Lee Kuan Yew once said of the Marcoses, “Only in the Philippines could a leader like Ferdinand Marcos, who pillaged his country for over 20 years, still be considered for a national burial. Insignificant amounts of the loot have been recovered, yet his wife and children were allowed to return and engage in politics.”
Were he alive today, the founding father of Singapore would probably be astounded that another Marcos has been elected president, and that on September 6 and 7, his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, would be playing host to a man whom he thought should not have been allowed to return to politics.
Marcos, Jr., was convicted in 1997 of not paying income taxes while he was vice governor and later governor of Ilocos Norte from 1982-85 and he has not paid estate taxes owed by his family that could amount to P203 billion. In Singapore, lesser offenses would earn a public official several years in jail.
Tough country (for the corrupt)
Singapore probably has the toughest laws against corruption and other offenses by public servants and elected officials. This has earned it the reputation, confirmed by survey after survey, of having one of the least corrupt governments in the world. Its most recent place in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions index (CPI) was fourth out of 180 countries.
Singapore is praised for its record, but the praise often comes with qualifications. The government controlled by the People’s Action Party (PAP), which has ruled the island state since independence in 1965, has often been accused of using anti-corruption laws against the political opposition. In one widely cited case, the career of an up-and-coming political figure was derailed when he was fired from his university job for allegedly using research funds to mail his wife’s doctoral thesis to the United States.
These criticisms have not been able to blunt the fact that Singapore’s stamping out corruption in government is no fiction. And the PAP regime has been able to do this with a combination of coercive moral suasion, a cross-class moral consensus, cutting off opportunities for career advancement, imprisonment, and converting violators into political pariahs that even relatives avoid.
But how was it able to set up the system in the first place? Did the city-state’s small size enable easy centralized monitoring that would not have been possible in the much larger states of Southeast Asia? Did Lee Kuan Yew succeed in imprinting in the psychological make-up of the citizenry his combination of austere morals and authoritarian disposition? Was it authoritarianism that made the difference?
Singapore as exception
In his book Capitalism Alone, Branko Milanovic, one of the world’s top experts on inequality, cites Singapore as one of the cases of what he calls “political capitalism,” where vigorous centralized state action has served as the key factor in achieving rapid development. Political capitalist states have legal systems, but they are subordinate to the regime’s political and economic priorities. This selective application of the law creates a discretionary “zone” that offers tremendous opportunities for corruption. Nevertheless, corruption cannot be allowed to spread uncontrolled since this would totally subvert technocratic rationality, militate against economic growth, and thus erode the legitimacy of the system. Thus, as with Xi Jin Ping’s now 10-year-long widely popular campaign against corruption, there must be periodic efforts to contain it, and sacrificing high officials caught with their fingers in the till is often the price of stabilizing the system.
Milanovic claims that corruption cannot really be eliminated since it is rooted in the system of discretionary decision-making or selective application of the law that is central to the functioning of political capitalism. In practically all the cases he cites as political capitalist states – a list that includes China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Botswana – corruption has been widespread. The one exception has been Singapore. Rather than explain Singapore’s outlier status – its ability to combine discretionary application of the law with the relative absence of corruption – Milanovic chooses not to deal with it.
Singapore as Neverland
Milanovic’s problem is how to explain Singapore’s avoiding the corruption that is rife in other political capitalist countries. For many others, the question is exactly the opposite. For them it is, can corruption be eliminated without an authoritarian regime? Many Filipinos visiting Singapore are impressed with its level of economic development, efficient services, and non-corrupt government and attribute this to the island-state’s authoritarian regime. In this regard, it is ironic that it has been partly the distorted image of Marcos, Sr., as an effective authoritarian administrator that has been disseminated online – sans the mega-corruption that Lee Kuan Yew found so appalling – that convinced many to elect his son to the presidency.
Singapore has long performed the role of the “anti-Philippines” in the popular mind, the mythical land that the Philippines could be were it not for corruption and the mess that competitive democratic politics has made of the country. Over the last three decades, the contrast between an efficient and clean Singapore and a messy democratic Philippines took hold in the popular mind. Lee Kuan Yew, it must be pointed out, contributed to perpetuating the idea that a great part of the problem lay in the Philippines having an “American-style democracy.” In opting first for Duterte and more recently for Marcos Jr., a great number of people placed their bets that a more authoritarian form of rule was the passport to this land of their dreams, to the “Philippines as Singapore.”
The irony is that in choosing as chief executive the person now visiting the city state which they aspired their country to be like, they were choosing the person least qualified to make it a reality, mired as he is in the old corrupt competitive dynastic elite politics they have been seeking salvation from.
But Marcos or no Marcos, Singapore poses a challenge to partisans of democracy. Criticizing it as authoritarian will not cut any ice since it is precisely its being authoritarian that is said to be the secret for its being able to eliminate corruption and deliver efficient governance.
The task is to show that democracy can do better – that it can deliver clean and effective governance and radically reduce the poverty and inequality that drive people to the authoritarian solution – while still respecting individual rights and due process. – Rappler.com
Walden Bello is a former member of Congress who currently serves as Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton.