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How Lee Kuan Yew and Hitler Both Love Authoritarian Capitalism


I wrote a letter to the Financial Times last week in response to an article dated 1 February 2015. The article, by Slavoj Zizek, international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, suggested that Lee Kuan Yew would have statues erected in his name a century from now as the founding father of authoritarian capitalism. My letter has predictably not been published although the FT did get back asking me to cut it and then that they were considering it.

Dear Sir,

I refer to the article in yesterday’s FT by Slavoj Zizek.

Let me respond as a citizen of Singapore.

The writer refers to Lee Kuan Yew as the father of authoritarian capitalism. This is simply incorrect. Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy were both authoritarian capitalist states and so were late-Czarist Russia, Bismarck’s Germany and Meiji Japan. Lee Kuan Yew and China have merely taken a pre-existing model, which was never particularly Asian, and adapted it.

At least Zizek sees through LKY’s and his son’s claims that the state they reign over is a “robust democracy” and rightly calls it authoritarian. He says that a century from now monuments will be built to Lee Kuan Yew implying that Singapore’s model is somehow superior at delivering the goods to the general population than democracy. However he is wrong to call Singapore’s or China’s model a free market one or even really a capitalist one. He is also wrong to say that it results in superior performance compared to democratic countries.

There is nothing particularly clever or novel about Singapore’s economic growth model. It is one based on access to unlimited supplies of cheap labour and cheap capital, obtained through forced savings, without any underlying growth in total factor productivity. Krugman expected this model to reach its limits pretty quickly. However Singapore, unlike China which is approaching its labour force limit, has the advantage of being a relatively small city economy surrounded by countries with large amounts of surplus labour. Singapore keeps its model going by allowing employers access to almost unlimited supplies from this labour pool. Foe many, if not most of these foreign workers, often heavily in debt to agents and middlemen, conditions constitute a modern form of slavery. Without a minimum wage, this supply of cheap labour undermines Singaporeans’ own job security and wages.

Whilst supplies of cheap labour and overinvestment in construction and infrastructure have fuelled our impressive rates of economic growth, productivity has predictably stagnated. On the Brookings 2013 ranking of the 300 fastest growing metropolitan areas, we came 61st below London. Our GDP per capita on a PPP basis was still below that of many US cities. However GDP per capita is an inaccurate measure of how productive our workers are since we work the longest hours of any developed country and our labour force to population ratio is much higher because of the large number of guest workers. As a result our GDP per hour worked is only some 60% of the US level and below that of most developed economies, let alone the major cities to which we should rightfully be compared. Our productivity has not grown at all since 2007.

China has adopted our model of extensive growth but a rapidly declining labour force and the falling profitability of investment are likely to bring an end to China’s rise in living standards earlier than Singapore. In fact Chinese growth, properly measured, has already fallen below that of India, a democratic model.

While incoherent and difficult to follow, Zizek seems to be making the argument that Western freedom is a burden for the ordinary citizen. Having to plan for your old age is worse than state provision. The freedom to make choices becomes a “burden”. People are better off when decisions are made for them by their rulers. Zizek has not discovered some new truth,. Fascist and Communist philosophers have made all these arguments about the supposed illusion of democracy and freedom since the 1920s.

The unspoken assertion is that authoritarian rulers acting benevolently will produce better results for their citizens than a democracy. Singapore’s Gini Coefficient is higher than that of the US and considerably higher if taxes and transfers are taken into account. There is no Welfare State and even the limited forms of public assistance available are very difficult to access. Health care is on a pay-as-you-go basis and despite the recent introduction of a limited health insurance scheme that is self-financing, heaven help anyone who through no fault of their own suffers a critical or chronic illness such as cancer. The choice is frequently between destitution or going without treatment.

Neither is Singapore a free-market paragon. All Singaporeans are required to contribute nearly 40% of their income to a regressive forced savings scheme, the Central Provident Fund (CPF) on which the Government pays a low rate of interest. The government on-lends the money to the sovereign wealth fund, GIC, whose Chairman is the Prime Minister. If that seems like a conflict of interests the PM’s wife is head of the other SWF, Temasek Holdings. Figures for the SWFs’ assets and performance are kept secret on the grounds of national security.

