Singapore leader’s legacy

Home > Opinion > Columns

print dictionary print

Singapore leader’s legacy


We all readily accept that democratic politics is a must to guarantee the legitimacy of state power. But whether or not democratization will guarantee the effectiveness of national governance is another question. Moving beyond the devastation of two World Wars and the Cold War, democratization and a market economy appeared to have been the mainstream of history in the global community at the dawn of the 21st century.

But the world is regressing with war clouds and tensions from frequent terrorist attacks. In such an environment, skepticism about democracy spreads rapidly. The world is falling into the trap of uncertainty, questioning if democracy will guarantee the stability of a country or an international regime.

An international academic conference hosted by 130-year-old Yonsei University and its Kim Dae-jung Library featured a discussion on the future of democracy and governance. John Dunn, professor of political theory at King’s College, Cambridge, expressed concerns over whether a democracy can guarantee effective national governance for existing goals of democratic politics, such as environmental preservation, economic development and social equality, as well as population issues such as an aging society. He cited Italy and Greece as examples of inefficiency, adding that when a system shows a high degree of effectiveness, as in China, it must introduce and institutionalize the separation of power.

Unlike the traditional Western theory of democracy, in which Dunn linked the global community and effective governance of individual states, Prof. Pan Wei of Peking University stressed that China’s transformation, often represented by its rapid economic growth, is an outcome of the country’s unique social traditions and organization. Social organization and ethics based on families and local communities, democracy and pragmatism of recruiting talented people were embraced in China’s political tradition, he said, thus there is no need for a competitive structure between the ruling and opposition parties because a failed ruler is replaced by a rebellion en masse. Although China’s system is not perfect, Pan argued that confrontation between democracy and authoritarianism and between state and the market do not necessarily exist from the beginning.

Ten days after the conference, Lee Kuan Yew, founding prime minister of Singapore, died March 23. He was a great statesman, who proved clearly that rapid economic growth and an advanced country can be built without progress toward democratization. While maintaining the rules of society through tough enforcement by the state, he implemented a bold market economy and openness policy to transform Singapore into an advanced country in a short period of time. He was a legend in governance.

The late Lee’s so-called Confucian capitalism and Deng Xiaoping’s bold move to introduce a market economy are related, but a city state’s experiment cannot be applied to a continent as it is. About a decade ago, during his visit to Seoul, he talked about his opinions based on Sinocentrism and stressed that Korea, based on the lessons from its long history, must adjust its relations with China.

The success of Lee’s model of authoritarian governance was possible because he managed to completely eradicate corruption. In addition, he recruited the best talent and publicly provided the treatment they deserved, a phenomenon hard to find in other countries.

Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore’s former ambassador to the United Nations and one of the elites, wrote recently in the New York Times, “I think the young population of Singapore appreciates the strength of Singapore, appreciates the stability the Singapore government brings, but they also want more of a voice. So you’ve got to create opportunities for them to speak out - on social issues, on political issues, on economic issues. It’s coming. Change is coming.”

This shows that the late Lee’s choice was wise.

Three days before Lee’s passing, Malcolm Fraser, former prime minister of Australia, also died. The head of the Liberal Party became prime minister in 1975 through a special election. Although he insisted on conservative fiscal policy based on the economic theory of Milton Friedman, he is known as an internationalist who promoted human rights and international law.

He visited Nelson Mandela in prison and actively supported the movement to root out racial discrimination in South Africa. He allowed massive immigration from Asia, including refugees from Vietnam, transforming Australia into a multiracial, multicultural country. Fraser’s groundbreaking policies will be remembered as examples that showed him as an internationalist and an idealist.

For Korea, democratic politics and effective governance are goals that must be pursued simultaneously, without choosing one or the other. We have made numerous national determinations that we will protect democracy no matter what sacrifice we have to make. But democratization cannot be an excuse for lax governance, because it is a shortcut to destroy not only the country, but also democracy. Efforts to create a mutually complimentary circulation between democratic politics and national governance are desperately needed.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff

JoongAng Ilbo, Mar. 30, Page 31

*The author is a former prime minister and an adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Hong-koo

More in Columns

China’s thin skin

The Korean War from China’s view

Who’s laughing now?

Fighting Chinese patriotism

The curse of the presidency

Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)

What’s Popular Now