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Talk by Ambassador Chan Heng Chee on “Democracy, Globalisation and Competitiveness in Singapore” on Thursday, 8 March 2012 at the Yale Law School, New Haven, Connecticut

In the last decade Singapore has been frequently cited as a model of success. One hears references to the "Singapore model", whatever the speaker may mean. Yasser Arafat proudly asserted that he wanted Palestine to be the "Singapore of the Middle East" and Shimon Peres suggested Gaza could be the "Singapore of the Middle East." The Gulf States at one time or another aspired to do a Singapore -- UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar. Now of course some see themselves exceeding Singapore. Many came to Singapore to learn what we did and take home the lessons. Caribbean States represented in Washington have regularly expressed great interest in becoming a Singapore. All see a Singapore that enjoys sustained high economic growth and economic success. The average growth in our first 3 decades was around 7-8%. That was no mean feat. The 70s and early 80s saw double digit growth. Per capita GDP of Singapore today is around US$47,000-$50,000, depending on the exchange rate and how well the economy does the year of calculation. This puts us on par with the per capita GSP of some US states, and higher than many EU states. It is higher than the United Kingdom. We are well-governed, well-run, effective, with good long-range planning and solutions, and a good education system that is referenced constantly. We are invited by the US Department of Education to lead discussions in their Education Summits. We are known for non-corruption. We rank among the top 4-5 countries in the world. We prosecute senior people if they are found to be guilty of wrongdoing. Increasingly, we are noted for taking up the knowledge industries and doing cutting edge stuff. So something right is going on in Singapore.


2.Then I read that some Yale professors are not at all happy that Yale should establish a joint Yale-NUS campus in Singapore. They worry about academic freedom. There is a move afoot to pass a resolution demanding that the Singapore campus has "to respect, protect and further the ideals of civil liberties".


3.Why this fear and anxiety particular to Singapore? In 1901 Yale set up a Yale-in-China program in China, then hardly a thriving democracy. I don't want to go through the long history. In the 50s, Yale-in-China moved to HK. In 1979, after normalisation, it went back to Wuhan and Yale-in-China English teachers and medical personnel were exchanged. In 1990s Yale-in-China expanded into new areas and programs outside the historical bases in HK, Changsa and Wuhan. While maintaining its English teaching programs, Yale-in-China initiated projects in environmental protection and pediatric cardiology and facilitated drama collaboration between New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre and the Shanghai People's Art Theatre. Other areas of expansion have included the fields of American Studies, legal education, public health, nursing and service in non-profit sectors for students. I think Yale-in-China was in China during and after Tiananmen.


4.I am baffled that if Yale can go to China to teach and set up programs why is it so controversial for Yale to go to Singapore? Why the deep concerns about teaching in Singapore. Singapore is a democracy. The flow of information in Singapore is free and there is freedom of expression, not like the US, but there is increasing room to express oneself. Today establishing campuses overseas is something universities do the world over. Australia does it, the UK does it, the US does it. Chicago Booth has a Business School in Singapore. Duke-NUS jointly set up a graduate medical school in our country. Are Yale professors saying that unless countries and societies look like the US or function exactly like the US, they will not have anything to do with them? I would have thought it is important to share teaching skills and values in education. We all know one imparts values explicitly or inexplicitly with education. That is what educators do. I will always value my time in Cornell. I really hoisted in the meaning of quality and what is quality, that is standards. I also learned about integrity in scholarship and integrity in the life of a scholar. I will always carry that with me. Am I more tolerant and liberal because of my Cornell education? I like to believe I was all that before I went to Cornell, but I did gain a lot. I learned to talk back and argue. The US has a vocal culture. Singapore like all East Asian countries less so. I think the idea of bringing Yale to Singapore is to teach Singapore how to do a liberal arts college well. I don't think there is the same sort of enthusiasm or interest in Europe for a top US university to set up a campus in Europe. It is a case of no value-added. Not much more at least. Presumably Yale can also learn from Singapore.


