An unnatural country’s take on democracy

Dear Ms Chan Heng Chee,

I refer to your 8 Mar 2012 speech at Yale Law School [1].

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 sizeable 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 simulaneously 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.

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 wellbeing 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 disappears.

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.

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

[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


2 Responses to “An unnatural country’s take on democracy”

  1. No Fair Chance Says:

    Ms Chan is the creme de la creme of the craps

  2. Pharaoh Says:

    One of the very best articles on the subject ever written.
    Well done!

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