Singapore democracy is to serve Singaporeans, not to satisfy US criteria: former Singapore FM

Yeo: We need to distinguish between democracy as an end and democracy as a means to an end.

With the Summit for Democracy just round the corner, the temperature of the debate over “what is democracy” is heating up. China is a democracy by Abraham Lincoln’s definition, George Yeo (Yeo), former Singaporean minister of foreign affairs, told the Global Times in a previous interview. How does he view the upcoming summit on who’s in and who’s out? What is his comment on Singapore not being invited by the US? Yeo shared his insights with Global Times (GT) reporter Li Aixin.

GT: In your previous interview with the Global Times, you said, when Abraham Lincoln talked about democracy, he mentioned government of the people, by the people, for the people. “By this definition, China is a democracy.” By this definition, how would you describe the US?

Yeo: We need to distinguish between democracy as an end and democracy as a means to an end.

The meaning of democracy is derived from the Greek words “demos” (the people) and “kratos” (rule). Most countries today accept the ideal that the people as a whole (its citizens) should rule themselves, instead of being ruled by absolute monarchs or particular classes or families.

Abraham Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people” represents this ideal.

Both the US and China subscribe in theory to this ideal. In practice, every country falls short of the ideal. Democracy is therefore a struggle. It is never perfected. It can improve and it can slide back.

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Democracy as a means refers to the actual system of governance. In China, Chair Mao Zedong wrote a long treatise “On New Democracy” in January 1940. In it, he said that democracy in China should be based on China’s history, culture and actual conditions. I would describe democracy in China as “democracy with Chinese characteristics.”

Like many countries in Europe, democracy in the US has its roots in Republican Rome and Ancient Greece. Debate in the US Senate today bears a strong resemblance to debate in the Roman Senate over two thousand years ago. Of course US democracy faces problems today but this is nothing new. All Western democracies went through repeated periods of struggle.

Such Western democracy is usually described as Liberal Democracy marked by parliamentary practices of one kind or another. I do not believe that Liberal Democracy can work in China. Dr Sun Yat-sen modified Western Liberal Democracy after the 1911 Revolution. In addition to the three branches of government in Liberal Democracy, he added two more to reflect China’s tradition, the additional two branches being for Examinations and Inspection. Dr Sun’s Constitution for the Republic of China did not work in China.

I do not believe that Western Liberal Democracy can work well in many non-Western countries because they have different histories, cultures and actual conditions. They have to be adapted.

GT: Some observers think the upcoming Summit for Democracy is leaving the world an impression that democracy is more about taking sides in major power games rather than the pursuit of good governance, or the improvement of governance. What’s your take?

Yeo: The Summit should more properly be called Summit for Liberal Democracies. The invitation list was drawn up by the US in its sole judgment of which countries qualified. My immediate criticism is that the invitation list was not drawn up in a democratic manner.

The list is also problematic. For example, in the EU, Hungary was not invited. By so doing, the US put itself above the EU on how to judge Hungary.

In Asean, the US assessed that only Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines qualified. I don’t think how the US judges us affects the way Asean operates at all.

In South Asia, both India and Pakistan were invited, and the Maldives, but not the other countries. This reflects geopolitical calculation.

An unstated but important objective of the Summit is to reduce China’s moral standing in the world. All the invited countries have been morally elevated by the US above China. I doubt if the Summit alone will have a great impact. However, the organisation of the Summit is part of a multi-faceted campaign by the US to put China in a negative light. This is an information war for global public opinion which China has to fight. It is not a physical war but a battle for hearts and minds.

The invitation of Taiwan was part of the same campaign. On Taiwan, China had to take a firm stand against Tsai Ing-wen’s participation. This had nothing to do with democracy but everything to do with US involvement in cross-Straits relations. I notice that Taiwan “voluntarily” decided to be represented not by Tsai but by its leader of digital affairs and its representative in the US. This was clearly an issue carefully negotiated before the recent Xi-Biden summit or it would not have taken place.

GT: What is your comment on Singapore not being invited by the US to the Summit for Democracy?

Yeo: The current US Administration does not view Singapore as a Liberal Democracy and therefore did not invite Singapore to the Summit. I would describe Singapore’s democracy as Liberal Democracy with Singapore characteristics. It is adapted to Singapore’s conditions. When Western friends criticise Singapore for not being democratic, I remind them that my team lost to the opposition by a significant margin in the 2011 general Elections. I could no longer serve as a minister after that. Political candidates in Singapore also do not need much money for campaigning which is big issue in many Liberal Democracies.

Cooperation between the US and Singapore is based on mutual strategic interests. It is strong not because of shared democratic values but despite our political differences.

I don’t think Singapore leaders were surprised or disappointed that we were not invited to the Summit. The objective of Singapore democracy is to serve Singaporeans and not to satisfy US criteria.

GT: How do you view the evolution of American democracy? Is the democratic system still able to make up for the divisions of American society? And what is your biggest worry about American democracy?

Yeo: All Western liberal democracies go through periodic crises Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and others. The US is no different. It is going through a rough period now. The country has not been so badly divided since the Civil War 150 years ago.

American democracy derived its coherence from European immigration. Native Americans were slaughtered. African Americans were brought in as slaves. Notwithstanding, because of the civil rights movement and the democratic ideal in the country’s conception, voting was progressively widened to include women, African Americans and others. In recent years, non-White immigration has changed American demographics and politics profoundly. By the middle of the century, the white population will be a minority. The election of Barack Obama as US President in 2008 shocked the world. In Asia, few people believed it could ever happen. American democracy is a great human experiment which affects all of humanity.


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