Tuesday, June 20, 2006

What we have in SEA is NOT democracy

There has to be a newly coined terminology for the system of government in Southeast Asian nations, which on the surface appear to be a democracy of sorts. In truth it is more authoratarian flourishing with absolute control over government agencies. The Executives yields “dictatorial like” authority with every branch of government under his control. There is therefore little to no accountability in order for the Executive to do as he pleases.

Yet, there are elections although not quite free and fair with evidences of vote buying, ballot box rigging and other dubious forms of winning which only the incumbent can do with the cooperation of the Election Commission, media, police, and military. The people are not allowed peaceful demonstration which is one of the tenets to democracy nor avenues to express oneself without fear of retribution. This of course varies from regime to regime and nation to nation. There is a Parliament and lively debates do occur, however futile it is to shelf the Executives policies. Dr. Mahathir referred to it as a "mere rubberstamp."

I believe Lee Kuan Yew called this system of government -“guided democracy”. The founding fathers have put it upon themselves as the guardian of peace and growth for the nation. The believe is that the new state needs stability for growth and a change in government is not stability. They delve into politics and business in the believe that it is necessary for the economic growth of the nation be it to the detriment of the nation. Yet for the international stage and trade purposes they allow "opposition parties" to exist. If the opposition speaks too much, the full might of the government will be upon them at lightning speed.

In Singapore, the wife of the Finance Minister and now Prime Minister, Ho Cheng heads Temasek Group. How does the wife of perhaps the most powerful man in Singapore be found heading one of the largest corporations in Singapore. Temasek has reported to losses of $550 million recently. In Malaysia, we have our very own Scomi Berhad, headed by the son of the Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Scomi revenue increased 42% and share price increased 64% since listing in May 2003. Is it a coincidence that PM Badawi also took office that same year. His son-in law also has shares in ECM Libra, one of the biggest investment banks in Malaysia. Thailand’s Thaksin has his hand in a multiple of businesses as well.

How will foreign investments ever flow in to such a volatile economy where the life of a business is so closely linked to the political stability of a particular leader or political party. To the west, this is called "conflict of interest". You cannot be the referee and the player of a football match at the same time. It is hard enough to be seemingly unbiased just being the referee alone. How would foreign investments flow in freely when government is so involved in business? It is time governments in Southeast Asia favour a true market economy where government is meant to referee the playing field only and not play football. So that the smaller and weaker players can have fair game and the economy do not depend on the life and popularity of a politician.

The US founding fathers upon writing the constitution believed that "man is inherently sinful or bad." When left to themselves they will tend towards evil. Therefore, it is necessary for checks and balance within government by the various branches of government. It is necessary that there is no aboslute power and therefore there is the route of impeachment even for the President of the United States.


HM said...

I certainly think you are absolutely correct. The "democracies"we have around Asia generally makes laughing stock of concepts such as separation of powers, checks and balances, conflicts of interest etc. Not only are people in power frequently player and referee, they are also judge, jury and executioner; buyer, seller and advisor etc.

SG has the best excuse - its so small that the most "able" people are all found in one family - all the rest are too dumb...

Which is not to say that "guided democracies"cannot yield decent economic success eg SG but will more frequently end up like Indo, Phil, Thai, Msia...where a very small number benefit heavily at the expense of the entire country (although not quite yet as bad as the dictatorships of Africa as pretences have to kept up...) and the inefficiencies inherent in such a system is a powerful drain on the country economically...



Alright, we've identified the problem. Is something being done about it ? Doubt so. We all wish it to be done. Takes a meeting of the minds. Very finite minds at best.