mar 2012 speech {full text in note [1] below} at Yale Law School [1].

“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.”

Singapore isn’t the only economy cited for success. We are just one of four East Asian tiger economies collectively cited for success. The Singapore model isn’t the only one we hear reference to. Taiwan too has been referred to by Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman in his New York Times article [2]. On other occasions, the Singapore model is being questioned for lack of home-grown technology giants, little to show for heavy government investment and failure to commercialise products [3]. All see, not just a Singapore that enjoys sustained economic success but an East Asia that has been enjoying sustained economic success.

Our foreign minister Mr Shanmugam always emphasise the need to compare Singapore with other cities rather than with states comprising several cities. Singapore’s per capita GDP lags behind those of many Western cities:

City 2008 GDP ($bn PPP) Population (millions) per capita GDP ($000 PPP)
San Francisco/Oakland 301 3.5 86.5
Washington DC 375 4.4 85.5
Boston 363 4.5 80.5
Seattle 235 3.1 75.5
New York 1,406 19.2 73.3
Philadelphia 388 5.5 70.1
Dallas/Fort Worth 338 4.9 69.5
Atlanta 304 4.6 66.4
London 565 8.6 65.8
Houston 297 4.5 65.8
Chicago 574 9.1 63.3
Los Angeles 792 12.6 62.9
Detroit 253 4.1 61.1
Paris 564 9.9 56.9
Miami 292 5.7 51.6
Sydney 213 4.4 48.9
Singapore 215 4.5 47.9
Toronto 253 5.3 47.7
Hong Kong 320 7.3 44.0
Tokyo 1,479 35.8 41.3
Madrid 230 5.6 40.8
Osaka/Kobe 417 11.3 36.9

* PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Global City GDP Rankings 2008

While Singapore is well governed and well run, it is by no means best governed. Countries like Denmark, New Zealand and Sweden are simultaneously better governed than us and a lot more democratic too. They show that we can be both well-governed and democratic at the same time.

Country Government effectiveness Democracy Index
DENMARK 2.37 9.52
NEW ZEALAND 2.36 9.26
SWEDEN 2.25 9.5
SINGAPORE 2.18 5.89
FINLAND 2.15 9.06
NORWAY 2.07 9.8
CANADA 2.06 9.08
AUSTRALIA 2.06 9.22
LUXEMBOURG 2.06 8.88
HONG KONG 1.94 5.92

* Government Effectiveness Worldwide Governance Indicators 2011

Our invitation to US Education Department summits could simply be due to the easier adaptation of our English based education materials for the US compared to education materials from Taiwan, South Korea, Germany or Finland. For all the knowledge industries and cutting-edge stuff we are doing, we haven’t got a thing that comes close to the iPhone.

Our top five ranking for non-corruption means there are four other nations less corrupted than us. These four are New Zealand, Finland, Denmark and Sweden. These nations are simultaneously less corrupted than us and a lot more democratic too. They show that we can be both non-corrupted and democratic at the same time.

Country / Territory CPI 2011 Score Democracy Index
New Zealand 9.5 9.26
Finland 9.4 9.06
Denmark 9.4 9.52
Sweden 9.3 9.5
Singapore 9.2 5.89
Norway 9 9.8
Netherlands 8.9 8.99
Australia 8.8 9.22
Switzerland 8.8 9.09
Canada 8.7 9.08
Luxembourg 8.5 8.88
Hong Kong 8.4 5.92

* Corruption Perceptions Index 2011

The Yale-China association was founded in 1901 as an essentially missionary movement, hardly comparable to the Yale-Singapore partnership in question today. The association’s move to Hong Kong in the 1950s coincided with the end of democratic China and the rise of communist China, an event not inconsistent with the concerns of Yale academics today. The return of Yale-China to China in 1979 was primarily for collaboration in English and medicine, not liberal arts. Once again, this turn of events doesn’t really contradict the concerns of Yale academics today.

