Dr. Chee Soon Juan: On Authoritarian Capitalism

[The last time we heard from Dr. Chee Soon Juan, the leader of Singapore’s opposition party (SDP), he penned a column for this blog on the comparative authoritarian capitalist systems of Russia and Singapore. Since then, I’ve seen this comparison come up in several other examples, including the FT’s cheeky suggestion that Russia should solve the succession challenge by importing a Singaporean president. Here Soon Juan continues the arguments explored in his first piece. – Robert Amsterdam] cheesoonjuan.jpgAutocrat see, autocrat do By Dr. Chee Soon Juan Nearly half-a-century ago Lee Kuan Yew came into power with the help of the British government which was then the colonial overlord of Singapore. After becoming the prime minister, Lee wasted no time in cracking down on his opponents. He used the Internal Security Act to detain without trial opposition leaders, brought the mass media under the control of his government, and systematically dismantled civil society, including trade unions. This enabled the ruling party to retain power uninterrupted from 1959 till the present. Lee himself was prime minister for 31 years until 1990 when he handed over the reins to his successor, Goh Chok Tong who was then the deputy prime minister.

In a speech not unlike that of an emperor, Lee told the nation that Goh was not his first choice to succeed him. In fact, Goh was ranked number five on Lee’s list of the most capable successors. He even diagnosed his deputy as “wooden”, a reference to Goh’s rather stiff and un-charismatic demeanor. The hapless Goh took the criticism like any obedient student would, with silence and a smile.Lee, however, ensured that he continued on in Goh’s cabinet as Senior Minister, a newly created post. Prime Minister Goh thus held his position – under the long shadow of Lee. He did this for 14 years, earning the reputation along the way as a “seat-warmer” for Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Kuan Yew’s elder son, who many regarded as the real successor to Lee Kuan Yew. When Lee Jr took over as prime minister in 2004 Goh, in turn, replaced Lee Kuan Yew as Senior Minister.But Lee Kuan Yew still would not leave the government. He became the Minister Mentor so named because he was a “mentor” to the set of younger ministers. It was another position created specially for Lee. Singapore stands unique in that it is the only country whose prime minister requires a mentor.No one is quite sure what Lee Kuan Yew’s and Goh Chok Tong’s roles are in the government. Other than making occasional appearances during state functions or visiting foreign governments – activities that could be more than adequately handled by ministers with portfolios – the two former prime ministers don’t do much else. They do, however, retain their kingly salaries that are more than four times that drawn by the president of the United States.In what way Lee Kuan Yew adds value to the governing of Singapore, no one is quite sure. In fact many Singaporeans view Lee as a political relic that stymies rather than stimulates the development of Singapore’s politics. His portfolio as a mentor to ministers not only demeans the role of other cabinet ministers, but is also a hindrance to creative and bold solutions needed to tackle Singapore’s modern-day problems.A wannabe LeeHalf a world away, another autocrat is embarking on a similar political adventure. Vladimir Putin, under Russian law, cannot continue on as president as he has already served two terms.No matter. Like Singapore’s Lee, Putin made sure that his stepping down as president did not spell the end of his reign. He endorsed (and by so doing virtually guaranteed the election of) his protégé, Dimitry Medvedev who like Goh Chok Tong is the deputy prime minister. Analysts have described the president-in-waiting as “obedient” and a “subordinate on whose loyalty [Putin] can count.” Uncannily like Goh, Medvedev is also described as “stiff”.In return Medvedev says that he supports Putin to be the next prime minister thus paving the way for Putin to continue wielding his considerable power from another official position.To ensure the successful transfer of leadership to a loyalist while retaining ultimately power, one needs to, firstly, see to the demise of any meaningful opposition. Like Lee’s Singapore, Russia has quite successfully decapitated institutions that would otherwise provide robust opposition. The imprisonment of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, for instance, meant that liberal democratic forces would be deprived of an important source of financial support. In the 1960s, Lee Kuan Yew went after millionaire Tan Lark Sye who had emigrated to Singapore from China. Like Khodorkovsky, Tan was a philanthropist who donated millions of dollars to start a university in Singapore. And like Khodorkovsky, Tan was also enthusiastic in his support of a democratic opposition. Lee promptly revoked Tan’s Singapore citizenship and chased him back to China.The arrests and persecution of journalists and the closing down of the independent media in Russia is reminiscent of how Lee Kuan Yew detained without trial newspaper editors in Singapore and brought the media under government-owned companies. Lee’s Newspaper Printing and Presses Act forbids anyone other than the government to own newspaper companies. The existing media in Singapore regularly sing the praises of the government. Compare this to what the New York Times wrote about the recent clamping down on Russia’s media:

The few remaining critics increasingly write or speak out at their peril, as new laws tighten the government’s grip…Nina Ognianova of the Committee to Protect Journalists puts it chillingly: “The process of squeezing critical journalism out of the public space is now near complete.”…In the meantime, polls show President Putin’s popularity has soared. No wonder. Fewer and fewer Russians can see or hear from anyone who opposes him, his policies or his government.

