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200 Freedom from the Press 200 10 C H A P T E R Networked Hegemony: Consolidating the Political System Dictatorships don’t last. In the long run, the divergence of interests between leaders and led rips regimes apart. Of course, history tells us that the long term can be extremely long: civilisations have lasted millennia without conceding anything to democracy. Today, however, it is much harder for autocrats to protect their monopoly of unaccountable power. In the short time since Singapore became a sovereign state, more and more nations have transitioned to democracy, or at least away from autocracy and towards more or less democratic forms of government, watched over by a public assisted by a vigilant press. “The world has gone from dictatorship to democracy as the modal system — from democracy limited to one part of the world to democracy widespread in most parts of the world,” writes Larry Diamond.1 While there is still no shortage of rapacious and repressive regimes, the indefinite suppression of free expression and rejection of the popular will is no longer seen as a viable formula. Instead, the most robust political systems are consolidated democracies — those where rule-bound electoral competition is seen as “the only game in town” by all sides, allowing peaceful changes of government.2 What is less clear are the prospects for states such as Singapore, that are not fully democratic but hardly tyrannical either. These hybrid regimes may hold regular elections and refrain from the grossest human rights abuses. But, weak civil liberties and poorly institutionalised Chap10 (200-225) 200 Chap10 (200-225) 200 4/2/12 2:54:55 PM 4/2/12 2:54:55 PM Networked Hegemony: Consolidating the Political System 201 checks and balances allow the state to dominate over society, and partially insulate leaders from public criticism and scrutiny.3 Singapore’s soft authoritarianism is largely benign, but also has its victims. Simultaneously responsive and reactionary, the People’s Action Party is difficult to place on the continuum between consolidated democracies and fragile dictatorships. Most believers in democracy want and need to believe that Singapore is closer to the unstable end of the spectrum. They find too disconcerting the idea that a modern state may have found a way to consolidate authoritarianism — possibly serving as a model for other societies in transition that are not enamoured of liberal democracy as a final destination. This book has taken seriously the possibility that the PAP may have indeed found ways to buck the global democratic trend. In preceding chapters of this book, I have tried to analyse these strategies in detail. First, the PAP has not made the mistake of opposing global capitalist forces that — as much as the hunger for liberty or democracy — have shaped the destiny of nations in the modern era. Its media controls have not denied, and have often exploited, the media’s need for profits. Second, even if it has never used the term, the PAP has mastered the concept of hegemony: while coercion underwrites PAP domination, consent is the main medium of political transaction. To achieve this, it has systematically shifted towards more calibrated forms of coercion to minimise the risk of backfire. It has also engaged in unrelenting ideological work, as well as striving to ensure that most of its policies please most of the people over the long term. This concluding chapter contemplates the PAP’s longevity from a third angle. The key question it explores is how the PAP avoids what could be called a dictator’s dilemma. Even if a leader has no respect for the intrinsic value of democracy, he cannot deny that this system of government offers two practical benefits to rulers. First, democracy generates information about the level of genuine popular support for rulers and their policies. An army of spies and informants operating in an environment of fear is not as reliable, opening dictators to the risk of sudden and surprising revolution and reprisal, as the likes of East Germany’s Erich Honecker and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak learnt the hard way. Second, democracy provides strong incentives for ruling elites to pay heed to signals from the people. No mechanism has proven better at focusing officials’ minds on the public interest than democracy’s assurance that they will lose their jobs if they don’t. Chap10 (200-225) 201 Chap10 (200-225) 201 4/2/12 2:54:56 PM 4/2/12...


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