Ditching rights for riches

January 27, 2009
Singapore Democrats

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Singapore Democrats

The Wall Street Journal recently wrote that Singapore’s corporatist model needed a rethink. While the newspaper did not elaborate on what corporatism meant, it gave readers a glimpse into how the economy functions under such a model by highlighting, for example, how the PAP Government hoards CPF savings.

It noted that “Singaporean workers and businesses invest a total of 34.5% of wages into the state pension fund, but receive less than a 2% return from the government.” Compared to returns by private funds over long investment periods, this payout was “measly”.

Such an arrangement is possible only in an autocratic state. In places where free media exist and the people can freely choose their leaders, such exploitation of the state would not last long.

This is where the corporatist model, where the state assumes a large — if not major — portion of the economy, becomes problematic. When going is good, few question how the economy, and by extension the lives of the people, is run. But when the economy tanks, these concerns become pronounced.

The problem is that unlike democracies, we have little option but to accept policy dictates dished out by the rulers. We have ceded political power to a handful of persons and in so doing we remain at their mercy.

This is not the smartest thing to do in a modern globalised era as A Nation Cheated warns against. The book, written by Dr Chee Soon Juan, calls on the people not to sacrifice their political rights on the altar of economic progress.

It reminds Singaporeans and the corporate world that human rights is the other side of the same coin as economic rights. Economic rights cannot exist when political rights are missing. Being pragmatic does not mean one ditches political rights for the sake of prosperity. In fact, protecting our freedoms safeguards our long-term economic well-being. A good example is the CPF system mentioned above.

Encouraging the opening up of political systems is thus not a job only for those “bleeding-heart liberals”. It is very much a pragmatic consideration that the corporate community has thus far overlooked. Democracy makes good economic sense. Business executives who value transparency and accountability cannot ignore democracy, the very ideal that promotes those practices. Encouraging democratisation in Singapore is therefore good for business.

In truth human rights and freedom are not a threat to globalisation, but a very fundamental ingredient needed for a globalised economy to succeed. The process of globalisation must not be limited to just free trade, it must necessarily include freedom.

Such a message is particularly poignant at a time of economic uncertainty. For this reason, perhaps, A Nation Cheated continues to be in demand. Kinokuniya Bookstores has just placed its 12th order. Sales at Select Books seem to be picking up as well where another delivery was made over the weekend.