Development vs democracy | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 30, 2015 / LAST MODIFIED: 11:56 PM, April 13, 2015


Development vs democracy

THE Western media was all about Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore, when he died recently. How he had transformed a third world country into a first world nation within only three decades is simply astounding. World leaders were openly laudatory in recognising his contribution towards the economic ascension of the country. An underdeveloped small city state without any natural resources making it to one of the fastest growing economies within such a short period is unprecedented indeed.

According to Word Bank's ease of doing business index, Singapore ranked number one among 189 countries in 2014, indicating that 'the regulatory environment is more conducive to the starting and operation of a local firm.' In the Global Competitiveness Index (GCI) of World Economic Forum, Singapore ranks second in 2014-15 among 144 countries. With a per capita income of $55,182 (World Bank 2013) Singapore is richer than the UK and the USA. 

Compare these figures against those of Bangladesh. In terms of GCI Bangladesh ranked 109 in 2014-15 and with regard to the ease of doing business index, Bangladesh ranked 173. Per capita income in 2013 was $957 (World Bank 2013). In the sixties, many of the economic indicators of Bangladesh and Singapore were similar!

This write-up, however, is not about the success or failure of Singapore. This is also not to compare Bangladesh's economy with that of Singapore. Any reader would be flooded with materials on this 'Asian Tiger' which contributed to the 'East Asian Miracle.' This article is merely to shed some light on the discussion that has resurfaced following the death of the great Singaporean leader and to extrapolate it to our own context. 

Since its independence, Bangladesh's political and economic journey has been interrupted time and again by instability and violence. The renewed transition of a democratic political system in 1991, after a prolonged period of autocratic rule, through parliamentary elections could not change the political culture. The two major parties have been taking turns in running the government by being elected through popular votes, but could not rise to the expectations of the people. The party in power would tend to exercise control and squeeze the space of the political opposition in conducting their democratic activities. The opposition parties, on the other hand, prefer to pursue their demands through street agitation and carry out movement against the government in power through unruly demonstrations. Thus engagement in constructive policy debates in the parliament by the political parties has been only occasional and less than fruitful. The worst manifestation of such political practice is being observed at present when the opposition party is determined to oust the government through strikes and violence while the government sticks to its promise of completing its full tenure.

Disturbed and disgusted by the unhealthy political culture of our country many often discuss the idea of resorting to a system which will allow smooth functioning of day-to-day activities, which will let our children go to schools and our family members to work and return home safely, which will give some predictability to our lives. Frustrated by the failure of the unsuccessful democratic process that we have been destined to suffer for the last several years, we often cite examples of Lee's Singapore or Mahathir's Malaysia or even of China. Such desire is more pronounced by the private and corporate sectors and at times even by political leaders, and is based on the premise that confrontational politics has been hampering developmental efforts of the country in a major way. 

More often than not we tend to forget the other side of the growth story of some of these Asian neighbours. While Singapore had prospered phenomenally under Mr. Lee, dissenting views were not tolerated. The rule of Lee Kuan is compared with that of an autocrat who would intimidate any opposition in his way. While we eulogise the achievements of Singapore, we must not lose sight of the suppression faced by its people. On the positive side, the modus operandi of the Lee government had been very efficient and honest. It was also small in size. Corruption-free administration, absence of red tape and tax benefits all have facilitated foreign investment and trade. Mr. Lee made no compromise in keeping Singapore a disciplined country as he wanted it to thrive on prosperity. And in the end he became successful in putting in a sui generis political system that brought riches for its people.

The term 'benevolent dictatorship' is probably more suitable in Mr. Lee's case rather than those who in recent times try to follow suit but get mixed up with making personal gains and social benefits. In the case of Bangladesh, benevolence is up in the air as political power has almost become synonymous with corruption during all regimes. The circle of beneficiaries created around the political power is large and strong. Conti-nuation of dysfunctional democracy with little or no accountability and transparency will continue to benefit them the most. 

Some also feebly try to float the idea of new leadership to rule the country in a dictatorial manner to have political stability that would in turn stimulate economic growth. They wouldn't mind less freedom in exchange of stability and growth. Ironically, the journey of dictators all over the world indicates that they start benevolently but gradually become all- encompassing, taking away basic civil and political rights. We have also experienced this in our own land. Development-friendly political stability in the twenty first century ought to be different from what has been experienced in the past. Freedom through free and fair democracy is a defining component of a long lasting development process. Nobel Laureate Economist Professor Amartya Sen, in his famous book 'Development as Freedom,' argued how “freedoms are not only the primary ends of development, they are also among its principal means.” High growth without freedom and democracy in the present day context is neither feasible nor sustainable. One cannot be asked to choose between development and democracy. They are integral to each other.

The writer is Research Director at CPD, currently a Visiting Scholar at the Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York.

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