A tweet too far on Singapore

Posted on March 23, 2017


Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator of Italy until the end of World War II, was hailed for having the trains in his country run on time. Adolf Hitler, the Nazi dictator of Germany was also hailed for the great industrial leap forward in that country in the 1930s.

But we should also take account of the fact that Mussolini tolerated no opposition and that his armies invaded the longest existing African state, Ethiopian, or as it was then more widely known, Abyssinian, in 1935. This it could be argued, was the real start of World War II.

And while Hitler’s Nazi regime certainly increased the industrial output of Germany, can we ever forget the slaughter of not just thousands but millions of people that his regime encouraged and supported? Can we excuse, or justify, the genocide perpetrated on Jews, “Gypsies” (Roma/Sinti) and those offspring of black American soldiers from World War I? Let alone those gassed, shot, and otherwise disposed of because they were trade unionists, socialists, communists, or Slavs?

There are modern parallels, to this sort of behaviour, although not as obviously brutal as Italy and Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. One such parallel is Singapore.

In human rights terms it is not as overtly brutal as North Korea. But it probably more than rivals South Korea in terms of repressive measures.

Yet it is to Singapore that Helen Zille, former leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance and premier of South Africa’s Western Cape province, says we should look for inspiration. Her now much quoted tweet stated: “Much to learn from Singapore, colonised for as long as SA, and under brutal occupation in World War II. Can we apply the lessons in our democracy?”

Yes, Singapore was colonised. Yes, its people were brutalised under Japanese occupation. And yes, today Singapore is a thriving business friendly environment. It is also a society that employs both capital and corporal punishment on a fairly widespread scale.

Zille should bear in mind that Singapore’s government does not tolerate opposition politics. This little city states in Southeast Asia also allows for detention without trial. In one notorious case one opposition leader was held for 23 years in prison without trial and later effectively house arrested for another nine years.

For a country of just 5 million people to hang an average of 34 people a year is also something scarcely to be proud of. Nor is the fact that it still maintains that great British colonial import, the caning of those who misbehave. Judicial caning is carried out in prisons in the army.

In fact, Singapore is a classic example of an economically successful authoritarian dictatorship that, while its economy continues to thrive, can afford to distribute enough crumbs to citizens — although not necessarily to migrant workers — to keep most Singaporeans relatively passive.

It is, of course, legitimate to see this as a model, although it is hard to see how it could be replicated in the current global economic crisis. And, even if there was an upturn in financial fortunes, is this the sort of state in which most of us would want to live?

Posted in: Commentary