Earlier this month, Alvaro Vargas Llosa examined the economic success of Singapore under the authoritarian rule of Lee Kuan Yew:
Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s legendary statesman, who died last month at the age of 91, posed a challenge to those of us who believe in political and economic freedom (and all other freedoms). His combination of authoritarianism and economic freedom, of social engineering and self-reliance, worked. The result was a society that is more prosperous than most others, but free only in some respects.
For years, the best examples one could come up with to show that the marriage of economic and political liberty could work were the liberal democracies of the developed world, whose achievements originated in centuries past and different circumstances.
Lee Kuan Yew’s credentials became strong as many countries that also gained independence in the 1950s or 1960s opted for a mix of nativism and collectivism that kept them poor while tiny Singapore, with no natural resources, emerged as an economic powerhouse. While Mao, Ho Chi Minh, and Castro — not to cite Mobutu, Idi Amin Dada, and others — destroyed the chances of a decent life for many generations, Lee Kuan Yew created the conditions for a 124-fold increase in Singapore’s per capita income in half a century.
Singapore’s case is exceptional, which makes it a tough challenge for those of us who think freedom is best served by not carving it up. My belief is that Singapore has been able to preserve its curious mix because of the absence of prosperous liberal democracies around it. But its model is based on globalization, and it’s therefore porous to good ideas.
In a world in which more countries, including Asian ones, end up successfully embracing democracy under the rule of law as well as free trade, it will be impossible for the city-state to avoid the comparison and the contagion. It is one thing to preserve an authoritarian model because your neighbors espouse a less successful one, and quite another to perpetuate it in the face of equally or even more successful societies that espouse a freer model.