How Lee Kuan Yew’s ‘soft’ dictatorship became a model for the American right – Mother Jones
In a 2021 interview with the Stanford Review, Blake Masters was asked for a historical figure he admired. He chose two. The first was George Washington, perhaps the most well-known military general, slave owner, and president in American history. “I don’t think people realize what a boss this guy was,” Masters explained. The second was Lee Kuan Yew.
LKY, as he is often called, served as Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990 and oversaw what some call its economic miracle. He transformed the former British colony into a free market paradise. As it grew, Singapore instituted a far-reaching welfare state. The government has built extensive social housing; he heavily subsidized health care and education. Today, municipal order is evident: Singapore’s streets are spotlessly clean, almost everyone has internet access, and modern buildings are surrounded by vast green spaces.
During his reign, LKY successfully fused pro-corporate libertarian economics and state socialism, creating a distinctly conservative hodgepodge of social and political control. Singapore banned all kinds of free speech; intervened in marriages and family planning; encouraged eugenics; people beaten for minor offences; created an ethnically homogeneous ruling class; treated the migrant worker population as second-class citizens; and, famously, banned chewing gum.
This is the LKY model: economic development above all, even human rights. A “soft” authoritarianism, as Fareed Zakaria put it called this. “The Exuberance of Democracy”, LKY Explain“leads to indiscipline and disorderly conduct, which are contrary to development”.
For a new breed of right-wing thinkers, politicians and activists, LKY’s government approach is appealing. Silicon Valley resident neo-monarchist Curtis Yarvin compares LKY to FDR, both good examples he says of a one-sided leader. And Nick Land, an accelerationist philosopher, calls LKY an “autocratic freedom enabler.” For them, LKY is the paradigm of an illiberal ruler who has created a paradise for his subjects: freedom without rights, prosperity without disorder.
But it’s not just a few Silicon Valley nerds who love dictators. LKY has long been praised by Western leaders. He was a member of JP Morgan Chase’s “International Council.” In 2009, Barack Obama called him “one of the legendary figures of Asia”. Later Henry Kissinger delivered an introduction as LKY accepted a lifetime achievement award from the US-ASEAN Business Council. Margaret Thatcher said he was “never bad.” Tony Blair noted that LKY was “the smartest leader i think i have ever met.” Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, wrote an extolling eulogy “Lessons from Singapore for an Unequal America.” The the wall street journal reported that Netflix asks its managers to study it.
All of this suggests that American interest in the efficacy of illiberalism is far from recent or relegated to Thiel’s henchmen. The policy towards LKY was part of a larger Cold War philosophy – the long and messy history of failed Western attempts to replace colonial governments with democratic ones, particularly in Southeast Asia. In general, as long as an authoritarian kept his country open to foreign investment and did not commit too many atrocities, a hostility to liberal democracy could pass.
The important thing about LKY, says a Singaporean journalist Kirsten Han, is that he helped ensure that “Singapore never properly decolonized”. For the British, their Southeast Asian colonies were a highly profitable hub for a bustling trade in opium, rubber, tin, and slaves. Singapore, an island off the tip of Malaysia, was at the epicenter of this trade. Even as a decolonization movement swept across Southeast Asia and Singapore gained independence, LKY, a Cambridge-educated lawyer and son of a Shell Oil depot manager, and his People’s Action Party (PAP) came to power. Nominally it was independent, but the pap worked with the West to keep Singapore open for business. Indeed, Han explains, “We just traded the British colonial masters for LKY and his daddy.”
After coming to power, the PAP suppressed political opposition. In 1963, the LKY government launched Operation Coldstore. The police arrested about 100 so-called communists and communist sympathizers and detained them without trial. No evidence of a plot to overthrow the government ever emerged, but they languished in prison for up to 10 years. After independence arrived in 1965, the LKY government upheld a British law that, among other things, suspended civil liberties and allowed indefinite detention without trial. (The law is still in the books.)
As the opposition faded, the government turned to greater control of bodily autonomy. LKY launched programs to encourage graduate women to procreate and induce poor women to be sterilized, a shameless instantiation of eugenics and racial engineering.
Despite all of this, much of LKY’s legacy is buried behind a thick fog of propaganda. In the West, the narrative accepted by many is largely the Singapore success story, in large part because, for those in power, especially Reagan administration officials who worshiped LKY, a dictator was better than a communist.
LKY left power in 1990, but his party continues to rule. Today, his son leads the country. Over the past 20 years, the welfare state has deteriorated. As the cost of health care and housing rises, the cost of living is a concern for Singaporeans. New apartments are smaller than ever and older ones are losing value. The government owns about 90% of all land, so there is little room for negotiation. A Gallup poll of 148 countries found that Singaporeans were the least likely to report “feeling positive emotions”.
Citizens have recently protested against the use of the death penalty. The country routinely executes residents and foreigners – mostly Malays and Indians – for drug-related offenses, in violation of international law. The recent celebration of the deliberate limitation of LKY rights by US conservatives is undoubtedly news. This goes beyond the generic praise Singapore receives from America’s technocratic elite, which has ignored abuses in the name of commerce. It is an embrace of cultural repression, the American idea of human rights abuses abroad coming home.
And so, as people like Masters rise to prominence, it necessitates a reassessment of the US economic system in light of Singapore’s – both have an economically significant migrant underclass, an indebted underclass, and a depressed and hopeless middle class praying for stability. The combination of a more disciplinary rule and welfare-enhancing interventions might be more alluring than we ever thought.
Not that the American right has many ideas for a working welfare system. For all the pomp of a pro-worker Republican party, the state’s solutions remain vague.
LKY often suggested that the West should not try to push democracy in Singapore, as democracy was incompatible with what he called “Asian values”. But that story, says University at Albany, SUNY, professor Meredith Weiss, was primarily a way to deflect criticism.
LKY’s selling point was that authoritarians are better at getting things done, an idea that appeals to billionaire bosses and the candidates they fund. In fact, says Dr. Pingtjin Thum, a Singapore historian, LKY’s most successful social programs emerged from a time before it had absolute power. Singapore’s dirty secret, says Thum, is that “Lee Kuan Yew’s success comes from democracy.”
“Without democracy,” he adds, “governments don’t care much about citizens.”