Lee Kuan Yew

Beijing sees only a distorted version of the Singapore model

Minxin Pei says China ignores a key aspect of its governance - free elections

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 March, 2015, 1:22pm
UPDATED : Friday, 07 July, 2017, 8:06pm

The death of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding father, offers an occasion to reflect on his legacy - and, perhaps more importantly, on whether that legacy has been correctly understood.

During his 31 years as prime minister, Lee crafted a unique system of government, intricately balancing authoritarianism with democracy and state capitalism with the free market. Known as "the Singapore model", Lee's brand of governance is often mischaracterised as a one-party dictatorship superimposed on a free-market economy. His success in transforming Singapore into a prosperous city state is frequently invoked by authoritarian rulers as justification for their tight control of society - and nowhere more so than in China.

Indeed, President Xi Jinping is pursuing a transformative agenda heavily influenced by the Singapore model - a relentless war on corruption, a broad crackdown on dissent and pro-market economic reforms. The Chinese Communist Party sees in Singapore a vision of its future: the perpetuation of its monopoly on political power in a prosperous capitalist society.

But the Singapore model, as China's rulers understand it, never existed. To emulate Lee's model of government - rather than its cartoon caricature - would require allowing a far more democratic system than the Communist Party would ever tolerate.

The true secret of Lee's political genius was not his skilful use of repressive practices, such as launching lawsuits against the media or his political opponents; such tactics are unremarkable in semi-authoritarian regimes. What Lee did that was truly revolutionary was to use democratic institutions and the rule of law to curb the predatory appetite of his country's ruling elite.

Unlike China, Singapore allows opposition parties to contest in competitive and free (though not necessarily fair) elections. In the last parliamentary election in 2011, six opposition parties won a total of 40 per cent of the vote. Should the People's Action Party (PAP), the party Lee founded, lose its legitimacy due to poor governance, Singapore's voters could throw it out of office.

By holding regular competitive elections, Lee effectively established a mechanism of political self-enforcement and accountability - he gave Singaporean voters the power to decide whether the PAP should stay in power. This enforcement mechanism has maintained discipline within Singapore's ruling elite and makes its promises credible.

Regrettably, most of the rest of the world has never given Lee proper credit for crafting a hybrid system of authoritarianism and democracy that vastly improved the well-being of his country's citizens, without subjecting them to the brutality and oppression to which many of its neighbours have resorted.

China would be wise to embrace this model, by introducing a considerable degree of democracy and strengthening adherence to the rule of law. This would mean, at a minimum, legalising organised political opposition, introducing competitive elections, and creating an independent judiciary. Its citizens would benefit immensely.

Emulating Lee would allow China to achieve immense progress and become a more humane and open society with a brighter future. Sadly, there is almost no chance of this happening. When China's leaders cite the Singapore model, what they have in mind is limited to the perpetuation of their power. They want the benefits of political dominance, without the checks imposed by a competitive institutional context.

Lee may have been sceptical about the benefits of democracy, but he understood its usefulness. By contrast, China's leaders view democracy as an existential ideological threat that must be neutralised at any cost.

Unfortunately, Lee is no longer with us. But it would behoove the Communist Party - if for no other reason than simple respect for one of Asia's great statesmen - to stop appropriating the Singapore brand in the service of a completely different agenda.

Minxin Pei is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Copyright: Project Syndicate