March 30, 2017

October 30, 2012

Singapore’s “Democracy” - The Lessons for Applying the Gospel?

A fascinating opinion piece in today’s smh, “Singapore a model for Chinese democracy” by Peter Hartcher.

China’s incoming president, Xi Jinping, will take power formally in three weeks, yet he’s given no public hint of his plans. But he gave an intriguing glimpse to the Westerner he’s spent more time with than any other.

After a total of 10 days together across a year or so, Xi left the US Vice-President, Joe Biden, with one clear impression. He does not think that China’s political system can continue indefinitely, according to people Biden has briefed.

But while the inheritor of the one-party dictatorship does not think it will last in its current form, neither does he have a clear idea of what should replace it, Biden said.

If Xi (pronounced Shee) is thinking about a roadmap for China’s political future, last week provided a clue of a possible destination - Singapore.

An article in a Chinese magazine called Study Times held up Singapore’s system of pseudo-democracy as a possible model for China.

“Pseudo-democracy”. Well, perhaps. Here’s how it’s explained…

Exactly what is the attraction of a city-state that has been variously described as an illiberal democracy, a liberal authoritarian state and Disneyland with the death penalty?


[Lee Kuan Yew] deservedly gets credit for building a thrusting first-world economy from a malarial third-world swamp.


Lee Kuan Yew is a shrewd character who created the appearance of a Western-style liberal democracy where, in theory, power is contestable but, in fact, one-party rule is protected. He’s done this by altering a couple of key design details. When an opposition politician criticises a government minister, the minister commonly sues for defamation. Singapore’s helpful courts award such crushing damages that the opposition politician is bankrupted and some have been forced into exile to avoid jail.

Singapore’s media is closely guided by the government. Internet censorship and monitoring is highly developed. And the ruling party maintains a subtly coercive role in managing the value of the typical family’s most valuable asset, the family home.

How? Most citizens buy flats in government-built and government-maintained apartment blocks. Blocks whose residents dare vote for the opposition live under explicit threat of having their essential upgrades put at the bottom of the work program.

Hey presto. A parliamentary democracy where no one is dragged away in the middle of the night by the secret police, yet one where few are brave enough to speak out and even fewer get away with it. Even today, the PAP holds an astonishing 81 out of the 87 seats in parliament.

It is, some might claim, a fairly accurate description of what goes on in Singapore. But, on reflection, it’s not actually the whole story.

Mrs Ould is a Singaporean and before coming to Sydney we lived there for a while and return almost every year. I love the place. A number of things struck me as I got to know the place.

  1. It is incredibly well run. Not perfectly (so the “Disneyland” epithet is, perhaps, not fair) but very well. Lots of things just work.
  2. It’s safe. I never worried about Mrs Ould and would not, mostly, worry about the Ouldlets were we to live there again.
  3. Because civil servants are paid well there is little to no corruption - remarkably rare in a “dictatorship”.
  4. The majority Chinese have massively different assumptions about life than most Westerners which are reflected in different priorities and expectations for how their country is run.

This last observation is, I would suggest, critical. Here’s how the smh article continues…

A more charitable description of Singapore is that it’s a Confucian democracy, with a benign all-knowing patriarch presiding over a meritocratic civil service and a successful government-led capitalist economy.

That is a phenomenally important observation. Confucianism is a body  of thought that included the concept of

“Filial piety” (Chinesepinyinxiào) is considered among the greatest of virtues and must be shown towards both the living and the dead (including even remote ancestors). The term “filial” (meaning “of a child”) characterizes the respect that a child, originally a son, should show to his parents. This relationship was extended by analogy to a series of five relationships (Chinesepinyinwǔlún):[19]

The Five Bonds

  • Ruler to Ruled
  • Father to Son
  • Husband to Wife
  • Elder Brother to Younger Brother
  • Friend to Friend

Now it cannot be overstated how pervasive this is (and until I had my head somewhat around it I found it hard to make sense of a lot of what was going on around me) and, not least in our discussion here, that it extends to the relationship between ruler and ruled. As Westerners we have our own assumptions about how the world works and what is important. In this case since the Enlightenment we particularly prize individual autonomy and determination. But we ought to be reminded that this is simply one philosophical position. Confucianism (and this is simplistically stated but, hopefully, still to the point) works on other assumptions. So, under a Western set of assumptions Singapore may look like a “fake” democracy - but that is only because we use a certain paradigm. Others may see it, as the article puts it, as a “benign patriarchy”. There is a ruling class in Singapore and a ruled people. And philosophically there is a general acceptance of the situation as being right and proper. What we find wrong, many Singaporeans are perfectly happy with. As Hartcher has already noted, Lee Kuan Yew and his colleagues have served Singapore extremely well - you only need to take a look at the neighbouring countries to see the difference. Why, the majority would argue, would you agitate for greater “freedoms” when the current situation is serving everyone so very well?

