Authoritarian liberties

Courtesy of Sanjay who used it for his KI thesis, I finally managed to get my hands on the foremost anti-government book in circulation, Singapore’s Authoritarian Capitalism by former NUS professor Christopher Lingle. Drawing inspiration from his escape from Singapore, following libel lawsuits filed against his criticisms of the government and then his concomitant financial ruin in the 1990s, Lingle marshals a series of impassioned arguments against the Singaporean model of governance and its abuse of human rights, as well as what he calls an illusion of miraculous economic progress.

All in all, I found his work to be more amusing (or even entertaining) than subversive. He takes an immense lot of authorial liberties in his work. It’s littered with very impassioned statements and claims that are amusingly divorced from reality. I would also like to add that much has changed since 1996 when it was published and the role of the internet and social media (which he didn’t think very highly of) has altered the political landscape of Singapore. Today’s Singapore is more vocal, more gentler, certainly more dynamic than his vision of Singapore as one with an “extent of interference and fear is so pervasive that Singapore’s regime can be defined in terms of near totalitarian control”.

I have curated a selection of amusing and enjoyable, if not also hauntingly truthful quotes below:

“…the reader should bear in mind that my sins in this regard are no greater than those of the regime in Singapore.” (in reference to the possible one-sidedness of his arguments)

I’m not sure if it’s an intelligent strategy to weaken your own authorial credibility at the very start of your book. I mean, unreliable narrators are quite the fashion in fiction, but this is non-fiction after all.

It is particularly striking that every opposition politician to appear before them has been found to be a scoundrel, tax cheat, slanderer or other type of distasteful character. This absolute lack of honourable opponents to a ruling party must be unprecedented in the history of politics”

HAHAHA! Sounds like what I would write in my GP essays.

“Recent history offers a grim lesson from the cost imposed upon humanity when national socialism, fascism and communism offered a seductive alternative to liberal democracy.” (in reference to the “Singapore School” as an alternative to the Western liberal-democratic model)

I don’t know about you but I see a very blatant slippery slope there, full of highly loaded assertions.

“…[plebiscites] provide an opportunity for the government to discover whether a given constituency is worthy of their virtuous rule. An unworthy electorate that might cast its votes for the opponents of the ruling party is subject to s variety of subtle punishments. Government ownership of the vast bulk of housing along with the extensive intrusion of the ruling party into businesses, infrastructure and the universities provides it with huge capacity to inflict considerable pain on those citizens who raise their voice in opposition.”

Hmmmmmm, very uncanny. I believe LKY had insinuated such a threat in his epigraphic exclamation, “5 years to repent!”

“…Mr. Mahbubani is an aggressive and abrasive adversary of the West. On one level, I was annoyed by the prickly hubris evident in his self-righteous diatribe…” (in reference to Kishore Mahbubani’s essays on the superiority of the Singapore School)

Oh the irony.

“Notwithstanding its deep commitment to authoritarian rule, the regime has been very effective in creating an illusory affinity with democracy.”

Well that’s the whole point of Asian values eh? And thanks for giving us credit where it is due! On a separate note, this is the essence of the traditional analysis of Singapore’s democracy that the CJ history department champions, although of course in less explicit terms.

“…it was not long after my arrival that I became aware of the suffocating, authoritarian intervention in most aspects of life there.” P. 2.

“Some [Singaporeans] even asked foreigners to speak out for them knowing that the consequences for themselves are so grave.” P. 47.

“There is a belief that the visible and invisible hand of a big brother government can reach into every nook and cranny of their lives… Most citizens and expatriate residents expect that their telephone conversations are monitored by the authorities… This is confirmed by the knowledge they access to the Internet is closely-controlled by the government. Many of my former colleagues who remain at NUS have either chosen to ignore my email messages to them or requested that I cease further transmissions due to the fear of losing their positions.” P. 159.

Don’t you just get the sense that he suffers from some combination of delusional disorder and a Messiah Complex? Also, perhaps his colleagues had refused to reply out of annoyance.

I have a feeling that this book could join the ranks of Catcher in the Rye in capturing an atmosphere of teenage angst. In his defence, he had indeed faced both ruin of his career and finances at the hand of the Singaporean government.

Structured into chapters, the first chapter deals with his predicament with the authorities while the second deals with the nature and philosophy of Singapore’s “undemocratic” governance model based on Asian values. He levels rather accurate observations of the mode of governance and its wholly undemocratic or in his words, tyrannical nature, as well as sharp criticisms against the legitimacy of Asian values. His arguments in this chapter however do suffer from repetitiveness but the central thesis remains consistent although at some points, he seems to complacently insinuate rather ludicrous assertion that the Western liberal democratic model is superior to all others due to the so-called universal and transcendental nature of its principles. He also makes a rather spurious comparison of Singapore’s means of governance to apartheid as well as Stalinist Russia.

The third chapter focuses on Singapore’s authoritarian capitalism and attempts to explain the failings of Singapore’s socio-economic model, drawing heavily from classic economic theory on scarcity and choice, market failure and government failure. I suppose this chapter is meant to be the core of his thesis but it falls short of being convincing with weird conclusions about how Singapore is not a true free market that it proclaims itself to be as information transfer is stifled and some local industries are offered protectionist measures. Although I admit he could be speaking from an extremist economic libertarian perspective, it would be hypocritical to suggest that Singapore is any less of a free market when the Western economies that he proudly champions suffer from endemic protectionist streaks. He also makes a very incredulous claim that Singapore’s economic success shares similar basis as the initial economic development of the Soviet Union (albeit with differing aims of autarky in the USSR’s case and export-orientation in Singapore’s case) and following such logic, further asserted that Singapore is rushing into a similar economic collapse as the Soviet Union.

Nonetheless, this chapter also contains a rather accurate observation that Singapore’s economic prosperity was not solely the result of the government but due to serendipity of geography, colonial legacies and geopolitical climate.

The fourth chapter deals with the undemocratic aspects of Singapore’s government from a pliant judiciary and muzzled media to the lack of civil society and attempts at social engineering. Also pretty accurate comments that I have actually rambled about in my GP essays in my own personal capacity. On a side note, he tries to argue that Singapore is the most corrupted regime in the world, not in the traditional sense of the word, but in terms of the lack of separation of powers and resultant abuse of powers by the executive. An unconvincing argument, if you ask me.

The last two chapters are his own attempts at prophesying an apocalyptic vision of economic stagnation of the Asia-Pacific region as a result of two factors: inflexibility of economic systems and a vapid lack of innovation and enterprise institutionalised by authoritarianism.  He makes a prophetic conclusion that Japan will suffer from stagnation caused by the inflexibility of the keiretsu system (which indeed happened and is still happening), as well as a rather random argument that China is on the verge of political collapse and break-up (which is far from happening in hindsight).

I get this thrilling sense that with all his rhetoric and polemic diatribes against Asian values and the Singapore School, he is very much the ideological nemesis to Kishore Mahbubani. It is even more poetic that the very article that got him into trouble with the authorities in the first place was a response to a Mahbubani essay.

All these bickering of political scientists feels rather cute.

(And yeah, since this post is sort of a book review, I would recommend it for laughs. Read with an open-mind as well as a pinch of salt.)

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One thought on “Authoritarian liberties

  1. […] the sixth day of the new year and I have completed a grand total of one book this year. In the spirit of new years and foolhardy resolutions, I have resolved to read 50 books […]

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