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A Loong and winding road

About the author
Tom Burgis is a freelance reporter. He has written for openDemocracy’s debates on protest and globalisation and has contributed to many newspapers.

If there is one offence that makes Singapore's prime minister Lee Hsien Loong a worthy Worst Democrat of 2006, it is the lone, corrosive idea he has peddled throughout his two decades in politics to justify his family's iron grip on the southeast Asian city-state.

The idea - which has, in one way or another, been borrowed to lend some moral bunting to some of the year's most scurrilous political acts - is pretty simple.

Click here to view this year's list of bad democrats

In a globalised world, the Lee doctrine goes, where dogs in Chicago or Brussels eat dogs Shanghai or Mumbai, there is one commodity that is simply too expensive: freedom.

Singapore therefore cannot afford democracy. Were they not so roundly marshalled, its populace would doubtless immediately down tools, slope off to the woods and indulge in all manner of unproductive behaviour. Grant them a free election and before you know it everyone's splurging the national savings on designer pets and dancing girls.

"Western-style democracy has not always delivered stable, legitimate and effective government", Lee Hsien Loong told newspaper editors - quite correctly, of course - in October 2006. With more than a whiff of sophistry, he went on to explain why this necessitates Singapore's "predictable environment", namely the dynastic rule that began when his father, Lee Kuan Yew, became Singapore's first premier in 1959. Such liberties as a "rambunctious press" or the "clever propaganda" enabled by the internet must be stamped out to ensure order and keep the cash flowing in.

It's a catchy line and has been deployed by almost all the ne'er-do-wells who have graced openDemocracy's monthly list of the men, women and institutions who have done injury to the good name of democracy.

Don't miss the background to our prestigious Bad Democracy awards:

Introduction

Nominations

Winner of the first award: Silvio Berlusconi

Winner of the second award: John Howard

Winner of the third award: George W Bush

Winner of the fourth award: Meles Zenawi

Winner of the fifth award: Abu Laban

Winner of the sixth award: Alexander Lukashenko

Winner of the seventh award: Lee Hsien Loong

Winner of the eighth award: Kim Jong Il

Winner of the ninth award: the Israeli Defence Forces

Winner of the tenth award: The G8

Winner of the eleventh award: Rupert Murdoch

Winner of the twelfth award: result declared void

A notorious galère

Take Kim Jong Il, North Korea's bon vivant despot. Even as Koreans starve on scraps of food aid, Kim's songun (military first) policy requires every last resource to be channelled into martial production, the banner under which the party maintains control. His defence minister explained the policy thus: "Comrades, we can live without candies, but we can't live without bullets." But the military can, we must presume, spare enough to keep the Dear Leader in choice Cognac and prime donkey, but then one would expect no less for a leader who, according to this stirring ode, descended from heaven.

Or Alexander Lukashenko, another autocrat with a nice line in rousing if rather ham-fisted musical propaganda. "Listen to daddy", trill his acolytes, "who is the master in the house." The same message was delivered less tunefully when protesters massed on the streets of Minsk to challenge Lukashenko's fraudulent victory in March's elections: keep your nose to the grindstone, or I will apply the grindstone to your nose.

And Lee's line - belied as it is by some of the bravest thinkers of the age, who point to India or Botswana, where democratic governments have slashed poverty - is wheeled out not merely by tinpot dictators, as the staggering hypocrisy with which 2006 started and ended evinces.

In January, Palestinians went to the polls to choose between Fatah, the corrupt incumbents at the Palestinian Authority (PA), and Hamas, its Islamist but more efficient rival. Ringing in their ears were the exhortations of the United States and its allies for Arab states to embrace democracy - a dream for which so many of their Iraqi brothers had so gladly laid down their lives.

When Hamas won, election observers wondered whether this was the tipping point, the moment when, like the African National Congress (ANC) and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) before them, the militia would begin its transition from bloodthirsty resistance to political compromise.

They did not get to find out. Infuriated, the United States, the European Union and Israel laid siege to the PA, reducing members of the incipient government to filling the fiscal coffers by smuggling suitcases of currency into their ministries (not the direction, it's worth noting, in which cash-stuffed luggage usually travels).

The Palestinians had made one fatal error. The election was fine - the problem was the result.

It was Leeism writ large: if we the mighty few are not to jeopardise our strategic interests, you the unwashed simply cannot be left to your own devices.

Then, nearly twelve months later, with Gaza and the West Bank still in flames, Tony Blair departed an inutile EU summit to fly to Baghdad, Ankara and Ramallah to deliver another round of lectures on how to be "purer than pure" in public office.

That he made no mention of corruption, impunity or the rule of law may have had something to do with the announcement a day earlier that the UK had dropped a criminal investigation into fraud allegedly committed (who'd have thought it?) during a multi-billion-dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia.

Or perhaps Blair's omission was due to the absence from his side of his trusty middle-east advisor and tennis partner Lord Levy - but then he's been terribly busy.

Click here to read Lee Hsien Loong's letter of congratulation from openDemocracy for winning the Bad Democracy award 2006

In any case, as the British premier spouted platitudes about safeguarding exports, the rationale was clear: justice is just too damn expensive.

It was, aptly enough, at a gathering of the global financial institutions that even those most indebted to Lee for his lesson in sophistry felt obliged to rebuke him.

The world had watched May's elections, seen opponents intimidated, dissidents chased through the courts and the media shackled, but had averted their gaze. Singapore was churning out millionaires at record rates - why shed any tears for a few woolly idealists?

But at the annual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in September, things were different. Even Paul Wolfowitz, the Bush administration hawk turned bank president, was compelled to reprimand his host when Lee went one step too far, unleashing his repressive apparatus on outlanders.

Alas, the Singapore model - waved like some map to Elysium in front of poor country governments the world over - does not look to be going anywhere fast.

That said, a fair crop of the seventy-two Bad Democracy nominees over the past year have seen their power curtailed, so we may cling to hope that receiving our shameful gong will hasten the end of the Lee era.

But then, it seems there are those who feel no shame - such as Silvio Berlusconi, the first of our Bad Democrats and entitled, as the only winner to be booted from office, to the last word, with his fabulous insight into the delusions with which the mighty prolong their power: "I am the Jesus Christ of politics", he said at the start of this year's campaign. "I am a patient victim, I put up with everyone, I sacrifice myself for everyone."


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