Skip to main content

Singapore as a pioneer of capitalist authoritarianism

On July 18, 2010, British author Alan Shadrake was arrested in Singapore, two days after the country's attorney general had submitted an affidavit recommending his prosecution on charges of "scandaliz[ing] the Singapore Judiciary."

The 75-yeard-old Shadrake had arrived in Singapore to promote his book 'Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock’, which uncovered alleged bias in the implementation of the madantatory death penalty for drug trafficking by the judicial system. Police detained him after a complaint was lodged by Singapore's Media Development Authority.

On November 3, 2010, Alan Shadrake was convicted for "scandalizing the judiciary." Singapore’s attorney-general argued that "public confidence in the Singapore Judiciary cannot be allowed, in any way, to be tarnished or diminished by any contumacious behaviour." The defendant claimed that his book amounted to "fair criticism on matters of compelling public interest," in accordance with article 14 of the Singaporean Constitution.

Singapore's skyline (by Merlion444 via Wikimedia Commons)

The high court dismissed Shadrake's argument, and sentenced him to six weeks in prison as well as the payment of a SGD20,000 (US$15,865) fine and court costs. The author's refusal to apologize for writing the book was deemed an aggravating factor.

Shadrake’s lawyer, M Ravi, said after the verdict tha he planned to travel to Europe to urge the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, the European Parliament, and the International Court of Justice in The Hague to intercede for his client.

On 27 May 2011 the Court of Appeal upheld the conviction, stressing that the nine statements from the book found to be in contempt of court

"... scandalise the very core of the mission and function of the judiciary. More than that, their cumulative effect reveals a marshalling of a series of fabrications, distortions and false imputations in relation to the courts of Singapore. While the Appellant is free to engage in the debate for or against capital punishment, he is not free to deliberately and systematically scandalise the courts in attempting to substantiate his case against capital punishment."

Mr Shadrake served six weeks in prison and was sentenced to two additional weeks for being unable to pay the fine. On July 9, 2011, he was released and deported back to the United Kingdom.

The British author's case is by no means unique. According to the 2018 World Press Freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders, Singapore was 151st out of 180 countries in terms of freedom of the press.

Due to its semi-authoritarian political system and its successful capitalist economy, Singapore may be considered a pioneer of the illiberal-capitalist model that has emerged as an alternative to liberal democracy.

Singapore is a former British colony which became an independent Republic on August 9, 1965 (Abshire, 2011, p. 131). That year, Singapore's per capita GDP (in current US$) was about US$516. By 2017, Singapore's per capita GDP had risen to US$57,714, one of the highest in the world.

According to the World Bank, Singapore has "one of the world’s most business-friendly regulatory environment [sic] for local entrepreneurs and is ranked among the world’s most competitive economies." After independence, Singapore grew from a low-income country to one of the wealthiest economies in the world, with economic growth averaging 7.7% between 1965 and 2018.

As the founding father of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew proudly put it, the island-state rose from "third world to first."

Lee Kuan Yew and the party he led, the People's Action Party (PAP), created a state that "has most of the trappings of democracy - a parliamentary system of government with, additionally, an elected president; regular, free and accurately counted elections, and universal suffrage," but which limits civil and political rights as well as freedom of speech and of the press by means of draconian laws and various strategies to control political participation (Mauzy & Milne, 2002, p. 128).

The PAP's tactic of promoting economic growth and restricting civil liberties has been extremely successful in maintaining order, stability, and prosperity. Most crucially, the PAP has been able to maintain a tight grip on society since 1965 without resorting to blatantly violent methods and repressive measures.

Instead, the government has gained legitimacy by providing economic prosperity, by articulating its openly illiberal policies in a language that is highly sophisticated, legalistic, and subtle, and by creating an ideological and emotional opposition to the West, thus appealing to Singaporeans' sense of pride in the face of a world then dominated by the West.

The repressive methods of the PAP

Under Lee Kuan Yew and his two successors, Singapore has created a legal framework aimed at keeping civil sosciety at bay. We shall list here only some of the most important examples.

The Internal Security Act (ISA), Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (CLA), and the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) allow for arrest without warrant and detention without trial (Mauzy & Milne, 2002, p. 129).

