Benevolent despotism in Singapore

Honest, competent dictatorship is better than the other kind. And Singapore’s party oligarchy has delivered the goods. But is the development of a form of tyranny compatible with economic success really something to be happy about?

I share Mike O’Hare’s impression that the clever, honest, public-spirited, dedicated oligarchy that runs Singapore is very likely to continue to improvise successfully in the face of challenges, and to keep improving the lives of Singaporeans. But &#8212 with full acknowledgement of the fact that Singapore is a pretty damned good place to live, and a lot better than anyone had any right to expect when Lee Kuan Yew led its secession from Maylasia &#8212 I’m not as cheerful about that situation as Mike is.

As Mike says, Singaporean oppression is pretty hard to spot, being carried out with lawsuits, a tame press, and threats to starve constituencies of public services to punish voters for electing opposition candidates, rather than with machine-guns and torture chambers. And if you’re interested in making money and raising your kids rather than in politics it probably doesn’t seem very oppressive.

But the fact remains that Singapore is a party dictatorship, not a republic, and that it has no plans to move toward greater political freedom. The People’s Action Party is a collective &#8212 and therefore more stable and reliable &#8212 version of the Benevolent Despot dreamed of by some Enlightenment thinkers.

Singapore is thus a working model of what the Chinese oligarchs hope to create: a society that is prosperous, information-intensive, and politically unfree. It’s a clear counterexample to the proposition that, in the Information Age, tyranny is incompatible with economic success.

Now, if you think that democracy is valuable only as a way of making decisions in the public interest and protecting individuals from arbitrary mistreatment by officials, there’s nothing to complain about in Singapore, and it would be just fine if the Chinese Communist Party brought off the same trick by adding some benevolence (and honesty, and competence) to its despotism and substituting nonviolent for violent means of discouraging political opposition.

But if you think there’s something degrading in living as a subject &#8212 even a competently and honestly ruled subject with a good measure of personal freedom in the private sphere &#8212 rather than as a citizen who participates as an equal in the process of “ruling, and being ruled, in turn,” then the Singaporean miracle, and the possibility of its being imitated elsewhre, leaves you just a little bit queasy. And that queasiness is not relieved by the observation that most people don’t much like the work of citizenship and are perfectly happy to live under despotism as long as the trains run on time.

If Lee Kuan Yew and his followers have perfected the art of oligarchic rule under the forms of democratic elections and parliamentary government, is that really something to celebrate? Hamilton might have thought so. But Paine, Madison, and Lincoln would have disagreed.

Update A reader complains about my dissing Hamilton. I didn’t intend to. He was a splendid fellow in many ways, contributed greatly to the founding, and created a tradition of excellence at the Treasury Department that it maintains to this day. But he deeply distrusted popular rule, and thought that the British constitution would have been unworkably democratic except for the ability of the ministry to buy Parliamentary votes with sinecures. I think he would have been comfortable with a Singaporean-style government.

Another reader corrects a historical error on my part:

Singapore did not secede from Malaysia. It was kicked out against its will.

Lee, then a prominent Malaysian legislator; lead the opposition to getting rid of Singapore. The Malays were afraid that the offshore Chinese would eventually become a majority and get political control.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: