After Death of Lee Kuan Yew, Some Wonder About Advantages of Autocracy

In a recent editorial following the death of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew on March 23, columnist Michael Chugani wrote that Hong Kong needs a dose of autocracy “à la Lee Kuan Yew”.

“[N]o honest person can deny [Lee Kuan Yew] turned a sleepy town into an Asian economic powerhouse – not through democracy but virtual autocracy,” wrote Chugani in the ‘South China Morning Post’. “We in Hong Kong lament the lack of democracy but envy Singapore’s housing, clean air, efficient government and societal contentment. We compete and judge ourselves not with Asian democracies like the Philippines and Taiwan but with authoritarian Singapore.”

According to Chugani, Singapore “lacks so-called true democracy but most Singaporeans are happy. We demand true democracy but yearn for the things Singapore achieved through autocracy. Where is the logic in that? … Maybe what Hong Kong needs is a dose of dictatorship Lee Kuan Yew-style.”

Is it therefore true that autocracy helps economic development, as some people suggest?

Singapore’s Success

It is indeed undeniable that Singapore‘s economic miracle is an astounding success story.

In 1966, one year after independence, Singapore had a GDP per capita of US$ 3,152 (constant 2005 US$), and a life expectancy of 67 years. The same year the United States had a GDP per capita of US$ 19,791 and a life expectancy of 70 years; Sweden US$ 18,780 and 74 years;  Hong Kong US$ 4,763 and 70 years; data for Germany are available only from 1970, when GDP per capita was US$ 17,463 and life expectancy was 71 years (World Bank).

Now let us look at the figures for the year 2012: the United States had a GDP per capita of US$ 45,038 and a life expectancy of 79 years; Sweden US$ 45,260 and 82 years; Germany US$ 39,273 and 81 years; Hong Kong US$ 32,729 and 83 years; Singapore US$36,110 and 82 years.

If measured by GNI per capita based on purchasing power parity, Singapore ranks first: United States US$ 52,220, Germany US$ 44,310, Hong Kong US$ 51,920, Sweden US$ 44,980, Singapore US$ 74,150. Lee Kuan Yew is widely credited for Singapore’s rise “from third world to first“, as he himself put it.

It is also undeniable that Lee Kuan Yew was suspicious of too much democracy and sought to establish an institutional framework that combined partial democracy, elitism, draconian laws, restrictions on personal freedoms and paternalism. 

Singapore – An ‘Illiberal Democracy’

Singapore has the fundamentals of a democracy: a parliamentary system, an elected president, elections and universal suffrage. Lee Kuan Yew and his party, the PAP (People’s Action Party), believed that popular participation was necessary in order to legitimate the state. Lee Kuan Yew’s ideal was a “government by free choice of the people, by secret ballot, at periodic intervals”. It would therefore be entirely misleading to define Singapore as a dictatorship or an authoritarian regime (see Diane K. Mauzy / R. S. Milne: Singapore Politics Under the People’s Action Party, 2002, pp.128-129).

On the other hand, Singapore is not a liberal democracy. There are a number of restrictions on personal freedoms, freedom of speech and the press. Furthermore, the country’s draconian laws are applied in such a way as to make it difficult for opposition groups to criticise the government or the judiciary. These restrictions stem from the PAP’s mistrust of uneducated, middle class or low middle class individuals who might demand welfare benefits and privileges at the expense of productivity, efficiency and competition (ibid., p. 129).

The government restricts personal freedoms in various ways. First of all, Singapore’s draconian laws, such as the Internal Security Act (ISA), the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (CLA), and the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA), “allow for arrest without warrant and detention without trial” (ibid.). The Societies Act, which dates back to the British colonial era and was initially used to control violent triads, requires organisations of more than ten people to be registered. This law was used by the PAP against Communist organisations in the 1960s (ibid., p. 131).

Singapore’s media are heavily controlled by the government through the Media Development Authority (MDA). According to the Undesirable Publications Act, for example, if “the Minister is of opinion that the importation, sale or circulation of any publication or series of publications published or printed outside Singapore or within Singapore by any person would be contrary to the public interest, the Minister may, in his discretion, by order published in the Gazette, prohibit the importation, sale or circulation of that particular publication or series of publications or all publications published or printed by that person.”

Singapore’s judiciary has often been praised for its efficiency. The PAP leaders always believed that the state needed a fair and impartial judiciary which instills in the people trust in the state and does not allow the rulers to govern arbitrarily. On the other hand, the country’s draconian laws and their application often lead to restrictions of freedom of speech. Since the 1980s, the PAP has begun using the Defamation Act to silence dissent (Mauzy / Milne 2002, p. 134), and the judiciary often defends itself against criticism through its power to punish for contempt of court.

In February of this year, for example, 61-year-old blogger and gay activist Alex Au was convicted of contempt of court for scandalising the judiciary. As the ‘South China Morning Post’ reported, in October 2013 he had published a post suggesting that “hearing dates on a constitutional challenge to a law criminalising gay sex between men had been rigged.” The offence carries a possible jail sentence, but on March 4, 2015, Au was only fined S$8,000 (about US$ 5,840) and issued an apology.

In May 2014, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, son of Lee Kuan Yew, filed a defamation suit against blogger Roy Ngerng. Ngerng had accused Lee of “criminal misappropriation of the monies paid by Singaporeans to the Central Provident Fund”. In a July 2014 ruling, a court ordered him to refrain from publishing or disseminating such allegation against the politician. Lee had previously rejected an apology and compensation offered by Ngerng. After being sued, the blogger was fired from his job as a contract patient co-ordinator at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH)’s Communicable Disease Centre. Ngerng had to pay S$29,000 (around US$ 21,167) to Mr Lee. 

