May 032008

Ishtiaq Ahmed

Now that a transition to democracy has taken place, we need to start preparing for the next step forward: a progressive, enlightened and humane society. It is possible for societies afflicted by widespread poverty and squalor to surmount their dreary and dismal conditions without going to war and looting other countries. Through hard work, dedicated leadership and intelligent policies and planning spectacular success can be achieved.

I am particularly thinking of Sweden, where I lived for nearly 35 years, and Singapore, where I am currently based, as examples of successful transformation from sprawling poverty to enviable standards of living.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Sweden was one of the poorest nations, in the farthest corner of northern Europe. So poor was it that nearly half its population migrated to the United States. Today this nation of some nine million is a global leader in high-tech industries and the service sector, and its Volvo and Saab vehicles are world-renowned. It is also the fairest society on earth when it comes to the basic needs for a secure and dignified life. When Singapore became independent in 1965, it was infested with Chinese secret societies that ran gambling dens, brothels and the drugs trade. Today this nation of barely 4.5 million is the 17th richest in the world. It provides excellent services and facilities for trade and commerce, having initially made its mark in high-tech manufacturing and industrial production.

In both these countries a strong political party — the Sveriges Socialdemokratiska Arbetareparti (Swedish Social Democratic Workers’ Party) and the People’s Action Party, respectively — led the nation forward and used state power to create conditions for economic growth and rising standards of living.

Swedish social democracy has historically been more attuned to egalitarian reforms, while in Singapore the change from erstwhile Fabian socialism to free-market principles has not meant that the state has abdicated its duty to provide cheap and good housing to citizens, excellent education and vocational training and an extremely safe and secure social milieu free from violent crime and drugs. As its economy grows, Singapore is expanding subsidised healthcare facilities for those who really need help.

Historically, social democracy was a democratic tendency within the broad socialist movement that emerged in 19th-century western Europe that, in contrast to orthodox Marxism-Leninism’s theory of armed revolution and one-party rule, believed in free elections and an open society. Equally, in contrast to liberal democracy’s celebration of unbridled laissez-faire capitalism and human egotism, social democracy always believed in a strong and active state with a strong social policy as a complement to the human need for solidarity and sympathy.

The question now is: how should Pakistan be transformed into a social democratic polity? There is no denying that we need a party that can organise mass support behind a social democratic programme for change and transformation.

The PPP would probably come closest to the description of a social democratic party. The late Ms Bhutto had revived the original PPP commitment to roti, kapra aur makan (food, clothing and shelter). However, it is not clear to what extent this goal is still dear to her successors. Another problem is that a social democratic party must rely primarily on the working people and intellectuals, while the PPP is dominated by landlords and other conservative sections of society, especially in Sindh.

On the other hand, the PML-N corresponds more to a liberal democratic type of party but only in economic terms of a free market. After all, liberal democracy is not only about free capitalism: it is also committed strongly to the freedom of religion and conscience, thought and opinion. Historically Nawaz Sharif has a bad record on these emancipatory aspects of liberal democracy.

Under the circumstances, one can either work towards a new party of the working people and concerned intellectuals, which holds regular elections not only at the level of state and government but also within the party or, more preferably, begin a concerted and focused campaign to propagate social democratic ideals and principles. In the longer run, if the need for establishing a new party gains wide support then one can move towards that goal. In this regard, it is important that we initially imitate the Singapore model instead of the Swedish one, because without economic growth and wealth egalitarian reforms become hollow and are reduced merely to slogans. Ownership of private property should be given proper legal coverage, let trade and commerce flourish and people encouraged to set up businesses. But the taxation system should be structured in a way that those who use the facilities of the state — its laws, rules and regulations, bureaucratic machinery, international contacts and facilities and other such services — pay more tax than those who do not. In such a tax regime notorious political-industrial families and other scoundrels would have no chance of tax evasion and there will be no room for contrived defaulters of bank loans. Also, the vast economic holdings and interests of the military should be brought under the jurisdiction of our tax system. On the other hand, spending on better education and vocational training would be considered an investment rather than a favour to the poor.

We need to encourage the growth of a culture of meritocracy, but with provisions for the poor and historically-disadvantaged to get out of the rut of crushing poverty and move forward. A two-pronged developmental strategy is needed that puts a high premium on hard work and talent while simultaneously developing a level playing field by undermining structures which sustain parasitical landlords and tribal chiefs.

The state must ensure the following minimum to all people: clean drinking water, a functioning sanitation system including proper toilets, reasonable housing and a basic health system and transparent government. Indeed, philanthropy and charity will have a major role to play to make Pakistan a fair and caring society, but overall societal management must rest with the state and the elected representatives of the people.

The writer is a professor of political science and a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore. Email:
Courtesy: The News, 3/5/2008

 Posted by at 8:41 pm

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