Yawning Bread. 19 April 2010

Singapore's political system a one-legged stool




The Straits Times last Friday [1] carried excerpts of an interview by US television journalist Charlie Rose with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. I found Lee's answer to two questions very interesting. The first answer was almost curt, the second rather circumlocutory.

Rose: You seem to be sensitive to the issue of what's called nepotism.

Lee: We are very sensitive.

Rose: Tell me about this sensitivity.

Lee: The whole of our system is founded on a basic concept of meritocracy. You are where you are because you are the best man for the job, and not because of your connections or your parents or your relatives.

And if anybody doubts that I as Prime Minister am here not because I'm the best man for the job but because my father fixed it, or that my wife runs Temasek because I put her there and not because she's the best woman for the job, then my entire credibility and moral authority is destroyed because I'm not fit to be where I am.

And it is a fundamental issue of fitness to govern.

First, you must have the moral right, then you can make the right decisions. It's a basic Confucian precept.

Only when you have the moral right then can you govern and make the country right. In Singapore, people expect that. And if there's any doubt that this is so, and people believe that I'm there because my father fixed it, or the whole system is just make-believe, then the system would come down.

It's not tenable. If it's true, it'd better be proven and it better be kicked out. If it's not true, it'd better also be proven to be not true and the matter put to rest.

It was obvious that Rose's question was at least partly aimed at Lee's own position as prime minister, an angle that Lee himself sensed, as you can tell from the way he said he was the "best man for the job". What I found interesting was that at no point did Lee defend himself by saying he was elected to the post fair and square.

Yet Singapore claims to be a democracy. It is possible in a democracy for sons to take the top job -- a recent example would be George Bush 43 becoming US president after George Bush 41 --, but it would be very odd if such a leader, asked to defend his claim to the job, avoided all mention of being elected to office in an open and competitive election.

And yet, we have this reply (above) from Lee to Rose.

Lee spoke about having the "moral right", but other than referring to "meritocracy" and being the "best man", he did not explain where that "moral right" came from. How does one know if so and so is the "best man" for the job in a supposed democracy?

Instead, in much of his reply, he spoke about why it was important to quash all doubts (I would say skepticism or criticism), which only opened the subject of the government's use of defamation laws.

* * * * *

Just the other night, I watched on Youtube, a program called The Red Tide.  In it, the current Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva defended his country's lèse majesté law by saying "other people are also protected by the law against defamation, slander, and surely we don't want the case where the monarchy has to bring charges against people because the monarchy is above all conflicts." The rationale therefore is that where under defamation law, the person who feels he has been defamed has to take action against his accuser, it is unseemly for a monarch to do so, therefore the state does it for him.

On the surface, it sounds beguilingly understandable, but as Paul Handley, in the same program, pointed out, the problem lies in having a monarch in the first place. In such a system, it is in a way essential to have and use such a law, because ultimately, the set-up is "based on a myth, on a story that tells people that this is why this person who is not elected, not chosen by the people, is the king, is the leader..."

Now we all know that there is a huge uproar right now about Thailand's lèse majesté law, and how it curtails freedom of expression and an otherwise healthy discussion of an important issue. An outspoken woman -- I can't remember her name -- is currently serving 15 years in jail for saying the king has been ill-advised by those around him!

It has long been argued that far from protecting the institution of the monarchy, the law actually damages it.

Coming back to Singapore, is it not also true that far from protecting the legitimacy of our system of government, heavy-handed use of defamation law against what would, in other liberal democracies, be considered fair comment, likewise damages it?

* * * * *

A few days ago, at a private forum, an important point about Singapore was made by Tian Chua, a Malaysian opposition politician, and Larry Diamond, a leading contemporary scholar in the field of democracy studies and Professor of Sociology and Political Science at Stanford University. It was that Singapore's political system was just one economic crisis away from collapse.

The reason is that the government justifies its "right to rule" on delivering economic progress, not on winning elections fair and square. This justification is similar to the arguments about being the "best man for the job" and "moral right" per Confucian concepts.

Thus, besides smothering criticism over the democratic deficit -- the intimidatory measures are too many and well-known list, including as they do, a strict media licensing regime and defamation suits -- there is the annoyingly grating citation after citation of economic data and selected world ranking indices. Thus also the constantly changing choice of tables displayed by our Statistics Department on their website, and the prickliness shown by government ministers whenever adverse data is highlighted by outsiders, e.g. when it was pointed out a few years ago that the bottom two deciles had actually gotten poorer over the years.

The claim to legitimacy of the government -- and of the entire political system they have set up -- has rested more and more narrowly on the economic as the democratic deficit has grown.

Yet, how realistic is it that we will always show stellar economic growth, or that we will come out of every economic downturn quickly? And if we don't? An economic crisis would quickly spiral into a political crisis. The government's legitimacy, so dependent on delivering economic results, collapses, but with it also the legitimacy of the political system that is so identified with such a government.

I am reminded here of the time when the authoritarian Suharto government in Indonesia fell in the wake of the Asian economic crisis of 1997. The whole political system that Suharto had set up collapsed with it and Indonesia was engulfed in violent chaos for a while.

Tian Chua had another interesting point to make: Knowing how existential is the threat of a deep economic downturn to the People's Action Party (PAP) government and the entire political system, the government keeps pushing the civil service to work ever harder to deliver economic results. At what point, he asked, would civil servants, overwhelmed by stress, begin to leave in droves, abandoning the system?

That the Singapore system is extremely fragile is often attributed to our small size and lack of strategic depth (in both security and economic terms). This has created a siege mentality, no doubt one that is very useful to keeping the PAP government in power, but a part of that fragility is really due to the democratic deficit the government has consciously created in its own self-interest. We have hitched our political stability to never-ending economic progress. Why? Why are we like gamblers, hitching our overall well-being to the roll of the dice? Why can't we have a system that is stable in good times and bad?

© Yawning Bread 



  1. Straits Times, 16 April 2010, PM Lee on nepotism and his father's legacy. 
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