Other recent examples of Singapore’s restriction of free speech include the conviction of British author Alan Shadrake for contempt of court after he had published a book about the death penalty in Singapore; the detention of cartoonist Leslie Chew; and the prohibition by the MDA to publicly screen or distribute the documentary film “To Singapore, With Love“.

Singapore is also known for its use of corporal punishments, such as caning. This is rooted in Lee Kuan Yew’s personal belief that corporal punishments and harsh discipline are legitimate educational tools. He himself grew up in the British colonial era, where he was subjected to such chastisements. As he recalls in his memoirs,

Once I was caned by the principal. D.W. McLeod was a fair but strict disciplinarian who enforced rules impartially, and one rule was that a boy who was late for school three times during one term would get three strokes of the cane. I was always a late riser, an owl more than a lark, and when I was late for school the third time in a term in 1938, the form master sent me to see McLeod. … I bent over a chair and was given three of the best with my trousers on. I did not think he lightened his strokes. I have never understood why Western educationists are so much against corporal punishment. It did my fellow students and me no harm.

During the Japanese occupation of Singapore, Lee once again observed the positive impact of draconian legislation and strict law enforcement, since the occupiers’ severe laws drastically reduced crime. “As a result,” wrote Lee later, “I have never believed those who advocate a soft approach to crime and punishment, claiming that punishment does not reduce crime” (quoted in: Mauzy / Milne 2002, p.130).

What Has Autocracy to do with Economic Development?

We have now established that Singapore cannot be regarded as a liberal democracy. But what does that have to do with Singapore’s economic success?

Unfortunately, people often tend to single out one characteristic of a society and attribute to this one element certain effects without providing evidence. Saying that Singapore is wealthy because of its autocratic style of government is a baseless and unhistorical assumption. 

Democracy or autocracy have nothing to do with economic development. Many democracies were or are economically successful – the United States was by far the wealthiest nation of the world until the 1960s. Other democracies, like Germany after 1945, Holland, Denmark, Finland, Switzerland, Sweden, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan after 1945 etc. have achieved a remarkable level of wealth and a high standard of living. However, some autocratic states have prospered, too: some ‘enlightened monarchies’ of Europe in the 18th century; Germany and Japan before 1945 were two of the top four world economies alongside Britain and the US; Singapore, Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan under martial law, South Korea under dictatorial rule etc.

Evidence suggests that there is no connection between economic development and democracy. Some democracies are more successful than others (e.g. Switzerland vs Greece, or Germany vs South Africa), while some autocracies/dictatorships are more successful than others (e.g. mainland China vs North Korea, or Singapore vs Belarus). 

According to the principles of the ‘Washington Consensus’, the key to economic success is ‘freedom’. Unfortunately, the Washington Consensus, with its belief in the self-regulating market, mistakes anarchy and social Darwinism for ‘freedom’. It is not ordered freedom, but lack of rules. In reality, most countries developed within a framework of regulation and state-promoted market economy 

The European “enlightened monarchies” of the 18th century exemplify this process, as they carried out practices of economic development that had already been experimented with in the late Middle Ages (such as Britain during the reigns of Henry VII or Elizabeth I). In 1487 Henry VII passed an Act “forbidding exports of unfinished and undyed cloth above value of 2 pounds” in order to protect the English cloth-finishing industry (this was the beginning of the English cloth industry that would become one of its export goods); in 1488 he ordered that “masters and mariners of ships should be English-born” and “forbade English traders to use foreign ships when English ships are available”. These are just two examples of how regulated the English economy was (see Rosemary O’Day: The Routledge Companion to the Tudor Age, 2010, p. 31).

One notable example of Europe’s state-led economic expansion was Prussia under Frederick the Great. Like other monarchs of 18th century Europe, Frederick understood that a target-oriented economic policy could enhance the wealth and power of his realm. In the 17th century many German states had developed economic policies based on the concept of “cameralism” (Kameralismus). The two major theoreticians of cameralism were Johann Joachim Becher (1635-1682) and Johann Gottlob Heinrich von Justi (1717-1771). The latter believed that the most important duty of the state was to improve the ‘happiness of the subjects’. One of the means to achieve this was to manage the economy (Michael North: Deutsche Wirtschaftsgeschichte, 2005, p. 181).

It must be pointed out that – contrary to the neoliberal stereotype of the ‘free market’ – most developed Western states did have a regulated, state-promoted economy (including the United States). The assumption that state intervention equals Communism is a misinterpretation of historical facts (see Erik S. Reinert: How Rich Countries Got Rich and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor, and Chang Ha-joon: Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism).

Among the measures that Frederick the Great adopted to strengthen the economy of his state were: 1) prohibiting the export of raw materials such as raw wool and the import of foreign textiles; 2) granting privileges and subsidies to manufacturers in order to produce textiles, weapons and luxury goods locally (instead of importing them); 3) liberalising the labour market which was previously controlled by guilds or by feudal relations (North 2005, p. 183).

As we can see, some measures were liberal while others were not. While neoliberal narratives emphasise only liberal reforms, in reality most states that succeeded economically were mixed economies with a varying degree of state intervention. Economies such as Singapore and Taiwan prove this point.

An analysis of the economy of the United States before World War II, of Britain before the 1860s, of Japan, mainland China, South Korea and other economies leads to the same conclusion.

It is therefore wrong to assume that “autocracy à la Lee Kuan Yew” is the cause of Singapore’s success, and that copying its autocratic style of government would inevitably lead to economic development. Neither a democratic nor an autocratic government can succeed if their economic policies are wrong. What must be studied and analysed is Singapore’s economic policy, which can very well be carried out even by more liberal and democratic governments. As I have already explained, it is misleading to believe that democracy equals weak government. Democratic governments can be strong enough to be effective, as long as the principles upon which they base their actions are correct.  

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