Development without democracy: Singapore and China

Chee Soon Juan

Dr Chee Soon Juan delivered the following speech at an event on 4 June 2014 held at the New South Wales Parliament to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre:

In 2004, Singapore’s former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew was asked whether China would be more prosperous and stable had the students succeeded in overthrowing the communist government and established a democracy in 1989.

He replied: “I didn’t think so then, and I don’t think so now.” He then quoted Deng Xiaoping: “If I have to shoot 200,000 students to save China from another 100 years of disorder, so be it.”

Obviously, Lee, no stranger to autocratic politics himself, thought that Deng handled the Tiananmen incident correctly.

Given the remarkable economic strides that China has made in recent decades, it is tempting to conclude that Lee and Deng were right.

In Singapore, Lee ruled with a ruthlessness that instilled fear in citizens – and still does. He did not, however, attract the kind of opprobrium that other autocrats did, largely because he was able to usher in the kind of economic progress that we see in Singapore today.

The strategy was clever: label democracy and human rights as a Western concept unsuited to Asians, but ensure that the door is kept wide open for Western investments.

Such a regime will get corporate America and Europe eating out of its hand because these multinationals operate on the basis of opening new markets and maximizing profits, and anything that can help facilitate such expansion – including the absence of human rights which necessarily implies the subjugation of workers’ rights – is welcomed.

China saw the political convenience and has adopted the stratagem with ruthless efficiency, resulting in economic expansion that is the stuff of legends.

Before we celebrate, however, it may be prudent to remind ourselves of some of the developments in Asia in the recent past. Most notable is the case of Indonesia. Under Suharto, Indonesia’s economy was making fine progress. Even the World Bank made much of its success story.

But, as in all cases where economic growth, or more specifically foreign investments, are not accompanied by transparent and accountable government which democracy demands, autocracies become adept at using economic data to present almost anything they want to present. And when those who question the wisdom of such an approach, aka the dissidents, are silenced, the system is set up to never fail.

Until it does, of course. When economic reality meets make-believe, the former always prevails. In Suharto’s case, his regime was unceremoniously chucked out by Indonesia’s reformasi movement in 1998, but not before the country went into political and economic convulsions, which threatened to pull the entire region down with it.

China is going through such a cycle. While making breathtaking economic growth through the years but ensuring that democracy is held at bay, the country’s problems have not been allowed to be aired and debated – and, more importantly, rectified.

Most worrying is the property and housing industry that defies logic. With ghost cities sprouting up all over the country and a government that looks like it is unable or unwilling to deflate the economic bubble, it seems like a question of when, not if, China’s economy will unravel. When it does, it will make Indonesia’s tumult look like child’s play.

Singapore is also showing signs that its economy is malformed and that its trajectory is not one that inspires hope and optimism. And because the system does not lend itself to democratic change, I fear that matters will become worse, dramatically worse.

Even so, I remain hopeful because bad things, like good things, must come to an end. Reform will take place and peoples will rise and bring about democratic governance. A quick survey of the political landscape in Asia over the last few decades will give us the confidence that democracy will overcome dictatorship.

This is not to say that things will happen in a mechanically pre-determined manner. Political changes have always necessitated the toil and sacrifice of defenders of democracy and China is no exception. Throughout history, it is people who speak truth to power who eventually bring truth to the people.

The text is also available on Sydney Democracy Network’s The Conversation.

Dr Chee Soon Juan is Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the University of Sydney until end-June 2014.


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