In a recent editorial following the death of Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew on March 23, columnist Michael Chugani wrote that Hong Kong needs a dose of autocracy "à la Lee Kuan Yew".
"[N]o honest person can deny [Lee Kuan Yew] turned a sleepy town into an Asian economic powerhouse - not through democracy but virtual autocracy," wrote Chugani in the 'South China Morning Post'. "We in Hong Kong lament the lack of democracy but envy Singapore's housing, clean air, efficient government and societal contentment. We compete and judge ourselves not with Asian democracies like the Philippines and Taiwan but with authoritarian Singapore."
According to Chugani, Singapore "lacks so-called true democracy but most Singaporeans are happy. We demand true democracy but yearn for the things Singapore achieved through autocracy. Where is the logic in that? ... Maybe what Hong Kong needs is a dose of dictatorship Lee Kuan Yew-style."
Is it therefore true that autocracy helps economic development, as some people suggest?
It is indeed undeniable that Singapore's economic miracle is an astounding success story.
In 1966, one year after independence, Singapore had a GDP per capita of US$ 3,152 (constant 2005 US$), and a life expectancy of 67 years. The same year the United States had a GDP per capita of US$ 19,791 and a life expectancy of 70 years; Sweden US$ 18,780 and 74 years; Hong Kong US$ 4,763 and 70 years; data for Germany are available only from 1970, when GDP per capita was US$ 17,463 and life expectancy was 71 years (World Bank).
Now let us look at the figures for the year 2012: the United States had a GDP per capita of US$ 45,038 and a life expectancy of 79 years; Sweden US$ 45,260 and 82 years; Germany US$ 39,273 and 81 years; Hong Kong US$ 32,729 and 83 years; Singapore US$36,110 and 82 years.
If measured by GNI per capita based on purchasing power parity, Singapore ranks first: United States US$ 52,220, Germany US$ 44,310, Hong Kong US$ 51,920, Sweden US$ 44,980, Singapore US$ 74,150. Lee Kuan Yew is widely credited for Singapore's rise "from third world to first", as he himself put it.
It is also undeniable that Lee Kuan Yew was suspicious of too much democracy and sought to establish an institutional framework that combined partial democracy, elitism, draconian laws, restrictions on personal freedoms and paternalism.
Singapore - An 'Illiberal Democracy'
Singapore has the fundamentals of a democracy: a parliamentary system, an elected president, elections and universal suffrage. Lee Kuan Yew and his party, the PAP (People's Action Party), believed that popular participation was necessary in order to legitimate the state. Lee Kuan Yew's ideal was a "government by free choice of the people, by secret ballot, at periodic intervals". It would therefore be entirely misleading to define Singapore as a dictatorship or an authoritarian regime (see Diane K. Mauzy / R. S. Milne: Singapore Politics Under the People's Action Party, 2002, pp.128-129).