The Democracy Debate: Analysing the 'Asian' Challenge

Tay Cheng Cheng

Chapter Three: Singapore & the Asian Democratic Discourse

In the previous chapter, I concluded with the argument that the discourse of Asian democracy is not a homogeneous discourse. In other words, there is no single and monolithic 'voice of Asia'. That the discourse of Asian democracy is heterogeneous also implies that 'Asia' is not a unified entity. The common beliefs as well as traditions 'Asians' are said to share often also prove to be much more convoluted than the Asian political leaders present them to be. Nevertheless, we have seen in our analysis in Chapter Two that the discourse of Asian democracy has relied on generalisations of 'Asian values' and 'Asian traditions' in order to sustain itself. It is also through these generalised 'civilisational' or 'cultural' claims that the discourse of Asian democracy has been justified.

Given its complexity, I want to argue that it is not sufficient to understand Asian democratic discourse simply as a general 'Asian' postcolonial counter-orientalist or counter-hegemonic discourse. Although our discussion in the preceding chapter has shown that the discourse of Asian democracy is clearly constructed with the intention to address what I would refer to as the 'Western outsider', I hope to argue in this chapter that the Asian democratic discourse also indirectly serves the narrower and more specific political purposes and interests of the particular Asian leaders involved. This will be elucidated as I analyse the articulation of Asian democracy by the Singapore government - the People's Action Party (PAP). As we will discover in the process of this analysis, the logic and justifications imbued in the discourse of Asian democracy resonates with the PAP's domestic political discourse of nation building. The discourse of Asian democracy can also be interpreted as a political strategy that serves the purpose of countering both external and internal challenges to the PAP's political hegemony. Before engaging in such an analysis however, let us first look at why Singapore proves to be an interesting case for study and discussion in this context.

Singapore provides a good point for a micro analysis of the discourse of Asian democracy mainly because a vast number of criticisms have been made against the country's style of political leadership despite the government's proclamation that it is democratic, albeit in the 'Asian' way. As our discussion in Chapter Two has obliquely suggested, Singapore's political leaders have played an important role in expounding the idea of Asian democracy. The prominence of these leaders in shaping the 'Asian' understanding of democracy has led them to be referred to as the most "articulate" and "outspoken" advocates for the 'Asian Way' (George, 1994: 30). These Singaporean elites have also been cast as "Asia's ideological champion[s]" (Mortimer, 1994: 29). The idea of 'Asian democracy' has also been attributed to or said to be derived from the 'Singapore School of Thought' (ibid; see also Chew, 1994: 935).

Despite the prominent role its leaders play in propounding 'Asian democracy' and claiming to be democratic, Singapore is still frequently branded as an undemocratic country. According to Erik Paul, the country has been described by various political writers as "a dictatorship", "a hegemonic state" and "an authoritarian state ruled by a group of unrepentant cynics and total pragmatists" (1993: 291). In his analysis of political developments in Singapore, Gary Rodan has also argued that despite the country's "democratic appearance, an authoritarian regime has managed to successfully co-exist" (1993: 77).

Singapore has especially been a "frustrating case" for those liberal democratic thinkers who want to believe that there is "a linkage between economic development and political democratisation" (Chua, 1994: 655). In arguing that the PAP practises "unnecessary political paternalism", Michael Haas has expressed much discontent with political development in Singapore because he feels that political change in the country has "not ke[pt] pace with economic progress". Despite the country's economic achievements, Haas maintains that Singapore has continued to have a "Third world polity" (1989: 49). While many political commentators perceive the East Asian NIEs to be experiencing greater political liberalisation, these observers often exclude Singapore and frequently refer only to Japan, Taiwan and Korea. For example, Samuel Huntington has argued that both Taiwan and Korea have moved in a democratic direction" towards greater political openness in the late 1980s. Singapore, which he labels as an "authoritarian confucian anomaly", is not observed to be experiencing a similar trend (1993: 16).1 In the article 'The Globalization of Democracy', Larry Diamond also argues that although Korea, Taiwan and Thailand are moving towards "real democracy", this is not happening for Singapore (1993: 36; see also Heng, 1994: 10-11).2

