The recent death of Singapore’ s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, brought to fore the question of whether countries need a fair amount of autocracy, a not-so-unseen iron hand, for it to be able to function effectively.
Decades ago, Singapore was far from where it is now. There were riots all over. The place had no apparent sustainable resources. But it had a resolute leader, Mr. Lee.
Over the next few decades, Singapore worked its way from the bottom to the top of the Asean economic hierarchy. It is now a model of prosperity and discipline. Mr. Lee turned over the reins of government to a successor he had groomed for years, and eventually to his own son even as he himself remained an engaged adviser to his nation‘s affairs.
By contrast, the Philippines after the Marcos era has had a succession of leaders, all elected democratically. From 1986 onwards, freedom became a buzzword such that we have taken to saying it is our nation’s most cherished possession. We have been starved for freedom such that we are fiercely protective of it. Any attempts to subvert that freedom—changing the Constitution to prolong officials’ terms, suppression of free speech—are immediately called out and protested.
The result is that after many years, and despite our great potential, the Philippines has been unable to take off in the manner we think we deserve to. After many decades, the same ills haunt us: gaping inequality, corruption, personality politics, patronage, limited jobs, alarming crime rates.
Some people have said that this is because we enjoy too much freedom.
To be able to achieve economic development, equality and peace and order, must people be ruled by somebody with an authoritarian streak? Filipinos have often been characterized as “pasaway”—always breaking rules, trying to see if they can get away with the slightest things (“makakalusot”) or can sweet-talk their way out of trouble (“baka pwede naman pag-usapan”).
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Another tradeoff that must be suffered: relative progress under the rule of local leaders perceived to be corrupt. Some people have said they would be willing to tolerate a little corruption so long as they could see that their local executives are doing something for the people—never mind that they may be doing something more for themselves.
This may be the reason that a particular politician, even a family, maintains its hold on an area. People perceive them to be championing the interests of the people, and even making taxpayers’ money work for them. Consider what is lost in corruption a small leak —the important thing is that there are results.
But is this necessarily better than an administration which botches attempts at governance, is perceived as incompetent, and yet arrogantly proclaims itself as treading a straight path?
What, then, do people get aside from the initial high from the knowledge of being led by “honest” leaders?
Sadly, we are constrained to think that this is a choice, that it has to be one or the other.
We can either choose freedom, which calls for hearing everybody out and respecting everybody’s rights, which could be counterproductive or even maddening.
The other option is leadership by a single person. It might be great if the person is able and knew when to step back; dangerous if he or she is somebody who becomes addicted to power and starts believing that the LGU or the country will no longer function under any other leader.
We are also forced to choose between the benevolent but corrupt leader and the incompetent or arrogant (or both), but supposedly honest politician. If you are a parent or grandparent wanting to leave behind a better life for your loved ones, what would you choose? Whom would you rather have?
This is what is happening now, but it does not mean that this is how things must be.
There must be some sweet spot between utter freedom and utter restriction of it, that would allow people to pick up after themselves, observe the golden rule, not take more than they need and genuinely contribute to the common good.
And there must be that kind of a leader who is both able, compassionate, honest and decisive all at the same time. Maybe we just have not heard of that leader yet. Or maybe we have—we just have not been paying attention.
It is difficult to be optimistic these days given what we are seeing. But it is not a choice, too, between just seeing the bad and being Polyanna. We can only move forward if we believe we can, but also if we reject flowery promises and demand real results.