Democracy makes good economic sense

December 5, 2002
Singapore Democrats

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This article was first published in the SDP’s newsletter The New Democrat in Aug 2000.

Some Singaporeans think that democracy is just a concept over which political parties fight. They dont see how democratic values and practices affect their lives – and their pockets.

Democracy, which essentially advocates the freedom of people to decide their own destiny, is worthy of championing in and of itself. But more than that, it affects the everyday livelihood of the people.

Take today’s Singapore for instance. We have come to a stage when our bubble economy can no longer deliver the type of GDP that it used to. We have to depend on the entrepreneurial skills of the people.

To conform or not to conform

Unfortunately, entrepreneurship cannot flourish in an authoritarian state like Singapore, which runs on fear and thrives on conformity. Innovation and creativity need freedom of speech and expression, rights that the PAP is determined not to let Singaporeans enjoy.

Some Singaporeans, however, think that if there is no such governmental control, there will be disorder and chaos like Indonesia.

First of all, the problems that we are witnessing now in our neighbouring country is not a result of democracy but rather a manifestation of years of oppression by an authoritarian regime during which the mass media, judiciary, and political system were controlled by the ruling elite for its own gain.

Without any democratic space for the people to express their disenchantment with the system, the pressure built up gradually to the point of political explosion. In any authoritarian regime, political unrest can come in various forms: the death of the autocrat-leader, an economic crisis, the victimisation of opposition leaders, etc.

Second of all, in an autocratic society like ours where the PAP instills fear and insists on conformity among Singapore-ans, it is difficult to encourage creative and inde-pendent thinking amongst the people because conformity and creativity are natural enemies.

If you still have doubts, take a look at Taiwan. During the regional crisis while Singapore registered negative growth and went into a recession, Taiwan posted an amazing 5.6 per cent growth. The same happened in Australia.

In Taiwan, it was the people who were the driving force behind the economic progress. As Taiwanese Nobel laureate for chemistry, Professor Lee Yuan Tseh, observed that what was luring back Taiwan’s overseas talent was the “democratization and political transformation which means equal opportunities for everyone.”

In contrast, Singapore is struggling to get Singaporeans to return. Mr Goh Chok Tong remarked: “If our best who qualify to work for world-class institutions are not prepared to come back, how can we make our institutions world-class?

The SDP can attest to this because numerous young professionals whom we have met on the street while selling this newspaper have indicated that they have either emigrated or are intending to do so or have gotten PR to work in Australia, Canada, the UK or the US.

Invariably, they say that the political climate here is too stifling and that because of the way the economy is dominated by Government conglomerates, there is little opportunity for them to excel in Singapore.

The economics of freedom

So what is the PAP’s solution to this problem? Rather than tackle the problem at its source, that is, to give Singaporeans more political freedom and democracy, it now feverishly “imports” foreign talent. This is like putting a plaster over a bandage. It is not going to solve the long-term problem of building sustainable development of our economy.

Economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen debunked what he calls the ‘Lee Kuan Yew hypothesis’ which is that Asians are not suited for democracy (which, of course, the local media does not highlight).

Professor Sen notes: “Economic incentives, important as they are, are no substitute for political incentives. …[the absence of which] cannot be filled by the operation of economic inducement.” Put simply, human beings do not just want economic goodies but political freedom and rights as well.

Political freedom,” Sen adds, “is a part of human freedom in general, and civil and political rights are crucial for the good living of individuals as social beings. Political and social participation has intrinsic value in human life and well-being. To be prevented from participation in the political life of the community cannot but be a major deprivation.

The need to intimidate

The PAP, however, is not paying attention. It continues to rule by intimidating Singaporeans and frightening them into submission. It keeps telling the people during elections that if more opposition candidates get into Parliament, investors will be frightened off and they will lose their jobs. Apart from the fact that this is patently untrue, this kind of tactic cannot produce a thinking and entrepreneurial people.

Singaporeans are clearly faced with a problem. The SDP can only continue to inform and encourage the people. But it is Singaporeans who will have to help themselves by building a truly democratic society.

If you still think that democracy has nothing to do with you, then our future as a nation is bleak. For this is our country and if you don’t care, no one else will.