Michael Maiello's picture

    Cane-Do Lee Kuan Yew

    In the Times this morning, Roger Cohen eulogizes Lee Kuan Yew, the "Father of Singapore" and a man who has benefited greatly, alongside monarchs throughout the Middle East, from the absurd notion of the "benevolent dictator."

    Singapore developed into a Western-friendly hub for financiers looking to access Asia without risk of losing their property or heads to the Chinese government and folks seemingly forgot the harsher aspects of its governance, which first really came to light in America when a 19-year-old citizen of the United States was brutally caned for petty theft.  Hedge funder Jim Rogers even moved his family there, declaring his intention to join rising Asia rather than remain in the declining West.

    Cohen, writing with a straight face, from the safety of a constitutional democracy:

    Western democracy was not for him. It was too volatile for a nation that had to be forged and then fast-forwarded to prosperity. He was authoritarian, harsh when necessary. Free speech and political opposition were generally suppressed; the only liberalism was of the economic variety. Lee tapped into an Asian and Confucian inclination to place the communal good above individual rights; he also cowed Singaporeans into fear. Overall, it worked. Singapore became a booming commercial and banking center.

    Well, then.  Forget the blood in the streets if Singapore's economy had a boom.  This strain of thought exists in American politics as well.  It's the "pragmatic" or "technocratic" impulse that does not value democracy first.  It's what makes a Michael Bloomberg change the New York City laws so he can run for a third term as mayor and then change them back during that third term because three terms is apparently one too many for anyone but him.  This is the impulse behind suggestions that Congress be bypassed on contentious issues like Social Security or the environment, in favor of blue ribbon panels of experts, beholden to no one.

    That we celebrate the lives of dictators in American newspapers is deeply troubling.



    He was a nasty despot, and there is no excuse for that, but history will probably give him some of the credit for Singapore's material prosperity. To say a dictator did something good doesn't necessarily mean endorsing his dictatorship.

    Cohen seemed pretty unwilling to criticize him. The column read like an endorsement on that front.

    Frankly I think Americans should just shut up about how other countries manage prison and punishment.

    Our system runs on Rodney-King style or lesser beatings in the street, tasering at the slightest refusal to respond (even if comatose), an occasional "accidental" shooting with 20 bullets or death-by-choke-hold or raiding the wrong house, and best of all, massive male rape in the name of incarceration (a big har-har in our culture, Christopher Hitchens notes, describing a TV ad that ran for months) - somewhere between 12-14% of the prison population raped - a significant part as sex slaves, roughly 20% carried out by the guards.

    From a 2013 article, American police have killed more than 5000 civilians since 9/11 - I imagine with OWS and Ferguson and others this has increased significantly, especially with giving excess military equipment to local police all over the US (great for US weapons vendors, dontcha think?)

    And let's not get into how we treat civilians in countries we've occupied.

    The chutzpah that we're going to natter about Singapore's canings - well, remove the beam in our eye first. Serve and protect indeed. So let Singapore's leader RIP.


    How many of the five thousand killings were unlawful? People get raped in Singapore's prisons too, in addition to things that don't happen here. The United States, however, is almost unique among advanced countries in retaining the death penalty.

    Oh, I"m sure the 5000 killings were all lawful, as all the NSA & telco surveillance and overthrowing Libya without Congressional approval and treatment Gitmo & death-by-chokehold and whatever else. We'd never break the law - and if we did, we're at least smart enough to pass retroactive immunity or somehow wash it away with some "expert witness" testimony. The blue wall of silence rulez.

    "People get raped in Singapore's prisons too, in addition to things that don't happen here." - congrats, you're truly American - assume that everywhere else is as bad as anything bad in America - plus a bunch of other unnamed stuff too!!!!

    No, the rape in Singapore prisons isn't endemic like the guaranteed rape in US prisons, sorry to burst your bubble. We really have designed our prisons in a more sadistic way than many other countries. Justify it away if you wish.



    I didn't see anything in the two accounts of Changi prison to convince me that it is more humane than American prisons. The journalist said they had to sleep on the floor, while convicts in America get beds. Possibly the medical care is better, although I wonder if no convict in America would say they are "pretty well looked after" in terms of food and medical care. There was nothing said about rapes, so we have no basis of comparison in that matter. I also would have liked to have read something about the punishments in Changi prison; do they include canings?

    And you don't think they would have mentioned canings & rape?

