Comments on Mr Shanmugam’s Hong Kong protest views

I refer to the 4 Oct 2014 Straits Times report “Hong Kong protests: Western media reports biased against China, says Shanmugam”.

Hong Kong had democracy under British

Mr Shanmugam was wrong to say that Hong Kong didn’t have democracy during 150 years of British rule. He could only say that Hong Kong didn’t have the right to vote under the British. Singapore too, didn’t have the right to vote during more than 100 years of British rule. Yet Singapore under the British was more democratic than Singapore today because colonial Singapore had press freedom whereas Singapore today no longer has press freedom. We are ranked 150th in the world for press freedom – rock bottom. It was with press freedom that the Leftists were able to galvanize the collective powers of the Chinese speaking masses to win full internal self government for Singapore. Self-rule, self-determination, the State of Singapore, the Singapore flag, our national anthem Majulah Singapura were all born out of the democracy of press freedom accorded to us by the British.

It may sound strange but Hong Kong without voting rights has more democracy than Singapore with voting rights. This can be seen from the fact that Hong Kong outranks us in the Economist Democracy Index 2012:

• Hong Kong, rank 63, score 6.41
• Singapore, rank 81, score 5.88

Simply put, there can be no democracy without press freedom:

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.

Tarja Halonen, President of the Republic of Finland

A free press is a fundamental prerequisite in the implementation of democracy.

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

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.

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

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.”

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.

The notion that a gagged press is good for the country was espoused by none other than Adolf Hitler himself:

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.

Thus Hong Kong always enjoyed the fundamental basis of democracy – press freedom, under the British.

Singapore is example for Hong Kong

While Mr Shanmugam can say that Hong Kong under the British never had the right to vote, that doesn’t mean Hong Kong should be content with whatever limited voting rights it is now given even if those fall short of what Hong Kong people want.

When the British first granted us elections in 1948, only 6 of 22 seats were electable and only British subjects could vote which meant most of our Chinese speaking pioneers could not vote. If Singaporean pioneers had been contented with that kind of limited voting, Singapore would never have become the independent country it is today. We would have remained a British colony where half of Singaporeans of voting age cannot vote and nearly ¾ of parliament seats aren’t voted but are nominated instead. Clearly this is not what Singaporeans want.

So if Singaporeans appreciate how our pioneers didn’t stop at limited forms of elections but went the full distance to win full internal self government, we should also appreciate Hong Kong people’s desire for a more complete form of democracy.

Democracy and good governance

Good governance and multi-party democracy are not antagonistic to one another. China can have good governance coupled with democracy because the best governed nations in this world are also the most democratic.

Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Canada, Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia, Luxembourg, Austria and Germany are amongst the best governed nations in the world as well as the most democratic.

Country 2013 WGI Government Effectiveness Country 2012 EIU Democracy Index
FINLAND 2.17 Norway 9.93
SINGAPORE 2.07 Sweden 9.73
DENMARK 1.97 Iceland 9.65
SWEDEN 1.89 Denmark 9.52
NORWAY 1.86 New Zealand 9.26
SWITZERLAND 1.81 Australia 9.22
CANADA 1.77 Switzerland 9.09
NETHERLANDS 1.77 Canada 9.08
NEW ZEALAND 1.75 Finland 9.06
HONG KONG 1.73 Netherlands 8.99
LIECHTENSTEIN 1.73 Luxembourg 8.88
AUSTRALIA 1.62 Austria 8.62
LUXEMBOURG 1.62 Ireland 8.56
JAPAN 1.59 Germany 8.34
BELGIUM 1.59 Malta 8.28
AUSTRIA 1.57 United Kingdom 8.21
ANDORRA 1.53 Czech Republic 8.19
ANGUILLA 1.53 Uruguay 8.17
GERMANY 1.52 Mauritius 8.17
UNITED STATES 1.5 South Korea 8.13


Although the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 did not include universal suffrage, Article 45 of the Hong Kong Basic Law does:

The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.

China’s wish for the nation to become more prosperous before democratizing need not apply to Hong Kong because Hong Kong is already prosperous and thus ready for democratization.

Party gridlock in the US should not be seen as dysfunction as US continues to rank 3rd in the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index, just one rank lower than Singapore’s. If the 3rd ranked nation in this world is considered dysfunctional, wouldn’t that mean nearly the entire world is dysfunctional?

Mr Shanmugam should look at Russia, not the US to see what dysfunction is. According to the 6 Oct 2013 Straits Times report “Tensions in Moscow over economic woes”:

Senior Russian officials are sounding dire warnings as prices rise, the rouble plunges and growth grinds to a halt, but President Vladimir Putin is ignoring their advice amid the stand-off with the West over Ukraine.

