THE Western media may paint popular democracy as a good thing but politics operates in different ways in Asia, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

“If you look at the countries in Asia, you’ll know these are complicated countries and they work in different ways.

“Even when you have elections, the power structure, the politics, the government functions in different ways in these countries,” he added.

For instance, in Thailand, beyond the elected government, the king and the military play critical roles, he said.

Mr Lee made the point at a dialogue on the opening night of the three-day Forbes Global CEO Conference, which brings business leaders together to discuss global economic issues.

Replying to a question on the fate and future of popular democracy in the region, Mr Lee called it a slogan.

“I think each country has to find its own way forward. I don’t think there’s salvation in saying, oh, we need more democracy and that will make these countries prosper,” he said, citing recent events in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong as a case in point.

In India, he noted, a new government is at the helm every now and again. This makes it harder for the country to address fundamental challenges.

In China, however, “they have no elections, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the problems (faced by) a government which is legitimate, which is functioning well, and which is subject to checks and balances”.

On Singapore, he said an elected government is in place.

“Yet if you ask whether that is a formula which will automatically yield a good government and a successful country for the next 50 years, nobody can say.

“It depends on the people, it depends on the values of the society, it depends on the quality of the leaders and the connection between the leadership and the population.”

Though upbeat about the future of Singapore and the region with the Asean Economic Community with freer trade and investment targeted to debut by end-2015, Mr Lee also spoke of issues that keep him up at night.

The possibility of regional turbulence is a key concern, he said.

“The fundamental assumption when we look forward and say we are confident is that peace will remain, that countries will cooperate and, therefore, we can gradually solve our problems and develop our economies,” he said.

This confidence could be shaken by conflicts erupting in the region. Territorial disputes breaking out in the South China Sea, or over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, which involves two significant powers – China and Japan – going head to head, are cause for concern.

Likewise, the unpredictable hermit kingdom of North Korea.

Outside Asia, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and other terrorist groups like it pose a global threat, said Mr Lee, highlighting a concern he has raised repeatedly this year.

These groups could bring “the virus and radical fervour which they’ve acquired fighting somebody else’s war” to Singapore.

But at the same time, each country needs to solve its own problems, he said, citing Singapore’s dearth of babies.

Also, challenges like maintaining political and social cohesion in a fast-changing world, with income inequalities, are going to put a lot of pressure on societies, Mr Lee said.

But, he added: “Other people can’t solve these problems for us. We have to solve our own, so that we are able to work together and prosper together.”

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