Singapore and Democracy: A Love-Hate Partnership?

Perspectives on Donald Low’s Rebuttal of Calvin Cheng

Democracy is a slippery political concept. Many definitions abound, none particularly helpful in furthering our understanding. Many advocates of democracy attempt to define democracy in real life; dressing it up with civil liberties, popular elections, free press, free speech, right to bear arms … etc.  It seems natural that Donald and Calvin, together with many others, have difficulty grasping the nature of democracy in Singapore.  

Donald Low’s Rebuttal @ TREmeritus here.

First, Calvin is right: for Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), there is no “trade-offs” between freedom, development and democracy. Donald’s rebuttal misunderstood his own 1986 quote of LKY: “What are our priorities? First, the welfare, the survival of the people. Then, democratic norms and processes which from time to time we have to suspend.” LKY was not referring to trade-offs between democracy and development; for him, it is about prioritization or program sequencing of his government action agenda. For LKY, Democracy and democratic processes must and should facilitate development or face irrelevance, even oblivion.  

Always mindful of the electorate as his primary and only political accountability, LKY chose to “trade-up” the survival and welfare of the people who elected him and his PAP government repeatedly in every general election. He did not “trade-away” democratic norms and procedures; otherwise the PAP would not have held regular general elections as often and whenever constitutionally mandated to do so, unless LKY is also a strong believer in the value of democratic accountability.

Second, Donald’s argument that the reason “… many countries aren’t able to provide (these) public goods is not because they are democracies, but because they lack strong, competent and effective states” is a corporatist argument, not a democratic one.  Many have argued with some merits that corporatism – advocating a strong central state - is incompatible with democracy.

Donald failed in fact to recognize the implications of his own argument; that the co-existence of democracy and a strong state could very well be mutually exclusive and fundamentally impossible.

Rather, Donald preferred to explain that “democratically elected governments may not be able to deliver high quality public goods for a variety of reasons” which he attributed again to the absence of strong state control and regulatory mechanisms, instead of the obvious limitation of democracy in the social production of the greatest good for the largest number. 

The truth is that democracy does not and has never promise the delivery of development and high quality public goods.  History is on the side of the benevolent dictator, the paternalistic autocrat, the corporatist, but not the democrat.

Third, in using the Francis Fukuyama’s model describing the problem of having all three institutions - a strong state, rule of law, and democratic accountability - that comprise Francis’ political development, Donald inadvertently also subscribed into its flawed logic and argument.

Fukuyama is wrong to consider the 3 institutions capable of independent existence. They are not. A strong state is not sustainable without popular voluntary consent (meaning democratic accountability through general elections) and the rule of law.  The rule of law is a necessary organ to the effective function of government who enact the laws to do so.  Repressive and unjust laws will fuel civil disobedience to bring about their changes, and the downfall of despotic and intolerable governments.  To the corporatist, a strong state enjoys primacy and pre-eminence (eg. Singapore); and a democrat objects ideologically to a strong state (eg. in USA).  For both, the rule of law is just a flexible political tool to regulate and produce the desirable level of popular voluntary consent.  

Fourth, quite contrary to Donald’s thesis, no evidence from history supports “a natural link between economic development and the rise of democratic demands”.  Even Donald admitted that democracy and economic development are not pre-requisite of one another.

Fifth, Donald’s prescription of “greater democratic accountability” for Singapore from here forward in the post-LKY era is inconsistent with his emphasis on state-building and on enhancing state capacity since a strong state is incompatible with stronger democracy.

Six, Donald had a fatally wrong understanding of democracy and democratic elections when he advocated “a more diverse and representative government” instead of one returned by repeated fair and clean general elections in accordance with standard democratic procedures.  There is no one best form or style of democracy.
Perhaps, Donald’s call for more Opposition MPs points in fact to the lackluster performance and failure of these MPs to articulate their constituents’ interests …  The effectiveness of Opposition MPs does not lie in their numbers but in the logic, presentation and vigorousness of their alternative solutions proffered as “better” than the government. This is not a failure of democracy in Singapore, just the failure of leadership and imagination on the part of the Opposition.  