This Mr Shanmugam, is dysfunction. China, a nation politically more similar to Russia is actually in greater danger of dysfunction in its current state.

If the US government doesn’t plan long-term, it wouldn’t have pulled off the Apollo program which was first conceived during President Eisenhower’s (Republican) time but completed during John F Kennedy’s (Democrat) time.

China is unlikely to implode like the Soviet Union did because China has one country, two systems so whatever democratizing can be confined to Hong Kong without impacting the rest of the country.

Hong Kong Basic Law itself is subject to interpretation and there are grey areas and even areas that contradict one another so it cannot be said for sure that China has acted in accordance with the Basic Law. The Basic Law does mention universal suffrage which should give Hong Kong the leeway to demand universal suffrage. The calling for Hong Kong to live by China’s rules is to essentially disregard one country, two systems because if at the end of the day, both systems kowtow to Beijing in so far as internal matters are concerned, what difference is there between the two systems? Singapore’s 1959 full internal self government serves as a good platform upon which China can govern Hong Kong where China can take charge of defense and foreign affairs while Hong Kong takes care of everything else internal, including the selection of its own chief executive.

Hong Kong’s reliance on China should not be used to threaten Hong Kong’s future because Hong Kong’s faltering and instability will do China no good.

Straits Times, Hong Kong protests: Western media reports biased against China, says Shanmugam, 4 Oct 2014

There has been much anti-China bias in Western media’s reporting on Hong Kong’s situation, said Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam, as he sought to offer another perspective on the current stand-off between Occupy Central protesters and the authorities that is now entering its eighth day.

Speaking to Lianhe Zaobao in an interview published on Saturday, Mr Shanmugam said that western media reports have made Beijing out to be “denying democracy” and acting to infringe on freedoms that have made Hong Kong so successful.

The truth, he said, is that Hong Kong did not have democracy during 150 years of British rule.

Beijing’s proposal for Hong Kongers to elect their leader from a vetted list – what the tens of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong are currently amassed against – is actually much more than what the British had ever offered.

Before the handover to China in 1997, neither the British rulers nor the Hong Kong media thought Hong Kong needed democracy, he pointed out; universal suffrage was also not included in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, the agreement that cemented the terms of the handover.

“The Western media does not report these facts,” he said.

Mr Shanmugam put the Chinese government’s hard line towards the Occupy Central protesters in the context of its overarching governance priorities.

At this stage in its development, China’s primary goal is unity, progress and a better life for 1.3 billion people, he said, and its leadership believes that it can achieve this only by good governance and avoiding the ills of multi-party democracy.

China’s GDP per capita today is US$6,800 (S$8,708), and Chinese leaders will want to achieve the goal of becoming a moderately prosperous country before they will contemplate any move to democratise.

Two examples confirm Beijing’s belief, he noted.

First is the dysfunction and partisan gridlock of the political system in the United States, which has deteriorated to the point of being unable to pass a budget for years or address any pressing governance issues like immigration reform, improving public education or handling crime and violence.

Because of short electoral cycles, the US government is also unable to plan for the long-term, he said.

China, as a poorer, less developed country, believes that it “cannot afford the luxury of such dysfunctionality”, he said.

The second reaffirming example Beijing looks to is the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, which Chinese leaders see as a cautionary tale of what happens when political restructuring precedes economic reform.

In the 1980s, Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev implemented a policy of glastnost – openness – as the Soviet Union tried to reform, unleashing democratising forces that ultimately unseated his own government.

“So China will be firm: it is not going to institute any major political change to copy the Western models – in the short term,” he said.

“The leadership will believe that any such move will be disastrous for China and will hurt the people of China,” he added.

And since whatever happens in Hong Kong can have an impact on the rest of China, giving in to the protesters’ demands, from Beijing’s point-of-view, may affect the stability of China as a whole, he noted.

This perspective, said Mr Shanmugam, “is entirely understandable”.

China is also suspicious of the protests and wonders if Western countries have a hand in stoking up sentiment, he noted.

Mr Shanmugam said that it must be asked if the average Hong Konger is prepared for the trade-offs of a protracted stand-off with Beijing.

“There needs to be clear understanding that China has acted in accordance with the Basic Law,” he said, referring to Hong Kong’s mini Constitution that enshrines the “one country, two systems” principle.

“If Hong Kongers want a change from the Basic Law – they have to recognise that Hong Kong is part of China, and there are some things China will accept, and some things which are red lines for China.”

“And there needs to be a clear understanding of Hong Kong’s extreme reliance on China for jobs and (its) livelihood,” he said, adding: “There needs to be a clear understanding of China’s largesse towards Hong Kong even as an anti-China mood is stoked up.”

Mr Shanmugam believed that the Occupy Central protests will not affect Singapore.


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