Thursday, 2 April 2015

The real Singapore model

By Pei Minxin, In Claremont, California, Published The Straits Times, 31 Mar 2015

THE death of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding father, offers an occasion to reflect on his legacy - and, perhaps more importantly, on whether that legacy has been correctly understood.

During his 31 years as Prime Minister, Mr Lee crafted a unique system of government, intricately balancing authoritarianism with democracy, and state capitalism with the free market. Known as "the Singapore model", Mr Lee's brand of governance is often mis-characterised as a one-party dictatorship superimposed on a free-market economy.

His success in transforming Singapore into a prosperous city-state is frequently invoked by authoritarian rulers as justification for their tight control of society - and nowhere more so than in China. Indeed, Chinese President Xi Jinping is pursuing a transformative agenda heavily influenced by the Singapore model - a relentless war on corruption, a broad crackdown on dissent and pro-market economic reforms.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sees in Singapore a vision of its future: the perpetuation of its monopoly on political power in a prosperous capitalist society.

But the Singapore model, as China's rulers understand it, never existed. To emulate Mr Lee's model of government - rather than its cartoon caricature - would require allowing a far more democratic system than the CCP would ever tolerate.

The true secret of Mr Lee's political genius was not his skilful use of repressive practices, such as launching lawsuits against the media or his political opponents; such tactics are common and unremarkable in semi-authoritarian regimes. What he did that was truly revolutionary was to use democratic institutions and the rule of law to curb the predatory appetite of his country's ruling elite.

Unlike China, Singapore allows opposition parties to contest in competitive and free (though not necessarily fair) elections.

In the last parliamentary election in 2011, six opposition parties won a total of 40 per cent of the vote. Should the People's Action Party (PAP), the party Mr Lee founded, lose its legitimacy because of poor governance, Singapore's voters could throw it out of office.

By holding regular competitive elections, Mr Lee effectively established a mechanism of political self-enforcement and accountability - he gave Singaporean voters the power to decide whether the PAP should stay in power. This mechanism has maintained discipline within the ruling elite and makes its promises credible.

Regrettably, most of the rest of the world has never given Mr Lee proper credit for crafting a hybrid system of authoritarianism and democracy that vastly improved the well-being of his country's citizens without subjecting them to the brutality and oppression to which many of Singapore's neighbours have resorted.

China would be wise to embrace this model by introducing a considerable degree of democracy and strengthening adherence to the rule of law. China's 1.4 billion citizens would benefit immensely if their rulers were to adopt Singapore-style political institutions and practices. This would mean, at a minimum, legalising organised political opposition, introducing competitive elections at regular intervals and creating an independent judiciary.

Emulating Mr Lee would allow China to achieve immense progress and become a more humane and open society with a brighter future.

Sadly, there is almost no chance of this happening, at least any time soon. When China's leaders cite the Singapore model, what they have in mind is limited to the perpetuation of their power. They want the benefits of political dominance without the checks imposed by a competitive institutional context.

Mr Lee may have been sceptical about the benefits of democracy, but he was not viscerally hostile to it; he understood its usefulness. By contrast, China's leaders view democracy as an existential ideological threat that must be neutralised at any cost.

For them, allowing even a modicum of democracy as a means to impose some discipline on the elite is considered suicidal.

Unfortunately, Mr Lee is no longer with us. One would like to imagine him explaining to China's leaders what has been truly innovative about the Singapore model. Obviously, that is not an option.

But it would behove the CCP - if for no other reason than simple respect for one of Asia's great statesmen - to stop appropriating the Singapore brand in the service of a completely different agenda.


The writer is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Death of Mr Lee is also China's loss
By Chris Buckley, Published The Straits Times, 7 Apr 2015

WITH the death of Singapore's founding leader, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, China lost a figure who, in the eyes of Communist Party leaders, showed that economic prosperity could be achieved under crisply efficient one-party rule, immunised from the temptations of liberal democracy.

Singapore won an outsized influence as an inspiration for Chinese policymakers from the 1980s, after they embarked on an experiment with controlled capitalism that turned China into the world's second-biggest economy.

Mr Lee's tiny tropical city-state, with a population a quarter the size of Beijing's, offered Chinese leaders a model of how to navigate economic and social transformations without losing political control.

"Singapore has a special position in the Chinese leadership's mind," Professor Huang Jing of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said in a telephone interview.

"It is symbolic, showing that the Chinese can be successful, both in terms of economic modernisation and political modernisation," he added. "It shows that a non-Western political system can also succeed."

Mr Lee had been extravagantly mourned by China's news media, almost as if he were one of the country's own leaders, and China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs hinted at the status that he held in Beijing, as a sympathetic interlocutor with Western countries and South-east Asia, and as a flinty critic of liberal values.

"Mr Lee Kuan Yew was a uniquely influential Asian statesman and a strategist boasting both Eastern values and an international vision," ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in a message on Mr Lee's death. (The English version called them "oriental values".)

