Economic growth and human rights: Mutually exclusive?

June 22, 2011
Singapore Democrats

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Vincent Wijeysingha

Dr Vincent Wijeysingha was to speak at the Liberal International’s 57th Congress held in Manila, Philippines, last week. The theme of the Congress was
Human Rights and Trade. He was scheduled to speak in a panel “Economic growth and human tights – mutually exclusive?” chaired by the Secretary-General of European Financial Stability Facility, Mr Kalin Anev.

Dr Wijeysingha was, however, not allowed to travel because he was informed by officials at the airport that his passport was due to expire within six months. We produce the text of Dr Wijeysingha’s speech here.

Ladies and gentlemen, comrades:

I am sorry I have not been able to attend this Congress and to meet colleagues in fraternal parties. But my own party colleague, Jaslyn Go, is here and, I have no doubt, she is more than capable of making full use of our party’s presence here.

The question we are addressing today is as relevant as it was when the foundation of human rights was established in the Declaration in December 1948.

We would do well to recall, from this place, the first article of the Declaration: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

The idea of rights being inherent in individual conscious entities is an old one. As Feldman of Cambridge University says, proponents of the concept usually assert that everyone is endowed with certain entitlements merely by reason of being human.

As human beings, we draw from our common spiritual and philosophical heritage and we declare that by virtue of having consciousness, of being able to feel pain, of being moved to share in, and therefore alleviate, the sufferings of others, we enjoy certain rights and obligations.

The field of human rights has not been without contest. Recently, Charles Blattberg at Montreal University stated that rights talk, being abstract, is counterproductive since it demotivates people from upholding the values that rights are meant to assert.

There is some truth in this statement: In past struggles, proponents have argued that human rights do not entail reciprocal obligations. They have based their approach on strict reading of rights statements without engaging the concepts in their essence.

But our session today is looking at a more immediate question: whether upholding human rights is compatible with economic success. This question is still very relevant today and has become more so in the context of the spectacular economic growth of China amidst a very repressive socio-political regime under the Communist Party.

As China moves to become the world’s largest economy by 2025, and as its leaders go around the world lecturing other countries on the correct methods of economic development, the liberal community must continue to establish intellectual positions that engage with the China phenomenon, without allowing the world community, and in particular those nations still struggling to climb up the development ladder, to fall prey to economic prioritisation perspectives which, fundamentally, have not established the operational usefulness of economic development over human rights, but more so the right to control social and political arrangements in the interest of the selective distribution of wealth.

Let us be absolutely clear about what is happening, and has happened. And let us not be lulled into a false sense of security that the “trickle-down effect”, so beloved of conservatives such as Margaret Thatcher, will apply in those circumstances where the rights of individuals, families and communities are made subservient to economic development.

They will not. And Singapore is a principal example of why.

The first Prime Minister of Singapore, whom today, intellectually lazy and reductionist analyses, have termed the “founding father”, was lauded and praised jealously by such international reprobates as Mrs Thatcher herself, various American presidents, and that old murderer of the Indochinese, Henry Kissinger – jealously because he was able to make human rights so subservient to economic growth that in 50 years Singapore’s GDP increased by a factor of almost 260.

But what happened in the process?

Before I take you through some of the main effects of such a fundamentalist approach to money-making, let me briefly go through the arguments that are usually made against human rights:

  1. Prioritisation arguments: These are usually made in the assertion that people cannot eat human rights.
  2. Cultural relativism: Human rights are alien Western concepts that have no resonance in our Asian and African cultures and are indeed inimical to our cultural forms and social arrangements.
  3. Time based arguments: That it is cheeky of Westerners to tell Asians and Africans to improve their human rights so soon after they left our nations after pillaging us for 400 years. And that even in Western nations, while industrialisation was proceeding in the early stages, democracy and human rights were not present in the compact.
  4. Location of welfare provision: The resources needed for a decent and dignified living are provided, by Asians and Africans, in the community and the family, not the government.

    Needless to say, at one time or another, all of these arguments were made, in one form or another, by Lee Kuan Yew and his People’s Action Party.

As an aside, may I say that, in this context, it was rather surprising that President Aquino, on his visit to Singapore, made his assertion that the Philippines had much to learn from Singapore. I hope that the Filipino people – and I have many Filipino friends both here and in Singapore whom I love – will never allow him to do that.

The anti-human rights discourse in Singapore has been structured in one or two key approaches. And let us be clear, it is not a discourse that is uncomfortable, or ill at ease, or awkward with human rights, it is a discourse that is positively opposed to the grant of rights to individuals. It is based fundamentally in the contempt that the People’s Action Party has borne for ordinary people.

