Singapore – spectacularly glamorous and enticingly wealthy. There's only one problem. Behind this facade is this: [arrests of protesters]
For the last half-a-century and more, Singapore has been ruled by one party. Opposition MPs, labour leaders and social activists were detained for decades without trial, sued for defamation until bankruptcy, and prosecuted for gathering in public of groups of five or more.
Even today, bloggers are threatened with legal action. An independent film-maker, who documented the allegations of bus drivers convicted and imprisoned for going on strike for higher wages and who said that they were beaten by the police during questioning, was herself threatened with prosecution. A cartoonist who had criticised the government through his illustrations, was arrested and accused of sedition. A 21-year-old blogger was threatened with a defamation suit when she complained about a government agency.
The Attorney-General threatened bloggers with contempt of court charges for posting articles that criticised judges. You're probably thinking: How is this possible in a place like this?
It really is not hard to understand. Investors, contrary to popular belief love places like Singapore – where the government is pro-business and the rights of the people,
including workers' rights are kept strictly in abeyance. No minimum wage, no independent trade unions, no civil liberties.
With the highest concentration of millionaires in the world, Singapore has the highest income inequality among advanced economies. Is it any wonder then that while the rich think nothing of ordering a glass of diamond champagne for $20,000, the elderly poor have to struggle just to eke out a living?
The question is not whether authoritarian systems can generate economic growth because they obviously can. Russia, China and, as I've just pointed out, Singapore have registered impressive GDP growth in the last few decades. Rather the question is: Is such growth sustainable?
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, the authors of Why Nations Fail, identified a trend: Systems that rely on extractive institutions cause states to wilt. Inclusive political and economic institutions, on the other hand allow states to progress.
Singapore's economic growth, brought about mainly by extractive institutions, is not sustainable, the researchers conclude. Indeed, the Singaporean economy is beginning to shows signs of fatigue.
Compared to other countries in the region which posted impressive growth over the last few years, Singapore has struggled. In 2012, our economy grew by just 1.3%.
Inclusive institutions, institutions that welcome and encourage criticism, are needed for economic sustainability and progress. Criticism and dissent is needed for progress.
[Criticism = Dissent = Innovation = Progress]
Sadly, in Singapore, we continue to rely on extractive institutions, both in economics as well as politics. What we need, however, is political freedom to bring about economic regeneration. Without a pluralistic and open polity, we cannot innovate and without innovation, the economy will find it hard to advance.
Singaporeans are beginning to realise this and they are speaking up. The early campaign for freedom of speech and assembly has begun to develop into movements.
How the government responds will determine how Singapore progresses. Maintain the extractive political institutions by further clamping down on the people's rights and the economy with continue its downward drift. On the other hand, if we build in incentives that foster inclusiveness and pluralism, we will we build a innovative and, therefore, sustainable economic system.
On a larger scale, the experience of Singapore provides an important lesson for the rest of the world especially the developing world. In the global effort to reduce the gap between the rich and poor and to build a world that values human dignity, it is impracticable to treat politics and economics as if they were separate universes because the two are inextricably bound.
In that light, should the world's thinkers and policy-makers of economics nestle in Davos, Switzerland while the world's political and human rights actors gather separately here in Oslo, Norway, and ne'er the twain shall meet? Perhaps the Oslo Freedom Forum and World Economic Forum could come together to bring protagonists from the human rights and economic spheres to work in tandem to bring about a better and more just world.
I want to leave you with this picture which has gripped the world.
It is a poignant reminder that the poor cry, fear, love and hope just like the rich. Their lives are worth no less.
In a society where human rights and the rights of workers are guarded, such tragedy would not have happened.
I am honoured to be here today because I know that I am in the company of people with whom I share kindred spirits. Thank you.
(15 May 2013)