The question for Hartcher is whether China itself will seek to follow suit. Well why not? Hartcher notes,

Winston Churchill said that dictators ride tigers they dare not dismount. How daring is [the new Chinese Premier] Xi Jinping?

Indeed, but Churchill is also alleged to have remarked that a benevolent dictatorship would be optimal. Perhaps in Singapore we have something on the way to that?

My point in all this is not to defend Singapore, although I feel a desire to do that in part, but to make the wider observation that what seems obvious to us may not be so obvious to others. In our Western Enlightenment mindset a “fake democracy” such as Singapore’s seems plainly wrong - but who is to say that our philosophical assumptions are correct? There is much in Biblical thinking, particularly in the area of submission, that dovetails to some extent with a Confucian view - at least it dovetails better than some Enlightenment approaches. In fact the whole recent submission furoré here in Sydney was a prime example of how worldviews can utterly prejudice a debate.

So if that is the case then we ought, surely, to guard our own minds and hearts against such prejudices - one culture’s bad pseudo-democracy is another culture’s good benign patriarchy. Could it be that we, in our own way, are insistent upon things in the Christian life and more generally that are not as certain as we thought? This is, of course, hard to spot but nevertheless there it is.

The danger will usually be either an unnecessary legalism or an insistence upon license where none should be given. Difficult to discern but at least we’ll have a chance if we’re aware of the issue.

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“But while the inheritor of the one-party dictatorship does not think it will last in its current form, neither does he have a clear idea of what should replace it, Biden said.”

That comment alone should have warned Mr Biden not to take everything he heard at face value.

[1] Posted by MichaelA on 10-30-2012 at 02:57 AM · [top]

David, thank you for a fascinating and stimulating article.  Our cultural blinders are thick, and as you say we find ourselves insisting on things that don’t reflect the Gospel we claim to represent.

[2] Posted by Timothy Fountain on 10-30-2012 at 09:14 AM · [top]

There is a ruling class in Singapore and a ruled people. And philosophically there is a general acceptance of the situation as being right and proper. What we find wrong, many Singaporeans are perfectly happy with.

I concur with Tim+ that this an interesting analysis, but the above quote gives me pause. It reminds me of the line often trotted out about Pinochet’s Chile that because it brought economic reform and didn’t kill as many dissidents as totalitarian left-wing regimes did, those deaths that did occur somehow didn’t matter as much.

What’s striking about your quote, David, is that it seems like a form of cultural relativism, which is normally fair game at Stand Firm. But surely as Christians we’re not in the business of cultural relativism? The fact that most Burmese approve of persecuting the Rakhine doesn’t make it right (sad that Aung San Suu Kyi should be so silent on this) and the fact that most Singaporeans are content to let the judiciary drive opposition politicians into bankruptcy for being opposition politicians doesn’t make it right.

Perhaps Singapore will evolve in the same way Hong Kong appears to be evolving and certainly there’s no reason to lump it among the most oppressive regimes in Asia. Nor can one say with assurance that democracy as a system holds all the answers. Nevertheless, it seems to me that it’s inadequate simply to point to its material well-being and lack of overt corruption as proof that Singapore doesn’t need democracy.

[3] Posted by Jeremy Bonner on 10-30-2012 at 11:56 AM · [top]

Something about the trains running on time comes to mind.

[4] Posted by Undergroundpewster on 10-30-2012 at 02:08 PM · [top]

Thanks for your comment Jeremy.
I’m not sure I want to push back much against it. I’m not going to claim that Singapore is perfect, by any long shot. I did, however, want to question whether our assumptions are always correct. Sometimes, of course, they are correct as your comment implies.

[5] Posted by David Ould on 10-30-2012 at 04:41 PM · [top]

To me, there is always great risk when you have a ruling class, as absolute power corrupts absolutely. 

However, I would point out that right now the US has a “ruling class” - the Federal Government.  The difference is we are stupid enough to elect idiots such as Reid, Pelosi and Obama…so we get what we vote for.

Shame on us!

[6] Posted by B. Hunter on 10-31-2012 at 12:06 AM · [top]

David, this paper may interest you.  The author lived in China where he worked for the CCP and in finance, I believe before running a hedge fund.  He’s now a philosopher at Princeton.

He argues with great sympathy for Asian development that Singapore because of its tiny size can completely ignore the elasticity of export demand, i.e. it can’t flood any markets, and has thus been able to function as a multi-national corporation that has no need to develop its own consumers/middle class.  It’s also been able like other small nations to engage in financial and regulatory engineering to its advantage.  Accordingly, its Asian Tiger export model is a bad exemplar for the much larger China, which ultimately must do the hard work of developing a civil society rooted in law and a middle class if it wants sustainable economic development and political stability.

