Monday, April 18, 2011

Is the PAP indispensible?

Do We Owe Our Existence to the People's Action Party?
Gayle Goh (source)

We have been hardwired since young to be grateful in everything to the People's Action Party.  We have been conditioned to accept the abrogation of our democratic freedoms as a necessary inconvenience for the sake of prosperity.  We have been primed to forgive any injustice committed by the ruling elite in the name of continued progress under the guidance of benevolent paternalism -- the government knows best.

I remember the issue being discussed countless times in class.  Whether in an honestly indignant manner, or in the form of a light-hearted jest, or even a sardonic diatribe, my peers and I have raised our protests against the form of rule present in Singapore to our elders.  Time and time again, I have heard the same answer: that is the sacrifice.  Freedom is less important than stability.  Stability has given us prosperity.

Now, in the heat of the elections, the same thing is once more on everyone's lips.  Freedom is less important than stability.  Stability has given us prosperity.  We owe everything to the PAP.  Without them, we wouldn't be here today.  After all, there was a time when people said that Singapore won't make it -- but we did!

Let's do ourselves the favour of honesty today, and ask if what the PAP accomplished for Singapore was really such a miracle.  Let's ask ourselves if it's been worth the sacrifice.

Singapore has long been known as one of the four East Asian tigers, which also include Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan.  These countries were part of the Newly Industrialised Economies, which emerged in the 1960's, mostly a product of decolonization, and faced the challenge of industrialisation and development in an increasingly globalised world where other countries had already had a head start.

Nevertheless, the four tigers followed a generic formula to success; rapid industrialisation and an export-oriented economy, with the aid available from various external agents including the World Bank, the IMF, and of course the then-hegemonic United States, who had virtually reconstructed the post-war economies worldwide in a colossal, unilateral effort.  Their currencies were devalued to make their goods cheaper, and foreign advisers were brought into the countries to offer their expert opinions on the situation (the famous Dr. Albert Winsemius, in Singapore's case).  The governments focussed their efforts onto education, as well as expansionary fiscal policies to create jobs and stimulate their infant economies.

Singapore had natural economic advantages to help her on her way to achieve the stunning growth she has displayed.  Chief among them, perhaps, was her strategic location along major trading routes leading to the Far East, hence Singapore's invaluable contribution to British profiteering in Southeast Asia during the age of colonialism.  Bustling port activity had already given her a head start in development in comparison to Malaysia.  In fact, the different nature of Singapore's far more developed, industrialised and high-end economy in the years of de-colonization as opposed to Malaysia's less developed, more agrarian economy was a very big worry on the part of the British, and one of the foremost reasons raised why Singapore should not merge with Malaysia.  Singapore had already displayed not only a potential for, but also a track record of prosperity and development before the PAP was ever in the picture.

It is therefore perfectly understandable why, given these natural advantages as well as the favourable climate of the international economy at that time (it was during the period which has been termed the 'Golden Age of Capitalism', lasting from 1947 to 1974, and flanked by the Marshall Plan and the OPEC oil crisis), the East Asian tigers flourished and prospered.  So what, if anything set Singapore apart? What was unique about our development strategy?

The answer comes, predictably, in the form of strict governance -- not in the mere presence of strictness, as some degree of authoritarianism was exercised in the early stages of Taiwan's and South Korea's development as well.  But Singapore is unique in the extent of its authoritarianism, and the length of time during which this authoritarian rule has been sustained.  Labour unions were de-politicised, collective bargaining power restricted, and trade union interests were subordinated to those of the State.  [Note: please don't believe a word of what Lee Hsien Loong says when he tries to make it sound like it's better for workers this way because Union leaders have a place in Cabinet.  While I applaud his rhetorical twist and his laudable optimism in seeing the glass as half full, let's not kid ourselves -- they are Ministers in charge of the Unions, not Union leaders in charge of the country.] In addition to the labour restrictions, we also saw high levels of government involvement and ownership in production, financing and marketing through the existence of statutory boards.  Beyond economics, we also saw a strong government presence in the media, and tight restrictions placed on the freedom of speech, assembly, protest., and so on.
In South Korea, we also did see suppression of labour movements, but this at least came with a guarantee of a minimum wage; the Singaporean government gave us no such guarantee. Furthermore, the proliferation of government/ex-government ministers in so many sectors -- the media, the union congress, etc., meant a depth of intervention unparalleled in the East Asian tigers.  Singapore too has been the only country out of the original four to still hang on to its authoritarianism.  South Korea has long abandoned the suppression of the labour movement, since 1987 in fact. 

What were the results of our authoritarian regime? Lower wages, lots of rich government-linked companies who had access to our national reserves, and people who couldn't complain.  Good things in and of themselves, perhaps, but hardly instrumental in Singapore's success.  No, that was predicated on the other constants which had held true in South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan who had not embarked on similarly interventionist policies, with the exception perhaps of South Korea, where the chaebols crowded out many competing firms in production, contributing towards South Korea's collapse in the Asian Crisis of 1997-1998.  Hong Kong adopted positive non-interference, becoming the most extreme example of a free-market economy in the world, while Taiwan took the route of passive interference, with gradually declining government intervention as the years went on.  That's with regards to economics -- with regards to things like press freedom, one only has to look to the Reporters Without Borders' index of press freedom today.  South Korea is 48th, Taiwan is 60th, Hong Kong is 34th, Singapore is 147th.  Please, don't tell me Singapore's economy will die if we have a free press.
All these countries achieved sterling growth, but the important thing to note is that an all-knowing, clairvoyant, authoritarian government that repressed freedoms and compromised on democracy was not necessary to achieving this growth.  The 'constants' earlier mentioned which determined the East Asian tigers' success were factors like the access to foreign aid, available 1st world markets, the Confucian work ethic, et alii.  The biggest justifications for our enforced stability, which were capital inflow and the benefits of foreign direct investment, were also constants available to these countries, not exclusive to Singapore in any way.  Our contemporaries today enjoy success, progress, and stability with a free media, with labour unions, with less government intervention in the economy.
What are the questions this leads us to ask? Can we bear to admit to ourselves that our carefully-constructed world of police permits and suppressed labour unions and government involvement in large corporations did not need to be constructed for us to be enjoying the benefits of prosperity and consumerism today? If we can admit this, then what is our debt to the PAP? One of gratitude, certainly for their astute leadership.  But not one of mindless bondage, not one of servitude, and not one of complete absolution and endorsement of the tactics by which they have achieved success.  No longer should we say, "of course things should be this way, otherwise Singapore wouldn't be Singapore".  If so, then South Korea wouldn't be South Korea, Taiwan wouldn't be Taiwan, Hong Kong wouldn't be Hong Kong, and Japan wouldn't be Japan.  All these economies are either in close competition with us, our ahead of us today.

So the next time the PAP cadres stand up and say, our Ministers must be in our trade union in order for there to be progress and stability, the next time they say we must not have free speech or 'too much democracy' in order for there to be progress and stability, the next time they say the PAP and only the PAP can give us progress and stability, let us remember two things.  Let us remember firstly that our economic success was due to a range of other, more instrumental factors which had to do with luck, coincidental timing and natural advantage, rather than suppression.  Then let us remember also, that progress and stability, movies, toys, games, fabrics, gadgets, dollars and cents, are not the sum and whole of human welfare, which must include always the dignity of choosing the proxies by which we govern our own lives as a mature and civic society free of fear, oppression and systematic propaganda.  Let us no longer accept excuses.

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