More recently Garry Kasparov was imprisoned for five days because he had staged an unauthorized march to protest against Putin’s political machinations. In Singapore, my colleagues and I have been repeatedly jailed for speaking in public without a permit.By itself jailing dissidents and crackdown down on the media would be insufficient for Putin to stay on as the strongman of Russia. The President also needs to sell Russia as a “stable”, albeit undemocratic, place for foreign investment. Russians, and much of the capitalist world, are willing to accept such authoritarian methods in exchange for immediate and rapid economic gain – a situation not unlike that in Singapore. Such a politico-economic arrangement has led some analysts to coin the term “authoritarian capitalism” where a country grows economically at the expense of democratic development.Cracks starting to showBut how does such an arrangement benefit countries like Russia and Singapore? For a period, the trade-off may seem worthwhile, desirable even. But in the longer-term, without the political checks and balance that democracy provides, problems in society become entrenched and ultimately unmanageable.In Singapore, Lee’s authoritarianism has become outmoded and sclerotic, making Singapore unable to develop new ideas to capitalize on new opportunities or to tackle problems that present themselves. While society needs to compete on innovation and creativity, Singapore is firmly stuck under Lee Kuan Yew’s intransigence of insisting that order and discipline in society come before dynamism and vibrancy.The current financial boom that Singapore is experiencing masks a worrying problem in the city-state’s economic health. Foreign funds have been pouring in because of tax incentives and the beefing up of banking secrecy laws. Indeed Singapore recorded the highest rate of growth of the number of millionaires in the world last year. The economic growth has not, unfortunately, been backed up by the increasing productivity of its various industries.Moreover the infusion of foreign funds, much of it suspected to be illicit from money-launderers, has resulted in the income disparity widening at an unprecedented rate. According to a United Nations’ survey, Singapore ranks 105 th in terms of income equality.Also contributing to the viagra-like growth of the GDP is the flooding of Singapore with foreign nationals. In a period of ten years, the Singapore government has forced the nearly doubling of the population. The influx of people cannot but boost economic growth figures. What it does to the infrastructure and to the social arrangement between locals and foreigners is another matter. One reason for the drastic change in immigration policy is cheap labour. Unskilled and low-income workers from China, India, Indonesia, etc are needed to keep wages down so that the economy can continue to attract investments from multinational companies. Such downward pressures on wages make life a nightmare for the locals as they are unable to survive on such low incomes.As a result, many Singaporeans have found themselves mired in poverty. While homelessness was alien to Singapore in the past, the city-state is now awash with destitute people. But even under such dire circumstances, Singaporeans have no say in the policies that affect them.Good – for awhileWithout dissent, governments are ignorant about problems that beset the country. Dissent and debate are feedback that acts as crucial indicators of the health of society. Without these, internal pressures build up that will eventually cause the lid to pop as it did in Indonesia in 1997. Prior to Suharto’s overthrow, Indonesia also focused on economic growth at the expense of its politics. The international business community hailed the country as a shining example of how “disciplined democracy” was good for the country’s development. But without an opposition and a free media, Suharto grew increasingly despotic, corrupt, and detached from the burgeoning problems of the country. Things fell apart when the 1997 Asian financial crisis visited the region and caused Indonesia’s currency to plummet. Suharto was toppled through mass street demonstrations. But because there was no political system in place to oversee an orderly transition of power, the country descended into chaos.Authoritarian capitalism was attempted with abysmal consequences in Indonesia. Its failings are beginning to show in present-day Singapore. Such a system, which Vladimir Putin so obviously relishes, may be attractive for a time. But in the long run, the rot creeps in ever so inconspicuously and eventually hurts the country more than it helps. Rulers like Lee and Putin have yet to learn that there is no short cut to sustainable development and progress, and that democratic accountability is still the key.