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The democracy versus dictatorship debate

[Lakbima News, Sunday, 2 May 2010 07:26 No Comment]

here is some talk that the UPFA is popularising a theory that “Democracy is not important; it is social welfare and a better material life that people need”. My immediate reaction is: Why are the two are considered incompatible? Before getting polemical, however, let us take the idea, seriously examine the two examples that are sometimes adduced in defence; Singapore and China. The Singapore government will not agree that it is not a democratic state and point to its clean elections, parliamentary system, independent judiciary and strong law and order. While these formal institutions are palpably present, and certainly more functional than their counterparts in Lanka, it is undeniable that it is a paternalistic and authoritarian state. When I used to visit my friends were afraid to fault the government within earshot of strangers and caution me when I criticised Lee Kwan Yew in the way I would speak of the British Colonial, Hong Kong SAR or Beijing Governments in Hong Kong.

Singaporean exceptionalism

18-3 There is no doubt about it; the Singaporean version of democracy is pretty restrictive. Take the docile press for example, or the draconian punishment meted out to a reporter who dared conjecture that Lee Hsein Loong would not be prime minister but for

a leg up from dad. He had to publish an apology, pay a fine and maybe say his daily prayers before going to bed. It was an old joke in Hong Kong when I was working there that, “Singapore has democracy but no freedom, and we have freedom but no formal democracy”.

Nevertheless, to be honest I have to grant that to a degree Singapore in an exceptional place. The state is efficient and free of corruption, and the moral authority of the previous and current political leadership is recognised by the public. Furthermore, Singapore has educated, housed and adequately fed and clothed its people and turned itself into a bit of an economic miracle facilitated by close engagement with American and European strategic and business interests. A disciplined work ethic and determination to succeed materially is entrenched in the people, aided by a deeply ingrained Confucian cultural heritage. English is the “first official language” and there are three others. These numerous differences mark it off from Sri Lanka like black from white and no useful parallels can be drawn.

What about China?

China is no democracy, but it has done economic wonders; just one statistic will do. Between1981 and 2005 poverty, using the internationally accepted $1.25 yardstick, declined from 84% to 16%, a remarkable achievement. Is this proof that a one party monolithic state is the best thing under the sun? Not so fast! Between 1979 and 2010 political control and the monopolisation of power has eroded significantly. Sure, China is still leagues away from democracy and Tiananmen in 1989 and the treatment of the Fulangong in recent years were examples of ruthlessness. Sure there are vicious restrictions on political and press freedoms.

Nevertheless the business needs of economic growth, rapid educational advancement, and an assertive middle class, are pushing the barriers back step by step. The oppressive atmosphere of Maoist China is a far recollection compared to vibrant, diverse and semi open modern China. The moral of the story is that prosperity and improving the material lives of people is coming into conflict with authoritarianism. The paradox is that our UPFA johnnies want to reverse the train; they want to reduce democracy since they want to hoodwink the public that less democracy and more despotism will spur economic growth!

The existing control mechanisms are creating another problem in China. The country’s Gini Index (GI) rose from 29 points to 41.5 points between 1981 and 2005 because state and party allowed a filthy rich class to surface. Increasing inequality, spurred on by a monopoly of state power and also by market reforms, is a scandal. The paradox is that the economy has grown at breathtaking speed and poverty has declined steeply, but inequality has burgeoned. The GI in the EU is 31 points; so the income distribution in capitalist Europe is fairer than in the Peoples Republic! [The theoretical extremes are: GI=0 denotes perfect equality in income distribution, GI=100 denotes all income accrues to one recipient and everyone else is pauperised].

What conclusions?

Do dictators have a better record than publicly accountable democratic governments in feeding their people, improving living standards, and providing better health, education and housing? Where is the evidence to prove this? Chile’s Pinochet, the onetime military dictators of Latin America, Marcos, the Burmese junta, Middle Eastern dictators, are all counter examples. Cross-country and historical evidence shows that curtailing democracy is a cover under whose darkness political ambitions grow, graft increases and the livelihood of the population deteriorates. I have already dealt with the apparent exceptions, Singapore and China.

And what about corruption; is it not all too well known that lack of accountability is a root causes of rampant corruption, or does anyone contend that corruption too promotes prosperity? Maybe corrupt politicos, corporate scoundrels and the fattening of the top orders of the regime will benefit if transparency, accountability and the right of the people to expel these crooks is abrogated. It is really a sign of the times that some have sunk to promoting a Democracy verses Prosperity thesis! What hope is there for minorities, women and the underprivileged if democratic spaces are closed off? In authoritarian societies these sections are the first affected and trampled. Finally what happens to law enforcement and the judiciary if one man, then one family and then a ruling clique stand above the law?

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