“We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society based on justice and equality so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation”
The transition from post-colonial or authoritarian rule to more democratic methods of government is something that Asia has witnessed a number of times in recent decades. It is important to see this for what it is – progress. People prefer to be free and attain self determinism, and that is precisely why the goal of building a democratic society is enshrined in the National Pledge. And while recent events in Hong Kong bring the question of democratic progress into focus today, it is the lessons of other countries in the region that are more relevant to the path Singapore is on. Can Singapore take the next step towards democracy?
Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore’s Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990. His rule overlapped significantly with that of Park Chung-hee in Korea, Marcos in the Philippines, Suharto in Indonesia and Chaing Kai-shek in Taiwan. All were undemocratic, authoritarian strong men. Some were brutal and murderous former military men, although Marcos like Lee was a former lawyer who came to power through the ballot box. And all the countries they once ruled have since taken big steps in becoming democracies – with significant personal freedoms, free presses and meaningful elections. Except Singapore. Here of course, personal freedoms, the press and elections are all constrained, in many cases by laws put forward by Lee himself. While we enjoy elections every five years, many of the fundamentals of a true democratic society are missing.
The question of why Singapore, and other authoritarian regimes in the region, did or continue to reject democratic principles has often been ascribed to a preference for so-called “Asian Values” – of Confucianism, respect for authority and collective progress over individual freedoms. Lee himself was a particularly well documented proponent of this school of thought, yet as one Asian regime after the next has transitioned to democracy, the validity of this philosophy has waned. Can Singaporeans really be so Confucian as to reject personal freedoms, while Taiwan, Korea and even Japan are fully fledged democracies? It seems unlikely.
To observe this Asian enthusiasm for democracy in action, we only have to examine the feelings of Koreans during their transition to democracy in the summer of 1987.
The Lesson from Korea
Today South Korea is a fully functioning democracy, ranking higher than the US on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s “Democracy Index” – but was for decades an effective dictatorship under Park and others. Korea made the transition in 1987, during a period of swift economic growth, after days of violent protests rocked the country. The feeling of many at the time was captured in a Straits Times quote from a Seoul resident by the name of Mr Suh:
“I don’t think my salary will go up if the students and others achieve their goals, but I think now, the point is not bread and butter, but freedom. In the 1960s, bread was the most important thing. In the 70s, Koreans focused on earning more money. But in the 80s, those basic issues have been solved and now we need more freedom”
Why even the man in the street is joining protest. Straits Times. 28 June 1987.
On 2 July 1987, a few days after President Chun had agreed to protestors demands for sweeping reform, the Straits Times in an article titled “Hopes are up, but doubt and scepticism linger”, wrote that “South Korean’s reacted with happiness and excitement”, while still cautioning that the government must “act quickly”. On 5 July, the ST ran a piece on the Korean community in Singapore titled “Far away from home, Koreans share in jubilation”.
With words like “hope”, “happiness”, “excitement” and “jubilation”, the clear sentiment running through these articles is positive. Supposed “Asian values” took a very quiet back seat to the pursuit of democracy, for the obvious reason that people – Asian or otherwise – appreciate freedom over control, and democracy over authoritarianism. “There is no turning back” as one Korean businessman interviewed by the Straits Times put it. A military coup or return to dictatorship is unthinkable in South Korea today and anything of the sort would widely be seen as a huge step backwards.
Everyone likes an election
Dictators tend to make a show of following the democratic model to some extent. Hitler won a 99% majority in 1938 Nazi Germany in an election which used the shown ballot paper, where “Adolf Hitler” and “Yes” have unmistakable prominence. North Korea has elections once every five years, although there is only ever one candidate for each seat, someone who is guaranteed to have been approved by the “Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland”. In fact North Korea, probably the least free nation in the world, is officially titled the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to underscore its supposed democratic credentials. Of course Singapore is incomparable to either of those nations. The point is that even the most oppressive of rulers knows that the legitimacy to rule a set of people can only come from those people themselves, precisely because all people prefer to be free, rather than just digits in someone elses economic machine. Conversely, no one has ever heard of a democracy masquerading as a dictatorship, but from Zimbabwe to North Korea, the pretence of democratic process where no real democracy exists is a common theme. Democracy, despite all its flaws, is the most legitimate model we have, which is why dictators often seek to channel it, to legitimise their own rule.
The next step
No one person can say what the next step for Singapore could or should be. Hong Kong, despite never having universal suffrage under British colonial rule, in fact has a significant history of enjoying other freedoms – of personal expression, to protest, of the press, of judicial independence – that are all part of the democratic model, and which do not exist in mainland China. Pro-democracy marches have over the years attracted hundreds of thousands onto the streets, long before the current “occupy” movement started. As for Singapore, no such tradition of upholding democratic principles seems to exist, and a fundamental appreciation for such matters appears to be lacking. In many respects Singapore is in the opposite position of Hong Kong – having elections but none of the personal and civil freedoms that empower the democratic model. And while Hong Kong is protesting ostensibly to add universal suffrage to their list of freedoms, in many cases people have supported the movement because they detect and wish to resist a growing desire in Beijing to erode those freedoms that Hong Kong does have. If we follow the symmetry of this argument, then perhaps the next step for Singapore is to build a deeper understanding of the non-voting, personal freedoms that we currently lack, but which are enjoyed in Hong Kong, and are the essential building blocks if we are to “build a democratic society” as described in the National Pledge.