Chapter 5: Political Accountability and Human Rights in Singapore
Garry Rodan1 In the 1990s, Singapore’s political and diplomatic leaders were at the fore of the ideological construction of political and social institutions in Asia as having a cultural basis (Emmerson, 1995). The Singapore School’s core thesis was that cultural values in Asia rendered expectations and prescriptions of liberal democracy throughout the region both unfeasible and undesirable. Ideas of universal human rights and wider notions of civil and political rights were invariably interpreted through an East-West cultural dichotomy. Yet the Asian values thesis appealed to a wide range of actors in the East and West whose ideological, commercial and political interests were not founded on democratic institutions, and may even have been threatened by them (Robison, 1996; Rodan, 1996). Not coincidentally, this new Asian values push surfaced after the collapse of authoritarian regimes in Taiwan and South Korea. Singapore’s leaders were especially keen to repudiate the popular idea that, ultimately, advanced capitalism and political pluralism were irrepressibly linked. Yet strident claims about Asian values as being functionally superior to ‘Western liberal democracy’, providing the foundations of social stability and the world’s most remarkable economic growth, invited an equally strident backlash with the advent of the 1997–98 Asian financial crisis. The ‘Asian model, R.I.P.’ article title in London’s Financial Times on 4 December 1997 suitably illustrated this (Brittan, 1997). The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) former Prime Minister and current Minister Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew, even sought to distance himself from the concept of Asian values, concerned now to distinguish...
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