Among other provisions, the ISA allows the Minister charged with the responsibility for internal security to direct that any person "be detained for any period not exceeding two years" with the purpose of "preventing that person from acting in any manner prejudicial to the security of Singapore or any part thereof or to the maintenance of public order or essential services therein." The Minister may order the detention of individuals only if the President of the Republic is "satisfied" that such measures are necessary.

Furthermore, the ISA provides that "if it appears to the Minister" that any document or publication "(a) contains any incitement to violence; (b) counsels disobedience to the law or to any lawful order; (c) is calculated or likely to lead to a breach of the peace, or to promote feelings of hostility between different races or classes of the population; or (d) is prejudicial to the national interest, public order or security of Singapore," the Minister may "prohibit either absolutely or subject to such conditions as may be prescribed therein the printing, publication, sale, issue, circulation or possession of" any such document or publication.

We see here one of the typical strategies of Singapore's illiberal legalism: laws are vaguely and broadly formulated and their execution left to the opinion of ministers. By doing so, prosecuting individuals for breaking the law sounds legalistic and plausible, although in fact the government has excessive discretion.

The ISA was used originally against Singapore's Communists, racial and religious extremists and other groups (Mauzy & Milne, 2002, p. 130). The importance and application of the ISA have been diminishing for the past few decades.

The government has tended to prefer less overt, more nuanced methods, the most common and controversial of which is probably the PAP's penchant for suing individuals and media for defamation. As Rodan (2004) stated: "defamation, libel and contempt of court actions by government MPs are deployed against individual political adversaries and critics in a process some observers characterise as rule by law rather than rule of law" (Rodan, 2004, p. 84).

Singapore's Defamation Act (enacted in 1957, revised in 2014) provides for a wide range of restrictions on speech. The law has been used by the government numerous times to silence critics. We shall briefly review some high-profile cases.

In 2002, US-based news agency Bloomberg agreed to pay then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, and Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (Lee Kuan Yew's son) S$595,000 in damages and legal costs as well as to issue an apology for an article titled "How Far can Singapore Inc. Get Out of Business?" by Patrick Smith. The article appeared on, on 4 August 2002, and in the New Sunday Times of Malaysia on 11 August 2002.

The article accused the government of nepotism after the Prime Minister appointed the Deputy Minister's wife, Ho Ching, as Executive Director of Temasek, a large government-owned holding company.

On 25 August 2002, the Press Secretary of Singapore's Prime Minister stated that "Bloomberg admitted that these allegations are false and completely without foundation, and unreservedly apologized to the Singapore leaders for the distress and embarrassment caused by the allegations."

Bloomberg's New York-based chief editor, Matthew Winkler, rationalized the settlement to company staff in a memo, citing the welfare of 180 Bloomberg employees and 2,695 customers in Singapore (Rodan, 2004, p. 88).

In 2004 The Economist was also forced to pay damages to Lee Hsien Loong, who that year had assumed the office of Prime Minister, and to Lee Kuan Yew, for an article claiming that the Prime Minister had appointed his wife as Temasek's executive director "not on merit, [but because of] corrupt nepotistic motives for the advancement of the Lee’s family interests".

"We unreservedly apologise to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew for the distress and embarrassment caused to them by these allegations," the magazine said.

In 2009 the Dow Jones Company-owned Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) magazine and its editor Hugo Restal agreed to pay S$405,000 (approximately US$290,000) to Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong for a 2006 article entitled "Singapore’s 'Martyr’, Chee Soon Juan", which contained various accusations against the Lees.

In its ruling, the Singapore Court of Appeal stated that “constitutional free speech in Singapore is conferred on Singapore citizens only.” It also held that Singapore does not recognize the function of the press as a "watchdog".

In March 2010 The New York Times Co apologized to Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, and agreed to pay S$160,000 ($114,000) in damages for an article entitled "All in the Family." The piece, published on February 15 in the International Herald Tribune, the global edition of the New York Times, claimed that Lee Hsien Loong had not achieved his position through merit but because of his family ties.

These cases show the sophisticated way in which Singapore stifles free speech. Technically, nepotism is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to prove. How can one find evidence that the father, the son and his wife are not the best people for the positions of prime minister and senior executive of a state-owned company? Therefore, nepotism can never be discussed or criticized, because even talking about it would make one liable to be sued for defamation. 

Singaporean politicians have used the law not only against foreign giants, but also, and most crucially, against their own fellow citizens.

In 2013 Lee Hsien Loong took legal action against blogger Alex Au for alleging that the Prime Minister was guilty of corruption with regards to a transaction between PAP town councils and the firm Action Information Management (Aim).

