Why authoritarian rule eventually fails

Paul Harris

Singapore is clean, green, efficient, well-ordered and rich. Its standard of education is high. Officials from around the world visit it to see how it is governed. A comfortable life is available for anyone willing to work reasonably hard and do what the government says. But if you criticise the government even mildly, it will make your life impossible.

Before the Hong Kong handover I was often asked if the Singapore model represented Hong Kong's future. So I invited the Singapore opposition leader, Chee Soon Juan, here in early 1997 to address a meeting on 'The Singapore model - some lessons for Hong Kong'.

Dr Chee was amazed and delighted at Hong Kong's freedom. He said that non-governmental organisations like Human Rights Monitor, which criticised the government, would never be permitted in Singapore. Nor would meetings of the kind at which he spoke. Nor would protest marches of the kind which are a daily occurrence here.

Dr Chee, a neuropsychologist, is a person so moderate and restrained that in most democracies he would never have entered politics. Only in a place hyper-sensitive to criticism could his mild calls for more civil liberty generate controversy. In Singapore he has been repeatedly arrested and jailed for holding meetings without a permit, and bankrupted by a series of libel actions brought against him by government ministers.

Singapore's situation is topical again because of developments elsewhere. Recession is sweeping the west but has not yet hit China. Fear of terrorism has made western countries less concerned about traditional freedoms. The invasion of Iraq and politics of US President George W. Bush have lowered American prestige. Oil-rich Russia is prosperous under a style of authoritarian rule developed by Vladimir Putin, whose officials have visited Singapore for inspiration.

There are concerns that a new form of authoritarianism is emerging in the world, not Communist or Fascist, under which a comfortable life is available to those who do not rock the boat. Many fear this authoritarianism may sweep away many democracies.

'Benevolent dictatorship' has always been popular. But its supporters cannot answer the question 'What do you do when the dictator stops being benevolent?' All power tends to corrupt, but a genuine democracy limits the power of the rulers, as they know that if they become too corrupt they will soon be replaced by an alternative government. This basic advantage of democracy does not change, but is periodically forgotten by voters, seduced by easy promises of quick action on complex problems through authoritarian solutions.

The new authoritarianism will not defeat democracy. Singapore will remain in its vanguard for the moment, through Lee Kuan Yew's prestige as founder of independent Singapore. But I am confident that within my life-time Singapore will become a real democracy, and gain the modest civil liberties for which Dr Chee has campaigned for so long.

Paul Harris is a barrister and was the founding chairman of Human Rights Monitor