The World Admires Singapore’s Benevolent Autocracy. Should It?

Do benevolent autocracies get better results than democracies? I’ve pondered this question since last summer, when I heard highly educated Kenyans tell me that democracy hadn’t brought the economic development they sorely need. They gushed about the way that Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore, transformed his impoverished city-state into one of the wealthiest societies on earth in just one generation.

Consider that in 1960, Singapore and Jamaica had roughly the same G.D.P. per capita — about $425, according to World Bank data. By 2021, Singapore’s G.D.P. had risen to $72,794, while Jamaica’s was just $5,181. It’s no wonder that Lee Kuan Yew has become a folk hero. It’s not hard to find people from South Africa, Lebanon and Sri Lanka praying for their own Lee Kuan Yew.

Last month, President Biden hosted his second democracy summit and gave a speech about the epic global struggle between democracy and autocracy. Singapore — a U.S. partner rated “partly free” by Freedom House — was not invited. But Washington’s talking points about the imperative of democracy ignore a simple fact: Some autocrats are admired because they get results.

While established democracies do better economically than autocracies overall, the handful of autocrats who focused on economic growth — rather than their own Swiss bank accounts — have managed to outperform fledgling democracies, according to Ronald Gilson, professor emeritus of law and business at Columbia University, who co-wrote a 2011 paper, “Economically Benevolent Dictators: Lessons for Developing Democracies.” Chile under Augusto Pinochet, South Korea under Park Chung-hee and China under Deng Xiaoping stand out as countries that achieved wholesale economic transformation, while weak democracies stagnated.

The paper, which was co-written by Curtis Milhaupt of Stanford Law School, spells out why benevolent authoritarians have an easier time plugging their countries into the global economy. Elites tend to resist big changes that would cut into their own bottom lines, even if those changes are good for the country. Autocrats have more tools to get them on board. An autocrat’s word can convince job-creating investors that their businesses will be protected, filling the void of a shaky court system. In a benevolent autocracy, legitimacy often comes not from elections but from the ability to show material improvements in people’s lives. In a democracy, leaders are often too busy fending off political challenges to make grand economic plans. They are frequently voted out of office before they can see those plans through. To win elections, politicians make short-term promises — like cutting taxes while increasing benefits — that don’t always make economic sense in the long run.

But benevolent autocracies have fatal flaws, too. Benevolent dictators are hard to find. There’s no guarantee that they will stay benevolent or that their successors will be as competent. After a country successfully transitions its economy, the advantages of this system seem to fade. But by then, a system of nearly unchecked power at the top has been entrenched.

Singapore is a case in point. Lee Kuan Yew contended that people don’t pine for democracy. First and foremost, he said, “they want homes, medicine, jobs, schools,” according to the 1998 book “Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas.” He provided those things by pairing business-friendly policies from the West (predictable courts, low taxes, zero tolerance for corruption and an embrace of meritocracy) with socialist-leaning policies from autocracies (heavy government involvement in economic planning and little tolerance for dissent). He created a vast system of public housing, where about 80 percent of Singaporeans currently live. People buy and resell long-term leases to government-built apartments with money the government essentially forced them to save. Singapore holds elections, but the ruling party, which controls much of the media and a host of lucrative jobs, has remained in power since independence.

Anyone who has visited the city-state of nearly six million people has seen how much cleaner and safer and more orderly it feels than the United States. Its airport doubles as a high-end mall. Public gardens bloom free of the litter, pickpockets or homeless encampments that have become familiar sights in U.S. cities. Robberies are so rare — and surveillance so pervasive — that some high-end bars don’t even lock their doors at night. Ferraris and Lamborghinis are everywhere, as if the slogan “a chicken in every pot” had turned into “a sports car in every parking space.”

But now, eight years after the death of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore is at a crossroads. It’s being run by his eldest son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who leans heavily on his father’s legacy. Elections for the largely ceremonial post of president are expected in September and parliamentary elections are due by 2025. The prime minister’s potential successor has already been picked. But the ruling People’s Action Party has never looked so vulnerable.

