Taiwan’s infatuation with Singapore

Taiwan’s top political leaders are enamoured with Singapore. Or so it seems.

Presidential and Vice presidential candidates Mr. Ma Ying-jeou, Mr. Frank Hsieh and Mr. Vincent Siew visited the tiny island last year apparently at the invitation of the Singapore Government.

During his visit in June, Mr. Ma had said, “(Singapore) is professional, corruption-free and efficient, which is worth our learning”. This and other comments he had made lauding the system here prompted me to write a letter to the KMT’s presidential candidate.

In August when Mr. Hsieh visited Singapore, he was reported to have said that Taiwan should learn from Singapore’s achievements in expanding diplomatic relations with the Middle East and Arab countries and in financial globalization.

In the recent Legislative Yuan elections, KMT’s vice presidential candidate Mr. Vincent Siew attempted to allay fears of a one-party state after his party won an overwhelming number of seats in parliament. In a report by chinatimes.com on 15 Juanuary, Mr. Siew said that Singapore is being ruled by one party but the government is really doing a good job for the people, that it is very progressive and that the tiny islands GDP is almost double that of Taiwan’s.

To be fair, Taiwan is not the only country that thinks that Singapore’s economic system is worthy of emulation. Vietnam’s Communist Party leader Mr. Nong Duc Manh had said the same. Ousted prime minister Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra tried to make model Thailand after Singapore Inc. Even Russia’s Mr. Putin is considering a role for himself, not unlike Singapore’s Minister Mentor, after his presidential term comes to an end this spring.

The only reason why more and more countries are looking towards Singapore as a role model is because the government here has a very sophisticated and efficient public relations machinery. That, coupled with the fact that other state leaders choose not to look beyond the superficial glitter and glitz constantly propagated by Singapore’s state-controlled media.

I have no doubt that the leaders in Taiwan are aware that Singapore is not at all a democracy. It is ruled by an oppressive government that has no qualms in quashing civil and political liberties for the sake of economic growth.

Mr. Siew points to Singapore to justify the merits of a single party rule in a country. I would like to take the liberty of pointing out how a one-party rule has been detrimental to Singaporeans.

It is precisely because Singapore has been ruled by one party that explains why the government’s draconian laws and its abuses of human rights remain ineffectively challenged. It is because of a one-party government here that democracy advocates and dissenting voices are thrown in prison, have their livelihood taken away from them or live in exile. It is because of the one-party rule that Singaporeans are forced to work beyond retirement as we are not allowed to draw on our saving when we retire. Here are other equally damaging effects of a single party rule in Singapore:

(1) Singapore has a savings scheme that produces the highest savings rate in the world but its returns are so poor that Singaporeans are left with little or nothing to retire on.

(2) In the United Nations’ 2006 report, Singapore is ranked 105th in the world in terms of income disparity. This means that the rich in Singapore are getting richer and the poor, much poorer.

(3) The lowest 30 percent of households saw their incomes diminish whereas the incomes of the top 10 percent of households increased by 14.8 percent.

(4) Morgan Stanley’s former chief economist Andy Xie revealed that Singapore’s success came from being a money-laundering centre for corrupt Indonesian officials and businessmen. He added that to sustain its economy, Singapore is building casinos to attract corrupt money from China.

One can understand why politicians such as Mr. Nong, Mr. Thaksin and Mr. Putin are eager to learn from Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. But Taiwan?

Singapore’s present civil and political space are not dissimilar to Taiwan’s pre-1987 era when the country was under martial law. Freedom of expression and assembly are almost non-existent, all forms of mass media are controlled by the state, the rule of law is abused by the ruling party, public institutions are answerable to the government (not to the public), those deemed as threats to the national security are detained without trial, politicians are jailed for exercising their constitutional rights. And then, there is the father to son political legacy – Chiang Kai-shek to Chiang Ching-guo. Lee Kuan Yew to Lee Hsien Loong.

So is this the progressiveness that Mr. Siew speaks about?

Mr. Vincent Siew’s only indicator for progress seems to be growth of the country’s GDP. So what if Singapore’s GDP is twice that of Taiwan’s? The question is: Are the citizens of the country benefiting from this growth? In Singapore’s case, obviously not!

Whilst the ministers raise their already bloated salaries (Singapore’s prime minister is paid six times that of the president of the United Sates), taxes, medical costs, housing, transportation, food have also increased, making it more difficult, especially for lower-income Singaporeans, to make ends meet.

Mr. Lee Kuan Yew and his government have been effective in convincing Singaporeans that human freedoms and rights are secondary to economic stability and security. This belief has become so extensive that a majority of the citizens don’t sense danger when the Singapore Government does not account to the people, when the country’s reserves are managed in a non-transparent manner, when there are no checks and balances to power and when the entire country is in the hands Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, his son, the prime minister and his daughter-in-law who is in charge of investing the country’s reserves.

All this makes me wonder why Taiwan’s leaders would think that Singapore is progressive and an economic model. Could it be a case of words of courtesy as they were visitors to the country?

I humbly urge Taiwan’s leaders to seriously think about the ramifications of their remarks about role-modeling after Singapore. Whether or not these leaders mean what they say, these statements are not only detrimental to Asia’s democratization process as Singapore is a threat to democracy in this region and beyond, but the work of democracy and human rights advocates in the city-state is also stymied.

A government ruled by a single party is treacherous. It breeds dictatorship. Taiwanese fought hard and made numerous sacrifices to bring democracy and human freedoms to the island. To laud the one-party system in Singapore and extol its progressiveness is a roll back in democracy for Taiwan.

Chee Siok Chin (Ms)
Central Executive Member
Singapore Democratic Party

This letter was posted to Taipei Times.