Should Taiwan follow Singapore?

Nat Bellocchi
Taipei Times
24 Jun 07

As political leaders move toward the critical legislative and presidential elections, there have been discussions about whether Taiwan should continue with a presidential system or change to a parliamentary one. While there have been studies, mainly in academic circles, the pan-blue camp does not seem interested, and the pan-green camp has had internal discussions, but at this point the elections are taking up most of its attention.

Hong Kong has a “one country, two systems” model that was agreed upon between the UK and China, but not by the people of Hong Kong. The people are now being reminded that Hong Kong has no autonomous power except that granted by China. That is well known in Taiwan, where the voters determine their government. They have made it clear that they oppose the “one country, two systems” approach, which both the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) do not support.

Many Taiwanese voters doubtless are still uncertain who they want to be their next president, so they might also become interested in other political systems. Some domestic groups are discussing the political system in Singapore. It is mainly being touted by the pan-blue camp, but it has not seemed to be of interest elsewhere. At least not yet.

The pan-blue camp does seem to have considerable interest in the political system of Singapore. The KMT’s presidential candidate has said that Taiwan could learn from Singapore’s governance. He has mentioned that Singapore’s policy is one of being open and pragmatic. Although it is different from Taiwan’s, it is professional, corruption free, efficient and worth learning from. The government can reach consensus easily with no fighting. He said it should have been the route for Taiwan to take. Singapore is more stable – it is more interested in “values” than democracy.

Of course, all these these suggestions make for a vastly different political system. In Taiwan, voters are active in all parts of governance, but in Singapore they are clearly silenced on the topic of politics. For several decades, the ruling People’s Action Party has maintained a huge parliamentary majority of some 95 percent. There are little checks and balances in the government; permits are required for public speaking; print and broadcast media are run by the government; and public protests are prohibited. It would be hard if not impossible for the people of Taiwan to accept such a system.

In the 1980s, then Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan-yew often met with former president Chiang Ching-kuo. Since Chiang was pursuing political reform at the time, Singapore’s system must have been discussed, although it is unknown what he thought of it. Others in the KMT doubtless saw this as one way of maintaining power until some form of unification could be agreed with China.

During former president Lee Teng-hui’s tenure, Taiwan was clearly steered away from the “Asian Values” system of Singapore toward democracy. President Chen Shui-bian’s presidency has expanded that system. Outside of Taiwan, some leaders in Southeast Asia have complained about people’s democracies being too difficult to lead, while others criticize the Singapore system.

For those that believe the steps toward Taiwan’s democracy in the 1990s would have been better served by a political system similar to Singapore’s, not the open democratic system that developed, perhaps they should think again. Many in the Taiwanese opposition see the Singaporean system, with its strong way of maintaining a hold on government, as just what they would want for Taiwan.

The KMT is saying that Taiwan could get China to help the nation gain international acceptance as well as entry into international institutions such as the World Bank and IMF. The latter is not in China’s capability, but it would insist on unification.

Debate on this subject in an election year has been a sensitive topic for the US since 1979, and for China anything other than unification is unacceptable. It should be made clear to voters that what is sought in the present KMT platform is for Taiwan to become a part of China. The DPP, while pondering what it should do in trying to establish a better relationship with China while working toward a stronger position internationally and maintaining separation from China, should also present its case to voters.

But probably most fundamental in the coming elections, especially the presidential one, is the changes that have taken place among the people of Taiwan. The DPP and KMT will continue to pursue their objectives, and the fundamental differences between them – the problem of identity, and the problem of sovereignty – will remain.

The KMT in the 1990s moved from an authoritarian system to a democracy. Though its leader and others in the party pushed through the present system, some party members still oppose it, waiting to have a continuous party that eventually gains unification with China. Since the DPP assumed power in 2000, there has been a strong effort to strengthen the democratic system and to pursue independence.

So one side is pressing for closer relations with China while trying to satisfy the people, and the other side is working to maintain a separate country while trying to satisfy the people.

While China has greatly strengthened itself, the people of Taiwan have become more “Taiwanese.” Beijing will continue to insist that Taiwan is part of China, and will continue to force the issue. The US will find it increasingly difficult to pursue its policies with China and Taiwan.

It seems that the US, which would presumably not take sides between the political parties, would bide its time to see which party prevails before the experts in the State Department decide what to recommend to the new US government next year.

Nat Bellocchi is a former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan and is now a special adviser to the Liberty Times Group. The views expressed in this article are his own