Singapore's template for democracy

Singapore's template for democracy

Talking to Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first prime minister, Tom Plate asks if American democracy is the only way, the best way, or just one way

By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist

Monday, October 8, 2007

Singapore --- With barely more than four million citizens, the tiny state of Singapore in Southeast Asia would hardly qualify as a template or role model for anything or anybody. Even clockwork-like Switzerland seems by comparison a small superpower at seven-and-a-half million in populace. Why would anyone care one way or the other what Singapore's founder thinks or says or criticizes?

But people, curiously, do. Perhaps this is because in a world of conflicting values, global warming, failing states and thoughtless leaders, a clear-headed and usable sense of certainty is in frighteningly short supply. And so when someone can provide it with reason and assurance, people's ears perk up, minds open up and a star can be born.

By many estimates, Lee Kuan Yew -- the founder of modern Singapore, but now a backstage eminence in the government -- is a giant of our time, despite achieving nothing more than masterful management of a country roughly one-fourth the size of Shanghai, which is but one city in China.

But in 1965, the historical port of Singapore -- abandoned as a nothing by the British and the Japanese -- was not much to brag about. Today, five or so decades later, it's a glittering gem of a modern state, with a high-end economy, low-levels of crime and a state ideology of show-me pragmatism and kindergarten-to-grave personal discipline that sets it wildly apart from its neighbors in the region. But like a Churchill or a MacArthur or even a Gandhi, Lee is controversial precisely because he has been so overtly strong-willed, seemingly self-assured and -- worst of all to critics -- so annoyingly successful.

His legacy to future generations of Singaporeans seems fairly clear. What's less clear is whether this now 84-year-old man has left anything of an intellectual estate to the world outside of his beloved little country. If he has, it's a profoundly provocative legacy. It suggests that the results of government are far more important than the style or form of government. It enshrines pragmatism over ideology, results over intentions, and priorities over process.

The implications for fundamentalist evangelists of democracy are gravely unsettling. For what does it gain the citizen to have a vote if she or he cannot feed, clothe and house the family -- and if it's a system wherein vested lobbying interests subvert the people's votes for private gain? What is the value of democracy if its result is poverty and hopelessness? Do citizens feel better about their future if they can honor the sainted memory of Thomas Jefferson but cannot climb out of abysmal debt and despair?

For extremely critical Westerners, imbued with individualistic ideology, Singapore is an unhappy state of patrol, control and condemnation. People who chew gum (but the law was recently amended) face the horrific punishment of bodily canning (a punitive inherited from the colonial British). This set of simplistic snapshots has been, perhaps until recently, the little country's entire image in the United States.

But as societies flounder and flail, people wonder if there is a better way to cope in this roiling age of globalization. Sure, no one wants to endorse materialistic Mussolini authoritarianism, for obvious reasons; but a glance at so-called Asian democracies such as the Philippines -- and now, if we want to be argumentative, Pakistan -- triggers doubts as to whether American-style democracy is the best medicine for seriously ailing states.

But are authoritarian figures like Lee -- however mild a version he might be -- really an answer? Certainly the great Thomas Hobbes, 17th century philosopher, was in no doubt; many societies without someone like a wise Lee hovering over things would never rise above unmitigated disaster -- and, at their worst, would remain or degenerate into something like this: "No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." The gentle Plato himself greatly preferred to be ruled by educated and wise Philosopher-Kings rather than demagogic, craven and pretentious proconsuls of the people.

The hitch, though, is in the details: Is the philosopher-king under discussion a dummy, a demagogue or a truly wise man?

Those who argue that Lee Kuan Yew is a special historic figure say he is the latter. That his decades of stewardship of Singapore have been justified by the amazing results achieved for the people that he has served and governed.

Again, tiny Singapore templates for no other place on earth, perhaps. But as the world wonders whether good governance is truly possible in societies that ignore the general interest because they are hostage to the special interests, the Singapore way stands out as another way at looking at political life through a very clear lens.

The following is an excerpt from an interview of Lee Kuan Yew with Tom Plate and Jeffrey Cole, director of the USC Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future, on Sept. 27, 2007. The full transcript can be found here.

