Since quite a few of my friends on Facebook circulated Calvin Cheng’s article on The Independent and Huffington Post, I thought it deserves a response.

Cheng’s essential point is that Singapore didn’t trade away political freedoms for social order, or democratic accountability for economic growth. His logic, as far as I could make out, goes something like this: Singaporeans have as much freedom and democracy as any reasonable or civilised person would want. If we had any more freedom and democracy – of the sort that you see in “western” democracies – we risk jeopardising the things that we value in Singapore: safety, law and order, racial and religious harmony, absence of drugs, low corruption, efficient public services, clean air, prosperity, and any number of “freedoms” you care to enumerate. Cheng writes,

“Freedom is being able to walk on the streets unmolested in the wee hours in the morning, to be able to leave one’s door open and not fear being burgled. Freedom is the woman who can ride buses and trains alone; freedom is not having to avoid certain subway stations after night falls. Freedom is knowing our children can go to school without fear of drugs, or being mowed down by some insane person with a gun. Freedom is knowing that we are not bound by our class, our race, our religion, and that we can excel as the individuals that we are — the freedom to accomplish. Freedom is living in one of the least corrupt societies in the world, knowing that our ability to get things done is not going to be limited by our ability to pay someone. Freedom is fresh air and clean streets, because nothing is more inimical to our liberty of movement than being trapped at home because of suffocating smog.”

There are at least three elementary mistakes that Cheng makes in his piece that allow for it to be a very useful case study in classes on logic and politics.

The first, and the most obvious one, is that he has mistaken security for freedom. Both are important, but they are not the same thing. Security of life and property may well be preconditions for the exercise of freedom, but they are still not the same thing. Note that I’m not saying that political freedoms and civil liberties (free speech, free assembly, the right to organise, etc.) should always trump considerations of order and security. There might be circumstances in which we suspend (some of) our freedoms and liberties to preserve security.

The second mistake that Cheng makes, and which follows quite naturally from his first, is that Singapore never had to sacrifice freedom for security, and democracy for an effective government. It is only by conflating freedom with security that Cheng is able to make the astonishing claim that there was no trade-off. Mr Lee Kuan Yew himself understood the trade-offs very well when he said in 1986: “What are our priorities? First, the welfare, the survival of the people. Then, democratic norms and processes which from time to time we have to suspend.”

Of course, we can disagree over whether the circumstances we face at any particular time justify a suspension of democracy. But this means that under some (extreme) conditions, we may choose to sacrifice some of our individual rights and freedoms for the greater good. In short, there is a trade-off.

The third mistake that Cheng makes is a more substantive and interesting one – and it’s about the nature of political development. Cheng seems to suggest that governments often fail to deliver high quality public goods because they have too much democracy or freedom. Here, he has committed a fundamental attribution error. The real reason why many countries aren’t able to provide these public goods is not because they are democracies, but because they lack strong, competent and effective states.

It is not the presence or absence of democracy that determines whether a country is able to develop along the dimensions that Cheng cares about. It is the existence of a strong, competent state that does. There are quite a few western democracies that still do not have competent, effective states: Greece and Italy come to mind. Many democratically elected governments in Africa, Latin America and Asia also lack state capacity. Their governments, although democratically elected, are often characterised by patronage and corruption, and are captured by narrow segments of the population. There is therefore nothing incongruent with having democratically elected and incompetent governments. Similarly, it is entirely possible to have a strong state without democracy. China comes to mind. Indeed, China invented the practice of recruiting officials of the basis of merit rather than on the basis of family or clan relations. But even today, it lacks democratic accountability and the rule of law.

Democratically elected governments may not be able to deliver high quality public goods for a variety of reasons: they may not have the requisite technical capabilities, or they may lack the political will and determination to solve these problems, or they may be corrupt and captured by groups that do not have a strong interest in the state providing these public goods. Public goods like law and order, security and stability, clean air and good infrastructure, and opportunities to enhance human potential are produced by strong, effective states that are both highly autonomous (in the sense that they are not subordinate to, or captured by, narrow interest groups) and deeply embedded in society (in the sense that they are highly responsive to the changing needs of society).

