This is not exactly China news, but there are lessons to glean from this that one can use as a reference point to what China is doing. The island-state some deem as ‘Authoritarian Capitalist’ is sometimes known as a China 1.0 – a blend of do as I say, do what you wish, but just do not criticize the ones who govern you. In many senses, it is the alpha version of what China is growing to become today.
NEW YORK STATE BAR ASSOCIATION DIALOGUE
Source – Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Singapore, Oct 30, 2009
Shanmugam cites US economist who sees the Republic as a challenge to time-tested models
By Zakir Hussain
IN CHICAGO, Democratic mayors have won without interruption since 1931. In San Francisco, they have done so since 1964.
And while Democrats have not monopolised the mayor’s office in New York City, they have near-PAP dominance of the city council, where they hold 45 out of 48 occupied seats.
‘But nobody questions whether there is a democracy in New York,’ Law Minister K. Shanmugam said on Wednesday, referring to the frequent questioning of Singapore’s democratic credentials given the 50-year dominance of the ruling People’s Action Party.
Drawing on arguments by American economist Bryan Caplan in a recent article, he said Singapore was viewed as a deviation from the democratic norm because it was seen primarily as a country.
‘This is where most people make a mistake…I have tried to explain that we are different. We are a city. We are not a country,’ he told 200 lawyers, many from America, at the New York State Bar Association International Section’s meeting here.
Mr M. N. Krishnamani, a panellist and president of the Supreme Court of India Bar Association, asked if it was true that with the ruling PAP in power for some decades now, the opposition was unable to survive or win cases in the courts.
Mr Shanmugam anticipated such a question and came prepared with Dr Caplan’s article, published in July. Reading extracts, he told his audience it was the best response he could provide to the question.
In the article, Dr Caplan said Singapore had two puzzling features. It adopted economically efficient yet politically unpopular policies that would easily cost politicians elsewhere their jobs; and it was effectively a one-party state despite being a parliamentary democracy.
But he said that the legal opposition parties here ‘hardly live in mortal fear of the PAP’.
‘Pressure from the dominant party is a feeble explanation for the opposition’s near-total failure to gain political office, given that many countries demonstrate vigorous electoral competition despite far graver dangers,’ Dr Caplan wrote.
‘Opposition candidates who avoid personal attacks against PAP politicians can and do freely attack specific policies as ineffective and unfair.’
He also noted that international observers ‘consistently rated its government as one of the least corrupt in the world, with elections that are free from irregularities and vote rigging’.
He observed that voters here, like those elsewhere, wanted lower taxes and more public services. Yet they accepted unpopular policies and continued to vote the PAP into power.
‘Singapore is a fascinating challenge to time-tested models of how democracy works,’ Dr Caplan wrote. ‘But more importantly, the mechanisms underlying Singaporean political economy are probably at work in every democracy. These mechanisms are not unique to Singapore, just uniquely visible.’
Mr Shanmugam also addressed the issue of the opposition and defamation suits, which he said was mentioned in ‘every single report on Singapore’.
He said Singapore valued personal reputation – which the law of defamation here sought to protect. It was a point that he and Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong made to the group in discussions this week.
This was because the Government believed that the best people should be brought into public service. But such individuals could be deterred from serving if anyone could say anything about them without having to prove it.
‘Some societies, including yours, think that is a mark of character and that is what is needed. We take a different approach,’ he said.
He said the most successful opposition politician here is Workers’ Party chief Low Thia Khiang. He has been in Parliament as Hougang MP since 1991 and has never been sued.
The other successful opposition figure is Singapore People’s Party chief Chiam See Tong, who ‘is known and seen as an honourable man’.
Mr Shanmugam recalled that Mr Chiam threatened to sue two PAP ministers who made remarks about his law firm and his abilities when he first stood for election 30 years ago:
‘The two ministers took legal advice and paid damages. They did not go to court because that is the way we operate.
‘Sensible people take legal advice and if you think you do not have a case, you pay up and they paid up. Mr Chiam sued other people as well, and he has never ever faced a legal suit.’
Mr Krishnamani had also read that judges were not independent as they were interchangeable with officers from the Attorney-General’s Chambers. He asked if this was correct.
Responding, Mr Shanmugam said Subordinate Court judges were part of the broader legal service and could be transferred to other positions there. But High Court judges, once appointed, cannot be removed until they reach the age of 65 and retire.
Singapore thought about creating a separate judicial service where judicial officers could have a career track, he revealed. But this was not possible given the small size of the legal service, which had about 300 officers.
The bar association’s week-long meeting ended yesterday and steering committee member James P. Duffy III told The Straits Times that participants learnt much: ‘While not everything we learnt would fit comfortably with some important Western values, we are at the beginning of what we expect will be a long and fruitful dialogue with people whom we respect and want to know and understand better.’