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The Autocrats Strike Back

The jailing yesterday for three weeks of Dr. Chee Soon Juan, leader of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), which international media have reported and their American counterparts have largely ignored, is in fact very bad news for the future of freedom and democracy.

We regularly hear (in particular with respect to China) that only affluent and well-educated populations are capable of handling free expression responsibly, or are to be trusted with the power of the ballot. Poorer and less well-lettered people must be led toward stability and a modicum of prosperity by a benign and well-informed, if autocratic, leadership. Singapore’s roughly 4.5 million people already rank as among the best educated (literacy is nearly 93 percent and universal among those over age 15) and wealthiest (per capita GDP at $31,400) in the world. Yet Singapore, while possessing the forms of democracy, is in fact a tightly-held family autocracy.

Dr. Chee, one of the country’s bravest and best-known democracy advocates, is also an example of all that is best about his country. Born in 1962, his educational attainments are formidable. He holds a Ph.D. in neuropsychology, a subject that he taught at the National University of Singapore until his firing, in 1993, after he joined the Singapore Democratic Party. Since then he has been plagued by the standard tactics of the ruling People’s Action Party: arrests for such offenses as parading or speaking without a permit (gatherings of more than four must, in Singapore, be approved by the police); jailing and intimidation; and—the ultimate weapon—forced bankruptcy after a massive judgment in one of the trademark Singaporean “defamation suits,” with which the government seeks to strip troublesome citizens of their political rights, and to intimidate foreign media.

When I first heard Dr. Chee speak at an international democracy meeting, I had the palpable sense that he could be the first democratically elected prime minister of his country. If one of the most gifted and idealistic of Singapore’s younger generation of politicians is not to be allowed even to participate in his country’s politics, what, one must ask, will become of the place?

More broadly, if autocracy is able to maintain its grip on Singapore, what becomes of the theories holding that democratization is not so much a matter of political choice, but of rising levels of literacy and income, which, at some point, make democracy almost automatic? (One thinks of the arguments of development economist Henry S. Rowen of the RAND Corporation.)

Singapore may be small, but it views itself—and is viewed, for example, by China—as a political model for a modernity without democracy or freedom. The imprisonment of Dr. Chee provides an excellent opportunity for the world to take a searching look at how Singapore is in fact run, and to make sure the authoritarian nature of the system is fully understood.



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