Dr. Chee Soon Juan: A Comparative Perspective on Russia and Singapore

[Last month I traveled to Singapore for a speech before the International Bar Association, and had the opportunity to meet with many talented human rights lawyers and democracy advocates. Among them was the leader of Singapore’s opposition party, Dr. Chee Soon Juan. Dr. Soon Juan is a remarkably brave individual, and in my conversations with him, numerous comparative perspectives between events in Russia and the situation in Singapore came up that are worthy of analysis. For example, what is the relationship between political liberties and economic growth? What similarities and differences can be found between the Russia and Singapore models of governance? I asked the good doctor if he would be interested in producing an article on this subject for my blog, and below is the result. I’ll continue to follow the situation in Singapore very closely, and I hope that many of my readers will as well. Stay tuned for more blogging on this one. – Robert Amsterdam]

The Russia-Singapore model: Progress through repression?

By Dr. Chee Soon Juan

What does Singapore, an island-nation of 700 sq km in Southeast Asia, have anything in common with Russia, a country that spans 11 time zones? A lot more than at first glance. For starters, both sets of political leaders have developed a pattern of manipulating the legal system to curtail the development of the rule of law. You see there is this theory going around in Singapore that economies grow fastest in the absence of democracy. And Russia’s rulers, as with many autocrats around the world, find this to be a very seductive proposition. This is why the two states are wasting no time putting their undemocratic ideas into economic action. Commercial ties have been growing steadily in the past few years. The Singapore state-run national daily, Straits Times, gushed that the “booming trade between Russia and Singapore is getting even hotter.”

Dismantling democracy

But even as they trade, the autocrats are learning from each other, or more accurately, the Russians from the Singaporeans. Says billionaire financier, George Soros: “… Russia’s liberalised economy has not meant democracy. Putin seems to be emulating Singapore, or Chile under Augusto Pinochet, with economic stability the top priority.

“One of the first institutions that authoritarian regimes dismantle to buttress their power is the country’s judiciary. In Singapore, the ruling cabal has been quite successful in undermining judicial independence. The New York City Bar Association’s report in 1990 succinctly describes the situation:

What emerges…is a government that has been willing to decimate the rule of law for the benefit of its political interests. Lawyers have been cowed to passivity, judges are kept on a short leash, and the law has been manipulated so that gaping holes exist in the system of restraints on government action toward the individual.

Russia seems bent on keeping up with Singapore. Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald reported that in Russia the “judicial apparatus is still readily available to punish Vladimir Putin’s political enemies.” The International Bar Association, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Commission of Jurists and the US State Department have expressed concern about practices that are “not conducive to the independence of the judiciary.”

Both the Singaporean and Russian governments have also ensured that the opposition is incapacitated and unable to mount any sort of challenge for political power.

In Singapore this is done through defamation lawsuits where ruling party leaders drag their political opponents through the courts and extract from them financially crippling amounts in legal costs and damages.

Opposition leaders are also prosecuted for their political activities. Public rallies and protests are prohibited in Singapore. As the leader of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, I myself have been imprisoned repeatedly for speaking in public without a permit. The state has seven more similar charges against me.

Then there is detention without trial. Singapore’s opposition, trade unionists, student leaders and journalists have been imprisoned without trial for years. An opposition member of parliament, Chia Thye Poh, was imprisoned for 32 years, without ever given a trial.

The media in Singapore is completely under the control of the state. The law prohibits private ownership of news companies without the permission of the Government.

Is it any wonder then that in its latest Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore’s media 141 st out of 169 countries. Russia is not far behind, coming in at 144th. Even Sudan was ranked higher at 140th.

The Russian government’s treatment of the opposition, journalists, human rights activists, and media have also raised concerns about the country’s commitment to democracy.

In fact the Community of Democracies, a global organization of democratic states, have downgraded the statuses of both countries. In the upcoming Ministerial Meeting to be held in the African state of Mali in November 2007, Russia is invited only as an observer, down from being a full member. Singapore is not even invited, a demotion from its observer status in the previous conference.

Freedom House said that the exclusion of certain states from the grouping signaled the Community of Democracies’ “determination to keep out those governments which have failed to uphold the democracy and human rights commitments of the group.”

Authoritarian capitalism

With the democratic system ruthlessly quashed, transparency and accountability in the commercial sector are greatly compromised. This allows the governments and their cronies a free hand in running businesses that are increasingly being questioned.

The International Press Service reported that while Singapore promotes itself as a regional financial center, it is “attracting funds from rich people not only from Indonesia but also China and Russia.”According to former chief economic analyst Andy Xie at Morgan Stanley, much of these funds are illicit and being laundered in the city-state.

In a private email that Xie circulated to his colleagues during the World Bank-International Monetary Fund meeting held in Singapore last year, Xie said that “Singapore’s success came mostly from being the money laundering center for corrupt Indonesian businessmen and government officials.”

Xie, who ranked No. 2 among regional economists in a 2003 Asiamoney magazine survey, added: “To sustain its economy, Singapore is building casinos to attract corruption money from China.”

Therein lies the rub. Authoritarian regimes realize that their democratic counterparts do not have a monopoly on wealth-making.

The problem is that systems run on oppression and opacity do not foster long-term stability. In fact they breed illicit commercial activity that has the potential of destabilizing the commercial world.

Indonesia provides a very good example. Under the Suharto dictatorship, the country’s economy flourished. But because the international community paid little attention to Suharto’s repressive political ways, a robust checks and balance system was not allowed to develop. As a result, corruption and illicit commercial activity became rife.

When the economy ran into problems during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the underlying political discontent erupted. Rioting and looting followed. This led to the toppling of Suharto. But because there was no democratic system to oversee an orderly transition of political power, society was turned topsy-turvy. As a result, more than 500 people were killed in Jakarta alone.

If there is any lesson to be learned from all this, it is that democracy and human rights are not political luxuries that autocratic governments can discard in the name of trade. They are very much the key ingredients necessary for sustainable global economic development.

In this regard, the paths that the Singaporean and Russian governments have taken must be seen for what they are, a threat to a just, democratic and stable global political-economic system.