For Australians, the hanging of Van Tuong Nguyen shines the
spotlight on Singapore and its special brand of governance. This paper
for the Asia Research Institute at the National University of
Singapore, by Dr Cherian George, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Policy
Studies and a former journalist at The Straits Times,

offers an insight into the machinations of the
country’s government – and why China and Vietnam are looking to
Singapore for the way forward:

  • Authoritarian rule is often regarded as simple for states to
    execute and unworthy of analysts to study. Far more attention has been
    devoted to the challenge of instituting and consolidating democracy …
    authoritarianism continues to be neglected as a form of rule in its own
    right. This essay is a modest effort to redress that balance, by taking
    seriously authoritarian rule – or, more precisely, coercion by the
  • What follows may occasionally seem like an apology, or
    prescription, for certain kinds of authoritarianism. On the contrary,
    the normative thrust of this essay is directed at democratisation.
  • Few instances of authoritarian rule demand deeper analysis
    than Singapore. Although the city state is tiny, with a population of
    less than five million, it provides an exceptionally instructive case
    study. Simply put, no existing regime can match its record of political
    stability combined with socio-economic development.
  • Today, Singapore enjoys First World standards of living in
    most respects, while the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) shows no
    hint of weakening its hold on political power. This achievement has
    reportedly attracted the attention of officials from China, Vietnam and
    other states who, unwilling to accept the liberal prescription that
    market liberalisation can only be successful if accompanied by
    political competition, find in Singapore a model for having one’s cake
    and eating it too.
  • Singapore’s political stability belies important shifts in
    coercive strategy, which may help account for the endurance of the PAP.
    Looking in particular at the way it has managed the press … part of
    the PAP’s success formula has been its ability to choose the right
    tools of repression for the right job. This is not to deny the
    importance of two other pillars of PAP hegemony – sound economic
    policy-making, and a compelling ideology of nation-building – about
    which much has already been written.
  • The PAP is certainly backed by a significant degree of consent
    on the part of the ruled. Part of this is accounted for by the people’s
    “instrumental acquiescence,” based on their not-unfounded faith that
    the governments will continue to deliver rising standards of living.
  • The array of repressive tools at the government’s disposal
    remains large. What has changed is the manner in which those tools are
    used. Generally speaking, there has been a shift from more spectacular
    punishments such as imprisonment, towards more behind-the-scenes
    controls. Economic sanctions are favoured over those that violate the
    sanctity of the individual. And, controls are targeted at limited
    numbers of producers and organisers of dissent, rather than at ordinary

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