We need a strong state, not a strongman (2)
In the immediate years following the collapse of the Marcos regime, Singapore’s outspoken founder-leader Lee Kuan Yew couldn’t hold back his disdain for what he saw as “too much democracy” in places such as the Philippines. In 1992, during the 18th Philippine Business Conference, he confidently lectured his hosts by arguing, “I believe what a country needs to develop is discipline more than democracy.”
The late prime minister’s emphasis on “discipline” over “democracy” has never lost its grip on the Filipino imagination. For some, Lee’s dictum is a perfect justification for authoritarian rule in the Philippines.
Upon closer examination, however, there are at least three problems with this interpretation of the Singaporean leader’s unsolicited advice.
First of all, as great leaders such as Deng Xiaoping, who transformed communist China into history’s most successful capitalist experiment, and Mahathir Mohamad, who has now become a vehicle of democratization in Malaysia at the age of 93, have pointed out, Lee was simply a leader of a “city-state.”
What worked in the micro context of Singapore holds limited lessons for full-fledged countries with complex rural-urban dynamics. Scale matters, and this is precisely why, for instance, macroeconomics (inspired by John Maynard Keynes’ works) and microeconomics (a product of George Stigler’s works) are taught separately in leading universities.
In short, while Lee was unquestionably a great leader of a small prosperous nation perched at the crossroads of global trade, his words shouldn’t uncritically and literally be taken as catechistic truth in public administration.
Second, one must ask, what did the Singaporean leader exactly mean by “discipline”? And, more importantly, what really made Singapore successful?
As Francis Fukuyama notes in the second volume of his magnum opus, “Political Order and Political Decay,” what lay at the heart of the success of newly industrialized nations was the presence of a strong, autonomous and meritocratic bureaucracy.
One of the greatest legacies of the Singaporean leader was to build on the strong bureaucratic tradition inherited from Confucianism as well as British imperial rule. Recruitment to government was largely performance-based and meritocratic, while corruption was minimized through a combination of competitive compensation and a tough “zero tolerance” policy.
Lee was successful as a leader largely because he both leveraged and strengthened a world-class bureaucracy that ensured rule of law, instituted optimal trade and industrial policies, and ably took care of the basic welfare of ordinary citizens. Singapore was lucky for not only having an enlightened leader, albeit authoritarian at times, but also a “strong state” that was more meritocratic and welfare-oriented than repressive and tyrannical.
And this is precisely why countries such as the Philippines have failed, because we either have had corrupt tyrannical leaders or struggling reformists bereft of a strong state. Absent capable and competent bureaucratic institutions, even the best leaders are constrained in bringing about transformative change.
In his memoirs, Lee praised the immense talent and work ethic of ordinary Filipinos, but lamented how the failures of the Philippines were because “[s]omething was missing, a gel to hold society together.” The “missing gel” was precisely the absence of a strong state that would not only hold the country together, but also steer it in a common direction toward a prosperous future.
Institutional legacy is one reason. As Stanley Karnow observed in his magisterial book “In Our Image,” “Americans neglected to establish an effective and impartial administration in the Philippines,” which forced ordinary Filipinos to place their hopes in “[corrupt] politicians instead of [a competent] bureaucracy… a practice that fostered patronage and corruption.”
Finally, one shouldn’t forget the Singaporean leader’s lamentations about corrupt tyrants in his neighborhood. In “From Third World to First,” Lee criticized the “soft, forgiving culture” of the Filipinos, since “[o]nly in the Philippines could a leader like Ferdinand Marcos, who pillaged his country for over twenty years, still be considered for a national burial.”
Lee’s Singapore shouldn’t be taken as an inspiration for authoritarianism, which has miserably failed in most countries with only few exceptions, but instead as a modern and effective bureaucracy that serves as the foundation of a functioning democracy.
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