The Singapore proposition

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

Contrary to what Shakespeare said about the good that men do being interred with their bones once they’re dead while the evil that they do lives after them, the death of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew became the occasion for his worth to be celebrated not only in the island-state of which he was prime minister for 30 years, but also in the Philippines. It also revived an old debate over what has made Singapore so rich and so successful and the Philippines so poor and such a pre-eminent development failure.

Lee’s death last March 23 was the banner story in one Manila broadsheet. It made the front pages of the others, and led the day’s reports in the television news programs. In newspaper editorials and columns, Lee was also widely praised for transforming Singapore from a malarial backwater into a modern, first-world state.

Speaking for the Philippine bureaucracy, President Benigno S. C. Aquino III hailed Lee for his “unswerving devotion to his country.” He later added to that accolade (in his note in the book of condolences at the Singapore embassy) praise for Lee’s “steady and efficient leadership” and for his “bold vision” which Aquino said “transformed Singapore into the city-state that it is today.”

The days following Lee’s death also became the occasion for some media organizations to recall what he had said about the Philippines and former Presidents Ferdinand Marcos and Fidel Ramos. Apparently he recognized the competence and creativity of Filipino professionals, and thought that Filipinos’ speaking English is among the country’s virtues, but that its continuing poverty was an indication that there is something wrong with the Philippines — and, he might very well have added, Filipinos.

It’s an observation most Filipinos would agree with, although they’re yet to arrive at a consensus on what exactly is wrong, and why. Other than provoking a tsunami of praise from both Philippine officialdom and the media, the death of Lee thus provoked attempts to answer the perennial question of why the Philippines is the way it is and what should be done about it.

Lee once said that democracy doesn’t necessarily bring development. It’s a statement that’s hardly controversial, except that he also implied on another occasion that an “excess of democracy” such as what the Philippines has supposedly hinders development. Authoritarian Singapore’s success being unquestioned in these parts, it’s a statement that has resonated not only among certain media commentators but also among such ordinary folk as those netizens on Facebook and Twitter, and even among people who would not be able to define what democracy is even if their lives depended on it.

No Filipino politician has echoed the claim that democracy hinders development — and the implication that what the country needs is authoritarian rule. Their being in office is after all presumed to be the result of (supposedly) free and honest elections, which in this part of the planet is thought to be the primary indicator that what obtains in it is a democracy. Not even the tyrant Ferdinand Marcos claimed that what he inflicted on the country in 1972 was a dictatorship. He preferred to call his coup against himself in 1972 “Today’s Revolution: Democracy,” and — with hardly a hint of irony — the order he installed on the ruins of the Constitution “constitutional.”

However, some commentators including certain journalists (from whom, in a world ruled by logic, one would have expected the opposite) have argued that the country’s (allegedly) free press and media are even more crucial barriers to progress and development. The argument is that a free press inevitably leads to press abuse, and provokes such endless debates on public policy and other governance issues that both governor and governed end up confused and paralyzed.

Both arguments blame the country’s poverty and other ills on what it has rather than on what it lacks: it has “too much” democracy; it has “too much” press freedom. And yet, as should be obvious by now after decades of “democratic” elections, it’s what the country lacks, compared to what Singapore has, that’s at the root of its resounding failure to build on what used to be its 1950s status as the country with the highest standard of living in Asia next only to Japan.

What Singapore has is a political elite that has made good on its promise of developing that city-state into what it is today, whose commitment to that end is premised on a vision of an alternative future. Despite its flaws (the Lee family has been accused of nepotism, among other failings, and Lee’s People’s Action Party has been in power for decades), that elite did achieve results and has practically eradicated corruption, though these have been at the expense of press freedom and free expression.

In contrast, the Philippine political elite, as dynasty-ridden and as corrupt as it is, has neither the vision that Aquino III alluded to, nor the determination and the patriotism to achieve anything for the greater good, the only value it understands and labors for being its own aggrandizement.

Descended from the privateering flunkies of foreign interests, the principalia, it is utterly bereft of even that most basic virtue of self-respect that should drive it to achieve something for country and people. Many of its denizens lack even a commitment to live in the country that has enriched and empowered them. Armed with green cards and millions in foreign bank deposits, they’re in the country only for so long as they can milk it, and are primed to take off for foreign climes once the country’s wealth runs out.

The Filipino mistake has been to imagine that things can change for the better by merely replacing individuals from the very same failed political elite with other individuals from the same caste — and even from the same family dynasty! — whereas what this country needs is to finally remove from power the entire putrid class itself.

The Singapore example indeed argues for that course of action. By demonstrating how, in contrast to its own political class the Philippine one is short on vision, patriotism, commitment and imagination, Singapore’s success is an argument for dismantling the monopoly over political power that the Philippine political elite has enjoyed for decades to the detriment of this country and its long-suffering people.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro). The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

Published in Business World
April 9, 2015

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