Will our neglect of democracy come back to haunt us?

Chee Soon Juan
01 Nov 07

A few months after the 1997 Asian crisis began, I was invited to Sydney, Australia to give a talk. There, a reporter from the Straits Times asked me whether I felt that my views in Dare to Change (1994) had been vindicated by the advent of the economic meltdown and the problems that were developing in some of the Asian countries.

In Singapore itself, there were terrifying moments when bankruptcies were occurring at record-breaking rates, the stock market was in free-fall, and banks were recalling loans from desperate mortgagees.

It was tempting to say, “Yes, I told you so.” The truth, however, was that those were not my views but the views of many people all over the world who could see that, without democracy, there could be no long-term stability.

How many of us, upon checking in to a hotel (especially if it is an expensive looking one), bother to find out where the emergency exits are, or for that matter, if they even exist at all?

Yet it could mean the difference between being a charred victim or a fortunate escapee if a fire broke out. This is one reason why fire escapes are essential to a building even though they may not be the first, or the most attractive, feature one sees when one steps into a building.

It would be unimaginable, however, for anybody to suggest that a building doesn’t need an emergency exit, or worse, for an architect not to include one in his blueprint.

Democracy, like fire exits, is not immediately appreciated in the day-to-day functioning of society. It is only when crises strike that people begin to focus on the need to organise themselves and to be able to use the system to bring order and stability back to society.

At times like these, the opportunities and mechanisms that democracy provides for peaceful political transitions brings to the citizen what a fire exit brings to the desperate occupant trapped in an inferno.

Singaporeans, unfortunately, have been so busy focusing on accumulating material wealth that they have utterly and perilously neglected to construct the fire escape of democracy.

Just as no one misses fire exits when there isn’t an emergency, few are concerned about democracy when society is not presented with an immediate challenge.

Remember that it was only a few years ago that the whole world stood in awe of the economic prowess of Asia. Few predicted the 1997 Asian financial crisis and fewer still anticipated the ensuing turmoil that engulfed the region.

Singaporeans should not be as imprudent as to presume that similar problems will not beset our country again in the future. The lack of a democratic system in situations of economic and political adversity could prove costly.

Our improvidence may come back to haunt us in ways we do not yet understand or expect. It is important, now more than ever, that Singaporeans take heed of economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s warning:

The security provided by democracy may not be much missed when a country is lucky enough to be facing no serious calamity, when everything is running along smoothly. But the danger of insecurity, arising from changes in the economic or other circumstances or from the uncorrected mistakes of policy, can lurk behind what looks like a healthy state.

I hope that I won’t be asked again whether my views have been vindicated because the next time another economic crisis occurs, the outcome may not be as salvageable.

The above is an excerpt from Dr Chee Soon Juan’s book Your Future, My Faith, Our Freedom: A Democratic Blueprint for Singapore (2001).

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