Lee Kuan Yew (16 September 1923 – 23 March 2015) was founder and Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore. He started out as an advocate for Beatrice Webb’s societal view.
Lee shifted right to counteract communism and tighten control over Singapore. He ended closer to Hayek‘s views while developing a unique blend of authoritarianism, self-sufficiency, and meritocracy. In the process of his transformation, Lee Kuan Yew molded Singapore according to his principles.
As a result, Singapore has become the economic success it is today. Micklethwait and Wooldridge, the authors of The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State portray Lee and his Singapore as the model for the economic rise of China and the rest of Asia. They also pose the possibility that Singapore is the model for success of authoritarianism over democracy.
Singapore is a night-watchman state that provides its citizens with economic opportunities and control over how they fund their healthcare and pensions. In return, citizens must not challenge the social order.
Rather than Western democratic governance and generous benefits, Lee’s model is elitist, authoritarian, and parsimonious. This approach follows from Lee’s fundamental axiom: “human beings, regrettable though it may be, are inherently vicious and have to be restrained from their viciousness.”
Like Lee, other Asian nations sense that Western political dead lock and economic sluggishness point to the failure of liberal democracy. Additionally, their own economic growth puts them in competition with each other and good government seems to be the way to succeed. Asian nations are therefore looking at Lee’s model.
Although self-sufficiency is a core Eastern value, the entire experiment might derail as their populations prosper and age. Almost everyone eventually wants bread and circuses if they can get it.
The Singaporean State
“We decide what is right,” Lee once said. “Never mind what the people think.” “I do not believe that democracy necessarily leads to development,” Lee remarked to Philippine hosts in 1992. “The exuberance of democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions.” He also said, “what a country needs to develop is discipline more than democracy.”
To Westerners, Singaporean government looks like Plato’s Republic, composed of chosen guardians of society. Actually, it is modelled on China’s mandarin tradition of merit selected elites who rule administratively.
Singapore identifies individuals with potential early. It gives them scholarships and trains them afterward for service. Those that make it can receive pay packages upward of two million dollars per year. Those who don’t are thrown overboard.
This elite acquires over time both private and public administration experience. They apply best practice management techniques to both state dominated enterprises and government. They rotate between the two for the benefit of the citizens and shareholders that they serve.
With regard to social benefits, Lee had said: “westerners have abandoned an ethical basis for society…In the East, we start with self-reliance. In the West today, it is the opposite.” Western leaders made charity an entitlement: “and the stigma of living on charity disappeared.”
Lee also said: “When you have popular democracy, to win votes you have to give more. And to beat your opponent in the next election, you have to promise to give more away. So it is a never-ending process of auctions—and the cost, the debt being paid for by the next generation.”
Self-reliant Singaporeans pay a fifth [although the rate has varied] into the Central Provident Fund. Employers pay about fifteen percent more to the fund. Most of what a citizen receives from the fund (about 90%) is tied to what they pay in. Hard work is thereby rewarded.
Other countries are trying to duplicate Singapore’s success. Dubai has a modern financial district, exclusive shopping malls, state-run companies, a Government Excellence Program, and they use Harvard Business School professor Robert Kaplan ‘s key performance indicators (KPI) as metrics of their progress.
China shares Lee’s concerns about the west: democracy isn’t efficient, society and the economy need direction, and right governance means success and survival. It has the world’s second largest economy. It is the largest energy consumer, merchandise exporter, smartphone market, and foreign holder of US debt. China is home to the most of the world’s millionaires and billionaires and has accomplished the largest poverty reduction in history. Lee had said that China will reach its former prominence in thirty to fifty years but warned, if it pursued liberal democracy, “It would collapse.”
However, China’s leadership is not so credulous to ignore the fact that most cities use land grabs as a means to balance their budgets. While Shanghai is ranked at the top of OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), primary and secondary education receives short shrift when compared with bribing local officials. Old corruption, similar to early nineteenth century Britain, is pervasive.
According to the authors, China has tried to follow Singapore most closely in state capitalism and in meritocratically selected administrators (rather than democratically elected officials). China’s implementation of these two aspects of state control are good in part, say the authors.
China’s state directed capitalism follows a long tradition from the East India Company to Korea’s Chaebol. However, they’ve taken control further. The authors quote the Party Committee of the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC): “Where there are people, there are Party organizations and Party activities.” The state directs many state-owned enterprises (SOE)
The State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) oversees the SOEs by appointing top executives, approving mergers, approving stock or asset sales, and drafting SOE related laws.
