The Lessons Singaporeans Can Learn From Armenia
A few days ago I and Reform Party CEC members Mahaboob Batscha and Noraini Yunus returned from a trip to Armenia where we were the guests of the PAP, only this time, as though in a parallel universe, it was the Prosperous Armenia Party, not the PAP that has ruled over us for the last sixty years. Like our PAP the Prosperous Armenia Party is very much a one strong man vehicle, controlled by Armenian billionaire and oligarch Gagik Tsarukyan, head of the Multi Grand group of companies.
We were part of a delegation of Singaporean political parties, purportedly legal and financial experts, attending: A Conference on Good Governance and Leadership-the Singapore Experience. Accompanying us were eight members of WP including three MPs (Sylvia Lim, Pritam Singh, and Faisal Manap) as well as two members from SPP (Lina Chiam and Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss), the architect Tay Kheng Soon and PAP grassroots adviser and lecturer Michael Heng.
If you were wondering what Singapore has to teach anyone about good governance then you would not be alone. I was also wondering how Singapore could be chosen as a model when the same family has ruled Singapore for almost sixty years. The current PM has had no other job than working for his dad and appointed his wife to run Temasek (on a salary which remains a state secret) while his son works directly under him as a Director of the Government Technology Agency, which comes under the Prime Minister’s Office. Singapore is to Good Governance what the West is to Civilisation, to paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi (it would be a good idea!).
On the other hand Armenia has shown recently that its people are well ahead of Singaporeans when it comes to understanding and asserting their rights. In April and May this year Armenians took to the streets in enormous numbers (for a population of only 3 million) to stop their President, Sergh Sagsyan, who had been their leader since 2008, from staying in power after he had already served the constitutional limit of two terms. He planned to do this by manipulating the system and transforming Armenia’s Presidential system into a Parliamentary one, which would allow him to stay in power as PM and head of the largest party, the Republicans. Sagsyan was copying what Putin did when he stepped down in 2008 and handed the Presidency to his subordinate, Medvedev, for a term, taking the role of PM, before standing again in 2012. In fact Sagsyan went beyond Putin who did not change the Constitution. For a parallel closer to home think of PM to Senior Minister to Minister Mentor to Emeritus.
What happened next is an illustration of how it is possible for things to change overnight despite an entrenched authoritarian regime that is backed by repressive laws and even holds a large legislative majority that gives the appearance of popular legitimacy.
A relatively minor but radical young politician and former journalist called Pashinyan, who had been sued previously for defamation and was later sentenced to seven years in prison (of which he served just over a year) for leading a protest in 2008 (which resulted in a police crackdown and the deaths of ten demonstrators) led a march from the second city to the capital Yerevan. Pashinyan deliberately referenced Gandhi’s Salt March in 1930 to protest against British rule and taxation in India. Gandhi started with 78 volunteers though thousands more joined him on the 24 day march. Likewise Pashinyan started his march with 17 followers but was joined by hundreds and thousands along the 200 km journey. These followers and protests were spontansous and not organised centrally or by unions or any particular party. People especially students just came out on the streets. In one area students brought the city to a standstill by constantly crossing a zebra crossing while other brave students lay down in between metro doors and so on.
Pashinyan reached Yerevan on 13 April but was unable to stop the election of Sargsyan as Prime Minister going ahead on 17 April. Pashinyan then called for a “non-violent, velvet, popular revolution”. After a 3 minute meeting with Sagsyan, Pashinyan was arrested. At this the people flooded in and by the same evening 100,000 people had gathered in and around Republic Square and they refused to move. The next day Pashinyan was released together with 2 MPs from his party who had been arrested and the PM resigned.
That’s it. A velvet, bloodless coup. Sargsyan had won the election yet he resigned within days at seeing the number of ordinary people protesting. Over the next few days protesters kept up the pressure on the Republican Party Government by blocking roads to the airport and the country’s main transport artery to Georgia. The Prosperous Armenia Party (our hosts) switched sides and joined Pashinyan.
All polls pointed to the fact that he enjoyed almost universal popular support and that if elections were held now he would win a huge majority. Pashinyan has been compared with Emmanuel Macron, the French President, whose new party won a huge majority in the French Assembly after he was elected President. Macron however did not have to fight against an authoritarian regime and go to jail.
It also illustrates how change can happen when instead of lying down and meekly accepting the perversion of the Constitution to entrench a leader, as Singaporeans have done time and again, the people refuse and protest. But what brought the Armenians, and especially the young, out on the streets in such numbers that the Government had to capitulate whereas previously they had succeeded in crushing protests?
