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?
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