The problem in their understanding of democracy and government in people like Calvin and Donald lies in their belief in an over-rated conception of democracy.  Democracy exists in so many forms and styles to suit its respective contextual domains.

At its root, democracy does not promise the election of a “good” leader.  There are far too many supporting examples to this and needs no elaboration here.

Democracy provides a decision-making frame for making choices among who shall govern.  Democracy is not a quality management standard with a checklist of best practices and good conduct procedures.

Is a bad democracy (which is inefficient and slacken) therefore better than a benevolent dictatorship?

Singapore is better off managing democracy as a governance tool in the manner that we did in the past, with regular free and fair elections and in a political climate characterized by freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of religious beliefs and the freedom of choice.  If these were what democracy could facilitate, it would be great!  If not, democracy should get out of our way as we journey toward a better, more prosperous, fairer and equal society of one Singapore and one nation.

GoTo the Full Posts:
Rebutting Calvin Cheng’s article @ TREmeritus, 5 April 2015.

Related Democracy Posts:


Ⓜatilah $ingapura⚠️ said...

Democracy is vastly overrated. LKY started as a democrat arguing passionately in then the LA of British colonial Singapore.

However, late on he changed his views---aka IMO he came to his senses.

Managed or guided democracy for Singapore is probably the best option, and has evolved out of the culture.

Democracy rarely "delivers the goods" it is supposed to in theory. Well folks, the world doesn't work on theoretical models posited by ivory-tower intellectuals. Human nature is such that it is quirky and unpredictable. The "social aspect" of human nature is a double-edged sword: it makes us want to seek relationships and groups, but it also is the root of tribal (aka political) behaviour and mass in-group-out-group hostility and violence.

Democracy is based on the idea that many people all together make the best decisions. We know that is patently false. Democracy is more like a collective of idiots making really bad, self-sabotaging decisions, then blaming the elected leaders when thing go awry.

Human nature is very entertaining. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Writer spouting academic nonsense to justify a LKY state in SG. No one ever says that democracy is ideal and without disadvantages. But it is the only institution that has inherent checks and balances against corruption and hegemony. When a country sinks into a totalitarian and despotic state like LKY's, how do you stop it now even after he is dead? He was a horrible person and leader. You can't simply trade away, trade off or trade in the criminal and inhuman acts he did by rationalising that he brought progress and development to the nation. It is debatable if without him SG would have done as well or even better.

Ⓜatilah $ingapura⚠️ said...

@ 1024:

>> You can't simply trade away, trade off or trade in the criminal and inhuman acts he did

Why trade? Just ignore them. The post-hoc "rationalised" reasons don't matter. This shit happens in politics. Go against the top guy, he will destroy you. He didn't get to the top by being a "nice guy" or a beacon of "fairness". Get over it man!

>> it is debatable if without him SG would have done as well or even better.

I do wholeheartedly agree. The private sector was strong and the political contenders were all some version of Marxist ideology. The fist thing LKY did was to get rid of the Barisan Socialis and implement PAP socialism instead.

Fast forward 50 years, the private sector is smokin'! Wealth comes form the private sector. The best the govt can do is to prepared the way, and don't tax or regulate too much, and of course, maintain social order. LKY did this in spades. He's not Marx. He's not Thatcher or Reagan. He's not even "in between" as some "centrist". Nor was he a libertarian (although many libertarians gush when they hear his name. I'm not one of those libertarians ;-) )

However I doubt if Singapore would be the success it is if there was a western style democracy. No way. In Singapore culture the first thing is to ensure the diverse groups don't end up killing each other.

And so the best and "safest" model to adopt is that of MERITOCRACY -- an idea from the laissez faire private sector. aka "You want something? Go and achieve it for yourself and leave others alone to do the same."

LKY was in his own class---beyond the left-right political compass. Formless. Beholden to no dogma or doctrine---not even to his his own as he would change his mind when necessary.

Formless. Flexible. Pragmatic, with the ruthlessness impetus to "get it done" and get dissenters out of the way ASAP.