People's Action Party general election rally by elfgoh. Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved. From Thomas Jefferson to John Dewey, the major western political thinkers have always emphasised the relevance of education for a well-functioning democracy. But little has been said on whether education, in particular, the western education system, can lead people to strive for democracy.
In relation to this question, 'Back to the future: the rebirth of a classical approach to democracy and education in a post-modern society' claims that a desire for a say in the decision-making process is the ultimate result of a sound western education, and that the political scenario both in Singapore and China confirm this hypothesis.
According to Francesco Grillo & co, over the years, Singapore and China have increasingly embraced a western education system.
According to Francesco Grillo & co, over the years, Singapore and China have increasingly embraced a western education system. If many young people have decided to undertake university studies in prestigious western institutions, the local education systems in these countries have implemented western education standards, especially at the university level. And it is due to their citizens’ increasing exposure to western education values, according to Grillo & Co, that Singapore and China “are now both confronting a growing demand from citizens to have a say in public decision-making”.
Grillo & co’s claim may lead those with some experience of the sociopolitical situation of these countries to raise an eyebrow. After all, are there clear signs that exposure to a western education system is changing both the Singaporeans’ and the Chinese’s mindset? And are there really tensions surrounding democracy and citizenship in both countries?
The presence of Asian students in the west is not a new trend. Ever since their colonisation or encounter with western culture, many Asian countries have sent their pupils to be educated in the west. As a matter of fact, all the prime ministers of Singapore have studied either in the UK or the USA (and even Kim Jong-Un, the infamous North Korean dictator, attended a Swiss boarding school). So the attendance of Asian students in Western education institutions is not a new phenomenon, but perhaps the strengthening of an old trend.
However, the consolidation of this trend over the past few years might spell new consequences for Asian societies. As Grillo & co seem to suggest, the more Chinese and Singaporean students that receive a western education, the more they may be sympathetic with western political values and therefore resent their own countries’ political system. Under these conditions, it is reasonable to think that more Singaporean or Chinese students would decide to remain overseas to live in a political society which better reflects their own political values.
In recent years, between 70% and 80% of outbound students have returned to China after their studies abroad (the so-called “sea turtles" phenomenon).
But data seems to contradict this hypothesis. In recent years, between 70% and 80% of outbound students have returned to China after their studies abroad (the so-called “sea turtles” phenomenon). And in 2015, for 97% of students, the average term of study overseas was just under two years. This data suggests that, despite their encounter with western values and societies, China remains a more appealing place of residence for the great majority of Chinese students.
Contrary to Grillo & co, it is also reasonable to assume that the so-called “sea turtles” may be those who are the least dissatisfied with the current state of affairs in their own country, given that their foreign degree gives them a strong advantage on the domestic job market.
In short, it is unlikely that the encounter with western education standards is significantly shaking the beliefs held by many young Chinese in non-western values, making them thirsty for democracy. This leads us to the second question: namely, are China and Singapore experiencing “a growing demand from citizens to have a say in public decision-making”?
Are China and Singapore experiencing “a growing demand from citizens to have a say in public decision-making”?
To focus on Singapore alone, it is clear that the results of the 2011 Singapore general election were a wake-up call for the government. On that occasion, the People Action Party (PAP − the ruling party) saw its public support drop by 6.46%, while the opposition gained 5 new seats in the parliament.
Grillo & co seem to interpret these events as citizens’ request for having more say in the decision-making process. But this does not explain how, in the 2015 general elections, the government’s public support increased by 9.72%, while the democratic institutions were left unchanged. And why under-30 voters, the part of the electorate more exposed to western education standards, voted in the 2015 general elections for the PAP in high numbers, higher than those of that age-group in 2011 (see Bridget Welsh, in Change in Voting). In other words, if the Singaporeans wanted more public participation in decision-making, why didn’t they fight for more representation?
One answer is that in the 2011 elections, Singaporeans manifested the desire for better political outcomes, rather than democracy. They wanted to be assured by the government that, notwithstanding its great efforts to attract capital and investments on the island and to keep the economy growing, the government addresses issues of popular concern, such as rising cost of living, healthcare affordability, retirement adequacy, immigration and public transport crunch. Put simply, the 2011 elections were a call for a more responsive government.
If the Singaporeans wanted more public participation in decision-making, why didn’t they fight for more representation?
Singapore’s government recognised the people’s concerns and showed significant resilience. It quickly engaged with the electorate on the issues of popular concerns and came up with meaningful policy changes in healthcare (such as the Pioneer Generation Package and MediShield Life), several property cooling measures, and solutions to improve public transportation. Of course, other problems are yet to be addressed: how Singapore can achieve inclusive economic growth and reduce social inequalities are two of the main concerns for the city-state. But, in Singapore's case, the recent fluctuation in votes is not a sign of an increasing “tension around democracy and citizenship”, but rather a quest for better political outcomes.
Although most Singaporeans are fairly well acquainted with western democratic systems, they have undertaken a different path: they put government performance before public participation. If western governments could learn from this city-state, their citizens would also have more trust in them.