5.I expect the detractors of this project and those who have anxieties about Singapore have not kept up with the changes in Singapore or understand the perspectives of the unlikely nation. Singapore has changed a great deal in the last 15 years, but most of all in the last 5 years.


6.Singapore is a democracy, it is egalitarian and it is meritocratic. Critics will point out that it falls short of an Anglo-American Democracy. And they are right. We are not your average Anglo-American democracy. The Singapore political system is founded on a Westminster parliamentary model. It has Cabinet Government and elections are mandated every 5 years. Bills go through 3 readings and the Select Committees. We are unicameral like Israel and NZ. We have an Elected President grafted on a parliamentary system with limited powers. Ours is a Prime Ministerial government not a Presidential government. The recent elections showed confusion in this among some Singapore candidates for the Presidency.


7.Before I became a diplomat, I was a political science professor teaching Comparative Politics, Political & Social Change and Transitions to Democracy.


8.I believe 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. Put another way, some countries are more democratic than others. The United States is more democratic than India, and India is more democratic than Singapore in some respects, but not others. We are more egalitarian and meritocratic. Fareed Zakaria has drawn a distinction between liberal and illiberal democracies. Many Asian democracies would have less liberal norms on what is allowed on screen touching on religion, sex, or violence. The birth of nations do not come with a clean slate. Societies have history, traditions and different ethnic and religious mixes and endowments of natural resources. Democracies evolve. Our first generation political leaders in Singapore began by wanting to construct a political system that would help not hinder the economic growth and development of the unlikely nation. It was a matter of survival.


9.The link between democracy and growth is not so simplistic and the link between democracy and successful economies is not so clear cut. One has only to point to the 4 dragons in Asia: ROK, Taiwan, HK and Singapore who in the late 70s and 80s were a phenomenon achieving rapid and real economic success and development under authoritarian governments. All societies have done well and the ROK and Taiwan now are strong competitive democracies, Singapore increasingly a competitive democracy. Hong Kong was a British colony now reverting back to China and enjoying limited democracy. Singapore voters vote on the performance of government, less on identification with tradition like Democrats and Republicans and Conservative or Labor in Britain. There is a PAP base and a sliver of Barisan left wing base. It is probably true to say there is a solid 25% opposition vote, no matter which election.


10.My understanding is that all democracies change, even the US and get reshaped by the context and developments. 24/7 Cable TV has changed politics. Thoughtful Americans are asking questions about American democracy given the major role of money in politics. They are grappling with the role of the SuperPACs. Is democracy getting to be more an elitist democracy? Is that why there is the populist movement trying to break through in Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street?


11.As I said Singapore is a democracy. Ministers can lose their seats. We lost a very talented Foreign Minister George Yeo in the May 2011 GE and a couple of others. Democracy has developed because of the success of PAP policies. Singapore has to deal now with middle class expectations. The question is what will happen down the line? The governing party is trying to win back votes. They have become even more responsive to the ground.


12.Singapore is an open society. It is easy to move in and out of Singapore. Singaporeans can travel abroad, study abroad, live abroad, move money in and out of the country and buy property elsewhere. But we are an unnatural country. Whoever heard of a city state, nation-state. We are not a normal country, so solutions and ways of governance must be different. America is a continental country. Singapore is an island state smaller than New York City about the size of Chicago. In 1965 when we became independent we were 1.9 million people. A red dot. We are one of the 20 smallest states in the world--a micro state. Today we are 5.4 million people in Singapore, but still a red dot.


13.Our country was born in conflict in 1965 when bigger neighbours were hostile to us at birth. We faced an Indonesian Confrontation and the separation from Malaysia was done amid high racial tension and hatred. Commandos from Indonesia landed in Singapore and laid bombs.

Consider these facts:

(a)The ethnic mix of the country is Chinese 75%, Malays 15%, Indians 8%. The population at separation was 2.5 mill, with 200 mill Muslims around us. Now there are 250 mill Muslims in the region. Identity politics was always an issue for Singapore.

(b)We have no resources, no water, no oil, no gas. Not even water.


