25 Apr 2005

Machiavelli's Tiger: Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore's Authoritarian Regime

By Uri Gordon

"Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right.
If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless."
Lee Kuan Yew, 6.10.1997


‘History’, observes Adorno, ‘is the unity of continuity and discontinuity’. Even a basic awareness to this reality should be enough to prevent anyone – especially the new sojourner into the realm of political science – from making coarse comparisons between past and present. And yet, sometimes the picture is so compelling, so painfully clear, that it simply cannot be ignored. Faced with it, all one can do is carefully explore the contours of the ancient and the new, hoping to retain enough responsibility to open his eyes to the differences when they manifest themselves.

This is what the current paper sets out to do. Though hundreds of years and thousands of miles stand between 16th century Italy and 20th century Singapore, between the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli and the statecraft of Lee Kuan Yew, the similarities are extraordinary. This paper will argue that the political views and actions of Singapore’s ruling elite – more precisely, those of the country’s 'founding father' Lee Kuan Yew – can be powerfully interpreted through an application of Machiavellian principles. This interpretation takes place on two levels. First, the political actions of Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) can be shown to consistently reflect Machiavelli’s prescriptions for maintaining an authoritarian regime, diffusing discontent and crushing opposition. Singapore is a country where human rights have come to be seen as nonessential in the race towards national economic excellence. Riding on the wave of modernity and capitalism, the government provides its citizens with welfare at the cost of chaining their lives and minds. The opposition has been reduced to dust by political imprisonment, structural control of the election process, and governmental defamation lawsuits that turn any utterance against the authorities into an act of political suicide. Subduing the population to a comfortable life of self-censorship, Lee and his aides can be seen as devout disciples of the Florentine.

But the comparison goes deeper than that. It can be argued that Lee’s leading ideology of ‘Asian values’ – which underlies the PAP’s policies – is a form of Machiavellian Virtù, seen as creating a healthy and dynamic community which can grow and prosper. Just as Machiavelli, in Isaiah Berlin’s view (1972:288-9), set Roman Virtù in opposition to his contemporary Christian morality – thus Lee can be seen as having chosen Asian values for Singapore as an alternative to the West’s liberal democracy. Lee himself, in this sense, can be seen as assuming the role of the Machiavellian ‘lawgiver’, anointed by his virtuous character to overcome Fortune and the difficulties imposed by its blind whim. Also of note in this context is Lee’s selective use of the Confucian religion to justify his worldview.

These two layers of convergence will be explored in the following pages. I will conclude by examining the prospects for democracy in Singapore, through an interpretation of Machiavelli that emphasises his exceptionalist position.

To continue reading the pdf file click here.

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