The same year, political cartoonist Leslie Chew was charged with "scandalizing the judiciary" and with sedition in two separate proceedings related to his Facebook page "Demon-cratic Singapore."

Chew described his arrest as follows:

"In March 2013, someone filed a police report over one of my cartoons and just because of that, the police had me arrested under sedition, raided my house, seized all PCs in my parent’s home including my dad’s, seized my phone and all data storage devices, thrown me into their stinky cell for 2 days, handcuffed me like a criminal, interrogated me for over than 30 hours with handcuffs on, confiscated my passport and put me under island arrest for 3 months, forbidding me from returning to my home in Malaysia, made me report for police bail every week, before they discover that they cannot charge me with sedition and quietly drop the charge.”

In 2014 Lee Hsien Loong won a High Court defamation case against blogger Roy Ngerng for a post in which the latter alleged that Lee was involved in impropriety in the management of funds in Singapore’s mandatory retirement savings scheme, the Central Provident Fund (CPF).

In December 2018 Lee took legal action against blogger Leong Sze Hian Leong for the act of sharing on Facebook part of the headline of an article from Malaysian news outlet The Coverage, titled "Breaking News: Singapore Lee Hsien Loong Becomes 1MDB's Key Investigation Target - Najib Signed Several Unfair Agreements With Hsien Loong In Exchange For Money Laundering".

These are only some examples of how Singaporean politicians deal with free speech.

In 2013 the Singaporean government passed new internet rules requiring any website with an average of at least one article per week on Singaporean news and current affairs over a period of two months, and which is visited by an average of 50,000 unique IP addresses from inside Singapore per month, to obtain individual licenses.

Under the terms of the license, websites are obliged to put up a SG$50,000 performance bond and take down within 24 hours any content deemed by Singapore's media authorities "objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony, or otherwise prohibited by applicable Singapore laws.”

The Undesirable Publications Act (enacted 1st April 1967, revised on 15th December 1998) stipulates that the Minister in charge of media affairs can "prohibit the importation, sale or circulation of any particular publication or series of publications or all publications" if he or she is "of opinion" that such material would be "contrary to the public interest."

In 2014, the documentary film To Singapore with Love about political activists who fled the country between the 1960s and the 1980s due to government crackdowns was banned on grounds of national security concerns. 

In 2017 the Singaporean government signalled its interntion to pass new laws to punish the dissemination of "fake news." In April 2017 the Minister for Law and Home Affairs told Parliament: "The time has come for us not to simply rebut but to actually actively deal with [fake news]—so that people who seek to profit from such conduct will actually feel the pain of it.”

In April 2019 the government released its anti-fake news draft legislation. The "Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill" would require media outlets to correct fake news articles, and “show corrections or display warnings about online falsehoods so that readers or viewers can see all sides and make up their own minds about the matter," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Parliament. "In extreme and urgent cases, the legislation will also require online news sources to take down fake news before irreparable damage is done," he added.

Singapore and the struggle against liberalism

Liberalism has long been viewed as an ideological enemy by authoritarian leaders.

According to Martin Clark (2014):

"[Fascist leader Benito Mussolini] regarded Liberalism as pernicious and defeatist, parliamentary government as utterly incompetent and corrupt, and democracy as either illusion or, if genuine, the rule of the stupid and ignorant. As in Venice or Britain at their peak, the honest, patriotic few should rule, natural aristocrats who would ignore vested interests and welcome responsibility and command. A single lion would always put to flight a million sheep [incidentally, in 2016 Donald Trump retweeted Mussolini's quote: "It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep"]. The economy should be planned and run on ‘corporate’ lines, with all legitimate interests represented. There was no justification for class conflict or strikes, nor for any defeatist chatter. The state should intervene and regulate all social activities including private ones, but it should respect legal procedures and property rights, and it should provide the honest citizens with effective protection and social welfare." (Clark, 2014, p. 165)

Liberalism was also one of the ideological enemies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In 1937 Mao Zedong declared: "All loyal, honest, active and upright Communists must unite to oppose the liberal tendencies shown by certain people among us, and set them on the right path. This is one of the tasks on our ideological front." (Mao Zedong. Combat Liberalism, 1937)

More recently, the fight against liberalism has been taken up by the American far right to the point of waging a "culture war" against liberalism. Right-wing media pundits often rail against liberalism as if it was America's enemy. For instance, popular right-wing personality Ann Coulter has made a career writing books such as "How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must)," and "Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America."

