Monday, March 23, 2015

Lee Kwan Yew built Singapore into a fully developed economy, but he leaves it a half-developed democracy. And that's just the way he liked it.

Lee Kwan Yew built Singapore into a fully developed economy, but he leaves it a half-developed democracy. And that's just the way he liked it.

His attitude to political opposition: "Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one. You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac."

Lee was a leader of the so-called Asian values school of politics: "Now if democracy will not work for the Russians, a white Christian people, can we assume that it will naturally work with Asians?"

The answer, of course, was yes, it can. And it has. In South Korea, for instance, and Taiwan. Both were dictatorships that evolved into democracies in the 1980s and '90s as they prospered.

And for a while it seemed that Harry Lee would be left on the wrong side of history, defending a quasi-authoritarian system as the world underwent a democratic revolution.

Between 1974 and 2006, the era dubbed the "third wave" of global democratisation, the percentage of countries with democratic systems doubled, from 30 per cent to 60 per cent of all the nations on earth.

"Nothing like this continuous growth in democracy had been seen before in the history of the world," observes the co-editor of the Journal of Democracy, Stanford academic Larry Diamond.  

But then something changed. It broadly coincided with the collapse of the US and European economies in the global financial crisis:

"The world has been in a mild but protracted democratic recession since about 2006," Diamond reported in January this year.

The expansion in the number of democracies came to a halt. A few existing democracies teetered and relapsed. And "the established democracies, beginning with the US, increasingly seem to be performing poorly and to lack the will and the self-confidence to promote democracy effectively abroad."

China's Communist Party has seized the opportunity: "The 'China model' has created miracles, opened a unique path of development and superseded the belief in a superior 'America model,' marking its demise," the party mouthpiece, the People's Daily, declared in 2009. Unfortunately, there is much truth to this.

Now Lee Kwan Yew seemed to be more likely to be on the right side of history. Lee hadn't changed his position. But history had changed its. US global leadership is wilting; China's leadership is flexing.

You can see this in concrete form with the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. This is the China-sponsored institution that Australia's government is coming to support, but only with the greatest reluctance.

Canberra, like Washington, was wary of signing up because it fears the bank could be a cat's paw for China's foreign policy.

But the proposal did not come forward because of Chinese pushiness. Beijing stepped up because of a failure of US politics.

The world agreed that the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have to be updated. They were designed in 1944. They're dominated by the US and Western Europe.

All the shareholder countries agreed to give China and India and other big emerging nations more power. The White House agreed. But the US Congress has refused, for years now.

So China came forward. It proposed the AIIB as a competitor to the World Bank. Countries are flocking to sign up, despite their reservations.

Thanks to the pettiness and petulance of the US Congress, the US has been overtaken. Beijing 1, Washington 0.

Lee Kwan Yew once dismissed the idea of democracy for its own sake by saying: "You're talking about Rwanda or Bangladesh, or Cambodia, or the Philippines. They've got democracy, according to Freedom House," a US research institution.

"But have you got a civilised life to lead? People want economic development first and foremost. The leaders may talk something else. You take a poll of any people. What is it they want? The right to write an editorial as you like? They want homes, medicine, jobs, schools." 

Lee was right. As the Chinese Communists learnt, the people cannot eat dogma. Democracy must deliver for the people or it will remain in Larry Diamond's "recession". Or worse.

Barack Obama last week supported an idea that would reform American democracy.

"In Australia and some other countries there's mandatory vote," the president told a so-called town hall audience. "It would be transformative if everybody voted. That would counteract money more than anything."

Only a little over one third of eligible Americans voted in the mid-term congressional election.

Obama added: "The people who tend not to vote are young, they're lower income, they're skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups."

If they all voted, it would be much less likely that the US today would be quite so stunningly unequal, delivering living standards to the mass of middle America that are no better than living standards 30 years ago.

Australia, one of at least 26 countries with mandatory voting, introduced the system as a nation-building measure out of concern that an indifferent community was not participating in its own governance.

Queensland began the trend in 1914. It went federal in 1924. The reasons are well summarised by Lisa Hill in the Oxford Companion to Australian Politics: "Compulsory voting is thought to serve liberal democratic principles such as political equality, popular sovereignty, legitimacy and representativeness."

But the US has tied itself into such a Gordian knot of political failure that it seems incapable of democratic renewal. So why did Obama bother to endorse it?

