Singapore Slagging: Is Lee Kuan Yew History?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 10/05/2011 10:13:00 AM
I do not believe that democracy necessarily leads to development. I believe that a country needs to develop discipline more than democracy. The exuberance of democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conduct which is inimical to development - Lee Kuan Yew in 1992 before the Philippine Business Conference

Ah, back to Southeast Asia. To get in the proper, ah, spirit of this post, you would ideally prepare a Singapore Sling cocktail for yourself. But today I will not mix it up with alcoholic beverages but engage in some Singapore Slagging. By the standards of that city-state, they are quite brutal, really. Having been at the receiving end of countless lectures from Lee Kuan Yew on the demerits of democracy including the rather in(famous) one above, I suppose us Filipinos can now heap some schadenfreude on the recent electoral comeuppance of his People's Action Party (PAP). With the Philippine central bank governor having recently been selected as one of the world's top practitioners, the economy is also beginning to show that democracy and growth are not mutually exclusive as Harry believes, either.

It is also good to recall that Lee Kuan Yew was not always sceptical about democracy. His opposition self (admittedly from a long, long time ago) sounded a different tune. A few months ago, I wrote about how the opposition won a far larger share of the popular vote than their meager tally of resulting seats in the legislature would indicate due to a heavily gerrymandered system of electoral districts. More recently, the PAP suffered another unprecedented humiliation since the time Lee Kuan Yew gained power. Although the post of president is largely ceremonial in Singapore's parliamentary system (modelled after Westminster), the PAP candidate nearly lost--and probably would have lost had there been fewer opposition candidates.

Longtime Asia commentator Amitav Acharya thus has an interesting contribution in Foreign Affairs where he considers what events in Singapore mean for Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP. While some even talk about an "Orchid Revolution" to match the "Arab Spring" and various colour revolutions in Eastern Europe, Acharya is more circumspect. Let us begin with the PAP taking more evasive action but ultimately receiving more warning signs that its time may soon be up with such a marginal victory in the presidential race:
Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's storied first prime minister, gave his countrymen two things that elude most developing nations: stability and prosperity. Now, a new generation of Singaporeans with little recollection of Lee's crusade against poverty and violence wants democracy as well. In pursuing greater political openness in two elections this year, they are challenging one of Lee's most deeply ingrained beliefs: that development and stability do not necessarily go hand in hand with democracy...

Lee's son, Lee Hsein Loong, the country's current prime minister, tried to boost his party's approval before the August 27 presidential elections by increasing spending on health care and tightening control over immigration. He also announced a committee to recommend cuts to the salaries of ministers and the president, whose wealth is a major sticking point for the public.

But his grasping did not prevent another setback. A record number of contestants (four, all with the surname Tan) threw their hats into the ring for the presidential election. The candidate with the closest ties to the government, the former cabinet minister and deputy prime minister Tony Tan, won with 35.2 percent of the vote. His margin over the nearest rival (Tan Cheng Bock, a legislator from the PAP who maintained his distance from the party) was only 7,269 votes, or 0.34 percent. Tan See Jay, a candidate from the opposition party, got 25 percent of the vote. And Tan Kian Liang, another candidate, got 4.9 percent. Had the field of contenders been smaller, it is unlikely that Tony Tan would have won.
To be sure, ordinary (read: non-expatriate resident) Singaporeans have grievances that they perceive aren't being addressed and that the PAP only has begun to grudgingly tackle:
Voters want greater government accountability and transparency and better handling of the issues that affect ordinary Singaporeans. It is commonplace in Singapore to hear complaints about the growing rich-poor divide; higher property prices; rising cost of living; and congestion, overcrowding, and growing unemployment caused by a recent influx of immigrants.

Many Singaporeans feel that the ruling party has lost touch with the public, since it failed to recognize, much less fix, these issues before this year's elections. For their parts, both opposition candidates argued that Singapore's social problems could be addressed if the president, who is directly elected but has a limited role, were given more power to advocate on behalf of the people. Of course, Tony Tan's victory will keep the president out of politics for now, but the onus will be on him to win the hearts and minds of the overwhelming number of Singaporeans who voted for the candidates who would have been more active.
The rest of the article goes into how, absent the debt of gratitude older generations feel having witnessed the gains the country has made under PAP rule, issues that would have been cause for raising a voice within the PAP are now resulting in exit given the emergence of viable opposition candidates. (This after a long period when the opposition contained only marginal figures on the political scene.)

My preliminary take is that part of what is happening is not a wholesale dismissal of the big [D]evelopment and small [d]emocracy configuration that Singapore has kept for a long time. After all, the PAP did secure marginal victories. The issues that opposition figures have been able to capitalize on do not appear to champion doing away with previous modes of development. Rather, the PAP is likely to have become smug and self-assured over many years of rule. (As an aside, the LSE for instance has many Singaporean students--many of whom would not be here save for the government assisting with their studies.)

Is the PAP encountering a loss of belief in the concept of authoritarian development...or a failure of retail politics? My belief is that it's more of the latter. If the PAP wants to maintain its grip on power, it would be wise for it to be more responsive to micro-level issues. With the old self-assurance not what it was, the PAP had better look inwards to rediscover what made it grow its base in the past. In other words, it must return to vote by vote, block by block retail politics.

The PRC should probably take note, too.