Thursday, April 16, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew: Discipline over Democracy for the Philippines?

" a habit that grows. I am told it is like making love---it's always easier the second time!"
-Lee Kuan Yew

Singaporean statesman Lee Kuan Yew recently passed away at the venerable old age of 91 after years of being situated at the top of Singaporean governance. Sounding eerily like past apologists for authoritarianism, Lee grabbed hold of the autocratic presumption that a great deal of liberal freedom has to be sacrificed for the sake of social order. Lee’s Singapore was one such stronghold of that presumption.

In the Philippines, Lee is highly-respected for what he accomplished in tiny Singapore: he transformed a small, third-world island city into an international economic powerhouse. But he is also remembered by Filipinos for his criticisms of their “runaway” democratic system. One of his remarks especially grated on Filipinos. It was one that Lee made in 1992 during a visit to the Philippines. The remark, which was evidently meant for his hosts, was on the precise relation between discipline and democracy and on which was the better choice for any nation: “I believe what a country needs to develop is discipline more than democracy.”

I once heard a similar remark from a Philippine army colonel back during the late 1980’s when Corazon Aquino was president. When I asked him then why the Philippines was in bad shape and why it was being economically dwarfed by other Southeast Asian neighbors, the colonel painted a picture of a society out of control, a society where disorder and poverty was the norm. The colonel in his infinite wisdom said the reason so many Filipinos were poor was because “they lacked discipline.” It was as facile a projection as you could get about Filipinos. Hearing it made my stomach churn with indignation and contempt for this military man who knew next to nothing about the people he had sworn to defend.

Back in the day when Lee Kuan Yew’s words were gospel with many policymakers and when the Philippines could not seem to gain its socio-economic long-term footing even under the more reformist Ramos administration, the idea that the lack of discipline was the root cause of the Filipino people’s indigence had long been in circulation before Singapore’s founding father imparted his authoritarian acumen on the Philippines. I heard many Filipinos themselves express the same sentiment about their fellow countrymen that prosperity would come to them if they could only regulate their behavior and attitudes. It never occurred to these Filipinos that there might be another, more external, more structural explanation as to why their country was an economic straggler.

Lee’s pretext of discipline over democracy worked well for Singapore but is thought to be too out of touch with public values in the Philippines. Filipinos are inevitably drawn back to the sugar-coated optimism of having Western-style democratic foundations. Even with features that still require firming up, liberal democracy is a familiar point of origin for Filipinos. Slouching towards an authoritarian system will fail to reconcile Filipinos’ democratic compulsions with any definition of socio-political “discipline”. If anything, Filipinos have and will continue to resist any permanent plans for anything resembling authoritarian rule.

The tension between discipline (order) and democracy is ultimately a false one in the Philippine context. It is a false dichotomy that has played a central role in the governance of the nation. For decades, the Philippine economic and political elite have envisioned a society that in every last thing order and normality were the rules, rules that fortified their vested, monopolistic interests and which paid lip service to merit and justice. Any democratic and class struggle comers have had to rise against these powerful interests in order to begin to build a fairer and more inclusive state and society.

It is a delicate question as to whether Philippine democracy is a masquerade or the genuine article in practice. We can say that ironically, important democratic principles have been disengaged in the very historical process of implementing Philippine democracy. Democracy’s permanence in the Philippines, with all its ups and downs and its being exploited and manipulated, is open to doubt to the brink of fear and suspicion.

The absence of democracy is something Filipinos vitally learned during the Marcos years. Lee Kuan Yew’s suggestion that discipline would solve the Philippines’ problems and that Filipinos on all sides should stay away from continuing to roll the dice of democracy is a perception of difference, a perception of difference that doesn’t suit the Philippines at all.


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