15 August 2005

The shelf life of one-party states

Soci notes that a group of people at the danieldrezner website are discussing if Singapore can continue to be a unique non-democratic, properous, capitalist state.

Whenever people start talking about the interrelationships between regime type, the rule of law, economic development, and political corruption, the outlier is always Singapore.

And so on...

The shelf life of one-party states

We used to group Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore as the 4 Asian Tigers in the 1970-80s, for their apparently resistance to the global stagflation and recession, and for the exotic charm of being non-democratic, yet economically successful regimes.

Singapore's Qin Shihuang has famously taken this happy coincidence and formulated the Confucian values theory and the Asian development theory, which inform popular perceptions of the 2 propositions in the danieldrezner dicussion:

A. Long-term economic properity requires democratic governance.
Not A. Authoritarian governance is a better guarantor of long-term economic prosperity.

Every year, Habibul Khondker of NUS looks at these two propositions in his Political Sociology class, and goes "that's interesting, but the argument is slightly inaccurate". First, none of the current Great Powers were democratic until the 1920s. The US is famous for not extending suffrage to its African-Americans until 1965. By the 1920s, all the Great Powers were already economic giants whose rise were achieved under more authoritarian or absolute forms of governance.

Similarly, Taiwan et al. cannot be held to represent of how authoritarian governments in modern times can lead to economic riches. Postcolonial countries (those achieve independence after WW2) that are authoritarian tend to perform overwhelmingly poorer.

Where are Taiwan and South Korea now?

Taiwan: KMT forces retreat to island in 1949. One-party state withers in 1988.
South Korea: Dictatorship since 1950. One-party state withers in 1987.
Mexico (Not very prosperous, but still...): PRI rules from 1929 to 2000.

Pay attention, Minilee: Sic transit gloria mundi.

Ronald Inglehart has been saying since 1977, that prolonged stretches of economic prosperity tend to lead to a liberalisation of political attitudes towards leadership and governance in a country's population. Since 1977, the European Values Survey and its successor, the World Values Survey, have proven his theory right.

Why is it so important? It's one thing to claim that people will want more political say, higher accountability, less authoritarian leadership (i.e. become more godlessly liberal) as they prosper. Your country's leaders will say, "Well, it's just a theory. As you can see, we're not going to move towards total chaos anytime soon, hahaha." But when there are more than 30 years of survey data and longtitudinal studies to prove the survey, perhaps it's time Minilee and Papalee start worrying about the inevitable.


Anonymous said...

I'd rather they not worry about the inevitable - they might put more obstacles into the citizen's path!

There is a school of thought - can't remember whose - that it is not a bad thing for a country to begin its economic life in a communist or a socialist state as it allows the state to direct resources to growth industries. While many economists prefer to let the market have its way, economic history show that developing countries exhibit broad similarities in industrial growth - the flying geese pattern. This initial state is temporary because as soon as the country reaches the state where growth industries cannot be predicted the market needs to take over. For markets to take over it requires a democratic political environment. That is to say, perhaps it is not prosperity that leads to a liberalisation of political attitudes but a country's drive towards economic prosperity requires an accompanied liberalisation. Any thoughts?

It is interesting that you quote Taiwan and South Korea as examples of one party state. Why did you miss out on Japan? Is it a bit different?

akikonomu said...

Eileen: You are correct about that school of thought. It's the one that Lee eventually dovetails with.

The trouble is with "This initial state is temporary because as soon as the country reaches the state where growth industries cannot be predicted the market needs to take over."

Historically, Singapore's leaders will never see the country as reaching that stage. They have put forth several arguments:

1. The government is smart enough and knows better, and is getting even smarter and can guide Singapore even longer.

2. The economy is too important or fragile to let chaos take over. Allow any mistake to be made and our companies will close, industries will fail, and Singapore will fall.

And who shall gainsay the leaders of the one-party state, should they insist that the country is not ready for political liberalisation?

Given our real life example of Singapore - isn't it prosperous enough for even more liberalisation that has been doled out drudgingly by Minilee?

Now, I'm not saying the theory is wrong. Rather: This initial state is temporary because as soon as the country reaches a reasonable state of growth, its citizens are the ones who decide to let the markets take over, push the political environment towards a more democratic turn. That's Inglehart's theory, by the way.

On Japan, I'd love to paraphrase Kant: the Liberal Democratic Party is neither liberal, democratic, or even a party. I'd describe it as a country club that has numerous competing factions at any one time in its history, and a large number of free-floating, masterless members.

Further, the bureaucrats in Japan's civil service have more power than their politicians. That's why I decided not to talk about Japan =D

rench00 said...

i am no expert in political science (oh how i wish i had the guts to take that subject...), but really... could Singapore not be an exception to the rule? theories are models created to approximate an explanation for things that have happened. perhaps Singapore, due to certain unique circumstances, is an anomaly so new that no one has yet a theory for.

and i am always sceptical of using trends to prove casuality. just because y happens after x doesn't mean x caused y. Freakonomics has loads of such examples where the causes of y might actually be something rather hidden (e.g. why crime rate in US fell instead of rise). so perhaps the surveys that have been done might point to a particular trend that Singapore might follow, or it might not.

the other question is whether we want to change the way Singapore is run based on some theories that might not really fit the situation that we are in. or should we develop in our own unique ways?

though don't get me wrong, i do think that we, the people of Singapore, should be given more responsibility in governing. and i think that, at least rhetorically, the government is agreeing to give the people greater part to play in the governing of the country. but whether reality matches up with rhetoric is another matter.

akikonomu said...

The actual question is whether we want to run Singapore on their theories or our leaders' theories.

I don't particularly recall our leaders being non-ideological or that pragmatic...

rench00 said...

rather than our leaders' theories or some other academic's theories, why not OUR (as in us, Singaporeans) theories?