Authoritarianism and Prosperity

In the fall of 2007, Amsterdam traveled to Singapore for a speech at the International Bar Association, where he struck up a friendship with one of the country’s leading democratic activists, the Dr. Chee Soon Juan. The two found a remarkable overlap in their respective issues of fighting for rights and rule of law within capitalist authoritarian systems. Since then, we’ve published numerous pieces by Soon Juan (this is significant, as Singapore is a country where blogging can land you in jail), and opened up an interesting dialogue of similar political trends in both the former Soviet Union and Southeast Asia. Soon Juan has forwarded us this column from the Guardian, which points out that every country should be wary of trading liberties for economic growth. We find the parallels to the Russia case to be numerous. singapore070408.jpg

The new authoritarianism More and more of us are willing to trade freedom for wealth or security By John Kampfner Why is it that a growing number of highly educated and well-travelled people are willing to hand over several of their freedoms in return for prosperity or security? This question has been exercising me for months as I work on a book about what I call the “pact”. The model for this is Singapore, where repression is highly selective. It is confined to those who take a conscious decision openly to challenge the authorities. If you do not, you enjoy freedom to travel, to live more or less as you wish, and – perhaps most important – to make money. Under Lee Kuan Yew, this city-state built on a swamp has flourished economically.

I was born in Singapore and have over the years been fascinated by my Chinese Singaporean friends. Doctors, financiers and lawyers, they have studied in London, Oxford, Harvard and Sydney. They have travelled across all continents; they are well versed in international politics, but are perfectly content with the situation back home. I used to reassure myself with the old certainty that this model was not applicable to larger, more diverse states. I now believe this to be incorrect.Provincial governments in China send their brightest officials to Singapore to learn the secrets of its “success”. For Russian politicians it too provides a useful model. These countries, and others in Asia and the Middle East are proving that the free markets does not require a free society in which to thrive, and that in any battle between politics and economics, it is the latter that will win out.It is too easy to believe that this debate does not apply to us. Across western Europe, the US and in other so-called democracies, liberty is similarly losing out to both the post-9/11 security agenda and the power of global finance. Different countries hand over different freedoms; in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi (who makes no secret of his admiration for Vladimir Putin), brazenly attacks the judiciary, having effectively censored the broadcast media.In Britain, we draw comfort from what we believe to be a robust public realm, with strong freedom of speech (although our journalists are far better at shouting than at digging out information). And yet, as David Davis so theatrically has reminded us, we are sleepwalking into a level of state surveillance that will not be reversed.Many countries, including our own, are entering into new pacts with their rulers. Resurgent autocrats draw strength from the many weaknesses of western leaderships, not just their mistakes in foreign policy, but their failure to rejuvenate their own political systems, or to deal with a business culture that had lost touch with the needs of society.It was Oswald Spengler who at the turn of the last century predicted that “the masses will accept with resignation the victory of the Caesars, the strong men, and will obey them”.A modern form of authoritarianism, quite distinct from Soviet Communism, Maoism or Fascism, is being born. It is providing a modicum of a good life, and a quiet life, the ultimate anaesthetic for the brain.