There are lessons to be learned from the rise and decline of Venice as the foremost naval and economic power in the Mediterranean between the early 12th and late 18th century – but which are the pertinent ones for Singaporeans?
I can think of at least two.
First, Venice rose to become a great maritime empire (Stato da Mar in the Venetian dialect) because it gave its citizens a say in their governance and a chance to share in its growing prosperity. In 1171, the powers of the Doge, the de facto monarch, were diluted and devolved to a Great Council comprising mostly merchants.
A lottery would be held to pick nominators for candidates to the council. After the nominators forwarded their list, Venetians would vote to decide who among the nominees would get a seat. More significant was the introduction of the colleganza, essentially a form of joint-stock company created to finance a single trading expedition to distant shores.
In effect, through a colleganza, the man in the street could buy a small stake in any voyage organised by established merchants and make money if the goods brought back were sold for a profit.
This opened the economy to every citizen who cared to calculate the risk, return and profit in, say, sailing to Morocco or Turkey for spice.
It encouraged grass roots entrepreneurship and led to Venice’s emergence as the greatest trading centre in the region, a city state organised to buy and sell, with few bureaucratic obstacles strewn in its path.
What is the relevance of all this to the Singapore of today?
I think this bit of Venetian history should provide food for thought from several perspectives. First, do Singaporeans feel they have an adequate say, beyond the regular general elections, in how they are being governed and if they have views on policies that affect their lives, are these being heard?
Second, is the sharing of Singapore’s economic success broad and deep enough and if not, how should Singapore address this disparity without blunting the country’s competitiveness and prospects for growth?
And are there too many safeguards and checks, which, though well-intentioned, add up to formidable barriers to the kind of risk-taking and entrepreneurship that a 21st century economy needs?
The second lesson is that Venice sealed its fate when it concentrated all political and economic power in the hands of a minority.
Doubtless there are other important factors accounting for its decline, such as the rise of bigger maritime powers like the Netherlands and England, but the corrosive effects of letting a few decide all and take all snuffed out Venice’s elixir of life and vibrancy.
The eventual dismantling of institutions that had served Venice well began in 1297 when it passed a law restricting membership of the Great Council to male descendants of noble families already represented in the body.
To complete the segregation, a Libro d’Oro, or Golden Book, essentially an official register of the nobility, was published in 1315. If a Venetian’s name was not in it, then he would not be part of the ruling oligarchy. Known later as the infamous la serrata, or the closure, this exclusion of ordinary citizens was soon extended to the economic sphere.
Not long after, the colleganza was banned altogether. Though the oligarchy was hereditary, to begin with, the Golden Book was opened in 1381 to new entrants – at a price of 100,000 ducats for anyone with connections and who had done some sort of public service. What further hastened Venice’s downfall was the brazen feeding off the public trough by the people of the Golden Book.
Practically everyone from a noble family was given an official post or paid a salary from state coffers – in many cases for doing nothing. Abuses abounded, of which the employment of blind men as lookouts on ships is just one outrageous example! With this steady stream of money, there was no longer any impetus to take risks and invest in maritime trading.
Worse, what money the noble families extracted went into property speculation instead of productive industries, or lavish spending. And so, over time, Venice went down the tube. In the end, it could not even afford to pay its mercenary army enough to defend itself and was absorbed into the Austrian empire in 1797.
If Singaporeans need a further, and Asian, example of how political stratification and concentration of all power in the hands of a few brought down an empire, they might want to look at Han dynasty China. What prevailed then was a lang-li society, as eminent Chinese historian Qian Mu called it, with lang being the body of officials in central government, appointed because they scored well in imperial examinations, and li, the lower-ranked officers who carried out policies decided by the former.
As it turned out, the lang class colluded with eunuchs in the imperial court as well as relatives and appointees of the empress in grand larceny.
Open rebellion followed not long after.
There is no Golden Book in Singapore but I know there are Singaporeans who are alienated by what they see as a ruling class of elites who often say they have thought through everything and are disdainful of contrary views.
In this regard, I welcome the ruling party’s latest assertion that it wants to be inclusive and maintain a shared space where differences can be aired without eroding social cohesion.
I look forward to that.
Leslie Fong is a former editor of The Straits Times