Heng Swee Keat mentioned Rajaratnam's 'democracy of deeds' in 2 different speeches in a week

We try to explain its history and significance.

Martino Tan | June 24, 2019, 01:09 AM

"What you have done may not get as much publicity as the utterances of professional oppositionists, but long after these have gone, what you have done will strengthen the democracy of deeds and not words."

The late S Rajaratnam, Singapore's first foreign minister, spoke these words to grassroots leaders in Aug. 14, 1971.

In the past week, these three words "democracy of deeds" have re-entered public consciousness.

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Heng Swee Keat had been mentioning them a few times in two separate speeches and in two separate occasions.

First occasion

On June 15, Heng used the term to chart out how the fourth generation leaders will lead and govern Singapore.

Second occasion

On June 21, Heng called on Singaporeans present at the three-day inaugural International Conference on Cohesive Societies to "build a democracy of deeds, where everyone chips in with our various strengths and passions to build a society we can all be proud of".

What is "Democracy of Deeds?"

Most Singaporeans can be assumed to roughly understand or appreciate what a democracy is.

But what exactly is a "democracy of deeds"?

Allow Irene Ng, the award winning biographer of The Singapore Lion: A Biography of S Rajaratnam to explain the concept.

Ng shared her views in the 2016 edition of Commentary, a publication by the National University of Singapore Society:

"While Rajaratnam did not specifically define the phrase, a close analysis of his various expositions on the subject reveals its key features: A democracy of deeds is based on public-spirited action in solving society’s myriad problems, a sound understanding and appreciation of the country’s external and internal realities, and a devotion to the welfare of the people."

Ng said that in Rajaratnam’s mind, the democracy of deeds conception was an essential part of the “problem-solving” democracy that should be developed among the citizens.

In other words, democracy should involve the participation of as many citizens as possible in trying to solve "practical problems in practical ways".

Ng noted that Rajaratnam argued in another speech on Dec. 23, 1971 that real democracy is "one in which the various activities in a society are distributed as widely as possible among the people".

Ng opined that at the heart of his "problem-solving democracy" was his deep-rooted belief that good governance was about action and results.

Here, Ng concluded that this meant that the issue of democracy was not whether parliament should be made up of one party or multiple parties, but the "quality and character of the parties concerned -- whether in government or opposition".

A few leaders have used it previously

In recent years, several leaders have used the term in their speeches.

They include Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, minister Lawrence Wong and Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin.

PM Lee used it most prominently during his 2013 National Day Rally, when he told the audience that Singapore has to be a "democracy of deeds and not a democracy of words".

PM Lee also used the term during the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) conference in 2014.

Below are other examples of when the "democracy of deeds" was mentioned by the political leaders.

Minister Lawrence Wong, Jan. 28, 2013, Singapore Perspectives Conference

Wong was the keynote speaker and spoke about how the government wanted to "promote active civic participation (among citizens) to solve problems".

He subsequently referred to Rajaratnam's words, so as to emphasise the need for Singaporeans to move away from adversarial democracy to a problem-solving democracy.

Minister Lawrence Wong, June 3, 2014, The Straits Times

Wong applied Rajaratnam's words as a vision for Singapore's political system in the context of a 2014 parliament debate on the President's Address on what constructive politics entails in Singapore.

Wong said that such a vision proposed by Rajaratnam gets to the heart of what makes for a healthy democracy, "an active citizenry, engaged in the community, working together for the public good".

Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin, March 8, 2018

Tan Chuan-Jin, at the closing of the Budget and Committee of Supply debates in 2018, used the words to emphasise the "need to be pragmatic" is as important as the ideals the parliamentarians hold dear.

An updated interpretation of democracy of deeds?

Source: RSIS Facebook page.

On June 15, Heng mentioned the democracy of deeds four times in his speech on how the 4G leaders will govern:

"One of our founding fathers, Mr S Rajaratnam, used to speak of a “democracy of deeds”, and not just of words. Partnership is about more than contributing feedback, suggestions or ideas. It is about following through on ideas and suggestions and making things happen. Our future Singapore – the Singapore we are building together -- must be an expanded democracy of deeds, with citizens taking action to make a difference."

It appears that Heng's idea is to broaden the scope of citizens partnering with the government on issues, with Singaporeans being even more involved in policy-making.

In fact, Heng urged Singaporeans that he and his leaders "will welcome Singaporeans to contribute to implementing these policies to realise our shared future".

Heng also revealed how he and his team "will expand our democracy of deeds".

In his conclusion, he said that he and his team will take Singapore forward "by charting our future together, levelling with you, expanding the common space, and journeying towards a better future".

When the late Rajaratnam first coined the term 48 years ago, many assume that it is an aspiration by one of our most idealistic founding leaders.

PM Lee subsequently reminded Singaporeans in 2013 about Rajaratnam's vision, ushering, in Heng's words, a "more inclusive style of governance".

So, what will Heng's vision of an expanded democracy of deeds look like?

Will it include an expansion of common spaces that allow for a greater diversity of viewpoints which will lead to more participation by Singaporeans?

Will it include an even greater openness from the government to engage and work with all Singaporeans, regardless of their political affiliations?

Will it foster a political culture that responds to Singaporeans' desire for greater involvement and to support Singapore's growth and maturity as a nation and society?

In achieving his aims, Heng will do well to balance the expansion of democracy (of ideas) and the expansion of deeds delicately.

And Heng will need to work really hard, together with Singaporeans to achieve his vision, a word that was mentioned a whopping 33 times in his speech on governance.

Photos from RSIS Facebook page.