Nepali Times
Guest Column
Be careful what you wish for



I never knew how famous my country was until I lived in Nepal for five months last year. Everyone, from a bespectacled high school principal to a battle-hardened Maoist guerrilla, seemed to have heard of the tiny island state known as Singapore. "Good economy, very clean," they all said approvingly. Some would even mention Lee Kuan Yew (whose party has ruled Singapore for 50 years and counting).

Friends later told me how turning Nepal into Singapore was a standard election slogan. Evidently such talk was a hit with the masses, and it certainly boosted the fame of a country only roughly the size of the Kathmandu Valley.
But a good economy and clean streets doesn't quite sum up the Singapore I know. As someone born and bred in this tropical nation, I feel compelled to tell Nepalis who want their country transformed into mine: be careful what you wish for.

Imagine a bunch of Singapore's brightest minds taking over Nepal from here on. Initially, things look good. An army of municipal workers cleans out rubbish and filth on the roads. A new fine on spitting and littering is imposed and enforced; many Nepalis get a ticket and grumble about it. But because everyone is so happy about the newly clean streets they accept it and move on.

Meanwhile, employment is rising as construction workers are employed in a massive infrastructure upgrading programme. Again, there is a general sense of optimism as jobs are created and people are working.

But soon, things start to get strange. For one, all worker unions are consolidated into one mega union, and this entity seems more interested in persuading workers to work for longer hours for the same wages than in organising the next strike. For good measure, strikes are outlawed altogether, and demonstrations are also banned.

No more taking to the streets with banners and effigies, no matter how legitimate your grievance is. The armed police force is on hand to deal with anyone who thinks this law is flexible. Yes, the men in camouflage blue actually start doing their job instead of redirecting traffic to facilitate protests. After all, Singapore is where police with batons and shields arrested four people staging a silent, stationary protest in 2005.

Newspapers thinking this is unfair criticise the Singaporean managers in editorials and reports. They are slapped with defamation lawsuits and several close down. A few editors are even arrested on the charge of inciting hatred against the government. Before you know it, licenses are required to publish newspapers, with full discretion of issuance with the communications ministry.

Of course, even in this imaginary world, the Singaporeans can't run the show forever, so Nepali leaders have to step up to the plate. People say Nepal needs a 'developmental dictator' and (in private, at least) Nepali politicians seem to agree. What they don't seem to realise is that the first part is infinitely more important than the second, and that all of them have shown very little interest in the former while displaying an aptitude for the latter.

Still, all that is in the past in the New Singaporean Nepal. No more populist talk from now on. Singaporean leaders are just about the only ones in the world who consistently promise higher taxes and still get elected. No more petty political squabbles either, but of course that's easy if one party completely dominates parliament, like the situation in my country.

Most Nepalis see the shiny skyscrapers, the glitz of a higher standard of living and the promise of a better life when they think of Singapore. It's undeniable that I have enjoyed all these as a Singaporean, but being a citizen here allows me to see the other side. No one talks about the sacrifices - the lack of civil rights, freedom of the press, multi-party democracy, to name a few - that went into the Singapore story.

Are Nepalis ready to make such sacrifices when it has become second nature to take to the streets? More importantly, are the politicians ready to discuss nation building instead of spending time jockeying for power? Something tells me everyone would just spit in disgust at how far-fetched a real Singaporean Nepal would be, with or without the anti-spitting fine.

1. divas
Nice piece... but look at what we are doing to our country. There is perhaps a middle path...I also firmly believe that the rich have their own "Singapore" within Nepal ie uninterrupted power supply and water, wine and dine like Singaporeans and get what they want.... it is the poor that suffers in this unending madness....they have nothing but to dream to go to Malaysia for a meagure salary of 10-15000 Rs which is not enough to live a decent living in Kathmandu.. Divas

2. jange
What I always keep saying, "Why take a perfectly good country and turn it into Singapore... or Switzerland...or...?

And don't complain about the water and electricity situation. We need everyone's help and participation to build the new constitution. Once that is sorted oot the rest will be a piece of cake.

Everyone should ask himself when he wakes up in the morning- " What can I do today to build the new constitution?"