Like Obama, Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution favours the idea: "We know it's impossible to achieve, but it's a nice way to make a point. Small turnout produces poor politics."

It's a good idea, but the big Western democracies don't seem interested in good ideas at the moment. Harry Lee, rest in peace.

Peter Hartcher is the international editor of Sydney Morning Herald



  1. For more than a week, Singaporeans have been holding their breath over the state of health of former premier Lee Kuan Yew.There has been such intense interest, yet so little news apart from the one-line updates from the Prime Minister’s Office.The updates were rather too impersonal given the depth of feeling that Singaporeans have for the man they know as the father of modern Singapore.His son Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Facebook has been deluged with messages wishing his father well and expressing hope for his recovery.The elder Lee ruled Singapore for 31 years with an authoritarian style that worked in his time, but which would be so politically incorrect in modern times.And in one of those supreme ironies of life, the man whom few dared to say no to, has been unable to get those around him to fulfil his wish to go as quickly as possible.


  2. In his book One Man’s View of the World, published in 2013 when he turned 90, he had written in that unflinching way of his that, “if I have to be fed by a tube and it is unlikely that I would ever be able to recover and walk about, my doctors are to remove the tube and allow me to make a quick exit”. He said he had specified his wish in an Advanced Medical Directive.“There is an end to everything and I want mine to come as quickly and painlessly as possible, not with me incapacitated, half in coma in bed and with a tube going into my nostrils and down to my stomach,” he said.But which of his children would have the heart to pull the plug even if it was their father’s specific wish?It is a sad time for the family and also a poignant time for Singaporeans because this man’s life was so much a part of the Singapore story.


  3. Many Malaysians are closely following the news about his health.He has always been a figure of interest and fascination for many Malaysians because of the shared history and because the two countries are culturally quite similar.“Older generation Chinese Malaysians admire him for being able to do what he did after Singapore went its own way,” said lawyer and former think-tank head Khaw Veon Szu.The younger ones, said Khaw, admire the legacy he left behind, namely, an efficient and clean government and a meritocratic society. But the old style politics is not their cup of tea.


  4. The Malays’ opinion of him is more complex. They cannot relate at all to Lee Sr. They cannot stand him talking down to Malaysia. The situation is like that of a divorced couple: you do not want your ex telling you how to raise the children.The Malays’ feeling about Singa¬pore is best epitomised by the views of Dr Mahathir Mohamad. The two statesmen were post-Cold War warriors, they gave as good as they got and, at the height of their respective careers, they would wait and see who blinked first.When asked to comment on what Lee Sr wrote about Malaysia in his latest book, Dr Mahathir let go one of his classic backhanders: “He is entitled to his opinion, where there is free speech, especially in Singapore”.


  5. Those thirsting for news about Lee Sr’s condition have complained about the muted approach of the Singapore media regarding the ailing statesman.But Singapore’s most powerful family is known to be notoriously discreet about their private lives.The last time the veil lifted on the family was when the matriarch Kwa Geok Choo died after a long illness. Lee Sr gave a moving eulogy about the woman without whom, he said, he would be a different man, with a different life.His account of how he spent time with her after her stroke was touching, giving a rare glimpse of the loving husband beneath that exacting exterior.


  6. Lee Sr seemed visibly weakened after his wife’s death. At the launch of his last book, his cheeks looked sunken and his eyebags were more pronounced than ever. He needed help to stand and walk and was wearing a rather odd outfit – a traditional Chinese jacket over dark trousers and sports shoes.Everyone noticed that the shoes were New Balance, one of those moderately priced brands.Perhaps the clearest hint that Lee Sr’s condition may have reached a point of no return was when his Prime Minister son changed his Facebook profile picture.Lee Jr is a natural smiler, but on March 18, his new Facebook picture showed him gazing pensively ahead.


  7. He also posted a picture of him as toddler, smiling happily in his father’s arms and with his mother.“Thank you all for your good wishes and prayers for my father. I am deeply touched by them.“Have been looking at some old photos from our family collection. So many happy memories over a lifetime,” he wrote.The long goodbye has probably taken him down his own memory lane.With the death of Lee Kuan Yew now, Singaporeans are probably revisiting their own recollection of this incomparable man and coming to terms with the idea of Singapore without Lee Kuan Yew