Asia-Pacific | October 3, 2015 at 1:00 am

Singapore’s Authoritarian Prosperity Is Here to Stay

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Downton Singapore, with the Supreme Court visible in the foreground.

Downton Singapore, with the Supreme Court visible in the foreground.

Francis Fukuyama, in his 1989 essay “The End of History?” hypothesized that the end of the Cold War marked the “universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” But what came after the fall of the Berlin Wall was anything but Fukuyama’s end of history. Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika ended in the 1991 failed Russian coup, eventually plunging the country into its present form of illiberal democracy; Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in China launched its spectacular economic growth, yet the Communist Party still holds extensive political control. Still, one might argue that neither Russia nor China is yet affluent enough for democratization to foment and that the end-of-history hypothesis is slowly but surely coming to fruition. But Singapore’s People’s Action Party, a 50-year-old party with authoritarian control over the prosperous city-state, may prove Fukuyama wrong after all.

Singapore’s election on September 11 gave the ruling People’s Action Party—the party of Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan-Yew—a clear mandate with nearly 70 percent of the popular vote and 83 out of 89 seats in parliament. The election results dealt a heavy blow to the critics of the party, who expected the PAP to continue its decline after a historically poor electoral performance in 2011. A strong affirmation of the PAP’s competence, the recent election is evidence that Singapore’s meritocratic authoritarianism will remain and prosper, debunking the end-of-history hypothesis that political liberalization necessarily accompanies economic development.

A Resounding Victory

The election should be interpreted as the public’s approval of the authoritarian PAP. Despite accusations of electoral bullying, the PAP succeeds mainly through its superior political capital in a fair process. First and foremost, the elections were unequivocally fair: Freedom House rates the electoral process, despite being dominated by the PAP, as “free from irregularities and vote rigging.” Yet the PAP still faces accusations of electoral bullying, with tactics such as defamation suits to bring down key opposing figures, delayed housing upgrade projects in opposition wards, and a tight grip on media. While these accusations are valid, the effect of electoral bullying is minimal compared to the PAP’s vast advantages over opposition parties in terms of political and human capital—a highly trained, uncorrupt, united, and educated party leadership. They have such overwhelming superiority that even the main opposition party aims only for a “Parliament with different political voices,” rather than a parliamentary majority. The PAP enjoys a strong public mandate.

The PAP’s landslide victory demonstrates that Singapore’s authoritarian party upholds Lee Kuan-Yew’s legacy after his passing: a capable, pragmatic, and uncorrupt leadership resulting from an unyielding commitment to meritocracy. Meritocracy lies at the heart of both the political legitimacy of Singaporean authoritarianism and the culture of Singaporean society. It legitimizes authoritarian rule by maintaining an elite based on academic and professional success, rather than on class, gender, or ethnicity. This ensures social mobility, as any person capable enough can become an elite. Moreover, meritocratic authoritarianism appeals to the deep-rooted Confucianism in Singapore’s 2.8 million ethnic Chinese, who constitute 74.1 percent of the population. Meritocracy and order are two pillars of Confucian philosophy; blending the two produces a strong and honest leadership that wields its authoritarian power decidedly but prudently—the secret to the success of Lee and his party.

Meritocratic Authoritarianism

Indeed, meritocratic authoritarianism will continue to prosper in Singapore. Critics of the meritocratic system, such as the tycoon and intellectual Ho Kwon Ping, warns that the system may turn into a “static meritocracy” that “creates a self-perpetuating elite class,” citing that children of college-educated parents are much more likely to be college-educated. Yet social mobility is a gradual process, and it manifests in the fact that children of uneducated parents are entitled to the same opportunities as their high-born peers. Mr. Ho seems to suggest that a government of unskilled populists is more preferable than one of educated elites. The benefits of the meritocratic system, however, are vast.

Singapore’s meritocracy paid off in its performance on the OECD’s PISA test: an examination in math, reading, and science that Singaporean students continue to dominate. In addition, the meritocratic system itself is highly mutable, as Daniel Bell of Tsinghua University comments, “[T]o reduce income inequality and enhance social mobility, Singapore’s government has increased benefits for the socioeconomically disadvantaged…by investing in education and making healthcare more affordable.” Such an approach is dubbed “compassionate meritocracy,” an example of how Singapore’s system continues to evolve and respond to public demands.

Authoritarianism, on the other hand, provides Singapore with stability. The stability that can be expected from governmental policies encourages investment, unlike in Greece, where the victory of the leftist Syriza party frightened investors. Furthermore, while authoritarian governments in larger states may neglect the demands of certain interest groups, Singapore’s small size makes authoritarianism a highly efficient form of governance. Of course, Singapore’s system can be ruthless, as open critics of the government, such as Roy Ngerng Yi Ling, are often targeted with defamation charges. However, the state legally challenges political opponents who make uncorroborated claims against party officials. Defamation charges in court are more transparent and less arbitrary than conventional restrictions on freedom of speech, such as those taken by the Chinese. Besides, the lack of free speech in Singapore is mediated by a highly educated and wealthy populace, still enjoying access to the Internet and social media. Singapore rose to prominence through meritocratic authoritarianism. So far it has worked, and it’s here to stay.

History Isn’t Over Yet

Proponents of western-style liberal democracies believe that political liberalization is a necessary byproduct of economic development, citing examples such as South Korea and Taiwan. Some argue that political liberalization provides stability and legitimacy that “lock in” the country’s gains during periods of authoritarian rule. Others argue that globalization necessitates the spread of capitalism and liberal democracies, as citizens of illiberal states regard liberal democracy as a rational and ethical form of government. They, like Fukuyama, believe in a metanarrative that liberal democracy is the pinnacle and end-all for human government. Yet much like the metanarrative that communism is the ultimate solution, this end-of-history narrative has proven to be a myth.

While successful political liberalization may secure economic gain, political liberalization often carries huge risks of instability and inefficiency. The successes of Korea and Taiwan fail to generalize, as countries like Libya and Syria are still struggling with the consequences of failed attempts to democratize. Democracies can also be highly inefficient. U.S. congressional gridlock and India’s corrupt bureaucracies are telltale signs. Singaporean authoritarianism, on the contrary, is highly stable and efficient. In addition, globalization does not lead to political liberalization either. Singapore, as one of the most globalized states in the world, serves decidedly as a counterexample. Furthermore, western governing values may also be losing their universal appeal, Steven Erlanger of The New York Times questions in his recent article, as many emerging powers view the west as hypocritical.

The heart of the end-of-world metanarrative is the alleged moral superiority of western values. Yet judgments of normative values, ones that concern how things should be, only comes secondary to judgments of efficiency, ones that concern whether things work well. After all, a good political system is the one that works, and Singapore’s authoritarian government works as magnificently for Singaporeans as Sweden’s social democracy works for Swedes. Dogmatic inclination towards democracy should not cloud the fact that different forms of government suit different countries. History, like Singapore’s meritocratic authoritarianism, may never end.

Image Credit: User Formulax./Wikimedia Commons

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