Lee Kwan Yew: A case of a wise, benevolent dictatorship achieving what democracy could not

I have great admiration for what Lee Kwan Yew achieved for Singapore and for Singaporeans as a virtual dictator. I do not see that any “open democracy” could have achieved anything remotely similar. He became Prime Minister in 1959, campaigned for the merger with Malaysia which took place in 1963 and then oversaw the separation from Malaysia in 1965. He stepped down in 1990 and continued as an advisory “Senior Minister” till 2004 and then as “Minister Mentor” till 2011. He was effectively the Dictator of Singapore for over 40 years. The comparisons with Malaysia provide a picture of what “democracy” would not have brought – and could not have brought – to Singapore.

As part of a “democratic” Malaysia, the ethnic-Chinese would have been stifled by the Malays and their success would have rankled and they would have been constrained if not repressed. It would have been a case of oppression of a very able minority by a much less capable majority as is the case in Malaysia today. The separation from Malaysia ensured that the ethnic-Chinese majority in Singapore were not stifled by being a minority in Malaysia. That, with Lee’s vision, provided a lift not only for themselves but also for the Malaysian economy.

The one thing I feel that escaped him was the establishment of a pluralistic democracy to succeed him. If he had ensured that he could only be succeeded by equally able dictators, it would not matter.

Lee Kwan Yew built Singapore. He also put in place all the trappings of a multi-party democracy but was effectively the benevolent dictator who controlled every aspect of life for over 40 years (31 years officially as Prime Minister and for a decade afterwards).

But the institutions he set up for legislative representation and the judiciary are all somewhat nullified when the current reality is one of a single party, ruling in a quite authoritarian style under the cloak of a pluralistic democracy. The ruling party has been quite ruthless in using legalities and a compliant judiciary to exclude rival political parties as soon as they begin to show any signs of becoming popular.

What he leaves behind is a one-party “democracy”, “but Lee Kwan Yew’s legacy will not be so easily  overturned when the majority perceive – as they do – that they have it “pretty good”  and maintaining the status quo is far better than the uncertain benefits of an increased level of freedom”.

This is not meant to be an obituary for Lee Kwan Yew. There are plenty of those: here and here for example. What his death reminds me is that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a dictatorship as a political system. And it is not certain that any democracy must be “better” than a dictatorship. In fact I am inclined to think that any democracy needs subordinated “dictatorships” to be able to function.

In any situation where there are many courses of action, there has to be a course of action that is “best”. The “best” course of action – by any definition – in any type of society or gathering of humans is – per force – a minority view. A “democracy” in any gathering gives no assurance that the “best” actions will guide or lead that gathering – only that the majority view will prevail. It can only be a very rare coincidence that the “majority view” coincides with the “best view” of actions to be taken. Every corporate manager is required to be something of a dictator. It is his selection which determines whether he is one of the “best” for the situation he is to manage. The good managers are those dictators who lead and manage to carry their constituencies along. The US President is given some dictatorial powers for the duration of his term. It is the selection of the President which must determine whether he is any good but the democratic process does not necessarily select the “best”. It is the fundamental weakness of democracies that the “majority views” which prevail have no necessary connection to the “correct view” or the “best view”.

Maybe Lee Kwan Yew was just an accident – the right person for the times. But he surely was a wise and benevolent dictator. So I am led to conclude that while democracies avoid the worst they will almost never provide the best. Democracies are great levellers – but they level down. Like evolution, they do not drive towards excellence; they settle for the “good enough”. It is with a dictatorship – however constrained – that one may get a chance for the best.



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