In a separate statement of condolence, President Xi Jinping praised Mr Lee as "an old friend of the Chinese people and a founder, pioneer and promoter of Chinese-Singaporean relations".

In November 1978, on the cusp of inaugurating far-reaching economic changes, Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore. And in 1992, when Deng urged China into a frenzied burst of market liberalisation, he offered Singapore as a reassuring example that the Communist Party could still maintain firm control.

"The social order in Singapore is quite good," Deng said while visiting southern China to promote faster economic change, according to an official transcript.

"They run things strictly, and we should borrow from their experiences and run things even better than they do."

Since the 1980s, and especially the 1990s, Chinese officials have visited Singapore, seeking to absorb its experiences or burnish their credentials with a tour.

In a recent paper about China's fascination with Singapore, Professor Mark Thompson and Dr Stephan Ortmann, both from the City University of Hong Kong, cited one estimate that 22,000 Chinese officials made study visits to Singapore between 1990 and 2011.

Singaporean universities offer public administration programmes and courses tailored for Chinese administrators.

"They want to learn how Singapore is run and why it has been so successful," Prof Huang said of the Chinese officials who take his classes.

"And, second, they want to learn in Singapore how to deal with the outside world, because one major problem with Chinese officials is that they don't know how to tell their story."

Mr Lee built the People's Action Party and Singapore into Cold War fortifications against communist revolution, and established full diplomatic ties with China only in 1990.

Paradoxically, though, Mr Lee and his Government came to offer successive Chinese leaders an idealised example, much visited and studied, of how the Communist Party could absorb market changes and exposure to the outside world, without succumbing to public discontent and rampant corruption.

"What they are looking for is ideological reassurance that they are not falling into what we call the 'modernisation trap', that by advancing economically, they are not necessarily creating the basis of their own collapse," said Prof Thompson, who is director of the South-east Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong, in a telephone interview.

The Singapore experience came to mean even more to Chinese admirers as other authoritarian Asian governments gave way to electoral democracy and fractious party competition.

"As political change occurred in South Korea and Taiwan," said Prof Thompson, "increasingly, it became only Singapore that combined for the Chinese leadership a very interesting model of effective economic governance, rapid growth, of state involvement with meritocratic rule, on the one hand - and, on the other hand, strict limits on political participation and democracy."

Starting in 1976, Mr Lee visited China 33 times, met all of China's party leaders from Mao Zedong onwards and found something to praise in each.

In a book published in 2013, Mr Lee also held heady hopes for Mr Xi.

"He has iron in his soul," he said of Mr Xi. "I would put him in Nelson Mandela's class of persons. "A person with enormous emotional stability who does not allow his personal misfortunes or sufferings to affect his judgment. In other words, he is impressive."

In the last decade of his life, Mr Lee gave advice to the Bush and Obama administrations on how to handle a rising China and, frequently, they did not like his blunt assessments.

When Professor Graham Allison and former United States ambassador Robert Blackwill, both at Harvard University, asked him whether China's goal was to become the predominant power in Asia and then the world, he responded: "Of course. Why not? They have transformed a poor society by an economic miracle to become now the second-largest economy in the world.

"Unlike other emergent countries, China wants to be China and accepted as such, not as an honorary member of the West. The Chinese will want to share this century as coequals with the United States."

Chinese leaders reciprocated the praise. For them, Singapore has offered a particularly attractive role model because most of its people have Chinese heritage, and Mr Lee promoted a melange of Confucian precepts and other traditions as a uniquely Asian set of values, resistant to the decadence and disorder that he denounced in advanced Western societies.

"Singapore created a miracle of development that has astounded the world," said a commentary issued on March 23 by Xinhua, China's state news agency.

"The impact and significance of this miracle lie in how Singapore forged a path that did not lead to Westernisation, and instead took a path of Singaporean modernisation through self-reliance, drawing from the strengths of West and East."

But Dr Cherian George, a former Singaporean journalist, now media academic in Hong Kong, said Mr Lee's more authoritarian admirers abroad failed to note that he allowed a degree of regular electoral accountability that, while circumscribed, was unavailable in purely one-party states.

"From the very start, he insisted on an incorruptible system," said Dr George. "There is no shortage of strong leaders around the world and their fans who say they look up to Lee Kuan Yew, but ignore this very inconvenient aspect of his governance."

What practical lessons Chinese officials might learn from Singapore is less clear. Running a city-state of 5.4 million people is, after all, enormously different from running a country of 1.3 billion. For all the echoes that people seek in the People's Action Party, Mr Xi has so far not lived up to hopes voiced in 2012 that he might draw on Singapore's experience to carry out a measure of political relaxation.

Many of Singapore's policies for fighting corruption, such as salaries for officials so high that the commercial sector and graft have less allure, could not be replicated in China, said Prof Huang.

"As soon as those Chinese officials arrive in Singapore, after a few weeks of learning, they really learn they cannot copy the Singapore experience," he said.

"But still, they go back with the idea that 'If Singaporeans and Lee Kuan Yew and his people can do it, then so can we.'"


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