Good-Government Authoritarianism?

NEW YORK – Many of the eulogies to Lee Kuan Yew, the long-time prime minister of Singapore who died in March, singled out his successful battle against corruption. Often implicit in this analysis (when not made explicit) was the suggestion that Lee’s accomplishments were made possible by his authoritarian style of governing.

Aside from this supposition’s profoundly anti-democratic implications, it also happens to be empirically false. Yes, Singapore ranked seventh out of more than 170 countries on Transparency International’s corruption survey last year. But a look at the other countries in the top 15 is much more revealing: every one of them is a thriving democracy.

Freedom House, a watchdog group that rates countries on a seven-point scale according to political rights and civil liberties, gave Singapore a grade of 4 in both categories. Every other country in Transparency International’s top 15 received the best possible score of 1 in each.

Indeed, there’s nothing inherently authoritarian about the anti-corruption measures that made Lee’s efforts a success. With some modifications, they could by applied in most democracies.