3. Sarkar
Sacrificing civil rights for the development similar to that of Singapore??? Anyday!
Civil rights and human rights were coined by stupid do gooders in the West hell bent on conspiring against the rest of the world and project their delusional moral superiority. And these ideas were eagerly picked up by some sycophantic natives in the global south who could not excel in areas like science, technology and medicine so had to settle for these jobs, making their masters content while milking sweet foreign currencies from them.
Why would I protest anyway if I were living in Singapore, when you can trust your government to work for the welfare of its people?

4. Battisputali
"Civil rights and human rights were coined by stupid do gooders in the West hell bent on conspiring against the rest of the world and project their delusional moral superiority."

Yes! How dare John Locke conspire against the rest of the world with his ideas of natural rights! Who does Jefferson think of himself? That hypocrite! And Eleanor Roosevelt! That grand imperialist in the garb of a nice old woman! The dead white[and Black] people and their ideas are out to get us! :)

And for people who have a little time on their hands [Arthur?], this essay from Isaiah Berlin. I think it relates quite well to the topic here:

5. Well Wisher

Civil Liberty & freedom are important but isn't shelter, food and security more important than the above? I find it quite ridiculous the priority set by our leaders in the capital!

6. rishav
The Democratic level of a nation is dependent on many things but most importantly the poverty status. If you can't find food, drink water what real choices due you have in life. Democracy will just seem like something which benefits the rich and power hungry politicians to them. The Singaporeans seem to be affluent enough now to really exercise their democratic rights in progressing their society and nation. I can only wish Nepal could be in that situation to have that choice. 

7. save nepal
agree with sarkar!

8. Arthur
Singapore has developed economically and Singapore is an authoritarian state. This is true and it is interesting. It is interesting because it is so unusual.

Naturally authoritarians like to pretend that a "development dictator" is needed to become economically developed and give Singapore as an example. But there are many counter examples and Nepal is one of the best.

Both the Panchayatis and their old opponents are completely authoritarian and completely incapable of economic development. The only difference is that parties like Congress and the UMLs talk endlessly about democracy and human rights as an explanation for their failure at development and a cover for their anti-democratic reality.

Development and democratic rights go together. Kleptocracies like those of sub-saharan Africa and Nepal, where the large majority of people have only fake rights but no actual influence on government also have the least development.

Singapore is actually an intermediate case. Although unusually developed for a country with so little democracy the people of Singapore have far more actual influence on how their country is governed than the people of countries like Nepal where the majority are so completely excluded that they have had to take up armed struggle.

9. rishav
Your talking rubbish Arthur.  Kleptocracy?!!! Now you are really being insulting to us Nepalese, I suspect if the Maoists had their own way then you would really see that happen. We have had different forms of established governments, therefore not Kleptocratic, such as a multiparty constitutional Monarchial system and it may not be to your high standards of a looney dictatorial socialist government but it is a government voted in by the people, for the people without the fear of intimidation. Your love for our Nepali Maoists is very worrying indeed, as I'm starting to think that you may be bed fellows with Prachanda, which won't make Mrs Prachanda very happy.

10. pranaya
give me my food, shelter and clothing and then we'll think about freedom of the press, multi-party democracy and all that jazz. 

11. Battisputali

I think it was old Bennie Franklin who said, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety".

And whats this about security versus liberty debate here anyways? Don't we all have both security and liberty? I mean we can read from the free press and we have food, shelter and clothing. Why else would we be online debating the benefits of a benevolent Nepali Leviathan to one another on Nepali Times? Instead of advocating an authoritarian model for the provision of basic services maybe we could use our liberties and our comparatively privileged (but by no means inconsiderate) status to help create an environment where basic services, security, and liberty coexist?

12. May

Bold and courageous article, Mr Liang. I think Nepal should reciprocate and cancel the requirement for Singaporeans to enter Nepal. In the spirit of reciprocity, we should just stamp the passports of Singaporean visitors when they arrive. It would be a fine gesture. M.

13. Baneshwor
People have a hierarchy of needs as Maslow famously said. The lowest levels of needs are physiological needs-- Food, water, shelter, clothing, decent living spaces etc. And then come the other higher needs. Nepalis are still languishing at level I in Maslow's hierarchy. It would be absolutely idiotic to skip the need for a decent meal to attain vague ideals like freedom, human rights, democracy etc etc.  

