The following is the text of a Speech the secretary-general of the Reform Party, Kenneth Jeyaretnam, delivered at the International Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP).
First I would like to thank the organisers, the Chairman Jose Venezia, the Co-Chairman and Secretary General Chung Eui-yung as well as our UMNO hosts for inviting the Reform Party of Singapore to the 9th General Assembly of the ICAPP.
This is a meaningful opportunity for us to engage in a free exchange of views with representatives of political parties from all over Asia
On arrival here I noticed a protest outside by representatives of Sri Lankan Tamils demanding accountability for their disappeared and war crimes during the genocide. Some ICAPP delegates were later complaining a little about the noise but if there is one experience I would like to share from Singapore it is that we in Asia should not to be worried by a little noise.
In fact we must embrace it, as an example of democracy in practice. Yes it was a minor nuisance but as a Singaporean I was astonished to witness first-hand the freedom of expression and understanding of democracy enjoyed here in Malaysia. Public protests as you probably know, no matter how peaceful, are illegal in Singapore.
Which makes it slightly depressing to find the standard response from ICAPP delegates on learning where we are from is to express admiration for Singapore and a desire to emulate us. While as a Singaporean I am justifiably proud of our achievements what I would like to do today is to warn Asia of the dangers of emulating the so called Singapore model.
The popularity of the model is based on some false assumptions. Singapore did not become a prosperous nation because a despotic leader took away our freedom and exchanged it for prosperity. Much of the growth would have happened anyway, given our unique strategic location controlling the Straits of Malacca and the growth in world trade since the 1960s. Actually in the 1920s Singapore was already the richest city in Asia.
Nor is the ordinary Singaporean of today markedly better off. Than his neighbours. A UBS survey of wages and living standards found that the purchasing power of the median wage in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur was about the same.
Yet you wish to emulate Singapore because you feel freedom is a small price to pay for rapid economic development. Even more dangerously there are nations who think that supressing freedom will actually create prosperity.
If there is a causal link then it is the other way around. The building blocks of prosperity are a commitment to upholding rights, democratic norms, a free media free and fair elections. I even heard the Indonesian delegate the Hon Andreas Pareira from PDI-P say in his speech yesterday that Indonesia has transitioned from dictatorship to democracy and economic growth has not suffered.
I must warn you that once you surrender a freedom it is almost impossible to get it back.
We have heard much talk over the last two days of the Century of Asia and the Asian powerhouse. Of course economic growth is a priority in Asia and without doubt Asia will have the largest share of global GDP by virtue of the sheer numbers of people. What matters is the quality of that growth, finding new avenues as markets become saturated and whether we can succeed in raising a majority of the people out of poverty and into middle-income status.
There has also been encouraging consensus on the challenges we face together as a region. Growth without destroying the environment, The rights of women and minorities, the protection of children, human trafficking and of course the struggle against rising extremism.
Whilst we all agree that terrorism is our biggest problem we must not allow that threat to be used by authoritarian leaders to entrench themselves in power at the expense of their people. Asia needs to reach a consensus that oppressing liberty is not the solution to the terror threat and in the face of this challenge we must not throw out rule of law and do away with democratic norms. Without these norms we are likely to become a more unstable society where extremism takes hold more rapidly as happened in Syria. Our best defence against extremism is genuine democracy.
So in conclusion I would urge you all to think very carefully before you emulate Singapore and decide to travel down the authoritarian road. Instead of exchanging prosperity for freedom, you will find yourself ending up with neither.
However if we exchange authoritarianism for democracy we could all end up with both.
Republished from the Reform Party.