The Organization Department of the Communist Party of China controls more than 70 million personnel assignments throughout government and industry. In that role it compiles detailed and confidential reports on future Party leaders. It is a highly trusted and secretive agency at the institutional heart of the Party system.
According to the authors, the SOEs are still expected to compete abroad and use modern management techniques internally. They have to meet common industry wide strategic goals while exercising relative freedom in daily operational decisions. Company management informs government management and vice versa in what the authors call “joined-up capitalism.”
State capitalism is an instrument of foreign policy and initiative. SOEs fund eighty percent of foreign direct investment. Through loans from state banks, China has woven a web of foreign economic and policy advances. China is fostering Lee’s ideas through the China Executive Leadership Academy in Pudong (CELAP) which trains their best and brightest leaders. They also counterbalance Davos with the Boao Forum for Asia. This is how China exercises soft power.
However, SOEs are viewed by investors as favoring government interests over their own. Corruption is a disincentive for investment. SOEs can be forced to implement state policy. Further, SOEs attract capital that more independent Chinese companies might otherwise put toward more innovative use leading to faster growth.
The authors point out that intellectual and cultural freedom lead to breakthrough ideas and vibrant competition. Although some think that SOEs will wither away as the economy grows, others are not so sanguine. For state capitalism to work well, you need a strong and competent state. We’ve see how that’s worked in the past.
China originated the concept we in the West refer to as mandarin administration. They instituted formal civil service examinations in 605 AD. The authors quote a common saying, popular for a thousand years, that Chinese parents tell their children: “those who work with strength are ruled. Those who work with their minds manage others. Those who excel in scholarship become officials.”
China’s elite agrees with Lee Kuan Yew’s opinion that meritocracy offers more benefits than democracy such as long term planning and leadership succession without pressure to win votes at the expense of societal breakdown.
Recruitment starts at university rather than the factory. Candidates need to excel at the Central Party School and CELAP. Then they prove themselves as competent administrators by running a province (maybe as large as several European countries combined). More recently, these leaders are called to prove their business skills running an SOE.
Young leaders of the future, selected and promoted up the ranks based on merit, tackle big problems. They’ve had both government and industry experience. Increasingly, they have had graduate level training or work experiences in countries around the world. They conduct civil service in a business-like manner using best practices culled from successful examples proven globally.
The authors are quick to point out that elitism comes with problems. They cite the example of a deputy who was denied office space to meet with locals to conduct his part in an anticorruption drive. Ordinary citizens with legitimate grievances are hard-pressed to get a hearing with officials, let alone a satisfactory resolution. They vent their anger on one of many Weibo, a Twitter equivalent, complaining of inefficient government, failing schools, unsanitary hospitals, and inept officials.
President Xi Jinping sends leaders from Beijing into the provinces to instill order. But, citing a Chinese proverb, the authors point out: “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away.” And the leaders are not as meritorious as they would have everyone believe. Many in the upper echelons are “red princelings:” offspring of the Communist Party elite.
Inside or outside the party, leaders systematically accumulate wealth and privilege using their power. The authors cite an internet posting:
They drive top-brand cars. They go to exclusive night bars. They sleep on the softest beds in the best hotels. Their furniture is all of the best red wood. Their houses overlook the best landscapes, in the quietest locations. They play golf, travel at public expense, and enjoy a life of luxury.
But, the authors say, it is the same the world over. And it is, unfortunately.
China’s economic and world power rise validates its authoritarianism to its people and many in the world at-large. It poses a challenge and viable alternative to the Western liberal democratic, capitalistic model. Singapore has managed its success on the strength of its now deceased leader. However, Asians, like the rest of the world, increasingly want a generous social safety net.
China’s economic growth is slipping as its population is aging. Corruption at the local level and vast unpaid (and unpayable?) debts threaten stability. Western impulses for bread and circuses already surge through its citizenry. Although there is hope that representative democracy might develop, the populace is so diverse that the center is sure not to hold. Censorship can prevent unrest only so long.
However, Asia as a whole is still trying to improve government. They have a fresh start and innovative technologies and techniques may yet provide efficient social services and governance (even if not democratic) that are responsive to their citizens. Singapore and the Nordic countries provide a way forward. If only the West would follow suit to revamp their now illiberal democracies.
Here is yet another presentation by the authors of: The Fourth Revolution: the global race to reinvent the state.
The Fourth Revolution: the global race to reinvent the state
A memorial tribute to Mr. Lee Kuan Yew.