Thursday, 26 March 2015

The Singapore Grip

The eulogies for Lee Kwan Yew highlight the gap that exists between domestic political theory and international practice. This is not just a matter of "realism" - i.e. accepting that we don't have a right to automatically project our values onto others - but a recognition that a nation's international dealings, and its attitude to foreign exemplars, are usually more indicative of the political elite's actual priorities and beliefs than its domestic practice is. This is because there is no effective democratic constraint and public opinion is relatively weak. Indeed, domestic public opinion is more likely to be outraged when we do attempt to project our values (e.g. Iraq) than when we routinely connive in the abuses of foreign governments (e.g. Saudi Arabia).

Beyond the polite praise for his "nation-building" in an ethnically heterogeneous city state, what foreign elites most admired about Lee Kwan Yew was his long monopoly of power, which enabled this "strategist" and "statesman" to deliver the "stability" (i.e. predictability of government policy and absence of economic dissent) that capital prizes above all else. As Henry Kissinger put it, "A world needing to distill order from incipient chaos will miss his leadership". In fact, Lee's role beyond the confines of Singapore island owed more to Jeremy Clarkson than Clemens von Metternich, being that of a "politically incorrect" iconoclast: "I’m not intellectually convinced that one-man, one-vote is the best ... we would have a better system if we gave every man over the age of 40 who has a family two votes because he’s likely to be more careful".

Lee was unwavering in his contempt for democracy and pluralism: "In the East the main object is to have a well-ordered society so that everybody can have maximum enjoyment of his freedoms. This freedom can only exist in an ordered state and not in a natural state of contention and anarchy". While the long list of offences defining the boundaries of freedom in Singapore became notorious, what Western commentators usually ignored, amidst the condign punishments for chewing gum and littering, was that the "maximum enjoyment of his freedoms" is a concept imported from Utilitarianism. The East Asian model is less a departure from capitalism than a reprise of its classic form (complete with coal mines, manufacturing and merchant banking) but without the concession of democracy occasioned by World War One. Singapore was a better yesterday, and not just for Empire nostalgists in the long bar of the Raffles Hotel.

East Asian countries (and China in particular) are often "explained" in the West by a supposed Confucian reverence for order and a concomitant fear of chaos. This is ahistorical and superficial, like claiming that you can get the inside track on Syriza by reading Plato. While the "ancients" can still provide ethical insights, they are not sociologists or contemporary political scientists. East Asian politicians have long exploited the cultural legacy of Confucius to justify authoritarianism, social conservatism and the seizure of power (the "Mandate of Heaven"), in the same way that we invoke Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights. Lee himself was clearly enamoured of the Confucian idea of the Junzi, the leader whose personal integrity is an example to all, which partly explains why he became a poster-boy for more compromised Western politicians, but this ignores the debt of the Cambridge-trained lawyer to Classical Liberalism, and it also ignores the obvious nepotism and cronyism at the heart of the Singapore state.

Rather than the iron will of Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore's prosperity over the last 50 years was down to its favoured geographical location as an entrepot, its convenience as a financial bolt-hole, and the growth in global business services. The emphasis placed by Lee's government on commercial probity and low levels of state graft was entirely pragmatic, much like similar claims made around trust and privacy in the pre-80s City of London and Switzerland. Surrounded by corrupt authoritarian regimes, both communist and anti-communist, and with a riskier Hong Kong as its chief competitor as a service centre and manufacturing base, Singapore's USP in the region was to be both authoritarian (and thus discreet) and honest (and thus a safe haven for money). Its spectacular growth was based on a rapid expansion of the population and low corporate taxes. That model is now under strain as the population plateaus and foreign direct investment finds more lucrative opportunities elsewhere in the region.

The response to Lee's death abroad has been comically revealing. In their eulogies, most other East Asian leaders have gamely emphasised cooperation, friendship and respect. Lee didn't suffer fools, didn't appreciate criticism, and was instinctively arrogant rather than diplomatic. Obama and Bush II noted his profuse "advice", which is ironic given his tendency to opine on what he saw as moral decline in the US ("there’s already a backlash in America against failed social policies that have resulted in people urinating in public, in aggressive begging in the streets, in social breakdown"). Vladimir Putin notes that "he earned his compatriots' sincere love and respect and won the highest international influence", which is perhaps an insight into the Russian's current state of mind rather than an assessment of Lee. In contrast, what are we to make of Francois Hollande's pathetic "France has lost a friend" and David Cameron's rueful "His place in history is assured"?

In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, the totalitarian state of Eastasia's ruling ideology is "called by a Chinese name usually translated as Death-worship, but perhaps better rendered as 'Obliteration of the Self'". I suspect that this was one of the few intentional (if obscure) jokes in the book, satirising the tendency of the British to treat Asians as a mass of ant-like workers lacking individuality. As a former policeman in Burma, Orwell was well acquainted with imperial racism and the dehumanisation of the native population. The idea that East Asians are happiest when they sublimate their ambitions into the good of the wider community is not just a cynical justification for foreign authoritarianism; it's held up as an example for domestic audiences by the very same elites that bang on about our hallowed liberties. As Max Hastings has it, "A hang 'em and flog 'em despot - but golly, we can learn from the man who made Singapore stinking rich".

A more humorous book, and one centred on Lee Kwan Yew's backyard, was J G Farrell's 1978 novel, The Singapore Grip, which tells the tale of the city's fall to the Japanese in 1942 and lays bare the structural failings that will bring about the end of the British Empire in the East, notably snobbish conservatism, cupidity and a contempt for independent thought. One of the characters retails an anecdote about William of Orange being ferried across the river after the Battle of the Boyne. The boatman asks the (new) King how went the day. King Billy replies, "What's it to you? You'll still be a boatman". I'm sure both Lee Kwan Yew and Max Hastings would understand.

1 comment:

  1. You haven't raised the major question!

    Did he make the trains run on time?

    (Nice mention of 'The Singapore Grip' by the way)