Any democracy must stand the test of what works

George Yeo says democracy is never a 'one size fits all' system of governing, and the specifics of each must fit the context

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 August, 2015, 5:45pm
UPDATED : Friday, 07 August, 2015, 5:48pm

Democracy is as difficult to define as socialism. I rather see it as a broad movement that seeks to progressively widen the circle of participation in the governance of a society. In that sense, democracy is a rejection of feudalism, a rejection of absolutist monarchy, a rejection of class or caste rule. It is never simply a matter of one man, one vote. At the core of the democratic ideal is the belief that while we are not equal physically or intellectually, we are equal spiritually.

The historical experiences of democracy have been very varied. We all look back to Athenian democracy, but Athens had many slaves with no voting rights.

Anglo-Saxon democracy developed over many centuries before the franchise became universal. It was only after the second world war that democracy in Britain meant one man, one vote. In the US, the blacks were only fully enfranchised in 1965, a century after the civil war, but whether this has led to their upliftment is arguable.

Our concern is not with democracy as an abstract ideal but the kind of democracy that is evolving. Does it produce good governments? 

The Swiss had to confront the problem of minorities from the beginning, and democracy there took a very different path to Anglo-Saxon democracy, with each canton retaining a great deal of autonomy and self-government.

It can be said that the Swiss pioneered the idea of "subsidiarity". Political power should be devolved to the lowest level possible. In other words, one man, one vote should apply only at the homogeneous group level while one group, one vote should be the general principle at the federal level.

Thus, democracy in the United Nations means one nation, one vote, which gives one vote to China with 1.3 billion people and also one vote to San Marino with only 24,000 people. But of course, China is in the UN Security Council, and San Marino is not.

In Japan, what matters is not so much the formal voting process but the ceaseless bargaining and consensus-building within the body politic. In countries such as Japan and Thailand, money politics is deeply entrenched. In Thailand, corruption has led to coups and counter-coups.

We must not equate democracy with one man, one vote in a simplistic manner without taking into account the economic reality and the interests of subgroups. Take, for example, the UN and world government. The countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which are constantly preaching democracy to Third World countries, would be absolutely horrified if one man, one vote were to apply to the whole world. They will be dispossessed by the teeming millions in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The problem of democracy is not one man, one vote per se, but how it is translated into an institutional structure of power and government that is considered legitimate, is accepted by most people to be fair and just, and produces stability and growth.

Our concern is not with democracy as an abstract ideal but the kind of democracy that is evolving. Does it produce good governments? Does it lead to social and economic development? Are minorities looked after? Are the rich obscenely rich? Or the poor miserably poor? Do people feel safe? I often wonder what Filipino democracy means to the many Filipinas who are forced by poverty to leave home to work as domestic maids round the world.

When Stan Sesser described Singapore as a city of fear in The New Yorker, we are justified to ask which is the city of fear, Singapore or New York? I would jog in East Coast Park in Singapore even when it is dark, but there are places in New York where I would not go in bright daylight.

The test of democracy is not how we measure up against someone else's theoretical construct, but what works for us given our history and circumstances. It is a Darwinian test. What succeeds will endure.

In other words, democracy is not an end point in human history. It is not a species of political organisation, but a genus containing within it many competing species. America is one species; Switzerland, a second; the European Community, a third; Japan, a fourth, and so on. Global competition will decide which species are stronger and which are weaker.

To a greater or lesser extent, all are in turmoil because of the end of the cold war, the globalisation of the world economy and the revolution in technology. As in Europe, Canada and the US, Asian societies are in a state of flux.

Singaporean democracy is relatively stable because we inherited solid institutions from the British and we have made adjustments to them as we progressed. We are also a city state without a countryside to worry about. The upheavals we have seen in South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand were largely the result of power shifting from the countryside to the cities. China is going through such a transformation now.

National development is like walking on two legs. If the economic leg keeps moving while the political leg is immobile, the nation will falter. If both legs try to move together, the nation will collapse in disorder. Or take Myanmar, where both legs stand still and the world passes it by. We must never stand still in Singapore. However, I do not think we want to walk the path of Western societies, where extreme individualism and the breakdown of the family are giving rise to all kinds of social problems. We will find our own way to the future.

Similarly, there is no such thing as absolute freedom. Henry Kissinger once said that absolute security for one side must mean absolute insecurity for the other. It is the same with freedom. Absolute freedom for some must mean absolute non-freedom for others. As in our approach to censorship, we have to find our own balance between individual freedom and social order.

Whatever the democratic system, there must be a moral purpose. Laws alone can never solve all the problems of human society. Many of the problems in Western democracy today stem from a moral breakdown. Sooner or later, there will be a backlash, but it may be decades before balance is restored. Meanwhile, East Asian societies throw up models for others to follow, including those of democracy and business organisation.

George Yeo is a former foreign minister of Singapore. This article is excerpted from an essay in his book Bonsai, Banyan and the Tao, based on a speech he made in 1992