14.Press freedom: because of our history - birth, location and ethnic mix, press freedom would be operated differently. The liberty to say whatever you want runs into an angry Malay Muslim population north and south. We have a different history. We have always understood that rights and freedoms come with responsibilities. There are limits to freedoms. Reasonable people will tell you that your right to swing your arm stops at the point of my nose. No one has the right to stand up in a crowded theatre and shout ‘fire’. If there is a stampede, you will be prosecuted. When you have ugly racial riots do you stop news being reported? During the horrendous Gujarat riots in 2002 between Hindus and Muslims, the Indian government blanked out news on TV to cut out dangers of incitement. I do not think the US will accept this. Societies handle problems in different ways.


15.John Ruggie in Antimonies of Interdependence suggested that smaller states and trading nations tend to go for a corporatist style of government. He cited the Scandinavian countries because they needed greater centralism and unity to react to external exigencies. I thought his model fits Singapore too.


16.No doubt Singapore's democracy is much tighter than the US. But the Singapore citizenry finds its government responsive and swiftly so. Things get done, problems are solved. Economic rights and social rights are expanded. And increasingly there is greater openness in government. Accountability and transparency were always there and now more so.


17.The General Elections of May 2011 saw the PAP vote fall to an all time low of 60% and the opposition parties winning 6 seats. The psychological breakthrough for the opposition was the loss of a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) by the PAP. What was new was the repoliticisation of Singapore, the emergence of so many qualified opposition candidates who wanted to contest and the use of social media to amplify political issues. The electorate now is more affluent and the middle class wanted to see opposition in parliament to force the governing party to do better. They wanted a First World Parliament. The PAP embraced the change and PM Lee promised to do better.


18.The question that has been often asked is how globalisation affects democracy? The answer is simple. Globalisation which means transnational travel and linkages is democratising. Technology in the global age, social media, the ITC revolution is democratising. But globalisation referring to the globalisation of a production process, also creates greater inequality and we have seen the dark side of globalisation in recent years. There are winners and losers within countries and among countries. It has hit the United States badly. I read commentators writing about one country, two nations in the US. Britain sees the same divisions.


19.Another question that is asked is whether democracy impacts on competitiveness. Many see the rise of China and its rapid growth all under a centralized authoritarian government. Singapore has always regarded as one of its strengths, its ability to move fast, adopt polices quickly, implement hard policies which are unpopular but deemed necessary to put the country in a competitive position. So it becomes moot whether the government in a growing democracy will be forced to adopt more populist policies which are costly, or be forced to drop policies which are hard but necessary to keep Singapore at the competitive edge, because government now needs to be more responsive to a more vocal and politicised electorate.


20.I believe no country, no economy, no society can perform well without a shared consensus and a sense of a social contract, that is, a trust or compact between the governed and those who govern. When the social contract is seen to have frayed, it must be rebuilt. It is established not only by political elites winning an election and the mandate but by how political leaders keep their word and promises. So some necessary adjustments must be made in policy. That is what democracy is about -- responsiveness of the government. The Singapore government has been relatively responsive by any standard. Now they are under some pressure to be even more responsive and more quickly. The concern of some thoughtful citizens is that Singaporeans may be moving down the path of demanding more and more entitlements.


21.It is also true that less restrictions and regulations mean greater space for diversity of ideas and could well foster creativity and innovation. And conditions associated with the democratic liberal culture can spur competitiveness.


22.But there is a danger that too much democracy or distortion of the democratic process will affect competitiveness. Looking at the US and Congress and the political discourse in this country, one would come away with the conclusion that Americans place greater emphasis on the political process than on outcomes. The democratic process is used to check rather than to produce an outcome. I hear corporate leaders and leading thinkers worry about the loss of competitiveness in the US. There is now an inability to come together to get things done. I read a report that India passed only 28 bills out of 97 given the infighting in parliament in 2011. It is the same problem of the degrading of performance.


23.In conclusion, let me simply say democracy is precious. It is important, but so is economic growth and development and producing a future for the people to make sure they live decent lives. And for Singapore which is used to enjoying good governance and development, I hope we will find the right balance. I hope thoughtful citizens play their part in joining in the debate so we can have the best of all worlds.

 

 

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