Of course, that does not mean that all anti-liberal movements are the same. But they share common traits: a tendency towards hierarchy, authoritarianism, and the deligitimization of opposition forces.

Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew was one of the most successful and sophisticated opponents of liberalism. Under his leadership, the Singaporean government propagated cultural relativist arguments with respect to human rights, and championed a notion of "Asian values" as intrinsically opposed to "Western liberalism."

By framing the debate as a cultural conflict between East and West, the PAP sought to build a distinctly Singaporean identity based on five values: "nation before community and society above self; family as the basic unit of society; regard and community support for the individual; consensus instead of contention; racial and religious harmony." (Thio, 2004, p. 194) 

However, it is important to note that there are fundamental differences between the PAP ideology and totalitarian ideologies like Fascism and Communism.

First of all, the PAP supports a "light touch" version of authoritarianism. There are no mass persecutions or violent suppression of dissidents. There are no legalized or extrajudicial arbitrary killings. In 2018 Freedom House ranked Singapore as "partly free":

"The electoral and legal framework that the PAP has constructed allows for some political pluralism and considerable economic prosperity, but it constrains the growth of credible opposition parties and limits freedoms of expression, assembly, and association."

As a result, Singapore cannot be described as a totalitarian, but rather as a semi-authoritarian state. 

Secondly, the PAP's opposition to liberalism is articulated in terms of Asian, and most especially Confucian, traditions (76.1% of Singaporeans are ethnic Chinese as of 2018), while religion or race are downplayed in the name of harmony between different ethnic-cultural groups.

Lee Kuan Yew often expressed his contempt for liberal democracy. A speech which he gave on 20 November 1992 at the Create Asahi Forum in Tokyo well encapsulates his views:

"All peoples of all countries need good government. A country must first have economic development, then democracy may follow. With a few exceptions, democracy has not brought good government to new developing countries. Democracy has not led to development because the governments did not establish stability and discipline necessary for development. What is good government? This depends on the values of a people. What Asians value may not be what Americans or Europeans value. Westerner [sic] value the freedoms and liberties of the individual.

"When Asians visit US [sic] many are puzzled and disturbed by conditions there: (a) law and order out of control, with riots, drugs, guns, muggings, rape and crimes; (b) poverty in the midst of great wealth; (c) excessive rights of the individual at the expense of the community as a whole; criminal [sic] regularly escape punishment because the law which presumes innocence over-protects their human rights."

Lee's case for authoritarianism was based on two main arguments: first, Singapore created wealth and economic growth; second, it maintained order and stability.

As Singaporean sociologist Chua Beng-Huat argued: "[I]t is clear that the PAP government is both thoroughly sceptical regarding the rationality of the ordinary citizen and unapologetically anti-liberal. The PAP government’s vision for the Singaporean polity is that of an anti-liberal democracy where collective well-being is safeguarded by good government by honourable leaders." (Chua, 1995, ppp. 184-185)

The PAP's ideology is an enticing one. It sounds plausible. It delivers results that nobody can objectively deny. As a result, it has become a model for political organizations that do not wish to share power with an opposition.

In the People's Republic of China (PRC), for example, Singapore's system has long been viewed as an example to emulate. As Chinese journalist Audrey Jiajia Li remarked:

"Since the Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) era, Singapore has been the only country admired by all four generations of China’s leadership ... Singapore’s 'Asian authoritarianism' is believed to have demonstrated the compatibility between effective economic management and one-party rule, raising doubts about the suitability of Western-style democracy for Asian countries."

But Singapore's model is extolled not only by China's dictators. Many Western politicians and business people have expressed their admiration for Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore.

In the foreword of the book "Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World" former United States Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger wrote: “I have had the privilege of meeting many world leaders over the past half-century; none, however, has taught me more than Lee Kuan Yew.”

Former US President Barack Obama called Lee a “legendary figure of Asia in the 20th and 21st centuries.” Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that Lee Kuan Yew was “the smartest leader" he ever met.

In a speech at a dinner in honour ofLee Kuan Yew held on 29 May 1990, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said:

"Singapore has become a byword for excellence, whether it be in education, in commerce, in high technology, in your city administration and plans for traffic management which others are now copying. Very great credit for that success is due to you personally, to the leadership and to the vision which you have always shown.