Well I was surprised on the streets to see young people going up to policemen and asking for wefies. Because in the end the police refused to implement the Government’s orders to arrest the protesters, they have become heroes.
Despite enormous differences in strategic location, geopolitical situation and legacy capital stock as well as GDP per capita, Armenia and Singapore share certain characteristics. While Singapore could hardly have failed to succeed in the spectacular boom in world trade and globalisation that took place, given its location at the crossroads of much of world trade and in particular oil, Armenia is a landlocked nation not on any main trade route.
Armenia has borders with historic enemy Turkey (which is responsible for the deaths of as many 1.5 million Armenians during WWI and its aftermath) and is in a semi-hot war with Azerbaijan (which benefits from control of most of the region’s oil) over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. It also borders Iran and its main trading partner Russia, both of whom are subject to severe sanctions by the US and EU. Russia guarantees its security but in return Armenia is more or less a vassal state, allowing Russia to have a military base on its territory and integrating its economy with Russia in the Eurasian Economic Union. Its other border is with Georgia which Russia invaded previously and occupies a large part of its territory. Because of these Armenia missed out on the opportunity to become a hub for the Caspian Sea pipelines a few years ago.
Armenia’s Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) GDP per capita is only about one-eighth the size of Singapore’s but Armenia is about forty times bigger in area and only about 60% urbanised compared to 100% for Singapore. Armenia also has an informal economy (a euphemism for non-tax paying or criminal) that is estimated to be about 35% of GDP which would reduce the gap significantly. Singapore’s GDP per capita is in any case highly exaggerated by foreign workers who make up 40% of the workforce and who do not have any dependents as well as a lot of tax-driven booking of sales and intellectual property earnings in Singapore by US MNCs that is less attractive now after the Trump tax reforms. So the real difference in living standards might be less than half what the relative GDP per capita levels suggest.
Certainly we found a modern city centre with all the usual brand names, international hotels and restaurants, trendy cafes, clean water, wifi hot spots throughout and good roads to the main tourist sites.
Until the Velvet Revolution, both Singapore and Armenia shared authoritarian regimes though Armenia had much more media freedom and greater rights and willingness of the citizens to protest. A recurring theme of the protests was the control of the economy by oligarchs, income inequality and government corruption. While the PAP directly or through the Government controls or owns most of the Singapore economy, the part that it does not control is owned by a few home-grown oligarchs, like the Ng brothers and the Kweks. Most of our billionaires’ wealth comes from property and since the Government owns between 80-90% of the land you would have to be on good terms with the PAP to be allowed to keep that wealth. While there is little low-level corruption in Singapore (though to be fair there did not seem to be much in Armenia), we have no idea of the assets of Singapore’s ruling family or where or how their wealth is invested. Employing his wife as head of Temasek on an undisclosed remuneration (and his son in the PMO) while he is Chairman of GIC would be hugely corrupt by Western standards and gives our PM more dynastic power than the previous Armenian leader enjoyed or Najib.
In another uncanny echo of Singapore the activists complained of the corruption of Armenia’s judiciary, which functioned as an arm of the executive just as in Soviet days. Despite the veneer of British rule of law, the truth is that our judiciary sees its role as the same as that in Communist China, to “green-light” the Executive, as the judges said when they dismissed my attempt to force the Government to get Parliamentary approval for its IMF loan guarantee. Citizens will not be allowed to hold their Government accountable in the courts. A key demand of the Armenian activists is reform of the judiciary.
It is unlikely that Armenia can learn many lessons from Singapore’s growth, given the huge differences and disadvantages in terms of location that it suffers from (though it is already ahead on some measures of schooling and tertiary education and has literacy levels the equal or better than Singapore’s). The activists were clearly excited and hopeful that the fear that held people back will now be gone. As everyone knows, Singaporeans are paralysed with fear of the Government and what will happen to their rice bowl if they express a dissenting opinion.
Gagik Tsarukyan is very fond of lions and tigers. Below is a photo o f a tiger in the garden of his home. We used to have a lion here. The lion of Anson. It is certain that we can learn from the Armenians’ bravery in standing up for their rights and how quickly, peacefully and almost deceptively simply the balance tipped in their favour when they did. I am reminded of Zunar who joked that one week he was on a travel ban and Rosmah was jetting around the world and the next week she was on a travel ban and he was jetting around the world. Change is that quick. If we could find ourselves a leader mentor and hero like Pashinyan to unite our various groups we can have our own Velvet Revolution!
Fascinating piece Kenneth. I visited Armenia a few years ago so was interested in your comparisons with Singapore.
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