20 Dec 2005

Avoid another Asian values debate

Some how Singapore = Asia, is that correct?

By Simon Tay, TODAY

SINGAPORE : There is a sense of deja vu about recent criticisms levelled against Singapore.

Anguish by Australians over the death penalty. Poor ratings by non-governmental organisations about media freedom and the treatment of foreign domestic workers. An English university refusing to set up a branch here because it believes there is no academic freedom.

The chorus echoes debates from the 90s. Then, the United States' triumph in the Cold War led some to predict a universal wave of liberal democracy. In response, Singapore and others propounded "Asian values", justified by our culture and need for stability in the rapidly-growing Asian economies.

The Asian crisis that began in 1997 quieted this argument. Like the currencies, Asian values seemed devalued. Now, eight years on, Asia again seems to be rising, buoyed by both China and India, as symbolised by last week's East Asian Summit. At the same time, human rights in Singapore are again in question.

Are we on the verge of a second round of the Asian values debate between Singapore and critics from the West? There are reasons to hope not.

Relations with the US remain vital for Asia. For Singapore, US relations have been cemented by agreements on free trade and strategic interests.

Today, unlike in the 90s, democracy is well established across Asia. Elections were held across the region this year and last, with most regarded as fair. More Asians than ever expect their voices to be heard and their concerns addressed by their government.

Singapore, too, has been undergoing a transformation. Since coming into office, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has asked his new team of ministers to look at ways of "remaking" Singapore.

A vision of an open cosmopolitan society has been offered. With gambling, showgirls and the promise of a more diverse, exciting and dynamic city, Singapore is becoming more liberal, at least as regards social mores.

Mr Lee has not thus far made a clear declaration towards deepening democracy or promoting human rights. But neither has the Government sought to articulate cultural, "Asian" bases for their differences.

Rather than a loud, furious update of the Asian values debate, a dialogue on issues may be more helpful, provided a margin of difference is accepted. There are examples in which Singapore has changed because of dialogue and increased awareness, rather than harsh external criticism and pressure.

One example: The steps in recent years towards ending inequalities for women in areas such as the benefits given to civil servants, entry into the local university's medical faculty and in determining the nationality of their offspring. These changes are connected to Singapore's experience in accepting the international human rights Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or Cedaw.

The Cedaw reporting system helped Singapore understand what other states do. Changes were then acceptable because of their compatibility with the Singaporean values of equality and meritocracy.

Similar processes can be observed in the consideration of whether to locally prosecute Singaporeans who engage in child sex abroad. The discussion arose among Singaporean civil groups and was then taken up in Parliament. While the Government has not unveiled its final decision on the issue, Singaporeans uphold a basic sense of decency and expect their Government to do the right thing.

From such examples, it would seem that processes of change are most effective when they are internalised. Doing so, however, has at least two caveats.

First, external actors can still play a helpful role provided they understand and appreciate Singapore's interests, and offer a helpful comparison with what other states do. Adapting lessons from others is, after all, a principle tool in the pragmatic search for what is best for the country.

The second caveat is that the internal process in Singapore cannot be a closed debate among a handful of Government mandarins. The administration must increasingly be transparent and inclusive in deciding which steps are prioritised.

Otherwise, some will not understand why a nude revue like Crazy Horse is allowed while gay parties are refused. Or why films on politicians are illegal, when nudity is allowed in other films.

For the people to participate fully and usefully, public education is needed. Information and discussion on the subjects of democracy, constitutional and human rights, especially, should be more widespread. These should not be taboo subjects. Nor should they be subject to unthinking propaganda by either the Government or international critics.

A rerun of the unhelpful and antagonistic Asian values debate between Singapore and the West can and should be avoided. Cognisant of what is happening in the world and at home, Singaporeans and their friends should instead discuss how Singapore can best progress. - TODAY

The writer is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and teaches international law at the National University of Singapore.

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