"We find it a little hard to believe that, after so many years you are intending to step down as Prime Minister. I hope it isn’t catching! but we understand that you intend to continue to serve in the government. That will ensure that Singapore’s achievements will continue and be built upon, following the principles in which you have always believed: effort, initiative, endeavour, enterprise."

In 2012 Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin became a Singapore resident after renouncing his US citizenship.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and other pro-Brexit politicians have touted Singapore as a model of economic development to copy.


Singapore can be regarded as a pioneer of authoritarian capitalism and part of a new Cold War between two opposed ideological camps. But, as explained in a previous article, this new confrontation is more subtle and ambiguous than that between the United States, the Soviet Union and their allies.

Nowadays, Western politicians and entrepreneurs are actively seeking cooperation, appeasing and supporting the authoritarian model for the sake of profit.

Finally, we shall make a few remarks about Lee Kuan Yew's "Asian values" theory.

First, the idea that the West is liberal and Asian is illiberal is a fabrication. Liberalism is an ideology first developed in the West, but so are Fascism and Communism. There is nothing inherently liberal about the West, nor anything inherently illiberal about the East. Indeed, Asia boasts successful democracies like Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

Second, there is no demonstrable connection between authoritarianism and economic success. Liberal countries like Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Norway etc have performed economically as well, if not better, than Singapore, without having to resort to restricting civil liberties.

Nevertheless, the appeal of the PAP's authoritarian model is a potent one, and it shows how liberalism has been weakened and discredited by illiberal capitalism. Ultimately, neoliberal ideology, and especially free trade, is the key that has opened the door of liberal democracies to authoritarian influence, as we shall explain in future articles.   



Popular posts from this blog

Will The Huawei Case Finally Awaken Democrats To The China Threat And The Danger Of Faux Free Trade Rhetoric?

Huawei Shenzhen office building (by Raysonho  via Wikimedia Commons) On January 28 the Department of Justice of the United States unsealed two cases against Huawei , China's largest telecommunications company, and its chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou.  Huawei has been accused of trying to steal trade secrets, committing bank fraud, breaking confidentiality agreements and violating sanctions against Iran. One indictment claims that Huawei attempted to steal trade secrets from T-Mobile by promising bonuses to employees who collected confidential information. Huawei is not a company like any other. Over the years it has benefited enormously from the support of the Chinese Communist regime. The founder of Huawei, Ren Zhengfei, joined China's army during the Cultural Revolution . In 1978 he also joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  In the early years Huawei's sources of capital were high-interest loans (20%-30%) from Chinese state-owned enterp

Washington Post correspondent in China Gerry Shih assaulted for walking with Caucasian European

Gerry Shih, a China-based correspondent for the Washington Post, was assaulted on a Beijing street for "walking with a Caucasian European," according to a Tweet he posted on November 29. The assailants allegedly shouted at them: "F*** your American embassy!" Sign of the times: roughed up in Beijing street tonight for walking with Caucasian European. Neither of us said we were American but their parting shot was “操你美国使馆” — Gerry Shih (@gerryshih) November 29, 2019 In recent years the Chinese Communist regime has intensified its anti-foreign rhetoric as Xi Jinping has sought to consolidate the power of the Party and rid China of perceived "foreign influence". Foreigners in China have been targeted by the government and anti-foreign sentiment has been enouraged. This year arrests and deportations of foreign teachers in China have increased amid a government campaign to promote "patriotic education." An inc

China releases anti-Uighur propaganda film "Black Hand"

Mosque in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, as photographed in 2008 (photo by jun jin luo via Wikimedia Commons) The People's Republic of China (PRC) has released a propaganda video titled "The black hand — ETIM and terrorism in Xinjiang", in an attempt to shape the narrative surrounding its crackdown on the Uighur Muslim ethnic minority. The propaganda film links the Uighur population to Islamic terrorism, thus trying to justify the indiscriminate persecution of the entire Muslim population. "For decades, the [East Turkistan Islamic Movement] which has close links with international terrorist organizations perpetrated countless terrorist attacks aiming to separate the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region from China," writes China's state-run television network CGTN. The East Turkistan Islamic Movement, or ETIM, was reportedly founded by Hasan Mahsum, an Uighur from Xinjiang's Kashgar region. He was shot dead by Pakistani troops in 2003. In 2002 the Unite