Behind Singapore’s growth story lies a human rights tragedy

    By lauding the success of these developmental states, we are in effect saying the end justifies the means

    Bronwyn Nortje | 26 March 2015

    The death of Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, has thrust the debate about the success of the developmental state concept back under the spotlight. Lee, who died this week at the age of 91, is credited with crafting the path of economic development that saw the tiny, resource-poor Asian state grow from a sleepy colonial backwater to an international hub for trade and financial services.

    It has also been argued that the phenomenal growth achieved by the Singaporean economy since Lee came to power in 1959 needs to be balanced against his belief in capital punishment, intolerance of political opposition and oppression of free speech, but overall his life and legacy have been celebrated as a testament to what can be done with clever planning and the right sort of state intervention.

    US President Barack Obama referred to Lee as a “giant of history” and said that “no small number of this and past generations have sought his advice”. UK Prime Minister David Cameron praised his life and labelled Singapore “one of the great success stories” of modern times. The New York Times said in an editorial that Lee “was an autocrat who silenced critics and sent opposition leaders to jail, suppressing dissent and intimidating the press”.

    But it tempered its criticism with: “By the standards of Southeast Asian autocrats, Lee was hardly a tyrant. He did not brutalise and impoverish his country (like) military leaders in Myanmar and Cambodia.”

    In short, the success of Singapore has been a triumph for the devotees of the developmental state. I for one find this conclusion troubling, for two reasons. First, I feel that taking a utilitarian approach in evaluating the overall success of Singapore’s economic policy underplays the severity and extent of the human rights violations, and second because the many champions of its success fail to make apparent that this economy took many, many years to get where it is now.

    Though there is considerable debate within the discipline, most scholars agree a developmental state can be characterised as one that actively pursues economic growth through direct and indirect intervention in the economy.

    Arguably this is what all states do in different ways — hence the debate — but in terms of states labelled specifically developmental in nature, this pertains to a concerted effort by the state and its agencies to control the direction and pace of economic development through extensive regulation, long-term planning and often tight political control.

    It is tempting to look back on the rapid growth achieved by other Asian so-called developmental states such as South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan, and conclude that the state-led model of growth is the path to economic greatness. A paper released by the World Bank in 1993, titled The East Asian Miracle: Economic Growth and Public Policy, elevated the concept in public policy circles. But the trouble with all of those basking in the glow of the developmental doctrine is that little has been said about the generation — and in some cases generations — of Singaporeans, South Koreans, Japanese and Taiwanese on whose backs these successful, modern states were built.

    When these fledgling economies started out on their paths to growth, wages were low, labour rights virtually nonexistent, environmental concerns quashed and freedom of expression — whether privately or through the media — an alien concept.

    In the case of Japan, long considered the prime example of a developmental state, the government actively promoted industrialisation and entrepreneurship through a ministry of international trade and development, while keeping a tight grip on both the ruling and working classes.

    The same can be said of South Korea, where what John Minns, of the Australian National University’s School of Politics and International Relations, referred to as “an unusually dominant position” of government allowed the state’s agencies to direct growth towards a few key sectors (anyone remember driving a Hyundai in the 1990s?) without the social opposition that might normally have erupted in Western states over low wages and unfair labour practices.

    What made the visions of Lee and his compatriots in other South Asian giants similar was a firm belief that economic development had to precede democracy. Even today we think of South Korea and Thailand as being relatively open, yet censorship of the press and internet and imprisonment of social dissidents is common.

    It should also be mentioned that holding up only one example of a highly successful developmental state and then posthumously evaluating whether its economic policies were on balance good or bad for the country is problematic because it is overwhelmingly utilitarian in its approach. What I mean by this is that retrospective evaluations of economic policy often fail to take into account the hardships and loss of liberty that took place as part of achieving the desired outcome.

    In other words, by lauding the success of these developmental states, we are in effect saying the end justifies the means.

    This seems to be particularly true in the case of Singapore, where world leaders have been quick to forget that between 1994 and 1999 Singapore held the dubious honour of having the second-highest rate of executions per capita in the world for crimes including rape, drug trafficking and possession, and treason.

    It is within this context that we should perhaps be grateful SA has not realised the government’s dream of becoming a developmental state.

    Over the years there have been many critics who have lambasted the governing ANC for its inability to follow through with its commitment at its national general council in 2005 to restructure the economy and build a developmental state, but I have not been among them.

    If the economic policies of states such as Singapore and South Korea have shown us anything, it is that under a developmental model there will always be a trade-off between economic growth and personal liberty. As painfully slow as our growth rate is, I would rather live with slower growth and the protection of liberty.

    This article originally appeared in Business Day