Democracy, Human Rights and Confucianism

Recently President Obama toured several countries in the Far East. In a trip to Indonesia, he gave a lengthy speech (peppered with eloquent Bahasa) that contains the following:

“Prosperity without freedom is just another form of poverty. Because there are aspirations that human beings share – the liberty of knowing that your leader is accountable to you – and that you won’t get locked up for disagreeing with them.”

America, like so many countries in the West, has an agenda of foisting their methods of governance onto the rest of the world. The most popular of these include their ideals of “Democracy” and “Human Rights”. Now, I personally think that these ideals are beautiful and with the planet’s sad and long history of oppression, violence and poverty, it is much justified that every person on the globe knows that they have a right to live freely.

Let us stand back and have an unbiased view of what democratic life is like here in Singapore.. Are we really “oppressed”? Do we have “curtailed freedom”? And, judging by the amount of mud slinging on the internet, do we not have freedom of speech?
I am able to leave my front door open (let alone unlocked) and I can be confident that nothing will disappear from my house. I am able to walk down the most dimly lit streets in the most “dodgy” parts of the country and I know nothing will happen to me. If I want to set up a company to do business, I can do so within minutes without tremendous hurdles and red tape to cut. I can live life and conduct my business everyday without having to worry about service disruptions by strikes and demonstrations. I know even the youngest of my children can go to school alone and nothing untoward will happen. I have even once left my car key in it’s ignition and have my door unlocked… my car and all it’s content was still there when I came back for it days later.

Is this not freedom? If it is not, then I am really curious: what is it that you want to do that our system seems to prevent you from doing? I gather that the only thing left is that we desire “Western Liberal Democracy” – Power to the People. Without very heavy explanation, such a form of governance quickly means we will have:

– A strong opposition to challenge the ruling party
– The freedom of journalism as the 4th estate (means newspapers can play the role of policeman)
– Having neutral bodies to keep systems in check

But at what stage of a country’s growth is society ready for such forms of liberalism? 50 years since the British and French first gave independence with Western type constitutions to over 40 former British colonies and 25 former French colonies – both in Asia and Africa, what can you observe today? Even America had not succeeded in leaving a successful democracy in the Philippines, a former colony it freed in 1945 after 50 years of understudy.

For liberal democracy to work in it’s purest form, you need pre-requisites. Society has to be educated and responsible, the people must have reached a high level of education, there must be good and sustainable economic development, a sizable middle class, tremendous amounts of responsibility and the political landscape must be stable. Otherwise the result of this is chaos: the government would not have the upper-hand of being a central orchestrator, unqualified individuals with mere charismatic personality would be allowed to ruin long-term plans and, the weight of time would have been insufficient for plans to materialize. Life would be just one senseless demonstration after the other. Life would be disruptive. National economy will take a beating and at the end of the day, the common man suffers. The West wants their form of governance to all countries from Day 1, when they themselves have had hundreds of years before arriving at such levels of freedom.

I cannot speak for misgoverned countries, for those, there is a problem far deeper than just human rights. In Singapore, we are largely a Chinese society and many of the founding members of modern Singapore have Chinese roots. In such a landscape, the principality of Confucianism permeates all levels of society, it doesn’t matter if you have actually studied it or not, Confucianism is innate in almost every Oriental person. Confucian societies believe that the individual exists in the context of the family, extended family, friends and wider society, and that the government cannot and should not take over the role of the family. It is about strength and influence of the family to keep society orderly and maintain a culture of thrift, hard work, filial piety and respect for elders and learning.

Maybe in not too long a future, us in the East will be foisting our ideals onto the rest of the world. But that wouldn’t be very Confucian of us would it?

  1. There is no doubt that your mention of public safety , the ease to work /conduct business and without fear from crooks are representation of freedoms. But there are obviously other forms of freedom like the freedom to assemble , to protest etc, which citizens of a modern and civilised nation should not be deprived of.

    Your example of walking safely in dimly lit streets and leaving car unlocked to suggest safety in Singapore is not fair . Singapore is a small island , which crooks are “easier” to apprehened and car thieves are not able to get stolen cars out. The best measure is to drop your wallet on a busy street and see if it ends up with the police .

    If you are to use examples of poor democratic countries in Asia and Africa to demostrate the failures of liberal democratic , how about the success stories of (US-backed) Japan , South Korea , Taiwan and (former British colony) Hongkong ? I am not saying they have no problems , but they have economic successes too.

