Remembering Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew -- and looking to the legacy of his "authoritarian capitalism"
Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015)
We can't let the passing of former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew yesterday go unremarked upon, and The New Yorker's John Cassidy has done a honey of a remembrance, "Can Authoritarian Capitalism Outlive Lee Kuan Yew?," which begins with the observation: "Unlike Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, Lee Kuan Yew, the longtime leader of Singapore, who died on Monday at the age of ninety-two, didn’t have an 'ism' attached to his name."
There is “Reaganism” and “Thatcherism,” but no “Lee-ism”—which, if you think about it, is a big gap in the English language. For the distinctive brand of authoritarian capitalism that Lee, who served as prime minister from 1959 to 1990, imposed on his tiny homeland didn’t merely propel Singapore into the ranks of the world’s wealthiest and most developed countries. It also served as a model for China, the world’s largest country, and, according to some analysts, it is set to dominate the rest of the twenty-first century. [Throughout the piece there are links onsite. -- Ed.]John allows that "that may be an exaggeration," but argues that "there is no doubting the influence Lee had during his lifetime."
In the late nineteen-seventies, after the fall of Chairman Mao Zedong and the purge of the Gang of Four, Deng Xiaoping and other Chinese officials looked to the example of Singapore, where for almost twenty years Lee had already been liberalizing the economy under the firm grip of his People’s Action Party. The links between China and Singapore proved enduring. Once Deng embarked on his own reforms, the Chinese government sent countless officials to study what was happening in the island state. Lee was a frequent visitor to Beijing. It was no surprise that shortly after his death was announced, the Chinese foreign ministry issued a statement hailing him as “a uniquely influential statesman in Asia and a strategist embodying oriental values and international vision.”Of course there's a reason why we're calling it "authoritarian capitalism." Because Lee, of course, "didn’t embrace the Western conception of pluralistic democracy and free expression."
The bit about “oriental values” presumably refers to Lee’s claim that Singapore’s economic miracle was based on such Confucian values as abstinence and reliance on self and family, rather than on the state. There was some truth to the refrain, but as Kishore Mahbubani, a longtime Singaporean diplomat, explained in his 2008 book, “The New Asian Hemisphere,” 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. By embracing these things, and setting up a strong and efficient state to help harness them, Singapore raised its per-capita G.D.P. from under five hundred dollars in 1960 to about fifty-five thousand dollars in 2013, a truly remarkable transformation.
The country does hold regular elections, but Lee’s People’s Action Party has held power continually since 1959, and, during his long prime ministership, opponents of the regime were routinely rounded up and imprisoned. Foreign publications that tried to report on Singaporean domestic issues, such as the International Herald Tribune and the Far Eastern Economic Review, found themselves sued or banned. Even in recent years, with Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, occupying the prime minister’s office, the harassment of dissidents has continued, as has the enforcement of pettier measures, such as the ban on chewing gum. In 2010, introducing a report that documented some of the regime’s practices, a senior official at Human Rights Watch described Singapore as “the textbook example of a politically repressive state.”
IS DEMOCRACY INAPPROPRIATE FOR
SINGAPORE AND OTHER ASIAN COUNTRIES?
John points out that Lee remained unwavering in his belief "that Singapore and other Asian countries, China included, weren’t ready for Western-style democracy," and also that democracy "wasn’t necessarily the best way to organize things, anyway." And he wonders what happens now that Lee is totally out of the picture. "The obvious question is whether his model of authoritarian capitalism can outlast him, or if it will prove to be a temporary (albeit extended) stage on the road to full participatory democracy."
He talks about recent political developments in Singapore, and speculates where they'll lead, but comes back to one thing he says "is for certain":
[T]he leadership in Beijing will be closely watching what happens. If Singapore, the great Asian role model, embraces genuine, multi-party democracy, can China be very far behind? Lee, who, in his later years, took on the role of “Minister Mentor” and flew around the world being embraced as a great oracle, would probably have said that that is the wrong question. “The system of government in China will change,” he told the then editor of Foreign Affairs, Fareed Zakaria, back in 1994. “It will change in Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam. It is changing in Singapore. But it will not end up like the American or British or French or German system.”
Of course, Lee’s skepticism about Western-style democracy taking root could turn out to be justified. Fearful of unleashing chaos in a society of enduring social and racial divisions, Singapore could retreat from its hesitant steps toward a more open society. And if this happens, the relief won’t be confined to the members of the Chinese Politburo: it will also be felt in Moscow, where Vladimir Putin also views Lee as a mentor. (As Ben Judah reminds us in a post at Politico, Putin awarded Lee Russia’s prestigious Order of Honor.)
For a moment, though, imagine what would happen if Singapore did embrace vigorous political debate and frequent changes of government, and if this new way of doing things stuck. In a decade or two, Lee would still be seen as someone who played a hugely influential role in the history of his country, and of Asia generally. But he’d also be viewed as a transitional figure, rather than as the creator of a durable rival to Western liberal democracy. And that, perhaps, wouldn’t be all bad.