I have seen the future and it works (but at a price).
One of the books that has most influenced how I see the world we now live in is John Kampfner’s Freedom for Sale. It is essentially a long rebuttal of Francis Fukuyama’s End of History thesis. Fukuyama (a political theorist) believed that History (with a capital H and defined in a very particular way) was over because liberal democracy had no serious ideological competitors. Kampfner (a journalist) toured the world and saw something very different. He believed that a serious rival was taking shape. A form of authoritarianism that offered people not a grand vision like Fascism and Communism did (and Islamism does) but a more pragmatic offer: we will strip away your freedoms and then use the control that results to protect you and make your prosperous. He traced the evolution of this ideology back to one place: Singapore.
Earlier this week the city state buried its founding father Lee Kuan Yuew. He is credited with turning it from a vulnerable backwater into a place of global renown. It is rich, peaceful, politically stable, has little corruption, its courts are transparent and fair, its infrastructure is fantastic and it has perhaps the world’s most capable bureaucracy. That has ensured it has plenty of admirers and plenty of people trying to replicate its success even in apparently unlikely places like Nepal and Kyrgyzstan.
However, Lee specifically disavowed the notion that what he had built be combined with the kind of freedoms that people in the West took for granted. Singapore is known the world over as the country that banned chewing gum, which is perhaps indicative of strict set of laws backed up by capital and corporal punishment. Dissent faced repression, most notably the ruinous libel suits used to bankrupt government critics. And while Singapore holds elections, they are carefully stage managed to ensure the ruling People’s Action Party is returned to power. Lee became a proponent of what he called ‘Asian Values’ that as he saw it was in direct opposition to Western Liberalism.
Thus while Kampfner noted that Lee had admirers in the West, those for whom he was most important were autocrats in search of a role model. Chief amongst them was Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese premier who set the World’s largest country on a path from Maoism to Capitalism. He concluded on the basis of Sinapore’s experience that China could open up its economy without threatening the Communist Party’s monopoly on power.
Not everywhere is a city state off the coast of Malaysia.
However, there is a pretty big problem with using Singapore as a role model: it may not be all that easy to replicate. For example, the current Chinese leader Xi Jinping is trying to root out corruption with the government and party, a pretty key part of the Singapore ‘recipe’. However, this has begun to threaten China’s ability to emulate an arguably even more important aspect of the Singaporean model: a capable bureaucracy composed of the best talent in the country. Xi has allowed a wide reaching campaign to terrorise officials involved in corruption involving torture and secret trials. This appears to be changing the behaviour of those officials. But this purge has had to be so wide reaching that it has left some parts of the bureaucracy so understaffed and barely able to function. In addition, it has reduced the flow of talent into public service as young Chinese now see it as both more frightening and less lucrative than it was before.
It shouldn’t surprise us that few countries can make themselves Singapore. As the Economist notes Singapore is hardly an ordinary place:
… four peculiarities of Singapore make it look like an anomaly, rather than a model for the leaders of China and Rwanda or others who think the best thing for their people is their own unending and unquestioned rule. The first is size. Singapore is a city with a foreign policy, which gives it a cohesion that more politically and ethnically chaotic countries cannot match. Second, this cohesion is reinforced by the turbulent circumstances of its birth. After a painful divorce from Malaysia in 1965, the government has never let Singaporeans forget that a Chinese-majority island, surrounded by Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia, would always be vulnerable. Third, it shines by comparison with its less well-run neighbours. Rather as Hong Kong’s prosperity was based on being Chinese but not entirely part of China, Singapore has flourished by being in South-East Asia, but not of it.
However, the most important reason for Singapore’s singular experience is Mr Lee himself. Incorruptible, he kept government unusually clean. He ensured that Singapore pays its ministers and civil servants high salaries. Under today’s prime minister, his son Lee Hsien Loong, the bureaucracy has remained efficient and untarnished. Unlike many other independence leaders, Mr Lee designed a system to outlast him. Singapore’s government claims it has faced enough electoral competition to keep it honest, but not so much that there was a high risk of losing power. So it has been able to eschew populism and take decisions in the country’s long-term interests.
But outside Singapore, maintaining probity requires checks and balances. In much of the developing world, critics are regarded as enemies and those in opposition are treated as traitors whether their complaints make sense or not.
Liberal democracy is still the best way.
In addition, it is not clear altogether clear that Singapore’s success is actually a reflection of ‘Asian Values’. As John Cassidy notes in a column for the New Yorker:
…most of Lee’s development program consisted of mimicking what he saw as the best practices of the West: competitive markets, meritocracy, pragmatism, the rule of law, universal public education, and a mastery of science and technology.
Indeed it is hard to see what is uniquely Asian about Lee’s ideology. One imagines very many nineteenth century right-liberals would have (not withstanding his race) found Lee a very agreeable figure.
Indeed, the other Asian nations that rival Singapore in terms of combining of prosperity, security and development – Taiwan, South Korea and Japan – are all have electoral democracies with a free press. These things are not a Western imposition, Asians can and do make them work in Asia.
Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have said: “those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.” The sad impact of using Singapore as a role model may be that many nations wind up sacrificing liberty for prosperity and good governance without getting either.