It is wrong to say that Singapore is a democracy because information flows freely. A sizable chunk of information is missing from our press and can only be found online. Reporters Without Borders ranks us 135th in the world for press freedom. It is also wrong to say that Singapore is a democracy because it is egalitarian. Our Gini coefficient is amongst the world’s highest. Many Western nations are simultaneously more egalitarian than us and a lot more democratic too. They show that we can be both egalitarian and democratic at the same time.

Country Income GINI coefficient 2000-2010
Hong Kong 43.4
Singapore 42.5
Qatar 41.1
United States 40.8
Israel 39.2
Portugal 38.5
New Zealand 36.2
Italy 36
United Kingdom 36
Estonia 36
Australia 35.2
Poland 34.9
Spain 34.7
Ireland 34.3
Greece 34.3
Switzerland 33.7
Belgium 33
France 32.7
Canada 32.6
Korea, Republic of 31.6
Slovenia 31.2
Netherlands 30.9
Austria 29.1
Germany 28.3
Finland 26.9
Norway 25.8
Czech Republic 25.8
Slovakia 25.8
Sweden 25
Japan 24.9
Denmark 24.7

* Income GINI coefficient from Human Development Report 2010, UN

If Singapore is a democracy, why does the Economist Intelligence Unit classify Singapore as a hybrid regime between flawed democracy and authoritarian regime? Why does Freedom House classify us as only a partly free country?

Singapore falls short even when considered against the Westminster model. Does the Westminster model allow all newspapers to be grouped into one company with the majority of shares held by government linked companies and chaired by important ex-ministers? Does the Westminster model allow political opponents to be locked up without trial? Does it allow several constituencies to be lumped together to be contested as one? Ours is but a mockery of the Westminster model. The confusion in our presidential election arose from an attempt to dumb down the president. Please explain to our friends in Yale that our president is not allowed to speak with his conscience unless approval is given by the government and see if that does not cause confusion.

Democracy is more than just free and fair elections; it also requires a free press which we do not have. The GRC makes our elections less than fair as it allows one minister to win five, six constituencies. We are no more egalitarian than the US or India as our GINI is higher than theirs:

Country Income GINI coefficient 2000-2010
Singapore 42.5
United States 40.8
India 36.8

* Income GINI coefficient from Human Development Report 2010, UN

The many less liberal Asian democracies have fundamentally different societies, culturally and religiously. We should compare ourselves with Asian democracies like South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong that have similar cultures. We pale in comparison to them.

While it is fashionable for the ruling party to portray our independence as a matter of survival, the truth is that we have been prospering long before our independence. In 1960, our per capita GDP was already $1,330 which gave us a middle-income status [4]. Post-war Singapore was never a backward fishing village waiting to be transformed by Lee Kuan Yew into a modern economy; the King of Thailand wouldn’t have sent 20 of his sons to a fishing village for education in the late nineteenth century; a fishing village could not have staged a manned air flight as early as 1911; Singapore was credited with the finest airport in the British Empire in the 1930s and in Aug 1967, while speaking to American businessmen in Chicago, Lee Kuan Yew had already acknowledged then that we were already a metropolis [5].

Whatever the link between democracy and growth, the case is clear from the examples of South Korea and Taiwan that embracing democracy is no impediment to prosperity. Singaporeans voting on the performance of the government does not preclude their voting for democracy.

Populist movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street embody the spirit of democracy and show that democracy is alive and kicking in America. Americans can always count on their democratic DNA to turn their country around whenever their elites steer them off course towards destruction. Singapore too needs democratic DNA to rein in an elitist government bent on growing our nation to destruction.

While ministers can lose seats, only two ministers have lost their seats over the last 47 years, hardly typical of democracies. The slight progress made in democracy over the last few years was in spite of PAP policies.

Singapore is no more unnatural than Israel, another small nation surrounded by much larger Muslim states. Israel’s situation is much worse considering that they actually fought three wars of survival and continue to experience rocket attacks today. Yet, Israel’s democracy index of 7.53 is much higher than Singapore’s 5.89. South Korea too is in an unenviable situation of having to live with a militant, nuclear capable North Korean neighbour while Taiwan has to live under the shadows of the China juggernaut. Yet both South Korea and Taiwan have relatively high democracy indexes of 8.06 and 7.46 respectively. Israel, South Korea and Taiwan show that an unnatural situation is no excuse to sacrifice democracy.