The 'Cultural Logic' of Values and Ethics in Singapore's Democratic Discourse

The argument of the Singapore government for a model of 'Asian democracy' stems primarily from an essentialist and ethnocentric cultural logic that because 'Western values' differ from 'Asian values', "Western political concepts and institutions are also not necessarily appropriate in an Asian setting" (Roy, 1994: 232). In inverting the 'West's' traditional orientalist discourse, the Singapore government associates 'Western values' with negative cultural attributes and 'Asian values' with positive qualities. As I discussed in Chapter Two, 'Western' values which are assumed and generalised to be grounded in individualism are said to have brought about a lack of social discipline and 'moral decay' in the 'Western' societies.3 On the other hand, 'Asian values' are said to have created socially cohesive and economically thriving societies.4 The idea of Asian values which is perhaps most succinctly expressed by Professor Tommy Koh (Singapore's Ambassador-At-Large) is said to include: 'East Asian's' principle belief in communal living as opposed to individualism; their belief in having strong families; their emphasis on education; their belief in an Asian version of a social contract between the people and the state which emphasises subservience to the government - whose role in turn is to maintain law and order, provide the basic needs for jobs, housing, education and health care [ie. stakes]; their emphasis on maintaining a morally wholesome environment in which to bring up their children; and finally their belief that press freedom is not an absolute right (Koh, 1993: 29).5

The Singapore government has argued that democracy as a system of political organisation needs to be grounded in moral order. As BG Yeo explains, "no democracy can function well without strong moral underpinnings which are supported by the entire community". He also pointed out that "democracies which see only rights without obligations would eventually destroy themselves" (Yeo, 1994: 48). Based on this argument, the leaders of Singapore thus present a re-reading of the democratic ethos which emphasises the importance of 'good government'.6 The idea of good government is frequently said to be based on the Confucian ethic stating that "rulers are expected to exercise their power with moral rectitude" (Roy, 1994: 234). As Singapore's current Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong rationalises, "the ideal political leader is a Confucian gentleman[sic], a junzi, someone who is upright, morally beyond reproach, someone people can trust...committed to the public good" (Goh, 1988: 15).7 Thus, unlike liberal democracy - which is perceived by the Singaporean leaders to promote social irresponsibility, disorder and fragmentation, "good government", as the Singapore leaders understand it, entails the enforcement of the strict laws and orders necessary to maintain a safe and stable society. It is said to establish a discipline that serves to ensure socio-economic development.

It may be said that the Singapore political leaders' emphasis on the idea of 'good government' is tied closely to their logic that economic development must precede liberal democracy (ie. greater political liberalisation). This argument explicitly counters the erstwhile dominant 'Western' liberal-modernisation theory that economic progress must always be accompanied by political progress - that is, in terms of greater political democratisation.8 In this regard, Lee Kuan Yew has argued that "a country [must] first have economic development, then democracy may follow" (1992: 36) Even then, he claims that democracy does not necessarily guarantee development:

I do not believe that democracy necessarily leads to development. I believe that what a country needs to develop is more than democracy. The exuberance of democracy leads to indiscipline and disorderly conduct which are inimical to development.

(quoted in The Economist 27 August 1994)

The Politics of Nation-Building in Singapore

The Singapore government's discourse of Asian democracy, with its emphasis on 'Asian values', complements the PAP's recent effort to create 'national values' for Singapore based on a set of 'shared values' which consisted of the following principles: (i)nation before community and society before self (ii)family as the basic unit of society (iii)community support and respect for the individual (iv)consensus not conflict (v)racial and religious harmony (see Quah, 1990).9 This attempt to construct a set of shared national values was initiated as part of the government's nation-building project which sought to promote national unity among Singaporeans (see Bellows, 1990). The reasons provided for this construction, as we will see in this section, is grounded on similar justifications as those made in the Singapore leaders' discourse of Asian democracy. This include positioning 'Western influence' or 'Western values' as negative and potentially threatening to the country's stability. In this case, we will also find that both these two discourses manifest and reinforce 'the pragmatic ideology' of the PAP government.

