The relationship between democracy and development has always been controversial. While some believe autocracies are better able to marshal the resources necessary to promote and enhance development, others find democracy as one of the main pre-conditions of development. Particularly since the end of the Second World War, many of the national leaders have acknowledged the importance of democracy, establishing a democratic system of government in their countries. However, despite the fact today the concept of a ‘democracy’ is a common phenomenon in both national level and international politics; it still lacks a commonly accepted definition. As former US president Abraham Lincoln defines, democracy is “government of people, by the people, for the people”. Democracy highlights the importance of citizenship participation, electoral participation and civil liberties. As far as present day world politics is concerned, it is evident that democracies do perform better in terms of economic development than many of the autocratic regimes.

However, while, democracy and development are complementary but it is also important to keep in mind that democracy does not automatically guarantee or lead to economic development. As far as South Asia is concerned, political systems in the region have produced many forms of government; democratic, socialist, military and monarchical. Nonetheless, at present each South Asian country has acknowledged the importance of democracy in one form or another. However, despite the fact all South Asian countries have understood the importance of adhering to democratic practices; the question is often raised whether any of these countries follow democracy in its true sense. Having elections every five or six years, does not guarantee democracy when the judiciary is not independent, rule of law is discarded and human and political rights are not respected. Today, corruption, intolerance and ineffective political institutions have become accepted norms in most of the South Asian countries. For example, in the Corruption Perception Index 2015, India was ranked 76, followed by Sri Lanka (83), Pakistan (117), Nepal (130), Bangladesh (139) with Afghanistan trailing at 166. Furthermore, in the 2016 index of Economic Freedom which takes into account factors like rule of law, limited government, regulatory efficiency, and open markets, Sri Lanka has occupied the 93rd spot followed by Bhutan (97), India (123), Pakistan (126), Bangladesh (127) and Maldives (132). For India, considered as the largest democracy in the world, these numbers reflect a certain disparity.

Meanwhile, as South Asia strives to come to terms with democratic best practices,  Singapore which was under the authoritative leadership of Lee Kwan Yew has shown greater level of transparency and accountability, political stability, economic freedom etc. In the Rule of Law Index 2015, when Sri Lanka is ranked 58 followed by India (59), Bangladesh (93) and Pakistan (98), Singapore occupied the 9th spot. Lee Kwan Yew is often identified as a leader who gave little importance to free media, opinion polls and popularity polls. In his memoir “The Singapore Story – memoirs of Lee kuan Yew”(1998), Lee Kwan states; “I have never been over concerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader. Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli is right. If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless”. Despite the fact Lee Kwan Yew was often criticized for his tight policies on media and freedom of speech, Singapore has emerged as one of the prosperous countries in the world. As far as the numbers are concerned the unemployment rate in Singapore is just 2% while 90% of Singaporeans own their own homes, most of which are government built. Furthermore, in Singapore, crime levels are almost the lowest in the world and it is one of the least corrupt nations. Though it is not without it its flaws, it is also important to note that this tiny state once served as a model for China. Considering all this, where has South Asia gone wrong? Where has it failed? Should the South Asian nations emulate Singapore, as so often suggested, or should they formulate their own strategies for effectively discharging democratic practices?

by Hashan Wijesinghe (Intern, RCSS)