But Chan also goes on to say some very strange things. She asserts that Singapore is “egalitarian” and “meritocratic”. Well, perhaps Singapore is meritocratic enough. I suppose that even if you are the son of Lee Kuan Yew, you would have to first prove you are academically worthy by getting a first class degree in maths from Cambridge and retain the support of Teck Ghee voters since 1984 to stay as prime minister.
But “egalitarian”? In a country where inequality has been described as approaching “dangerous levels” by a prominent local economist? In a country where the class ridden term “maid” is still used by the main English language newspaper to describe domestic workers? In a country where it took 17 years before voters finally had enough of the man who told Singaporeans in February 1994 that they should “remember” their place in society before they engaged in political debate?
It gets worse. Ambassador Chan’s audience is then bizarrely told that Singapore is criticised for not being “your average Anglo-American democracy” because the Singapore political system is founded on a “Westminster” parliamentary model. The last I checked, the Westminster parliamentary system was originally created by England, that very Anglo-Saxon country.
And then we are told that “Singapore is a democracy.”
Why? Apparently, this is because:
“Democracy is a concept best understood in reality as elastic. There are basic criteria that must be met. The most important is free and fair elections. Beyond that, countries have more or less democracy – some countries are more democratic than others.”
It may be the case that amongst some relativist political science circles that such a shallow conception of democracy is pretty much good enough as far as democracy goes. But illiberal democracy, while better than no democracy whatsoever, is a low standard. It is also really isn’t quite good enough for an industrialised developed nation like Singapore which wants to be a serious player in the big league, competing with the other developed countries in the world. Ambassador Chan admits as much to this towards the end of her speech when she says that “fewer restrictions and regulations mean greater space for a diversity of ideas, and foster creativity and innovation. Democratic liberal culture can spur competitiveness and innovation.”
So why can’t or shouldn’t Singapore be a more liberal democracy? Ambassador Chan’s audience is told that “too much democracy or distortion of the democratic process will affect competitiveness.” This is true in some cases, and is not the only problem with a distortion of the democratic process, as the attempt by racist southern US senators to block the passage of the US Civil Rights Act 1957 illustrated (a story by the way, terrifically told by Robert Caro in “The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate”).
However, I sense that Chan’s fear of a culture of political obstructionism in Singapore is irrelevant. Singaporeans are a sophisticated electorate. They are relatively well-educated, well-travelled, and increasingly well-informed. What they want is a sensible balance. This partly explains why in the 2011 general elections, the Workers Party gained seats in Parliament by promising to be constructive, not obstructive. Singaporeans are not fools – we know that we are better run than many other places, and there will be a political price to pay if any government does not improve on the high standards (or worse, lets them slip).
In fact, it is not at all clear that in terms of our own “competitiveness”, we are doing all that well. Our high competitiveness scores are distorted by our relatively new and well maintained infrastructure and our “flexible” labour market (which in practice has meant things like giving in far too often to employer demands for cheap workers). There is a danger that the Singapore government is being complacent. Far from congratulating itself through the mainstream media and through press releases about its sterling performance in world competitiveness comparisons, it should reflect on why our students (who apparently score very well in international maths and science tests), are not able to translate that academic performance into the levels of labour productivity or high quality business enterprises that one might expect.
More appallingly, Chan’s audience is also told:
“The liberty to say whatever you want runs into an angry Muslim population north and south.”
This is an unnecessary slur on Muslims living in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. The most prominent “example” of this in recent years (the supposed ban of Lee Kuan Yew’s “Hard Truths” by Malaysia), met with a denial by the Malaysian government a day after the story first broke.
In any event, whatever Singaporeans (Muslims or not) want to say is really none of any other country’s business. It was disappointing that Chan failed to assert robustly that what Singaporeans can say in their own country is a matter for Singaporeans and Singaporeans alone. And I believe that the defence of this freedom is a worthy cause for Singaporeans to fight and die for. It is certainly a better cause than “competitiveness”, the benefits of which, in the context of our increasing inequality, have meant little for too many Singaporeans in recent years.
By Koh Jie Kai