Opening minds to better governance

I refer to the 6 Apr 2013 Straits Times article “Opening eyes to good governance” by Mr Kishore Mahbubani [1].

Mr Mahbubani espouses that democracy is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for good governance. That is a statement that misses the forest for the trees. In a truly First World nation, citizens should enjoy both good governance and democracy. They should not have to choose one over the other. To be denied democracy is to be denied our rightful status as masters of our country. Good governance without democracy can be likened to a well fed servant while good governance with democracy can be likened to a well fed master. Saying it is possible to have good governance without democracy is like saying it is possible to be well fed without being the master. But who is more well fed, the servant or his master?

Good governance without democracy can also be likened to a kingdom ruled by a good king. A good king rules well so there is good governance. Yet there is no democracy because the king alone decides and the people have no say. But the good times depends on the continued goodness of the king. The people are at the mercy of the king. If the king ever turns bad, the people have no choice but to put up with the king’s bad behaviour. Herein lies the importance of democracy. It allows for bad governance to be bloodlessly removed and gives renewed hope that the replacement governance can be better. It may not guarantee good governance but it guarantees our right to reject poor governance.

China’s so-called uplifting of more people than any other society ever had over the past 30 years has left even more people un-lifted. It’s not hard to see why the democratic government of Taiwan wouldn’t have lifted even more people or wouldn’t have lifted them higher had they not been ousted from the mainland. What remains forever inconceivable by Mr Mahbubani and which leads to his eternal disconnect from Western minds is the fact that although good governance can be dissociated from democracy, good governance with democracy is so much better than good governance without democracy. Good governance with democracy is better governance.

While Mr Mahbubani claims that democracy is a desirable goal and that he doesn’t want to live in a non-democracy, his concept of democracy is very different from the Western concept of democracy. Simply put, there can be no democracy without press freedom. Thomas Jefferson once said “If a nation expects to be both ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be [2]”. Without press freedom, there can only be ignorance. An ignorant people cannot be trusted to make an informed choice at the polls. Having democratic elections without press freedom is like giving North Koreans a chance to vote. The North Koreans who are completely devoted to their Kim dynasty leaders despite poverty and famine can be trusted to overwhelmingly vote for their leaders if ever given a chance at democratic elections without press freedom. Our own vote shift in recent years can be attributed to online freedom helping to clear away some of the fog of ignorance that have clouded our minds all these years.

The Singapore civil service has performed brilliantly both before independence and after independence. One brilliant civil servant was Dr Goh Keng Swee who served brilliantly before independence and would have continued to serve brilliantly as a top civil servant had he not been inducted into politics.

The Singapore success story hasn’t been properly studied by the Western mind because it hasn’t been properly told. The problem isn’t so much of seeing things in black and white but that of covering up the black with white and painting over the white with black.