The idea of formulating a national ideology based on a set of core values was first introduced in 1988 by Goh Chok Tong, (then the First Deputy Prime Minister) in a speech he delivered to the PAP's Youth Wing. According to Goh, the creation of a national ideology based on a set of principles drawn from certain "common abstract values of the different cultural heritages" (Hill & Lian, 1995: 213) of the Singaporeans would establish among them a distinct national identity, bind them together as a nation and promote national unity as well as social stability (see Quah, 1990: 1-2; see also Hill & Lian, 1995).

The quest to produce 'national values' stemmed from the PAP's belief that there was a crucial need to create for Singapore a national identity in order to promote unity among a culturally and ethnically (as well as religiously) diverse group of Singaporeans.10 The belief of this need was further entrenched by the PAP's perception that there has been a shift in the value systems of Singaporeans towards 'Western' individualism (Hill & Lian, 1995: 212) and away from the Singaporean's shared 'Asian tradition' rooted in communitarianism (see also Chua & Kuo, 1991). As Goh argued, "if [individualism] translates into a 'me first' attitude, that is bad for social cohesion and for the country" (Goh, 1988: 13-14). In order to "buttress Singapore's 'Asian value system' against over-Westernisation and deculturalisation" (The Sunday Times, 6 January 1991), Goh consequently made the following argument:

The question is how to preserve them [the core Asian values] when we are exposed to alien ['Western'] influences. My suggestion is: Formulate our values in a national our way of life. Then we will have a set of principles to bind our people together and guide them forward.

(Goh, 1988: 15)

Underlying the importance of social cohesion as a rationale of the Singapore government for the need to establish a national ideology is the PAP's subscription to an 'ideology of economic pragmatism'. It is the PAP's constant emphasis that maintaining a socially cohesive society in Singapore was necessary for establishing the social stability needed to ensure economic security (see Chiew, 1990). The promotion of economic development, as Quah argues, "is the most important strategy for national building in Singapore" (1990: 60). In privileging the idea of 'good government' as more efficient at generating economic development than liberal democracy, the discourse of Asian democracy thus reifies and normalises this pragmatic approach of the Singapore government.

A Discursive Strategy of Political Legitimisation

While the discourse of Asian democracy can be understood in relation to the realpolitik of Singapore's nation-building project, I would argue at the same time that it is not devoid of political agendas but serves to extend the political interests of the PAP government. The concern of the PAP to establish a national ideology of 'shared (Asian) values' can be interpreted as an attempt to cope with the challenges the political party appears to be increasingly experiencing. This was reflected in a major swing of votes against the party in 1984 and the "successive haemorrhage of votes" in the elections that have followed (Chan, 1992: 6). The apparent weakening of political support for the PAP has been evaluated to be the result of rising discontentment among "a demographically youthful, affluent, well educated, globally-informed, travelled, English-speaking (and therefore open to foreign influence) population" (Sandhu & Wheatley, 1989: 1105-1106). It has been argued that because the younger generation of Singaporeans were not brought up in the "crisis era" but are instead "products of a rapidly modernising and Westernizing environment" they tend to be less tolerant of "the centrally managed petitionary political culture" of the PAP (Rasheed & Mahizhan, 1990: 80-90).

In view of the apparent challenge to the political stranglehold of the PAP government, the derisive commentary on 'Western values' and the privileging of 'Asian values' by the PAP leaders in their political discourses can possibly be regarded as a political strategy employed by the political party to cope with this current situation. This political agenda has also been detected by Gary Rodan in his article, 'Preserving the One-Party State in Contemporary Singapore'. According to Rodan,

the PAP's concern was primarily with the possibility that a new set of cultural values and an associated culture was evolving, contributing to the increasing support for opposition political parties. The 'shared core values' statement was intended to assert Singapore's distinctiveness and thereby discourage any emulation of other 'Western' notably pluralist - political systems. The political significance was that it opened the possibility for the PAP to portray challenges to itself as challenges to the national consensus or the collectively shared values of Singaporeans

(Rodan 1993: 91).

