Not for sale

Dear Rachel,

I refer to your Straits Times article dated 11 Dec 2009 which detailed the work of Mr John Kampfner. It began with a question posed by Mr Kampfner on why educated people are willing to hand over their freedoms in exchange for prosperity and security. In the case of Singapore, the answer is invariably ignorance. Generations of Singaporeans have been sold to the idea that our prosperity comes from our brilliant PAP government without which there would have been no prosperous Singapore. Singaporeans believe this to their bones and will not give up the PAP for fear of losing their prosperity. Little do they realise that the key ingredients to our prosperity have little to do with the PAP. The world renowned success formula of embracing foreign direct investments was not conjured by the PAP but was gifted to us by Dr Albert Winsemius, an economic advisor sent to us by the United Nations. A well oiled civil service and robust institutions were British inheritances along with the inheritance of a hard working population of largely East Asian descent. One cannot disagree that Singapore was already a prosperous city and one of the crown jewels in the British Empire long before the PAP came about. We were also amongst the top in Asia in terms of per capita GDP prior to our self-rule and independence. But this side of the Singapore story has become less common place now. In its place is the often touted but rarely questioned rhetoric of the PAP led success.

Mr Kampfner rightly saw that free markets can exist within a not so free political environment while the response by our High Commissioner fails to address the crux of the issue. Saying that the true test of what works comes from the real world doesn’t say anything about what else might work or what really is the reason behind why it works. Singapore has worked but that does not mean that Singapore would not have worked had it been governed in another way. For if we were to strip away Singapore’s authoritarianism, what remains would simply be another Hong Kong which has proven to be just as successful.

So there’s a lot that Singaporeans don’t understand, contrary to Mr Kampfner’s assertion that Singaporeans have entered these pacts with their eyes wide open. We may not be as blind as the North Koreans but we are certainly not as discerning as we ought to be. On the other hand, the Burmese people aren’t as blind as Mr Kampfner might think given their dislike for the military junta and their love for Aung Sang Su Kyi. There is very little choice for the Burmese people living in fear of the guns of their military junta.

The so-called Asian values espoused by MM Lee are really East Asian values. But do East Asians prefer collective well being over individualism? East Asians love to make money. But it’s hard to see East Asians working hard to make money for their countries rather than for themselves. Therefore, the most definitive characteristic of East Asians is individualistic rather than collectivist in nature. Do East Asians prefer social harmony over dissent? In the case of Singaporeans, more likely than not, it is not social harmony but personal safety that is being preferred over dissent.

The supposed irreconcilable difference amongst the various civilisations as propagated by Samuel Huntington is largely religious, not cultural in nature. If the East Asian cultures of Japan, Korea and Taiwan can become so affable with the Western culture of America, clearly culture is not the reason for the antagonism between the US and China? That antagonism is probably more similar to the one between the former Soviet Union and the US. It is an antagonism between opposing political-military mights, not a clash of civilisations. The real clash of civilisations is between the Christian West and the Islamic Middle East, which is a conflict that has existed since the first Crusades nearly a thousand years ago.

The question by the Singaporean academic of whether an illiberal democracy is more stable cannot be answered without first qualifying the countries being compared. If we compare similarly successful societies like Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea, then the answer is invariably no because despite the antics in the Taiwanese parliament and the strikes in Korea, the other three East Asian dragons have proven to be no less stable than us despite they being a lot more liberal. If we were to compare third world African countries instead, the conclusion is the same. There is no evidence that an illiberal third world country is inherently more stable than one that is more liberal.

The ‘pact’ that Mr Kampfner so often see nowadays will not seem so bewildering if we can understand how modern democracies came about. All the defining moments of democracy from the Magna Carta and the English Civil War to the French and the American revolutions all involved some form of money struggle or struggle for material well being. Democracy is rooted in people fighting for their fare share of material well being. As long as the nationwide surveillance and money laundering in Britain do not compromise the material well being of the British people, they will not become major issues. On the other hand, the numerous strikes in Britain goes to show that democracy as the means for demanding a fair share of material well being is still very much alive and kicking in Britain.

Finally, Mr Kampfner suggested that democracy may come when the state fails to deliver prosperity. That day nearly came for Singapore some years back when state bureaucrats failed to appreciate our over reliance on the electronics industry and were caught napping while electronics firms emigrated en masse to China. There were massive retrenchments along with a mad scramble to replace the lost firms with biomedical firms. The people tasted hardships but there was no revolution, no clamour for democracy. This reminds us of North Korea where many children have died of starvation and yet the people remain rooted for the ruling Kim family. It wasn’t difficult to put the blame on climate just as it was easy to find a scapegoat for the recent North Korean currency revaluation crisis. And so it is with Singapore too that even if the state were to fail to deliver prosperity, state newspapers will always be there to explain things away. We may not be as blind as the North Koreans but we are not so discerning either.


One Response to “Not for sale”

  1. The Pariah Says:

    Great – I luv your observations!

    I fully agree that Singaporeans are not as discerning as we could be.

    I’m trying to learn to be more discerning too – the concluding Part C of my latest blog trilogy (PM said, I am saying) where I try to highlight the typical doublespeak:

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