[1] Straits Times, Opening eyes to good governance, 6 Apr 2013

By Kishore Mahbubani
FRANCIS Fukuyama has done the West an enormous favour with his essay titled What Is Governance? He is subtly introducing a distinction between democracy and good governance, a distinction which is almost inconceivable in Western minds.
To put it bluntly, democracy is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for good governance. And yes, it is possible to have good governance without democracy.
Anyone who doubts this should look at the record of China’s government over the past 30 years. It is not perfect but it has lifted more people out of poverty, educated more people, increased their lifespans and generated the world’s largest middle class. No other society in human history has improved human welfare as much as the Chinese government. It would be insane to deny that China has enjoyed “good governance”.
The reason why Western minds cannot state this obvious fact is that they believe that good governance without democracy is as inconceivable as a semi-pregnant woman. Yet, as Professor Fukuyama delicately argues in his essay, it is “more of a theory than an empirically demonstrated fact” that “the current orthodoxy in the development community” is right in believing that “democracy and good governance are mutually supportive”.
For the record, to avoid misunderstanding, let me emphasise that democracy is a desirable goal.
I do not want to live in a non-democracy. This is why China too will eventually become a democracy, especially after it has developed the world’s largest middle class. The destination is not in doubt but the route and timing are.
This is why it is essential to draw a clear distinction between democracy and good governance and try to understand what good governance is. Prof Fukuyama’s essay introduces many key elements we have to pay attention to. These include procedural measures, input measures, output measures and measures of bureaucratic autonomy.
But these measures are not enough. They focus more on the methods of good governance than the results. To state the obvious, there is no point having the best processes in place if the results are bad. At the end of the day, the people want to know if they are better off.
Prof Fukuyama asserts that “the quality of government is the result of an interaction between capacity and autonomy”. And on the next page, he shows that Singapore stands highest on the axes of capacity and autonomy.
Curiously, he does this without any explanation or reference to Singapore in his article. Having worked in the Singapore civil service for 33 years, I believe that Singapore has done well because it scores high on capacity and on the culture of service.
The Singapore civil service has performed brilliantly but it has not done so because it is the most autonomous. It has done so because it has imbibed a culture which focuses the minds of civil servants on improving the livelihood of Singaporeans.
Sadly, the Singapore success story has never been properly studied because most Western minds – with their usual black-and-white mindset – cannot conceive of “good governance” as an independent and desirable good.
The greatest contribution that Prof Fukuyama’s essay can make is to open the Western mind to new possibilities. And when the Western mind opens up, it will discover a treasure trove of examples of good governance, a treasure trove which has become even more relevant to the West given the travails that both the American and European governments are having in delivering even basic levels of good governance to their populations.
The writer is the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
His piece and the original commentary by Professor Francis Fukuyama can be found on The Governance journal blog

[2] Quotes on the importance of press freedom for democracy

Thomas Jefferson
“If a nation expects to be both ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be.”

“Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.”

Information is the currency of democracy.

Winston Churchill
“A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny. … Under dictatorship the press is bound to languish, and the loudspeaker and the film to become more important. But where free institutions are indigenous to the soil and men have the habit of liberty, the press will continue to be the Fourth Estate, the vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen.”

Adolf Hitler, Dictator of Nazi Germany, 1933-1945
“The organization of our press has truly been a success. Our law concerning the press is such that divergences of opinion between members of the government are no longer an occasion for public exhibitions, which are not the newspapers’ business. We’ve eliminated that conception of political freedom which holds that everybody has the right to say whatever comes into his head.”

Benjamin Constant, French writer (1767-1830)
“With newspapers, there is sometimes disorder; without them, there is always slavery.”

Peter Howe
The act of witness is very important. Without journalism there’s no democracy. Without journalism, there’s no freedom.

Alastair Farrugia
Freedom is when the people can speak. Democracy is when the government listens

Tarja Halonen, President of the Republic of Finland
A free press is a fundamental prerequisite in the implementation of democracy.

Gerhard Schröder, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany
Democracy is impossible without freedom of the press, for freedom of the press is the basis of democracies.

KH Abdurrahman Wahid, President of the Republic of Indonesia
I do not wish to sacrifice freedom of the press in the learning process, which we have to undergo, for in the end it will all bring forth a true democracy in Indonesia.

An Taoiseach Mr Bertie Ahern T.D., Prime Minister of Ireland
Freedom of the press is one of the rights that is fundamental to democracy. No country that systematically interferes with or restricts freedom can be considered fully democratic.

Yoshiro Mori, Former Prime Minister of Japan
The people’s Right to Know is a universal principle that secures democracy, and Freedom of the Press is the basic freedom that guarantees this right.

Wolfgang Schüssel, Federal Chancellor of Austria
Freedom of the press has remained the condition sine qua non of democracy ever since: every cultural and political development is based on freedom of opinion.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso, President of Brazil
Most of all, it includes the inalienable right to live in a society in which truth is sought after and achieved through a free and informed public debate. This is the core of democracy

Alan Barth, columnist, Washington Post (1906-1979)
“If you want a watchdog to warn you of intruders, you must put up with a certain amount of mistakened barking. Now and then he will sound off because a stray dog seems to be invading his territory … or because he is outraged by a postman, and that kind of barking can, of course, be a nuisance.
But if you muzzle him and leash him and teach him decorum, you will find that he doesn’t do the job for which you got him in the first place. Some extraneous barking it the price you must pay for his service as a watchdog.
A free press is the watchdog of a free society. And only a press free enough to be somewhat irresponsible can possibly fulfill this vital function.”


One Response to “Opening minds to better governance”

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