Western-style democracy can run counter to good governance: Mahbubani

Economy July 24, 2014 00:00


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MERITOCRACY, pragmatism and honesty are the three core elements of success for governments of the future, and they are not necessarily hallmarks of Western-style democracy, said Professor Kishore Mahbubani, dean of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Publi

In his keynote address titled “The Government of the Future” at a Thailand Management Association (TMA) conference yesterday, he said the best-performing government was “the completely non-democratic society called China”.

On the other hand, social scientists have shown more failures than successes in democratic governments around the world over the past 25 years. A recent paper issued by Princeton University revealed remarkable data that showed decision-making by US policy makers served the special interests of lobbyists more than the interests of most citizens, he said.

“One of the biggest challenges for the US in governance issues is: In Asia, when you pay regulators to do you a favour, it is illegal. In the US, when you pay congressmen to do for you a favour, it is legal,” Mahbubani said.

Every country including Thailand has to find its own way to develop, taking into account its own history, culture and other contexts. The country can also look at the “consultation and consensus” model that Indonesia has used to become the most successful democratic government in the Islamic world.

“The lesson that Thailand has [learned] for the last five years is that political instability is bad for business. What Thailand clearly needs to do is to move toward stability. Thailand needs to develop consensus building in the areas [where] you have common interests,” he said.

Mahbubani said a lack of meritocracy was one reason the US and Europe are struggling with their democratic systems, since their most talented people are not participating in their own governments.

“They go to Asia. And this is the reason I am so optimistic for Asia in the future. The three most popular [populous] countries in Asia – China, India, Indonesia – simultaneously, they have strong and dynamic leaders.” He pointed specifically to China’s Xi Jinping, India’s Narendra Modi, and Indonesia’s newly elected president, Joko Widodo.

Stephane Garelli, professor of world competitiveness at IMD, a Swiss business school, told the TMA conference that winning nations had to meet 10 rules. First, they must provide a stable and predictable environment; second, have an efficient government; third, invest in infrastructure; fourth, develop pockets of competitiveness or clusters; fifth, foster domestic economy; sixth, support local small and medium-sized enterprises; seventh, strengthen the middle class; eighth, invest in knowledge; ninth, anticipate the future; and 10th, preserve cultural heritage.

As they strive for competitiveness, Garelli said the challenge was not in developing new ideas, but in how to “escape the old ones”. Moreover, leaders of competitive nations must stay in touch with their citizens, and not forget that their competitiveness efforts eventually have to be linked to an improvement of the living standards of their citizens.

“There are many solutions. Thailand has to find its own recipe. Competiti-veness is about finding your own recipe,” he said.