Q: Singapore is one of the world's most wired countries, far ahead of the pack. How do you imagine over time that this will change Singapore? What will be your sense of what happens in an educated country with high standards, when anyone can get anything on the Web, videos and blogs so that the role of a centralized media become less and less dominant?

Lee: Well, it is already on its way because the print media here is not growing the same way, they are stagnating. It's not declining as fast as, say, it is in America or Britain ... And this is happening here.

The young, they read things on the Internet. I mean, I am part of the older generation. Yes, I read some stuff on the Internet, but at the end of the day, I say, well, let's see what the proper analysis is. So, I look up, I look at the editorial pages and the op-ed pages. I am not sure that the young will do that anymore, but the way the print media can stay in the contest is not to be the first with the news because that's not possible, but to be the first with the background and the analysis and the ones with the high credibility will stay in business.

You must have credibility because you get so much on the Internet. Whom do you believe? Finally, you've got to say, who is saying this? And you don't know. But if you say, this is The New York Times, this is the Washington Post or the L.A. Times, then you say, well, that is the standard.

I mean, that goes for every country, I think, but we have a different problem here because we are bilingual. English is our first language, well, for the younger generation. The older generation, Chinese was their first language, but the ones below 30 now, below 35, the majority, English is their first language and Chinese or Malay and whatever will be their second language. But with the rise of China, we are already seeing more and more going to China doing business and more Chinese coming here doing business. So, they are going to start reading the Chinese blogs, the Chinese news. It's already happening. So, the trend will be from print to screen.

Q: China has not given up hope in terms of trying to control the content on the Internet. But my sense since the last time I talked with you and with some of your brightest people, is that you have a sense of inevitably, that this new technology is going to overwhelm efforts to control it, is that right?

Lee: Right, it is not possible.  Look, you are going to have a PDA that is also running video and you can have your servers blocked. But if you've got a 3G phone, you use another server, and so then you are through.

No, it's not only going to happen, it's already happening. Otherwise, how do you get all these pictures of the monks in Myanmar or Yangon or Mandalay coming out? It's all on cell-phones. Now, there are areas which are blocked out now. They are blacked out, sure, but they are still coming out because you've got a 3G phone and I am quite sure Reuters or whatever news agency must have given their correspondents and stringers, saying, here, use this. You take it and you use this and you get it through. Otherwise, how can you get it through because the government is already blocking out [communication]. Many of the areas are now non-functioning, you can't use the cell-phone. But images are still coming through. I just saw something this morning. So?

Q: Right. So, that the role of the centralized media is less important. Even if you can control the centralized media, that's less and less valuable than before.

Lee: I don't know if you've caught up with this story. It's a bit of scandal going on. [Former Deputy Prime Minister] Anwar Ibrahim leaked a video, an old video, way back in 1980, of an Indian lawyer talking to a top judge about how he can arrange to get him promoted to be the "Number One" or whatever. I think it was an eight-minute video and Anwar has now put it on the Internet and it's on YouTube! So the Malaysian bar -- which have already been dismayed at the degradation of their judiciary and the corruption and judge-buying and case-buying -- they have demanded a royal commission to inquire into the facts.

So, the government, under pressure now, has appointed a committee of judges and one eminent person, to check on the authenticity of this tape. So that's bought them some time, but in the meantime, 2,000 lawyers, following what the Pakistani lawyers did, have marched on to the prime minister's office to deliver a petition to investigate this matter. Now, this would not have happened without the Internet and without YouTube. I mean it is so simple, you see.

Q: That's a changing world.

Lee: But at the same time, there is the problem of credibility. So, you have a website called Malaysiakini. That means "Malaysia Now" and it's got some very good articles in it and some of them are signed regularly by the same person. So when we get that, we read it and then we say, okay, circulate it. But you get a lot of rubbish, too, and you have got to filter it. It's a waste of time.

Q: Well, your earlier point about the credibility of serious newspapers and serious magazines is more important now than ever.

Lee: You've got to go by them. You know, it's like the ratings agencies which put a lot of financial institutions down.

Q: This is the future of professional journalism, if there is any?

Lee: No, you'll always have it. But if we don't use this [new technology], then we are just one hand tied behind us: Should we allow our opponents to have that advantage? This is a highly competitive world. But the flood of information leads to overload. Therefore, you've got to have somebody filter it for you.


The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.