The Government owns 80% of the land that it compulsorily acquired, or rather expropriated, at prices well below market in the 1960s and 1970s. It controls the supply of housing in the same way. Money in the CPF can be used to buy overpriced housing from the Government monopoly. People can also buy private property but due to the artificial shortage of land this is out of the reach of most Singaporeans. While the ruling party, the PAP, claims that 87% of people own their own homes this is a fiction. In reality 10% own their own freehold homes that they can buy and sell without restriction with all the burdens that attach to freedom. 87% of our population are on 99-year leasehold in tower blocks built on land owned by the government. Singapore’s form of apartheid, the Ethnic Integration Act, determines where you can live according to a racial quota. If you are a member of an ethnic minority you may find that you can only sell your unit to another member of the same race at a discount to what you could obtain if you sold it to the majority Chinese. This is a clear restriction of the free market and a basic human rights infringement. Giving the overwhelming majority of the population no choice but to live in leasehold public housing, allows the PAP to intimidate voters.

Even in the supply of many basic goods and services Government-owned companies have either a monopoly or share the market in an oligopoly with a few private sector competitors who remain dependent on Government goodwill. Examples include mobiles, broadband, broadcasting, public transport, newspapers, electricity supply, and banking. As a result prices are often higher than in other developed countries for utilities like mobile services.

No doubt Zizek would salute this as removing freedom of choice from the ordinary person who finds freedom a burden. Far better a benevolent dictatorship that has a monopoly on most basic goods and services rather than a democratic one where capitalists make profits exploit consumers and workers.

However Zizek fails to explain how authoritarianism prevents the state from being a worse exploiter than a democratic capitalist one. Communist governments in China and the Soviet Union killed tens of millions of their own people. The death toll in China alone during the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution is reckoned at 50-60 million. For all the hype from apologists like Zizek that regimes like China and Singapore are delivering the goods and making their people happy, what is to stop another Cultural Revolution or Stalin? The American Founding Fathers were quite correct when they placed the prevention of tyranny as a goal above that of government efficiency. While the PAP Government constantly points to supposed US gridlock as a justification for authoritarianism, that gridlock is there deliberately. US economic performance has been superior to Singapore’s on the productivity front for some time.

Singapore, while not on the scale of Chinese human rights abuses, is a good example where the Government exploits the people more ruthlessly than a democratic state would be able to. The Government makes a surplus of $30 billion a year and has supposed reserves net of debt of around $400 billion. Yet Singaporeans are denied the most basic information about the state of the reserves and the Government Budget is a model of opacity. While Western think tanks rate Singapore as corruption-free, Singapore’s system is rife with conflicts of interest and cronyism. PM Lee, the son of Lee Kuan Yew, has never held a job in the private sector and clearly would never have been PM but for his father. The Prime Minister’s wife is CEO of Temasek while the PM is Chairman of GIC. The Government says it is not in the public interest for Singaporeans to know what the PM’s wife is paid. Many MPs from the ruling party are on the board of or head up Government-owned or –linked companies, as are members of the PM’s family and his wife’s family.

Despite Zizek’s claims that the “Singapore” model of authoritarian capitalism has been wildly successful or morally superior to the democratic model, there is no doubt that most Singaporeans if able to would vote with their feet for the Western democratic model as seen in the high rates of emigration and the large numbers in surveys who say they would emigrate if they could.

Where the PAP Government has been hugely successful though is in creating a myth of success that has fooled many Western academics from both left and right. Instrumental in this has been the ability to use state wealth to shape opinion through donations to foreign think tanks while deploying the threat of defamation suits and trade sanctions to cow much of the Western press into not reporting criticism of their version of history.

Yours sincerely,

Kenneth Jeyaretnam

5 Comments »

  1. Zizek is talking about privatization putting services and safety out of reach for those who can’t buy them on a market. Your pension slashed, job security replaced with precarity, health care diminished or taken away, union busted, and it’s called “freedom.” You did not understand his article.

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  2. I don’t think that Zizek is claiming that SG is morally superior to the West, nor does Zizek see a future in which LKY is venerated as a particularly optimistic one. Rather, I think Zizek’s point is that capitalism’s historic claims to facilitate liberal democracy have been proven wrong by the ease with which capitalism can be partnered with authoritarianism, and that this pairing is a meme that has the potential to spread, at the expense of human freedom and social equality. I don’t find Zizek’s essay incoherent nor difficult to follow. Actually, he’s much clearer here than he is when he starts talking Hegel!

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  3. great article. question is how will the Singapore model be undone? unlimited cheap labour and access to low financing from the CPF. high income inequality?

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