    If you intend to suggest that Singapore is not ready for liberal democracy as it has not meet its pre-requisites. It’s really sad because Singapore has one of the highest GDP per capita in the world, so shouldnt we be looking at what is the real problem ?

    Confucianism : this i feel is really over-rated by some ‘veteran policitian’to justify his talks. The average ‘oriental’ guy does not even know what Confucianism is, in academic terms.

  2. Ah – my first comment!

    Thank you, thank you… I appreciate well constructed replies.

    Freedom to assemble and freedom to protest are interesting demonstrations of a people’s unhappiness to particular policies, but how constructive is this to a young nation, especially one that is en-route to creating both economical and political stability? Granted, we have a little bit of this now – which probably explains why we are given contained avenues of such expression ie. Hong Lim park, but as far as I know, that park is far from used. I don’t agree with picketing, demonstrations and protests in the streets, not in Singapore and not yet at least. Moreover if there is a large enough group voicing a petition in a civilized manner, there have been many situations that the Government has taken heed and given way to such requests.

    The Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan you’ve mentioned are all Oriental societies with Confucian backgrounds also Marcus :) I’m not sure which “veteran politician” you’re talking about, but the Confucian I know comes from understanding our Oriental roots. Like I mentioned earlier, even if you’ve never studied Confucianism, you’re probably observing it unknowingly: our code of showing respect to elders, how we conduct our family matters, our decisions in life etc.

    No, unfortunately GDP per capita is not the only measure of how ready a country is for liberal freedom. Responsibility and education are more important. In a nutshell, if you find that if people keep to the left on the escalators, stop driving like they own the roads, stop quarrelsome and aggressive behavior (the AWARE saga is a good example) and when a provision shop can trust individuals to pay correctly for their goods even without being monitored – then perhaps we are ready. These may seem like trivial matters to you, but it is a benchmark of what people would do when faced with liberal freedom: would they use it to fulfill the selfish interests of a few, or are they thinking of a society at large?

  3. The post above suggest an underlying misconception about the “Western World Democracy”. The democracies of the Western World was fostered and created in the context and backdrop of Christianity. Christianity’s believe in the ‘original sin of man’ translated into an innate distrust of people. This is in contrast with traditional Confucius’s believe of “人之出,心本善”. Under this backdrop, the founders of America decided to create a superior system of check and balances to avoid a dictator of Nazi proportion. Thus, in all sense of the word, the American democracy was built based on the intention that an good system will survive incapable leaders. This has largely been proven to be true as the US survive a civil war and even a treacherous President in it’s course of history.

    That same, unfortunately, cannot be said of Singapore. Who is to say that Singapore can survive after just a few years of an inept leader in office. Already, there is certain pessimism about Singapore’s future post-Lew Kuan Yew.

    Thus, Western emphasis on Rights and Freedom has allowed it to built an society that is both prosperous but also rich in social capital. While Singapore remain one of the highest GDP per capital states in the world, statistics points to a dismal social capital including deep distrust among it’s own citizen.

    Your points regarding democracy having pre-requisites are true, however, keep in mind that the infant America was neither rich nor educated.

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  4. Singapore’s political system is indeed unique – born of a mish mash of both the Communist Politoburo and the British political system, which is probably why Lee Kuan Yew chose to remain in moderate power for so long, just to see how leadership transition and renewing can work out (how many of us wish that Mandela was still in power?) So far it turns out well and until signs of failure show, power slanted to the ruling party is not that bad an idea (as it is observable). Our system of voting also helps in instlling a “safety release valve” in the case should the PAP ever really fail to manage the country – a safety feature of democracy.

    Infant America is made up of a whole wealth of immigrants (something that the politically/economically unenglightened are trying to fight) that brought them the support of European busness networks. Moreover, they have had many hundreds of years of work before getting to this level of freedom (which in the past few decades is also showing signs of buckling). Singapore (and China for that matter) realized explosive economical power and is able to move large amounts of their citizens out of poverty in mere decades.

    Above normal discipline, all of us enjoy the same freedom (if not more) than the average Westerner. If you stand back and have a general feel – it is not that bad and there are no indicators that point to the need of a change of system.

    As for the matter of social capital distrust, I’d like to discuss that in a future post… still gathering information at the moment.

    Most of my points of views and opinions are slanted towards economic management (citizens have jobs and they have a chance to make their lives happier – through their own means). So it is on this paradigm that I am writing my articles, not Human Rights, not the Magna Carta and most definately not Western ideals.

    I’ve lived in Europe – I love the freedom they enjoy… but I feel this system would not work here until us Singaporeans sort out our political maturity.

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