Home Commentaries
S'pore, Asean & the progress of democracy

Updated On: Aug 13, 2009

Aug 12, 2009
S'pore, Asean & the progress of democracy
By Simon Tay

ASEAN'S founding was marked on Aug 8, a day before Singapore's National Day. When it was established in 1967, many of the group's member states were ruled by autocratic leaders. But the region has now written democracy into its new Charter. In Singapore's case, our National Pledge has promised since independence to build a democratic society.

The path to democracy in the region, though, has not been smooth. Voting in many Asean states has often been subject to manipulation and money politics. Military coups or people power demonstrations have also upended elected leaders.

In Singapore, voting has been held regularly and cleanly since 1959. But many do not regard Singapore as a 'full' democracy. Our leaders too shy away from the word, often preferring to emphasise 'good governance'.

Yet, as both Singapore and Asean move towards the half-century mark, democracy will become more important. While the fate of democracy in the region as a whole remains mixed, Indonesia, the largest Asean country, has successfully consolidated its democracy.

After a decade of turbulence, the re-election of Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as Indonesia's President signals a new stability. The country has also decentralised governance while remaining politically united.

On top of all this, Indonesia continues to grow economically despite the current global economic crisis. Yes, terrorism remains a threat and there is the need to provide jobs. But the overall picture is of a stable, democratic and growing Indonesia - defying the gloomy predictions made after Suharto's departure.

All this makes Indonesia fairly unique among Asean countries and adds a dimension to its international standing. The country is preparing for a closer engagement with the United States. Within Asean, it has taken strong positions on issues like Myanmar and the creation of a human rights body.

The progress of democracy is less apparent elsewhere in South-east Asia. Yet even in the dramatic political contests that have taken place in Thailand and Malaysia recently, democracy - and not just raw power - has been an inescapable part of the equation.

In Myanmar, despite the on-going trial of Ms Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the regime has promised 'free and fair' elections as part of its road map to democracy, and it must be held accountable to that promise.

Where does Singapore stand amid all this? Some see Singapore as a counter example to liberal democracy. Some accuse it of coddling dictators and generals.

The majority of Singaporeans - not just the government - would reject these strictures. The country has a solid democratic base, consisting of regular and clean elections as well as the rule of law and transparent government. Consultative politics has increased in recent years. But the young generation has expectations of more freedom and does not shy away from the word democracy.

For instance, many among them believe the mainstream media favours the ruling People's Action Party. This has led to the proliferation of alternative media in the Internet.

Political conservatives in Singapore may be disturbed by the restive politics in neighbouring countries. When investing in these countries, they must deal with the uncertainty. Some are nostalgic for strongmen.

We should instead recognise that democratic changes are unavoidable, both in Singapore and across Asean. At home, the recent changes the Government has introduced - like increasing the number of non-constituency seats in Parliament - are small steps. But they point to a recognition that the system must evolve.

Singapore can play a role in the region as well as learn from it. Democratic developments in Indonesia particularly deserve our attention. The Bali Forum for Democracy is worthy of support. We can participate in monitoring upcoming elections in other Asean member countries.

Singapore can also play a role in cases like Myanmar, where it has been a key investor and has contacts with various officials. Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong's recent visit there was watched with interest, especially in the light of reports that Singapore Government companies have suspended investing there.

With Vietnam and Brunei too - non-democracies in different ways - Singapore has strong relationships. We can share our experience in developing a participative form of government and evolving a democracy while maintaining stability.

Singapore will not be a loud proponent of democracy, unlike some others. But even the Obama administration in the United States understands that steps towards democracy must take into account a country's tradition and history.

In a region so diverse, Singapore can be something of a middle player, standing as it does between the more open and sometimes less stable democracies, and the more closed and autocratic systems. It can assist in moving the region forward. Just as importantly, taking up that role can help Singaporeans understand our own strengths and live up to our Pledge to build a democratic society.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

The writer is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. Think-Tank is a weekly column rotated among eight leading figures in Singapore's tertiary and research institutions.