These key approaches are:

  1. Sacrifice and deferred gratification: That people must make sacrifices for the sake of rapid industrialisation and when wealth is achieved the people will benefit. Singapore’s spectacular wealth today and the obscene salaries it pays to its government ministers vis-à-vis ordinary workers give the lie to this statement.
  2. Expertise: This is the argument that the People’s Action Party is the only entity capable of good government and therefore the people must, perforce, have no say in matters of state. This argument was raised again in the recent General Elections in May 2011 when various ruling party candidates said that Singapore has insufficient expertise to form two A Teams. This is a form of the trickle-down theory in that it suggests that the ordinary people allow the PAP to govern and that this benevolent entity will, in time, pass the wealth down to the people. It has done no such thing.
  3. Crisis: That Singapore operates in a constant crisis of state caused by (a) its vulnerability, (b) relative lack of resources, and (c) the racist attitude of being a Chinese island in a hostile Malay sea, which Lily Rahim of Sydney University has recently written about in her new book.

Essentially, the argument made by the PAP is not about the incompatibility of human rights and economic growth. It is rather about economic liberalisation versus social control.

Because human rights have been guaranteed to cabinet ministers in that they have taken advantage of economic growth to pay themselves vulgar rates of pay while exhorting workers to work cheaper, better and faster. Lee Kuan Yew himself recently lamented that Singaporeans need to be kicked to make them work harder.

Senior people in the administration and the courts have available to them very high state pensions for life which are not relative to their savings while condemning Singaporeans to only one source of retirement income, the Central Provident Fund (which is relative to income), which people must also use to purchase their housing, widely resulting in families which are asset secure but income insecure in old age.

Additionally, the government refuses to countenance an old age pension or to increasing income replacement for the poorest and most struggling of the poor, the disabled, and the long-term injured, preferring what it calls a ‘Many Helping Hands Approach’ which essentially involves the poor begging for subsistence from various state and non-state organisations which themselves struggle for existence through fundraising, a form of double social taxation, which the government denies is happening.

By keeping the ordinary citizen out of policymaking and review through abrogating their rights to free speech, free associations, demonstrations, and adequate access to their Members of Parliament, the government has been able to make policy much to the detriment of the community and to get away with it.

Examples include:

  1. The privatisation of public services leaving people struggling to purchase basic needs such as housing, food, utilities and healthcare.
  2. An immigration policy, based on cheap labour, that is putting great strain on our social and community resources due to a population density of almost 7,000 persons per square kilometre.
  3. An intimidated civil society and a government-controlled press which reduces alternative sources of information to the rather limited-reach new media.
  4. A repressive state control system including detention without trial and the use of defamation suits by the government to cow its opponents and silence alternative ideas.

The society that has been created in Singapore is one that is silent, sullen and resentful, although the quality of the political opposition at these recent General Elections, the presence of a vocal new media, and the intellectual demise of Lee Kuan Yew, require us to pause before making the next analysis of political developments in Singapore.

However, it can still be stated categorically that the outcomes of the PAP’s attitudes to human rights should actually be characterised in the following equation: that civil and political rights have been abrogated so that the industrial structure can expand and those with resources can become yet richer, while the workers who actually create the wealth are required to acquiesce in a system of government that does not serve their needs and in fact is making them poorer, through the pursuit of a supply-side cheap labour policy.

Even the trickle-down theory has been gotten rid of and today the people are simply exhorted to work cheaper, better and faster without any concomitant guarantee of sharing in the wealth.

And the threat being that if you do not or cannot work cheaper, better and faster, we will import more cheap labour from abroad to replace you. The government has even brought in legislation that will allow employers to keep older workers on the payroll beyond their retirement age but on reduced salaries.

No doubt, the government has provided and improved basic services. However, the constant drive for profits, even on the part of government revenue-generating departments, is rapidly leading to a situation of disenfranchised people and a government that is struggling about where to go.

The days of growth at all costs have come to an end but because of the internal patronage system within the PAP. No one of any establishment-repute has emerged to fill the intellectual gap created by the departure of Lee Kuan Yew from the political scene. His son’s current administration is manifestly floundering.

That Singapore has been able to generate rapid and spectacular growth is given. But the belief that this is because human rights have been abridged has been totally disproved.

Growth in Singapore, as economists such as Paul Krugman have identified, have been due to supply-side measures such as cheap labour, tax and investment holidays, a cobbled trade union movement, and poor labour legislation. It has also been due to constantly increasing fees and charges for public services such as road pricing.

The role that the absence of human rights have played in this formula is to cauterise public dissent, alternative policy ideas, and negative assessments of policy. This has allowed the government both to ride roughshod over the outcomes for the people and also to keep negative analyses out of the public domain through media control.

The fundamental outcome has been a profoundly poor distribution of wealth – GINI coefficient in Singapore is now around 48 points – amidst rapidly rising social costs and a government functioning in a closed loop of information that does not admit new ideas.

Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward and the social problems of authoritarian regimes in the Soviet sphere in previous decades are a signal warning to those who argue for a primacy of economic development over individual and community rights. The Singapore case, as I said earlier, is instructive.

Thank you very much for your time. And I wish all the delegates a very fruitful conference.