Claude Baumann: «Autocracy at the Equator»

Claude Baumann

Claude Baumann

Singapore is still subject to many prejudices, and it is about time these false perceptions were corrected, writes finews.asia editor-in-chief Claude Baumann for finews.first.


finews.first is a forum for renowned authors specialized on economic and financial topics. The texts are published in both German and English. The contributions appear in cooperation with Pictet, the Geneva-based private bank. The publishers of finews.asia are responsible for the selection.


Singapore has had an emotional year. Fifty years since independence, the city state at the equator suffered the loss of its founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who died on March 23 at the age of 91. During a week of official mourning, practically the entire population – voluntarily – paid their respects to this man; standing in burning heat or lashing rain to file past the coffin or lining the streets when the funeral cortege passed by.

With the same degree of participation, Singaporeans gathered again in August to celebrate the young state’s fiftieth anniversary in the city’s most beautiful squares.

Several newspaper commentators made the observation in the autumn, that these two central events of 2015 are what encouraged voters to give the ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), an overwhelming majority in the September elections. Because it was none other than PAP pioneer Lee Kuan Yew, with his political credo and his tenacity, who made Singapore what it is today: a multi-cultural state with a standard of living among the highest in the world.

«People in the West are much more likely to refer to Singapore as a dictatorship»

Many people in the West have a different perception of Singapore. They are much more likely to refer to the tiny state in Southeast Asia as a dictatorship, than they are when talking about Cuba, for example. Although Singapore is credited with impressive economic performance, it is willfully reduced to a few stereotypes, such as the home of the chewing-gum ban, media censorship and the death penalty, a Nanny state deciding what’s best for its citizens from the cradle to the grave.

Of course such associations do not come out of thin air. In the sixties, seventies and eighties, hundreds of critical citizens were incarcerated or forced to emigrate. But these facts tend to ignore the unrivaled development over the past half century of the city state, a development from an emerging country to one of the richest places on earth.

During this time the population, never limited in freedom of movement, has been able to share in the growth of prosperity. You would have to travel far to find its equal – especially in the «Cauldron» of Asia, as described by the American publicist Robert D. Kaplan. Alas, it is not possible to answer the question how well Singapore would have developed if the opposition would have been free.

«The government has always demonstrated willingness to move with the times»

Similar to Switzerland, Singapore has a reliable legal system, negligible corruption, stable political conditions, a strong currency, a well-functioning health and social welfare system, as well as first class education opportunities. It should go without saying that it was not possible to achieve such conditions without a certain degree of harshness, discipline and perseverance, especially when one considers the unstable political, economic and social conditions of Singapore’s neighboring countries.

In addition to these visible benefits, other less obvious qualities are present in Singapore, such as a well-functioning state apparatus (thanks partly to very good salary levels for civil servants), the peaceful coexistence of different cultures in the smallest space, as well Singapore’s ability to secure an important linking role between the world powers USA and China. At the same time the government has kept the country free of any imposition of communism, without neglecting its own right to be a strong state, occasionally resorting to brutal repression. Despite this approach, the government has always demonstrated willingness to move with the times, to be open to new developments, anticipate changes and derive opportunities from them.

«This concept of order does not necessarily match our Western understanding of democracy»

All this is due to Lee Kuan Yew, his family and entourage, who have dominated the power apparatus to this day and have run Singapore relatively rigidly like a company. This does not have to be a bad thing, per se, but it definitely leaves room for practices that aren’t necessarily in line with democratic principles. That is exactly the sticking point for Western critics. But, considering that Singapore is surrounded by unstable neighbors, it is worth reflecting on the merits of imposing a certain strictness and order as opposed to mimicking a pseudo democracy, the path taken by some other Asian countries.

Order alone is no guarantee for development and progress, as the nineteenth century English philosopher John Stuart Mill stated. But order is essential, sooner or later, if development and progress are to be maintained. Of course this concept of order does not necessarily match our Western understanding of democracy, however it does reflect the body of thought of the Chinese, who make up close to 80 per cent of the population in Singapore. Order in the family, village and politics is relied upon as the uppermost maxim for the flourishing of an entire system.

In the end the following question is decisive: How do those in power deal with order? Lee Kuan Yew always proved himself to be a «good autocrat», putting his principles into practice in a consistent way. Through this he achieved an integrity associated with statesmen of his kind. It is noteworthy that he counted leaders from many ideological camps as his friends, including Helmut Schmidt, Deng Xioaping and Ronald Reagan.

«This is a manifestation of the will to stick to certain values, instead of pleasing everyone»

Lee Kuan Yew was never found to have carried out any excesses or to have abused his power for particular interests. The well-being of his people always came first. Like anybody else, he defended himself from criticism targeted at him as a person, and because of his strong character he did this as effectively as he did everything else.

Singapore’s 50th anniversary celebrations provided the first real opportunity to undertake a historically meaningful assessment of the state. It could be seen that Lee Kuan Yew managed to transfer power into new hands, power that has remained reliable and true to its principles but at the same open to change.

To this day Singapore is a safe and stable country, but one which is also facing the great challenges of our time: an ageing population, immigration, terrorism, poverty, racism and globalization. Understanding what it means to preserve values and achievements, Lee Kuan Yew’s successors do not shy away from following a political course that – especially from a Western viewpoint – sometime takes an inflexible form, for example in the application of justice. But in contrast to Western societies, this is a manifestation of the will to stick to certain values, instead of pleasing everyone, as is often in the case in the European Union, for example.

«These forms of communication contribute a lot to a diversity of opinion in the city state of Singapore»

At the same time, the government remains open to changes in society and the media, because these are crucial for the prosperity of the country. Against this background it is interesting to see that books that are critical of the state are available in bookstores and selling well. This spirit of openness is even more evident in online and social media, which are omnipresent in a modern state like Singapore. These forms of communication contribute a lot to a diversity of opinion in the city state of Singapore; in reality censorship only persists in the heads of the most stubborn critics.

In the elections of 2011, a surprisingly large number of Singapore residents voted for the opposition, indicating that it was important to them that the anti-government positions were expressed. Last year, amazingly, this phenomenon was not repeated. Firstly, because the opposition failed to make a convincing case against the 50-year success model, and secondly, because people have an outlet to find and discuss controversial opinions and voices today through social media. That has led to a palpable emancipation in the population, who have been controlled for long enough, under the workings of the Nanny State. Even entrepreneurship is no longer a foreign word in Singapore, as is shown by developments in the world-leading Fintech sector.

The fact that Lee Hsien Loong, current prime minister and son of Lee Kuan Yew, is himself a gifted user of social media goes to show that Singapore is committed to the changing times and has adopted the tools of free expression.


Claude Baumann is co-founder of finews.ch. He used to write for Weltwoche and Finanz und Wirtschaft. He also co-founded the publishers Nagel & Kimche and launched the business travel magazine Arrivals. He’s the author of several books on the banking industry.

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