    No, I don't think their failure to talk about canings and rape demonstrates that it isn't happening. We should be cautious about arguments from silence; at least in accounts as brief as these two were. One of the guys was on a tour of the prison; I doubt the warden was eager to tell him about the horrors within the walls.

    Of course you're right - I assume you're being molested by a 3-ton extraterrestrial nibbling on your kidneys while dancing the Locomotion - because after all, you didn't say it wasn't happening. We should be cautious about arguments from silence, and as Harlan Ellison noted, in space no one can hear you scream.

    Results matter ... (sarcasm)  

    To a media that reports the economy is doing great when Wall Street hits a new high, and doesn't mention that most of the poor and middle class are ready to jump off a cliff due to their crushing poverty, what did you expect?   To Big Business, monetary success is all that matters, the means is merely a footnote ... And those that report on Big Business have drunk the kool-aid.  

    Years ago, when I was at Forbes, the WTO held its meeting in Qatar of all places. This was just a few years after massive protests against the WTO meeting whenever it was held in countries with anything resembling Western laws.  In Qatar there is no freedom of assembly or public speech.  You probably couldn't even get protesters into the country legally. Nobody was really outraged by the idea that they would hold such a meeting in a place where dissent was not allowed.

    It's not just Singapore, either.  Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, the UAE -- these are all dictatorships like any other but they get passes for a number of reasons.  Saudi Arabia, of course...


    Hmmm ... The Capitalists imagine that Capitalism succeeding in a dictatorship is a foothold for Democracy, when the truth is, a dictatorship's version of Capitalism is simply the Capitalist's idea of how Democracy really should be .. .

    You're setting up a straw man here. I doubt Cohen would concede that economic gain is worth "blood in the streets." Rather, he'd argue that the firm hand of an enlightened autocrat will avoid more bloodshed than a democracy in its birth throes. And frankly, he'd have plenty of historical evidence to back up the claim--even in Singapore which suffered race riots after independence.

    Moreover, the argument has obvious appeal, which is why dictators who present themselves as bulwarks against chaos--Putin, Sisi, etc.--are so popular. Given the choice to be born in Singapore or Iraq, who would choose Iraq? I venture that most would even choose Singapore over India.

    To my view, the best argument against benevolent dictators is pragmatic. Very few dictators are truly benevolent. That vast majority are corrupt, ruthless autocrats who sooner or later run their countries to the ground. And even those who rule well usually die without providing a mechanism to ensure an effective successor. We've seen dictatorships that have flourished briefly but none that have created stability, vibrancy, freedom, and quality of life that compares to mature democracies.

    But is there a role for a "bridge" autocrat, one who rules firmly but prepares the way for a future democracy? Lee Kuan Yew may be that. Singapore has democratic institutions despite single party control and the power of Yew's family. Time will tell.

    I wish it were a straw man.  The Times has a more nuance editorial today but also ran another pro-Lee op-ed where there's similar hand-waving about this authoritarianism subsmumed in "but look how well it works!"

    I don't think Cohen would want to replace the American system with Singapore's, though he probably could deal with a little less direct democracy on issues he deems important.  There's also the kind of offensive suggestion that Lee's methods work best "over there."  You know, to contain the lesser peoples of the developing world.  Right out of Conrad.

    In the past, you often heard people saying "other cultures cannot be judged by our standards". That was tantamount to denying that human rights are universal--outrages in other lands are okay because they are just part of their quaint traditions. In one of his books, Will Durant asserted that women in India didn't mind being oppressed. We've seen how that was poppycock.

    Do you and I presume Michael,  believe 'our standards' including who we execute, how we run our prisons and treat prisoners, our justifications for starting wars or torturing people, what we do at 'black sites', who we 'drone', our national standards for cop use of deadly force (hint - we don't even keep track of the # dead), our pro-gun culture with 30k killed by guns every year, our clearly for sale and tilted to the rich/powerful system of justice.......if compared and contrasted would shine a cleansing light of ethical virtue on the 'caners of petty thieves' of Singapore?

    Yes, those of us who taze in glass houses...

    Should not spit gum on the streets of Singapore.

    ...shouldn't chase other spouses?

    ...soon come to rue the day?

    ...should keep our spotwelds to ourselves?

    ...keep up with current events?

    ...should turn the heat/voltage down a notch?

    ...chaise in the workshop?

    can't find le mot apropos...

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