Critics say Singapore is becoming more like a plutocracy, in which well-paid yes men with the right connections to the Lee family rise up the ranks. Today, Singapore is a place where forklift operators can face jail time for taking one-dollar bribes but executives from the Singaporean conglomerate Keppel — who paid millions in bribes, according to the U.S. Justice Department — got off with “stern warnings.” (Officials in Singapore have said that they didn’t have enough evidence to take the case to court.)

The trouble is that the system requires someone like Lee Kuan Yew at the top — strict and charismatic, as Michael Barr, author of “Singapore: A Modern History,” told me. “But no one who has that political skill would ever rise to the top today because that person would be regarded as a threat,” he said.

Perhaps the clearest sign that something in Singapore has gone wrong is the fact that Lee Kuan Yew’s youngest son and one of his grandsons say they are now living in exile, fearful that they would be arrested if they ever returned.

“My uncle doesn’t want competing claims to legitimacy,” Lee Kuan Yew’s grandson Shengwu Li told me over a cup of tea in Cambridge, Mass. “Authoritarian systems don’t survive by taking chances. If they think there’s a 5 percent chance I’ll be a problem for them, they want that to be zero.”

The irony is that Mr. Li, a 38-year-old assistant professor of economics at Harvard who was just awarded a top honor in his field, doesn’t have political ambitions. Soft-spoken and cerebral, he says he’s happy working on his theorems in a place where nobody gives him special treatment because he’s related to Lee Kuan Yew. After 10 years studying at Oxford and Stanford, he got used to certain freedoms.

In the summer of 2017, while he was visiting his parents in Singapore, he wrote comments in a private Facebook post that criticized the government for using the courts to silence its critics. The government is “very litigious and has a pliant court system,” he wrote. Soon after, he got a tip that he was about to be prosecuted for it. He hurried back to the United States. Even during the Trump administration, which was known for its harsh treatment of immigrants, he felt relieved to land on American soil because he knew there were independent judges, he told me. He was convicted in absentia in Singapore for “scandalizing the judiciary” and fined $15,000, which bars him from running for parliament for five years.

Last month, officials in Singapore announced an ongoing police investigation of Shengwu Li’s parents, who are accused of manipulating a 90-year-old Lee Kuan Yew into changing his will and lying about it afterward. The accusation stems from a simmering disagreement over the fate of the family home, which Lee Kuan Yew said publicly at times that he wanted demolished after his death.

Lee Hsien Yang, Lee Kuan Yew’s youngest son, says he has been fighting to honor his father’s wish not to have a cult of personality built around the house. But he says his elder brother, the prime minister, wants to preserve the house as a national monument to bolster his own political legitimacy. Lee Hsien Yang spoke out publicly against his brother, only to get hit with an investigation. Eventually, he fled the country, like his son. It seems to be an example of what Kenneth Paul Tan, a Singaporean professor of cultural studies, calls the “politics of evermore sophisticated bullying.” At its core, the fight isn’t about a house or a will. It’s about the future of Singapore.

“The institutions in Singapore, whether it is the judiciary, the civil service, the army, the institutions of higher learning, have all gradually come under direct control in a way that stifles independent thinking and challenge,” Lee Hsien Yang told me. Lee Kuan Yew would solicit different views and occasionally change his mind, he said. “Today, the Singapore authorities no longer have people who would challenge the system to say, ‘Here’s my view. I don’t think you are doing the right thing.’ They are too well-paid.”

(Ho Moon Shin, a government spokesperson, denied that Lee Hsien Yang and Shengwu Li are in exile, saying they are traveling on Singaporean passports and are free to return home. She also said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recused himself from the cases involving the family house.)

Lee Hsien Yang and his son Shengwu Li avoided politics for most of their lives, but since the feud over the house burst into public view, both have voiced sympathy for the political opposition, lending the legitimacy of that crucial family name. Yet their ability to help the opposition has been curtailed by the accusations against them. The episode has exposed the cracks in Singapore’s celebrated system. If Lee Kuan Yew’s son and grandson can feel compelled to flee, what can happen to ordinary people?

Political scientists weren’t sure that Singapore’s highly successful system would outlast Lee Kuan Yew. By the end of his life, even the great man himself spoke of preparing for the day when his party would lose power. That’s the thing about benevolent autocracies: They tend to expire. They either cease to be autocracies — as happened in South Korea and Chile — or they cease to be benevolent.

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