Advice from Singapore

Advice from Singapore

This past week, Singapore's Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong gave an on-the-record address at the Washington office of the Council on Foreign Relations.

This past week, Singapore's Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong gave an on-the-record address at the Washington office of the Council on Foreign Relations.  While he directly addressed the war on terror in the aftermath of Madrid, a number of his comments also pertain to the ongoing situation in Iraq.

I'd like to note several points, in passing, from his remarks.

The first was his call for "absolute and unsentimental clarity about the threat we face." This is a point that needs to be constantly stressed in America, where politicians are more apt to find the facts that support their own prejudices rather than honestly assess the situation as it actually exists on the ground. One of the problems we face in the continuing debate over Iraq policy--as well as other contentious issues in foreign policy--is to substitute advocacy for analysis.

The second was a reminder that the various "fronts" in the war against terror are part of a single struggle. In the immediate months after 9/11, there was a general recognition that groups like Al-Qaeda sought to "internationalize" various regional struggles and that, no matter the justice of any particular cause, nothing could justify acts of terrorism.

In more recent months, there has been a tendency to return to a theory of "exceptionalism"--that only when certain targets are hit (usually American interests or attacks that have the result of damaging U.S. interests, such as the bombings in Madrid) is the culprit really "international terrorism." Otherwise, "terrorism" is downgraded to "separatism" or "political violence."  Arguing against such a stance, the prime minister quoted an Algerian, Abu Ibrahim Mustafa, who declared: "The war in Palestine, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Algeria, in Chechnya and in the Philippines is one war."

But what I found of especial interest is the question as to whether Singapore can provide a real model for progress and development in the Arab world. Singapore, of course, still receives a great deal of criticism from Western circles due to its system of managed pluralism.  (Managed pluralism refers to a system where the number and type of social, economic or political options is consciously regulated by a central authority, with an eye to preserving stability or political consensus.) Yet, in responding to such critics, the prime minister noted Singapore's record of delivering peace and prosperity to its citizens in what is, geopolitically speaking, a rough neighborhood.  And here the prime minister weighed in on the ongoing debate on how to transform the "Greater Middle East" very clearly on the side of those who promote incremental, evolutionary change based on viable and sustainable institutions.

Here are his remarks in detail, which bear close study by those who continue to insist that elections are the sine qua non of democratic development.

"I found the Middle Eastern countries I recently visited … eager to build modern economies. … Education, development, opportunities for employment and career development are not only what most Muslims themselves want. They are also less sensitive areas than democracy, human rights or equality for women and can be pushed more vigorously with less prospect of resistance. Education, including education for women, and better employment opportunities which bring about a higher standard of living are areas in which mainstream Muslims and the West have clear common interests. With education will come greater access to news and information and knowledge beyond their borders.  Social and political changes will take time, but progress will be unstoppable."

Truly, a generational approach--one based on incremental steps forward--something not unlike the approach proposed by Amitai Etzioni and discussed in this column last week. (

He concluded, "a gradual approach is more likely to succeed and take root than a 'big bang' strategy which could have unpredictable and unwelcome results." (A point, by the way, made in these pages more than a year ago, in the column, "A Misplaced Faith? Arab Democracy and American Security, at )

As I so often note in this space, we do not live in an ideal world, and our policy must be guided by the "morality of results" rather than the "morality of intentions." In ten years, would we prefer Iraq to look like Zimbabwe or like Singapore? Let's not forget that Zimbabwe began life with a great deal of optimism, and it was believed that it would serve as a beacon of democracy in southern Africa.

Several weeks ago, I posed the question, "in the absence of such a major and sustained effort by the outside world in many of the developing democracies, is managed pluralism not a preferable solution to advancing the long-term goal of creating and maintaining a stable democracy?"

And should this not be something to consider for the Middle East? Vibrant, secular pluralist democracies are not created ex nihilio. Isn't exporting Singapore's model to the region a more realistic and achievable policy?  In response to a question I posed on these lines, the prime minister noted that the U.S. should stress education and investment rather than elections as a strategy for the Middle East. Democracy will come about in the Middle East, he said, with the right conditions.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.