Why Donald Trump Can Only Envy Lee Hsien Loong
Recently some American journalists have described the leading Republican candidate for the Presidency, Donald Trump, as a fascist citing some of his statements, particularly against Muslims and Mexican immigrants as evidence. However Donald Trump is still a long way from being elected and even if President would find his ability to impose an authoritarian regime, even should he wish to do so, severely circumscribed by the American Constitution’s separation of powers as well as the reach of democracy into all levels of government.
A much more convincing case for fascism can be made against Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP. As is widely known (see Wikipedia), the PAP symbol is derived from the British Union of Fascists, which itself echoes the lightning bolts on the uniforms of the Nazi SS. Even the PAP’s description of what the symbol means is very close to what the Fascist symbol represents which is “action within unity.” The PAP lightning flash represents “action within social/racial unity”.
But how would you define fascism? In an article in Slate.com entitled “Why Fascist is the term that best describes Donald Trump”, Jamelle Bouie reduces what the Italian writer and philosopher Umberto Eco in an article in the New York Review of Books entitled “Ur-Fascism” (you can read his article here)described as fourteen defining characteristics of fascism to seven:
“They are: A cult of “action for action’s sake,” where “thinking is a form of emasculation”; an intolerance of “analytical criticism,” where disagreement is condemned; a profound “fear of difference,” where leaders appeal against “intruders”; appeals to individual and social frustration and specifically a “frustrated middle class” suffering from “feelings of political humiliation and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups”; a nationalist identity set against internal and external enemies (an “obsession with a plot”); a feeling of humiliation by the “ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies”; a “popular elitism” where “every citizen belongs to the best people of the world” and underscored by contempt for the weak; and a celebration of aggressive (and often violent) masculinity.”
Of course the PAP’s very name fulfils the first condition laid down by Eco as does the meaning of the symbol. Singaporeans are told that the chief virtue of our one party state is that the PAP are able to take swift and decisive action to solve problems whereas democracies, particularly the US, are afflicted by gridlock.
During Lee Kuan Yew’s time of course it was fairly routine for many Western academics and journalists to call his regime Fascist. There were the obvious similarities: the crushing of political opponents, the control of the press and stifling of freedom of expression, the moves to make all the three arms of government subordinate to his will, the banning of free trade unions and their replacement by a party-controlled trade union, the need for constant vigilance against external and internal threats which meant no dissent could be tolerated and the holding of elections that were anything but free and fair.
In contrast to Communism not all industries were controlled by the state but a large part of the economy was and the PAP nationalised the land, expropriating it from landowners, many of whom were not particularly wealthy, while paying only derisory compensation. As in other Fascist states or Putin’s Russia an elite, many connected by blood to the ruling family, were allowed to grow rich provided they did not oppose the regime.
However when Lee Hsien Loong replaced his father after the regency of Goh Chok Tong, there was a change of tone in the PAP’s rhetoric, no doubt facilitated by the hiring of Western PR experts and management consultants. Also the fact that many of the PAP’s ministers had been to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to do Masters in Public Administration meant that they learnt a new way of talking. Out went the overt elitism (though it was never very far from the surface as Lee Hsien Loong revealed when he showed that he believes in a so-called natural aristocracy) and in came a new emphasis on inclusivity exemplified by Tharman’s talk in the last Budget about “building a fair and inclusive society and sustaining a fair and progressive system.”
The softening of the PAP’s image has been helped by a judicious spreading around of money to Western think tanks. This is easier when you control so much of the economy and can use our sovereign wealth funds without the need for even the fig leaf of Parliamentary oversight. This seems to have convinced many Western commentators that Singapore’s system is superior to democratic ones. There has even been a rush of Nobel prizewinners like Stiglitz, who knowing nothing about Singapore are still ready to opine that the Government looks after the less well off better than the US.
However the overwhelming mandate handed to the PAP in this year’s GE has brought a new confidence to Lee Hsien Loong that he can be quite open about his disdain for democratic checks and balances and pluralism. In his speech to the PAP convention last Sunday this was on full display
Here are some excerpts from his speech as reported by the ST, together with the characteristic of fascism to which it closely corresponds:
“It’s a transition [from the 1965 generation] which we must succeed in, because it will show that Singapore will not just be exceptional once off, for one generation… but that we have institutionalised a system of governance, a society with the values and the resolution so that Singapore can endure.” Popular elitism
Singapore will be able to deal with external challenges as “one united people”. An intolerance of criticism where disagreement is condemned and a fear of difference.
Mr Lee cautioned that bilateral relations with some countries might be challenging in the next decade as they face various difficulties.
“We need to be able to deal with this external rough weather without being weakened or distracted by internal divisions,” he added. A nationalist identity set against internal and external enemies
Mr Lee noted that two momentous occasions this year – founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s death and Singapore’s 50th birthday – made Singaporeans realise “that we had worked together – the Government and the people – to build a special society”. Popular elitism
“What will strengthen us further is not having all problems solved by Government, but to have Singaporeans doing things together, for one another,” he added.
The SG50 celebration fund encouraged such ground-up initiatives, he noted. “The spirit is, get involved, get your hands dirty, get things done together.”
To keep that spirit going, the Government is holding the Future Of Us exhibition and SGfuture conversations, to get Singaporeans working towards a shared future.
“We call them conversations, but actually, they should be conversations leading to actions,” he added. That is the kind of society that the PAP wants to build, he added, using a phrase from pioneer leader S. Rajaratnam: “a democracy of deeds”. A cult of action.
If society is divided, politics will be divisive, Mr Lee said. But if society is cohesive, constructive politics has a chance to work, and the PAP can continue working for the interest of all Singaporeans, he added. A nationalist identity set against internal enemies, an intolerance of criticism and a fear of difference.
Also in his speech at the National Day Rally on , which kicked off the PAP’s official re-election campaign well in advance of the legal date for the Opposition:
The second factor of our success, after multi-racialism, is our culture of self-reliance and mutual support. We knew right from the start that to strike out and blaze a path on our own, everyone had to pull their weight and be counted, we could not afford free-riders and that is why Mr Lee Kuan Yew exhorted us over and over again to become a rugged society. Celebration of aggressive masculinity and contempt for the weak.
We have got to inculcate this ethos in our young people too. And that is why we encourage our children to play sports to experience losing and winning together. …Tanjong Katong Primary School (TKPS) had a very successful programme, the Omega Challenge… Tragically on their recent expedition to climb Mount Kinabalu, the Omega Challenge group was caught in an earthquake. Seven students, two teachers and a guide died…It will take us a long time to get over this tragedy but life goes on and it is important that we move on. And I know that the other TKPS students and teachers who were on this trip are courageously doing so. We have to go on with the adventure training, we will take the necessary safety precautions but we must keep pushing our limits to bring up a generation who will grow up tough and able to work closely together. Again a celebration of masculinity and contempt for the weak.
There are of course countless other examples too numerous to mention here. It is astonishing that Lee Hsien Loong, as a scientist, does not understand the value of disagreement and argument in advancing knowledge.
To Trump’s comments about Muslims there are of course all the well-documented examples of Lee Kuan Yew’s racist comments about the inferiority of Malays and Indians and his contemptuous remarks about Muslims which have been well documented elsewhere as well as in the pages of this blog. It is ironical that we laugh at or are horrified by Trump but forget that through our votes we have created a fascist state that can effectively never be changed. Will the PAP Reich last a thousand years? I would not bet against it.