Rishav- Most of the people are disconnected from the democratic processes. Its not like they vote for one party or the other because they are passionate supporters of political parties. Most often it is a case of voting for the lesser from among the rooster of the corrupt and incompetent. People vote for a party because they have a finite number of choices to tick. The party, or ideal that best represents their voice may not even be in the ballot. Do not forget that all this condescending talk about choosing freedom over good governance, basic service delivery and poverty eradication is deeply offensive to the multitudes of poor Nepali people yearning for a decent meal every day. 

This idealistic, "netagiri" talk is only a prerogative of the middle class of Kathmandu who are above the poverty line (although not significantly by international standards); netas with little educational qualification, no management skills ( they are out to manage the affairs of a nation!), and totally devoid of vision (other than chartering a plan to acquire so and so amount of ill gotten wealth over so and so number of years); and finally like Sarkar (above) said, a way for the incestuous NGO and INGO circle of Kathmandu to milk the donors for some easy cash and an easier career.  
Pranaya (above), I too would choose food, shelter and clothing over "all that jazz" as I am sure would most poor Nepalis (who form the majority in Nepal anyway). 

14. Budabaaje
I've just one message to this Chong Zi Liang. As a Singaporean he can come to Nepal and write this intelligent piece about our country. Has any Nepali gone to his country and been able to produce something as intelligent? I think that already says something about the opportunities and privileges that Chong got as a Singaporean and that Nepalis are deprived of. When our PM is sick and dying he goes to Singa for treatment. Will any important Singa ever come to Nepal for treatment? Chong himself probably won't use Nepali hospitals, and fly straight back to Singa if faced with any serious health problem. These are the things that really matter! As a short-time visitor, all our street demonstrations and chiya-pasal political discussions probably seem fun and exciting to Chong. But will he give up his Singa citizenship and become Nepali ever? I doubt it. That's what really matters. Quit giving us all that wishy-washy democracy, human rights crap, Chong. Be honest with yourself, and us, your readers! We don't have democracy in Nepal, but "demon-crazy"; it's not "freedom" we have, it's a "free-for-all"! Stop glorifying this crap! 

15. Battisputali

I just looked up a criticism of Maslow. This Chilean economist Max-Neef said that fundamental human needs can be non-heriarchical and universal and invariant in nature. Poverty can be a result of one of these needs being deined. If needs are non-heriarchical then it must follow that democratic participation is as important as substienence and security. 

Here is another criticism that calls Maslow ethnocentric:

Baneshwor's interpretation of Maslow's heriarchy sounds like neo-Social Darwinism to me mainly that,those that are poor and powerless should not participate in the democratic process because those that are elite and powerful have obstructed the participation process. The solution of Nepal's democratic problem would be to encourage more participation than discourage it. The encouragement process need not be violent (as is so easily assumed by some).

It's rather (no harm meant towards any commentators here) hypocritical to enjoy basic rights and more than basic security and yet say that other Nepalis will do without it.Yes, some say that they will easily let their freedoms go for basic services and good governance along with the rest of Nepalis. How can one be so sure that the sentiment is common to all Nepalis? It is rather condescending to speak for most poor Nepalis when we are not one. Again, no harm meant towards anyone here.


16. Arthur
Isn't it fascinating that rishav and jange, who both support Army rule, do so in the name of food, drink and development for the poor and claim that the poor will see democracy only benefiting the rich and powerful, while the poor insist on democratic rights to overthrow people like rishav and jange who have kept them in poverty.

17. rishav
There you go again Arthur trying to make up view points and misquotes of commentators on this site. I advice you not misguide other readers of the comments made already.Just stick to what your good at being a good bed fellow for prachanda and singing their praises.

18. jange
OH dear! Not only does Arthur know all about me from the few words that I have written he has also started seeing things which I haven't written at all. As I have said before your knowledge about Nepal is too inadequate to be of much practial use. However, do keep writing. I think your posts are a great insight into how the mind of an armchair revolutionary works, and to some extent the mindset of our own dear Maoist kamreds. Invaluable in helping  me in dealing with Maoist kamreds. Shukria, xie xie, tashakoor, dhanyabad, gracias, merci beaucoup, arigato, spasiba.




(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)