Before we pull together, let's decide what we want to pull, to where

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am

Why are ideologies necessary? ... ideology fulfils the emotion need in politics. It is one of two sides of the same political coin: one side is all about emotions, the other interests.

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That was the response of a regular correspondent to a recent column in which I argued that China's economic growth is not enhanced by disregard of human rights. His view is a common one. I can see Singapore's founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, nodding his sage old head on this one. I'm sure they would even do it in the Zhongnanhai leadership compound up in Beijing, forgetting just what underlies the communist party of China.

It's all very simple, you see. The job on hand is to build the industries, build the infrastructure, build the homes, build the schools and get domestic product per capita up in real terms.

What role has ideology to play in this? These ideologues are all dissidents in the end and all they really want is just power for themselves. To get it they pander to the sentimental weaknesses of the population, making into a matter of emotion what is really a matter of practical reality.

They don't really have any different ideas. They would build the same things in the same way. The job is obvious and the only dispute is about who will get the credit for doing it. Give in to them and what you get is the building process sacrificed to their egos. They will slow everything down by fighting each other if they can build up their own self-importance by doing so. Therefore slap them down before they get dangerous. The only room we can have for dissent is the pleas of special interest groups who have not been sufficiently considered in the building process. We must listen to them so that the building process is balanced out.

There, have I described the thinking?

Its biggest difficulty is the question it does not answer. What happens when the industries, the infrastructure and the homes are all built? Do we just continue building? Do we slather the landscape in nothing but concrete and roadways, in ever greater environmental degradation? When do we stop and what do we do then?

In fact the question comes up long before that time. The building process itself poses many questions about what should be given priority. Getting it wrong ties resources up in the wrong places and swiftly slows things down while also creating income disparity. The Soviet Union was a fine example of such a failure.

This, I grant you, is only an argument for a market economy. But then a market economy is itself only the civil liberty to choose your own way in what you buy and sell. We are talking an ideology again and it plays a big role in deciding what and when to build, even in a supposedly ideology-free system.

Look at the nub of it. It may indeed be true that if we all pull together we can move mountains, but who wants to move mountains? They are mostly just fine where they are and moving them does nothing for us.

Before we decide to pull together, let's first decide what we want to pull and where we want pull it. Scorn of ideology assumes that all of this has long been settled.

But it has not been and if we start pulling before we have settled it we will just wind up doing senseless things like moving mountains.

This is where the strength of democracy and human rights lies. They assume that the answers have not been handed down to us and we must grope our way blindly. One person's way deserves as much respect as another's because no-one knows for sure.

It is why the way of any democratic assembly is contention, not co-operation. Big rounds of applause for what the minister says settle nothing. Real progress is only made when the minister is heckled in the chamber and must make his case against a hostile examination.

We forget this in Asia because of phenomenal wealth growth in recent decades, which we too easily attribute to a single-minded pursuit of wealth that sees no need to question how and why. The results are answer enough, we say.

But these riches are mostly the result of world peace, technology transfers, foreign capital investment, communications advances and cheap transport. We didn't get this wealth because we suddenly discovered that the key to wealth is to shut up and ask no questions. That's the key to polarising wealth, not to generating it.

Ideology isn't just a flip side of a political coin. It is the political coin. All political decisions are based on ideologies, most notably the ones that claim they are not.