Although the privileging of economic development over the establishment of liberal democracy in the discourse of Asian democracy is justified on the basis that it provides 'good government' - that is, a strong discipline state - this argument at the same time serves to legitimise the PAP's paternalistic style of political leadership. This subservience to the ideology of economic pragmatism, reflects what David Birch has referred to as the PAP's "rhetoric of crisis management tied to a do-or-die preoccupation with developing and economic growth" which is driven by "a desire of the PAP to maintain power" (Birch, 1993: 2). According to Birch, the emphasis on 'Asian values' "within the postcolonial framework of a survivalist politics and culture" effectively allowed the government to "curtail any activities which they might consider, within these guidelines to be deleterious to nation building in Singapore" (ibid: 4); (see also Heng & Devan, 1992; Lo, 1992). As such, it may be commented further that in employing the rhetoric of 'Asian values' or 'shared values' as a political strategy for 'self-legitimisation', the PAP has been able to blend politics with culture in order to serve its own political ends.


1. In a recent conference held in Taipei, Huntington argued that in Taiwan, the leadership of President Lee Teng Hui had generated a process of democratisation. In comparing between Singapore the Taiwan, Huntington argues: "The freedom and creativity that President Lee has introduced here in Taiwan will survive him. The honesty and efficiency that Senior Minister Lee has brought to Singapore are likely to follow him to his grave. In some circumstances, authoritarianism may do well in the short term, but experience clearly shows that only democracy produces 'good government' in the long haul" (Huntington, 1995: 5).

2.Huntington argues that rapid economic and social development in both Korea and Taiwan has caused the influence of traditional Confucianism to weaken and paved the way for greater gradual political openness in these societies (see Huntington, 1993: 16-17). Diamond, on the other hand, argues that Korea and Taiwan and Thailand are moving towards greater democratisation because "the trajectory of development" in these countries has raised the demands of "burgeoning middle class" for greater political liberalisation (Diamond, 1993: 36).

3.The inversion of Orientalist discourse by perceiving the 'West' in negative terms is discussed in greater detail in chapter two. See page 34 of this thesis.

4.The idea of 'Asian values' in the Singapore leaders' discourse of Asian democracy have been associated with Confucianism which is said to "champion order, a moral state and the needs of society as a whole over personal freedoms and limits on government" (Roy, 1994: 231). The economic success of - Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong are often attributed to the shared confucianist cultural background. Ironically, Confucianism had in the past been used as an explanation for China's commerce, technological and economic backwardness.This has prompted Lingle to ask: "Why did China take so long to engineer an economic growth strategy?" (The Australian, 10 October, 1994). In problematising such a cultural explanation, Russell Heng argues that the idea of Confucianism is "a reinvention" and a "strategic reappropriation" (1994: 11).

5.According to Professor Tommy Koh, 'East-Asian values' "offer an alternative vision of the values needed for a better world" (see Koh, 1993). For a critical response to his argument see letter by Josh Davis to the International Herald Tribune 2 February, 1994.

6. The idea of 'good government' is also discussed in chapter two of this thesis. See pages 27 and 28.

7.The cherished 'Asian values' have also frequently been associated with the ethos of Confucianism which is said to "champions order, a strong moral state and the needs of a society as a whole over personal freedoms and limitations on government" (Roy, 1994: 231).

8.See footnote three in the introduction of this thesis

9.This set of 'shared values' drafted and drawn up by Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was formalised in a White Paper issued in 1991.

10.The emphasis on creating social cohesion out of a culturally diverse population has always been a high priority in the Singapore government's project of nation-building (see Chiew, 1990: 6-24). Brown has also argued that "Singapore politics usually takes this ethnic pluralism as their starting point" (1994: 56).

New: 30 August, 1997 | Now: 28 April, 2015