Leninism, Asian Culture and Singapore
by Chung-Kwong Yuen originally published in Asian Profile, June 1999, and posted 27 Sept 1999 in response to Buruma & Mahbubani dialogue "Are Singaporeans Afraid to Think" in Straits Times.
Singapore is a place that arouses deeply divided feelings among observers. Economically, it is one of the great success stories of this century, but it is also widely seen as an authoritarian state that limits freedom of speech and political rights. Even more importantly, its leader Lee Kuan Yew has set himself up as the proponent of an alternative model of economic and political development for the poorer nations, one that rejects western decadence while incorporating "Asian" values of studiousness, achievement through hard work, and deference to authority and group. That is, instead of humbly pleading guilty to liberal charges of sacrificing human rights for the sake of prosperity, he claims to have invented a superior ideology more applicable to the less developed part of the world than what North America and Europe wish to export. This elevates the polemic to a higher level of controversy, with western journalists constantly carping on Lee's speeches and the actions of the Singapore government, hoping to detect chinks in their armours, while they answer in kind through their various public relations channels. In the end, neither side has been able to strike a knockout blow, and a standoff has ensured.
This is not a simple standoff between good and bad; between democracy and dictatorship; not even between east and west. Lee's stance is discomfiting to the western liberals precisely because it cannot be neatly labelled and then dismissed. If he were just an ignorant Asian dictator, on route to his inevitable downfall like, say, Ferdinand Marcos, then his ideas would pose no threat to the orthodoxy of the western nations. The fact is however that his policies achieve economic prosperity while ignoring many of the sacred cows of standard political thinking, a situation that cannot be taken in without a serious and painful reassessment of one's basic tenets; in fact, something that threatens the currently fashionable ideological paradigm. Considering that the great Soviet Union has collapsed like good old capitalists said it would, is little Singapore going to defy the most well proven liberal thinking?
But what exactly is Lee's so successful ideology? There is nothing special about a belief in education, hard work, family, social hierarchy, and so on. These are not the particular inventions of Lee Kuan Yew, or even particularly Asian. Lee's invention is much more original. It is a unique combination of Leninist organizational tactics with capitalist industrial and commercial technology implemented among a population with an Asian social background, resulting in a strictly controlled and paternalistic corporate entity that has delivered material wealth to its members. In this article, I wish to analytically examine the various facets of this structure.
Few people would profess to be communists today. As everyone knows, communism brutalized and impoverished nations; perhaps even more importantly as no one likes to fail, it failed. Yet, we would do well to remember that the idea once attracted some of the best and the brightest, both in the East and the West. For example, Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby, both highly intelligent and capable members of the British aristocracy, took up communism at Cambridge and willingly spied for the Soviet Union over several decades.
To both radical intellectuals and disadvantaged classes, communism offered Marx's highly seductive and supposedly scientific analyses of the shortcomings of capitalist societies, promising the inevitable arrival of the proletariat utopia in which money and exploitation will be unknown. With such ideological inspiration, and with highly effective organizational techniques initiated by Lenin, communist parties triumphed, however briefly, in Russia the largest country in the world, and China the most populous, despite the backward development of capitalism in these countries and their weak working classes, while failing to make headway in the more mature capitalist economies that are supposedly more ready to move to the next stage.
The cases of Russia and China demonstrate that, for the purpose of achieving power, the political economy of communism is less important than its organizational technique. If you do the second well, you can succeed despite the low applicability of the first. For over half a century Communism was the favoured ideology of all revolutionary leaders, most of them of middleclass rather than proletariat background, because it provided a ready-made set of propaganda and organizational tools. Communism might die, but Leninism lives on. The ideological buzzwords change, and photos of Yeltsin replace those of Gorbachev, but the same machinery of control can remain in operation.
Lenin's revolutionary machinery, the Bolshevik party, was a network of individuals whose total loyalty was devoted to the organization: personal feelings and common humanity were not only secondary, they were suspect and dangerous. Given such an "iron discipline" organization, the trusted individuals were placed into all the important parts of the society. Army units had their political commissars, and civil service units, collective farms, factories, schools, trade unions and sports clubs all had their party secretariats. Among other things, the party achieved control over all parts of the economy; hence, private ownership of property ceased to exist, and a nominally Communist society came into being. Since all aspects of life were under control, moulding a new man fit for the communist utopia was realistic to contemplate. This seemed to be a very attractive scheme to highly power-conscious revolutionaries out to make a better world. The only drawback is: it did not work.
But perhaps the failure was simply due to its trying to achieve too much? The communist utopia envisaged a society of selfless individuals, who do not own and do not desire private property, and who, without coercion, would work to their best abilities and take only enough that satisfies their needs. The concept of economic incentive is eliminated. The consequence was that, with the suppression of market forces and individual initiatives that encourage the production of food and consumer goods, the old Russia and old China found themselves unable to deliver material wealth to its populace, and hence, unable to provide adequate rewards to enforce conformity.
However, there is no reason why a Leninist control structure cannot be imposed on a capitalist society that fully accommodates market forces and individual economic initiatives: you can still build up a network of trusted individuals and place them in the key positions of all organizations. It simply takes a higher and more refined level of knowledge and skill to carry this out, instead of the crude and brutal methods used by the communists. This was successfully achieved in Singapore, a success which many other nations, whether communist, feudal, colonial or already capitalist, seriously admire and are keen to emulate.
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