Singapore

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Thu Feb 22 02:15:07 MST 2001


All Good No Bad

Thomas Frank (editor of The Baffler)

Markets may have made their peace with activism, rebellion, radicalism,
revolution, change-agenting, hierarchy-questioning, sacred-cow-killing,
power-seizing, apple-cart-overturning and everything else on the exciting
menu of New Economy upheaval, but markets still have trouble reconciling
themselves to democracy proper. Markets romp joyfully when word arrives
that the vote-counting has been halted. Markets punish the bond prices of
countries where left parties still attract a substantial vote. Markets
reward countries where left parties have been induced to wind up their
operations. To you Bill Clinton's rightward triangulations may have seemed
like rank hypocrisy or worse, since they deprived Americans of meaningful
political choice, but in the view of markets the man who managed to kill
off the New Deal is a statesman for the ages.

Above all markets love the country of Singapore. There was a time a few
years ago when one heard this repeated so frequently that it became one of
the great media clichés of the age. Singapore was an economic miracle, a
land arisen from Third World to First in a handful of decades. Singapore
was showing the world the way forward. Singapore had resolved it all:
ethnic hatred, crime, social decay, good government. Singapore was the
country with the most economic freedom in the world. Singapore was the best
place to do business in all the earth. Singapore was more comprehensively
wired than anywhere else. "Asian values," as described by Lee Kuan Yew, the
man who has effectively ruled Singapore ever since 1959, would inevitably
prevail. And as proof you needed look no farther than a postcard of
Singapore's glittering downtown, at all the spanking new skyscrapers
erupting from the earth in stern testimony to the market's approval.

And what the market loved best about Singapore was what was absent:
Politics. The country has quite literally traded politics for wealth, with
its most prominent political thinkers endlessly reminding the world that
"Asian values" prioritize economic achievement over civil liberties. But
the trade-off between a lively political life and the blessings of the
market is hardly a uniquely Asian phenomenon. Americans know the logic
quite well. For ten years now we have labored mightily to convince
ourselves that once we had hobbled unions and rolled back regulation and
dropped antitrust enforcement and "reformed" welfare and stopped worrying
generally, we would break free into a world beyond ideology and dread
partisanship, a place of civility and simple pleasures, a utopia where
watching the NASDAQ shower us with its blessings far outranked
electioneering as an expression of our democratic ways. So acute was the
desire in some circles to nail a final lid on politics that Thomas
Friedman, the highly respected New York Times foreign affairs columnist,
actually came up with a term for the glorious trade-off in his ecstatic
1999 book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: "the golden straitjacket." Since
all alternatives to laissez-faire are now historically discredited,
Friedman maintained, all countries must now adopt the same rigidly
pro-business stance. When they do, "your economy grows and your politics
shrinks." The pseudo-democracy of markets replaces the real democracy of
democracy, the great multinational corporations nod their approval, and
(some) people get fantastically rich.

I have no idea whether Friedman had Singapore specifically in mind when he
came up with this formulation, but there can be little doubt that Singapore
has come close indeed to realizing the "post-partisan" dream of New Economy
ideologues everywhere. Many facts can be cited to illustrate Singapore's
exchange of democracy for wealth, but few are more poignant than the
bankruptcy into which the country's opposition MPs (at present there are
three in a parliament of 84), are perennially thrown by ruling party
lawsuits. Dissenting publicly can quite literally mean losing it all. As a
result opposition politicians have learned, as X'ho, the ultra-arch
Singapore punk rocker puts it, "Speak not, bankrupt not."

Full article at: http://www.centerforbookculture.org/context/no6/frank.html


Louis Proyect
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