Our being surrounded by 200 million Muslims is no excuse to take away our right to assemble in groups more than five persons, no excuse to restrict press freedom beyond religious matters, no excuse for the GRC when only one out of the five or six constituencies in the GRC will be helmed by the minority representative. We might as well dictate that one particular constituency to be minority contestable only.

Singapore wasn’t born but became independent in 1965. Our birth goes back to 1819. Neighbouring hostility amounted to no more than two bomb blasts that hurt no one.

We may not have oil, gas or water but we are gifted with one of the most valuable geographical locations that became the basis of our prosperity. All four East Asian Tiger economies prospered without oil or gas. Hong Kong too depends on China for water.

The Scandinavian nation corporations cited by Professor John Ruggie score very high in democracy index. They show that the tendency for smaller nations to corporatize is no excuse to sacrifice democracy.

Country Democracy Index
Norway 9.8
Sweden 9.5
Finland 9.06
Singapore 5.89

* Democracy Index 2011, Economist Intelligence Unit

Our government may be responsive but its response is increasingly detrimental to the well being of our people. Social rights are still at their infancy. Greater openness is an illusion as are accountability and transparency. Accountability is meaningless when based on misrepresented data. Transparency is meaningless when the truth is polished until it can no longer be seen.

It has always been convenient for the government to blame inequality on globalisation until the recent Institute of Policy studies which showed that our construction workers are severely underpaid compared to those of other nations exposed to the same forces of globalisation.

The West’s continued prosperity and dominance in creative innovation shows that democracy doesn’t necessarily impact competitiveness. Despite China’s rapid rise, it is still a net recipient, not creator of technology. In this technological world, it is the technology leader that leads the world.

The Singapore government may be responsive to the needs of businesses and corporations but not the needs of the people. People were asking for more to be done to rein in property prices years before the government finally took action. People were asking for more to be done for public transport but nothing significant came about until the recent major MRT breakdowns. The government is not responsive enough to the needs of the people that befits a democracy. Singaporeans are not demanding for more and more entitlements but merely seeking fairness and dignity in our own country.

The 2012 Global City Competitiveness Benchmark commissioned by CitiBank shows that New York is more competitive than Singapore despite US political discourse. The IMD 2011 World Competitiveness Report also lists USA as being more competitive than Singapore. Thus, the notion that too much democracy affects competitiveness is misplaced. India’s problems aren’t so much of too much democracy but the fact that it is a complicated nation as LKY once explained.

Country World Competitiveness Scoreboard
Hong Kong 100
USA 100
Singapore 98.6
Sweden 94.1
Switzerland 92.6
Taiwan 92
Qatar 90.2
Australia 89.3
Germany 87.8
Luxembourg 86.5
Denmark 86.4
Norway 86.3
Netherlands 85.7
Finland 84.4
Malaysia 84.1

* IMD 2011 World Competitiveness Report

Besides Singapore, all other First World nations have embraced democracy without sacrificing economic development. Economic development need not come at the expense of democracy.

Whether it is governance, non-corruption, egalitarianism, unnatural geopolitical situation, tendency of small nations to corporatize or the need to maintain competitiveness and economic development, there is no lack of examples of countries that have either outperformed us or are in a more dire situation but have not sacrificed democracy. There is simply no excuse to sacrifice democracy.

Thank you.


Ng Kok Lim

[1] Straits Times, 20 Apr 2012, An unnatural country’s take on democracy

By Chan Heng Chee, For The Straits Times
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. Increasingly, we are noted for taking up the knowledge industries and doing cutting-edge stuff. So something right is going on in Singapore.
Background story
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.
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.

[2] Straits Times, 12 Mar 2012, Having no oil may yield the best resource

[3] Straits Times, 9 Mar 2012, S’pore growth model in spotlight

[4] Carl A. Trocki, Singapore: wealth, power and the culture of control, Page 166

[5] Peter Wilson / Gavin Peebles, Economic growth and development in Singapore: past and future, Page 26

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