Cheng’s mistake was to conflate an effective state with a democratic one. In so doing, he commits the very mistake that he accuses the West of. One of the greatest myths propagated by parts of the American political establishment is that democracy holds the key to development. Poor, conflict-ridden countries, it was believed, should prioritise the establishment of democratic practices, starting with free and fair elections. This is why the first thing the American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq did was to hold elections. But democracy didn’t bring development or security. In retrospect, the emphasis should have been on state-building and on enhancing state capacity.

Singapore’s development experience challenges the neoconservative myth that democracy is a silver bullet. And we represent a challenge not because we didn’t have elections, but because Mr Lee and the first generation of leaders Singapore prioritised the development of a strong, competent and modern state over the establishment of democratic or procedural accountability. This is not to say that PAP leaders weren’t accountable, only to point out that their accountability was based largely on the results achieved by the state rather than on strictly democratic procedures.

Why does all this matter? It matters because having developed a strong, competent state, Singaporeans are now asking what next. Surely our development does not consist only of achieving material progress and security – as important as these goods are. Singaporeans today also raise more questions about government accountability; they care as much about procedural accountability and fairness as they do about governmental performance.

In The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama describes the problem of having all three institutions that comprise political development – a strong state, rule of law, and democratiic accountability – as one of “getting to Denmark”. For Singapore, having achieved, largely, the first two of the three institutions, the question naturally arises: how much (more) democratic accountability should we have?

Accountability means that government is responsive to the interest of the whole society, or the common good. Accountability has two dimensions: procedural accountability, that is, periodic free and fair multi-party elections that allow citizens to choose and discipline their rulers; and performance accountability, which is the extent to which rulers advance the broader interests of society (whether or not they are democratically elected). There is of course a strong connection between both aspects of accountability. Unconstrained rulers, no matter how benign and responsive to the public interest, cannot be trusted to remain that way forever. Moreover, we should expect societies which have achieved a certain level of material prosperity to demand a greater say over who rules them. So there is a quite natural link between economic development and the rise of democratic demands.

The three institutions of political development – a strong state, rule of law and democratic accountability – exist in productive tension. The institutions of the state concentrate power and allow the state to enforce laws, keep the peace, defend itself, raise revenues, and deliver public goods. By contrast, rule of law and the mechanisms of accountability pull in the opposite direction: they constrain the state’s power and prevent the exercise of arbitrary power. This reinforces the point made earlier: that at some stage, there is a trade-off between a strong state and democratic accountability. An already strong state which seeks even more autonomy or unrestrained power erodes democratic accountability. Conversely, an already highly democratic society that seeks to extend more freedoms and liberties may undermine the state’s ability to function as effectively as before.

Finally, there are at least three reasons why Singaporeans today may want more democracy, possibly at the expense of some government effectiveness. The first is that a greater degree of democracy is a better check against the “bad emperor” problem. Unless human beings find a way of eliminating the risks of bad leaders ever coming to power, we may be better off accepting some of the inefficiency and slack of a democracy in return for greater political resilience (which comes ultimately from diversity).

Second, Singapore already has a strong and effective state. This suggests that it can allow for more freedoms and democracy without having to worry that this would undermine state power and bureaucratic effectiveness excessively. Indeed, doing so may even strengthen state capacity, since the state would have to develop new capabilities to manage a more complex and demanding polity rather than rely on traditional top-down, government-knows-best approaches.

Third, society today is far more plural and diverse than the one Mr Lee had to lead, and the political system will have to reflect and accommodate that diversity. There are already many who would like to see a more diverse and representative Parliament (bearing in mind that 40% of the electorate today are represented by only 10% of Parliamentarians), a freer media environment, more checks on the exercise of state power through repressive laws like the Sedition Act and the Internal Security Act, greater transparency and disclosure, and various other expressions of a substantive (as opposed to an electoral) democracy. This number is likely to increase over time as society matures.

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