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The Singapore Conundrum: to free or not to free?

The Singapore Conundrum: to free or not to free?  

In an obituary about the charismatic and controversial leader of the island city-state of Singapore, late Lee Kuan Yew, Financial Times wrote, Singapore has become the poster child for “the concept of good governance.” Around the world, however, textbook democracies in the West are challenged by increasing extremism, impeding corruption and growing dissatisfaction. Singapore that Lee Kuan Yew built was more about effectiveness than democracy. For many believers of individual rights as the main ingredient in the recipe for governance, Singapore presents a conundrum: discipline, development and democracy, and how much of each, and in what order?

What is the government is for?

The advocates of classical models of democracy based on individual rights hold it as a self-evident truth that politics of dissent will converge on consensus if proper institutional support is provided in the form of common platforms and that consensus will bring in stability and consistency that are critical to social and economic progress. Yet, hard facts have dented the collage of democracy. Today, the US is facing a stand-off between the President and the Congress, the UK is stumbling on crisis after crisis in an attempt to recover from what may be called a bad one-night stand of real democracy in the form of Brexit referendum, and the continental Europe is fighting hard but losing ground to rising extremisms and populisms afloat in the waters of Venice to Volga and beyond. These nasty bounces prompts the question of what is the government is for? Churchill famously said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.  Despite odds of cherry-picking countries from different parts of the world and at different stages of development, let us compare on long term achievements of the United States of America, Singapore, Sri Lanka, India, and Zimbabwe. The US is still the world’s largest economy. India is the world’s largest democracy and Zimbabwe offers an African example of a ‘dictatorial’ long-time rule, by Robert Mugabe.

Indicators of Success

Any comparison of the quality governance of various countries is hardly easy or lead to meaningful conclusions. However, international rankings on the quality of governance look at three main categories of indicators. First among them (in a barely hierarchical order) is the democratic space – mechanisms of democracy such as free and fair elections, civic participation, the extent to which people exercise their political rights, etc. Second bag is about efficiency: how effective the government is in facing issues, maintaining law and order and normalcy of everyday life, making policies and executing them effectively, and quite importantly, preventing corruption. The third bag is about performance of governments, or rather what people primarily crave for: prosperity – increasing people’s incomes, health and safety.  

For the sake of ease of comparison, let’s start with the third bag, performance and prosperity. Wealth and heath are easily seen. The table below compares the countries in terms of their Gross National Income over the last five decades. Obviously Singapore stands out for its great leap forward. In half a century, Singapore’s real incomes have grown by nearly twelve fold, compared to less than threefold of United States and six-fold of Sri Lanka or India. Average income of Zimbabweans has actually dropped.     

Healthy Wealthy Singapore

Besides, a whole lot of other indicators are in favour of Singapore. The World Economic Forum ranks the country second only to Switzerland in terms of Global Competitiveness. For nearly a decade, Economist Intelligence Unit (of The Economist magazine) ranks Singapore as the best place in the world to do business.

In terms of healthcare, Singapore’s infant mortality rate has dropped from 27 deaths per 1,00o births in 1965 to only 1.9 by 2015. By that count, a child born in Sri Lanka is five times more likely to die during infancy than in Singapore. Even a US infant is three times more as risk than this small city-state. Bloomberg ranks Singapore as one of the tops five healthiest countries in the world, based on the full array of health metrics. The United States ranks 33rd and Zimbabwe 116th.

Singapore is known for its very low crime rate. A citizen is 24 times more likely to be murdered in the United States than in Singapore. And Singapore has eliminated poverty that less than one in hundred people find it difficult to find food or shelter. It’s the lowest rate in the world. If government is about ensuring that people are prosperous, safe and healthy, then Singapore has no competitors of its class.

The second category is about the effectiveness of the governmental process. The World Bank assesses countries by government effectiveness, quality of regulatory mechanisms, rule of law, and control of corruption. Singapore leads in most categories, and prevention of corruption and graft gives it a clear lead on many other comparable countries, leaving the United States 20 notches below. Singapore is among the top ten whiles and Sri Lanka hovers around the 100 mark.    

Faltering Democratic Participation

The third category is about personal liberties and civic participation in democracy. This is where the problem starts for Singapore, and others thrive. Both India and Sri Lanka score better than Singapore while the US tops the list according to the Freedom House’s annual report. To quote: “Singapore is not an electoral democracy… Opposition campaigns have typically been hamstrung by a ban on political films and television programs, the threat of libel suits, strict regulations on political associations…”

The contrast between the first two categories and the third in terms of the country’s performance in them invites a fundamental question about political philosophy: What is government for?

As a contemporary of Lee Kuan Yew, Calvin Cheng wrote “Freedom is being able to walk on the streets unmolested in the wee hours in the morning, to be able to leave one’s door open and not fear that one would be burgled. Freedom is the woman who can ride buses and trains alone; freedom is not having to avoid certain subway stations after night falls.”

While it is true that freedom starts from safety and reasonable prosperity, let us also be reminded that history offers only a few and far-fetched examples of benevolent dictators. Besides, benevolent dictators who remained so for long is even scarce.

Harindra B Dassanayake   

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