The Singapore "Model" Is An Illusion
Even benevolent autocracies don't last forever.
A quick note for dear readers of this Substack: My book The Problem of Democracy is now available on Amazon for one of the lowest prices I’ve seen since it came out.
If authoritarianism twists the soul and distorts natural moral intuitions, then what about democracy? What does it do?
First, there is a negative argument. Democracies are better because of what they are not. They are not dictatorships. Of course, this is unlikely to be of much consolation to angry, frustrated citizens living under democratic governments. In any number of democracies, old and new, a growing number of citizens say they would prefer strongman rule. They are right to think that democracies are chaotic, messy, uncertain. Dictatorships, on the other hand, remove any doubt of who might be governing tomorrow or the day after (although such certainty only persists as long as the dictator stays alive). But this removal of doubt and this imposition of certainty comes at a price. And some kinds of certainty are artificial.
It is true that autocracies are often more efficient than their democratic counterparts. After all, they don’t need to worry about pesky voters, checks and balances, bureaucratic constraints, political parties, or noisy (and nosey) parliaments. In other words, they can ignore normal bargaining and compromise inherent in politics and move to impose their will. Indeed, if the only relevant metric were getting things done without delay, then the smarter autocracies, as in China or Singapore, are undoubtedly impressive.
But efficiency and effectiveness, like all things, comes at a cost, and sometimes the cost is quite high. In the short run, authoritarian states might produce better policy outcomes. The problem, though, is that even if they make “good” decisions for a particular stretch of time, their good judgment never seems to last. In the exceedingly rare case of an exceptional leader who can apparently remain exceptional for decades—someone like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew—the problem isn’t quite solved, because even Lee Kuan Yew couldn’t live forever. He served as prime minister for 31 years until 1990, then remained as Senior Minister through 2004 and then “Minister Mentor” until 2011. His health declining, he passed away four years later at the age of 91.
Today, Lee Kuan Yew’s eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, is prime minister and has served in the position since 2004, a good 19 years and counting. But try as he might, Lee isn’t his father. And it would be difficult, if not impossible, to come close. Lee Kuan Yew, after all, wasn’t a normal prime minister. He was the founding father of the nation, Singapore’s first head of government after the colony gained independence from Britain in 1958. For even the most skilled politicians, a founder’s legitimacy and the adoration that results is challenging to replicate.
There is also the question of size. Singapore is a city-state with a population of around 5.5 million on a territory of only 281 square miles, less than one-fifth the size of Rhode Island, itself the smallest state in the union. At independence, its population was 1.6 million. So it is unclear how the Singaporean “model” can be replicated elsewhere. Singapore’s success has been contingent on an unlikely confluence of factors. But even here there are cracks in the façade.
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