If, in the course of the economic development that has already ensued, a rising middle class has already forced or is in the process of forcing meaningful democratic reform, there is some hope for a successful transition to a fully developed economy, because then there is the right setup for a consumer society with things like actual independent trade unions to force wages up in the face of resistance by employers, and a real social safety net that meets the needs of actual, powerful voters. Taiwan and Korea are examples of places that have started down this path, apparently successful transitions to genuine developed country status. Or if the exporting country is tiny, like Singapore, so that it can basically be run as a multinational corporation that happens to own some territory, it may be able to go on functioning parasitically in the interstices of world civil society. But if the country is big, if one Party – call it the LDP, call it the Communist Party, call it what you like – continues to enjoy a monopoly of power, if the economy is still extensively planned, if the education system is still all about indoctrination rather than creativity, and in general if the exporting country continues to be the sort of place in which the nail that sticks out gets hammered down, then the attempt at a transition is likely to fail. In Japan we see a very mild version of what this can mean. Other failed attempts to reach true modernity have ended in much worse ways. The collapse of the Soviet Union comes to mind. When the revolution of rising expectations encounters an obstacle it can’t get past, ugly things begin to happen, and many of the gains captured at an earlier stage in the process can easily be lost…

People in the Party think they understand the modern West, because they’ve visited the Louvre and met a few western people, but actually they don’t, they don’t know it at all, any more than most Westerners do. They don’t seem to know very much of its actual history, for one thing. Their laws are supposed to prevent them from even inquiring into that, to force them to blindly believe whatever Marx and Mao believed. Consequently, Chinese leaders have a one-sided, partial, idiosyncratic, obsolete, shallow understanding of the modern West. They are all physiocrats, but don’t even know that there is such a word. They don’t really seem to understand what modernity is, or what it requires, or how it is connected to freedom. That’s a significant weakness, because it means that they haven’t actually bothered to inquire very deeply at all into the thing that’s most material to their country’s ultimate fate.

If they had, they would know that the project of developing economically without acquiring any unwanted human rights in the process is an inherently self-contradictory one. In the history of the West, the rights came first, and much of the scientific and economic progress was a consequence of those rights. Places like Athens in the fourth and fifth centuries B.C.E., and the Netherlands in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have been the cradles of both political freedom and the developments in mathematics, science, law, philosophy, and other subjects that gave us the modern world. There is good reason to believe that this is not an accident. A properly realized modernity is necessarily free. No dictatorship, no single-party Leninist state, has ever made it all the way to a sustainable, competitive modernity without a democratic transition.

We Westerners tend to coddle and patronize people outside the West, telling them comfortable, multi-cultural, relativistic lies, humoring their Marxism or Ming restorationism or whatever crazy obsolete thing it is they are working with because we don’t expect anything better from barbarians. Let me now violate this quaint custom by being perfectly clear with the Chinese people. You’re no threat to us, in fact you deserve our pity. We both seem to be in trouble now, but the difference between us is that we will adapt and recover, and you will not. We will throw our current leaders out, eventually, and replace them with less incompetent ones, but you can’t do that. Your leaders have failed you once again, yet you have no more ability to get replace them than you did with the Dowager Empress or Chairman Mao. You will never make it to the point of being a serious rival for America this way. You are trying to compete with a formidable opponent with one hand tied behind your back, merely because your leaders don’t trust you to make your own decisions about where to strike.

This difference is not one between Chinese and Western culture, though that’s what your masters want you to think - it is the difference between free people and serfs. (Chinese culture involves playing the gu qin and writing poetry with a brush; the single-party Leninist state has nothing at all to do with Chinese traditions, being a recent Western invention.) It is simply impossible to both ban the teaching of Plato and Locke and have a truly developed economy or a genuinely modern society. That can work for a little while, a decade or two, but not for the generations and centuries required to really catch up. People who pretend otherwise are not really your friends. The West got to where it is by being what it is, and many revolutions against the dead hand of tradition were required in the process. Ideas matter, so freedom matters. To believe in a third way between freedom and slavery is nothing but a form of cowardice, a failure to come to grips with what’s really necessary. Freedom is frightening. So are you men, or mice? Do you really expect that a timid, trembling, obedient mouse will ever rule the world, will ever take real power away from the people who dared to tame the lightning, and travel to the Moon?

[7] Posted by The Plantagenets on 10-31-2012 at 02:01 AM · [top]

Very interesting read, Plantagenets. Many thanks.

[8] Posted by MichaelA on 11-4-2012 at 04:42 PM · [top]

One of the things I have learned while writing a thesis on fifth-century christology is the centrality of the patron-client relationship in all civilized cultures in all times and places EXCEPT modern English-speaking societies. This is the sense in which America can be described as “exceptional”. It also shows why Americans make such bad imperialists - our model is not exportable to non-Anglophone societies, but we have become so oblivious to our own exceptionalism that we do not realize it.

For Americans, our only references to patronage-based culture are the “Godfather” movies and Chicago politics. What we can only see as corruption and cronyism, most people regard as normal.

[9] Posted by Roland on 11-13-2012 at 07:03 PM · [top]

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