Monday, February 22, 2010

Blurring state and party lines: Singapore and China

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Blurring state and party lines
Saturday February 20, 2010
By SEAH CHIANG NEE, The Star (Malaysia)

If China and Singapore can become twinned on the world state, they can promote a new global order that would blend authoritarianism and capitalism.

SOME of the brightest Chinese officials have been coming to study how the ruling party has achieved prosperity and won elections while retaining its one-party predominance.

Such study trips – which cover the economic, social and political areas – have been reported occasionally.

Some observers believe that Singapore’s politics, with its top-down system, may be of special interest to China’s Communist Party as it ponders over reform options.

The latest comment came from Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, who said that many groups, representing different levels of the Chinese government, had been coming in recent years to attend study courses.

On one visit – according to Lee – they showed interest in how his People’s Action Party (PAP), with a small suburban office, could reach out to its crowded heartland electorate.

The answer they got would have given them a lesson on how the PPP can benefit from its incumbent power by blurring the line separating state from party.

In his outspoken way, Lee admitted that all grassroots organisations (with nearly 30,000 community workers) which interact and organise activities in the estates were actually part of his party.

It is used by the PAP to foster bonds with Singaporeans.

Since they are publicly-funded and overseen by the People’s Association, a government statutory board under the Ministry of Community Development, the community workers are supposed to be non-partisans.

“... Everywhere they (the Chinese) go, they see the PAP – in the RCs (residents’ committees), CCCs (citizens’ consultative committees), and the CCs (community clubs),” Lee beamed.

The confirmation that these are part of the PAP could become an embarrassment to his younger ministers as the message sinks in.

It may also come as a surprise to some of the grassroots volunteers who thought they were non-partisans working for their community.

(Already the party recently announced it had difficulty recruiting enough volunteers, and grassroots bodies were some 35% understrength.)

The critics don’t faze the architect of the scheme. Lee once said: “I make no apologies that the PAP is the (Singapore) government and the government is the PAP.”

His remarks moved an online analyst to comment: “No wonder the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is so interested to learn from Singapore.”

The furore shows how much Singaporeans have changed over a generation.

In the 60s, when Lee was using these tax-funded grassroots organisations to combat pro-communists and racial extremists, it seemed natural and few people complained.

But with many of today’s better-educated youths, the idea of the PAP using tax money against the opposition in a democracy has become unacceptable.

If the Chinese visitors had probed further, they would have found that control of grassroots is merely one of an arsenal of weapons the PAP has to hold on to power.

“If they did, the Chinese might be surprised by the reach of some of the PAP’s tentacles in the city,” a small businessman said.

Over 50 years, it has built a whole network of top-level people to run the civil service, trade unions, the press, police, armed forces and state-linked corporations that control much of Singapore’s economy.

The sheer number of people working for them – or associated with them – is large enough to make the party hard to defeat in an election.

Even if an opposition party – or coalition – were to win enough seats to form the government, it may find itself shackled on the implementation level with such extensive PAP influence in state and community machinery.

Keeping all these personnel could reduce the chances of smooth government functioning, at least for awhile, and quickly replacing a large number of them would be impossible.

The city is too small to allow for such a massive replacement of experienced people. All these do not make the PAP undefeatable and irreplaceable, but they render the task extremely difficult.

These “controlling” factors have led political analysts to regard Singapore as a role model for China to emulate, should it decide one day to introduce some form of democracy, without losing power.

“Singapore has shown that its system, although criticised by the West, can preserve harmony and economic growth while giving people the vote,” said a PAP supporter.

The relevance of Singapore’s political system to China still crops up occasionally.

Most commentators say it is impractical given the vast disparity in size.

One Chinese blogger wrote: “With all due respect to Singapore, I just don’t want to compare China and Singapore. You can compare Singapore (population: 5 million) and Shanghai (16 million), or Hong Kong (7 million).”

Wang Jian Shuo added: “Politi-cally, to rule a city of several million is, of course, very different (from) ruling a bigger country (which) actually needs more wisdom in the political system.

“For example, I don’t want someone in Beijing to make decisions for me about what my children should believe. So, there is a huge difference here between Singapore and China.”

Singapore’s top writer, Catherine Lim, however, looks at the equation from another angle.

At a university forum, she spoke of the emergence of a new breed of young, sophisticated Singaporeans wanting political freedom and forcing the PAP leaders to deal with their demands.

“Not if China comes to their rescue,” Lim said.

The outspoken author was referring to a possible 2030 scenario when China’s power rises, while the United States declines and is unable to offer an ideological alternative.

Thus, she said, if China and Singapore could blend authoritarianism and capitalism and become twinned on the world stage, “the Lee Kuan Yew model of governance will have achieved an international acceptance that the PAP could never have dreamt of”.

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