Lee Kuan Yew, Meles Zenawi: Cousins with Unhappy Legacies

History will be remembering Lew Kuan Yew of Singapore and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia for their disinterest in recognising the democratic ambitions of their citizens, argues Zerihun Addisu - zerihun.addisu@yahoo.com – a foreign trade relations and negotiation expert. But this ideological similarity does not imply a similarity of journey, he portrays in the commentary.


he longest serving Prime Minister in history has gone, but there is an insightful and ongoing debate regarding his legacy around the globe. Lee Kuan Yew was born on September 16, 1923, and died on March 23, 2015, at the age of 91. Leaders around the world eulogised this brilliant statesman.

Even the leaders of the Western democracies fell in love with his masterful strategic thought and success story in which Singapore is now distinctively emblemised. From Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to George Bush; from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair; from Vladimir Putin to Chinese statesmen Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping; all were among his passionate admirers.

Yet, there is a paradox as to how and what to emulate and replicate from the lessons of his country’s success and miraculous economic prosperity. From China to Russia, from Georgia to Ukraine; and from Rwanda to Ethiopia, leaders such as Putin, Paul Kagame and the late Meles Zenawi worked really hard to emulate him in building a state with a centralised power led by a strongman emphasising social control in pursuing authoritarian development discourse.

However, this paradox does not only cross the minds of the new authoritarians, but the democracies of the West as well. To the irony of democratic sympathisers, President Barack Obama praised Lee in his eulogy in somewhat similar and parallel phrases by describing him as “a true giant of history”, as he did last year when he delivered his eulogy to the great iconic leader Nelson Mandela. The outpouring grief reflects the stature of the man leaving an indelible legacy and the mark he has in the history of modern political leadership.

Controversial in death as in life, Lee saw a host of strong support and criticisms in his outlook, governance and policies. I believe that drawing the similarities and symmetries witnessed between Lee and the late Meles would be helpful.

In 1965, Singapore’s gross domestic product (GDP) was 970 million dollars, but by the time Lee stepped down in 1990, it had surged to 34.5 billion dollars. By 2014, its GDP has risen to about 300 billion dollars and its GDP per capita increased from 400 dollars in 1965 to 55,000 dollars in 2014, surpassing the UK.

Lee’s ultimate ambition was to make Singapore, in his words, a “first world oasis in a third world region”, a business hub and a prime destination for multinational corporations and foreign direct investment. The average annual growth rate for GDP in Singapore between 1965 and 2006 was nearly eight percent. This economic growth metamorphosis emerged with the state at ‘the commanding height’ of the economy together with free trade policy practices. Singapore transformed from being ‘the basket case’ and a sleepy backwater to one of the wealthiest nations of the 21st century.

Lee influenced and inspired many leaders to follow his path of being an unapologetic autocrat. This also relates to Lee’s forthright and clear declaration of ambivalence to democracy as a political system.

Though Lee possessed political mastery and statecraft par-excellence as compared to Meles, there is incredible similarity in how the two leaders ruled their nations and tried to buy legitimacy through hegemonisation of their development mantra, adherence to peace and security at the expense of political and civil liberties as well as other instruments of political and national identity imagination. The two are also similar in their controversial policies attempting to design national identity, strategic and vulnerability analysis of regional geopolitics, in their self-presentation as intellectuals with a ‘Philosopher King’ leadership style.

Meles Zenawi, since his years back in the armed struggle, was strongly attracted by Asian miraculous economic success for lifting millions out of abject poverty in a short span of time. His development narratives were hugely influenced by Japan, the newly industrialised countries (NICs), the Asian Tigers and more recently China’s rise as they provided him alternatives to the Western model. In this matrix, Singapore was one of the proud members of the Asian clubs that Ethiopia, under the EPRDF, aspired to emulate.

Meles was an ardent Marxist-Leninist before the demise of the socialist camp and the end of the Cold War. But tactfully learning the political dynamics and responding to the pressure from the US, donor institutions and other allies, Meles and his party changed their clothes overnight and quickly adopted pro-Western democratic and capitalistic policy dresses.

In contrast, Lee was by far, a well-known pragmatist, who, unlike Meles, played by the cards of the achievable not by the aspiration; to Lee the aspiration was achievable. Meles, shifted from the Marxism-Leninism of Maoism to Albanian Socialism and finally, when coming to power, to Revolutionary Democracy, which embraces cosmetic democratic laws and a multiparty framework. Due to the changes in the international arena, Meles made the policy changes not as a result of pragmatism or empiricism, but as the result of compelling factors and dilemmas of survival.

The similarity begins when the two leaders faced a party split and emerged victorious to dominate their domestic politics for decades, but it is much deeper than we think it is. Lee’s position in the People’s Action Party (PAP) was under threat in 1957, when pro-communists took over the leadership posts, following the party conference wherein the Party’s left wing was infiltrated with fake members. It was a dramatic episode which marked a turning point throwing the PAP into turmoil in its history as Lee never trusted the left again and the party was never the same again. Following a brief interlude of losing the Secretary General for 10 days, Lee was reinstated.

This was similar to the split that occurred in the TPLF leadership shortly after the Ethio-Eritrean War in 2001/02. The internal party debate then took an ideological turn that seemed to outsiders, oddly anachronistic, with the dissenting the group accused of Bonapartism. Meles emerged victorious out of the crisis, organising the leadership in a new form and with new personnel.

In both cases, though, what later followed was the consolidation of political power single- handedly, turning it into a one man state.

Lee’s advocated in favour of ‘Asian values’ which underline the fundamental difference between Western conceptions of society and government and East Asian conceptions. The core of this assertion was that Singaporeans had little doubt that a society with communitarian values, where the interests of society took precedence over those of the individual, suited them better than democracy.

In his interview with Fareed Zakaria published in 1994, in Foreign Affairs magazine, Lee clearly stated that “the expansion of the right of the individual to behave or misbehave as he pleases has come at the expense of an orderly society. In the East, the main object is to have a well-ordered society that everybody can have maximum enjoyment of his freedoms.” His view of meritocratic and Confucian values-based polity emphasised the importance of non-economic factors of a sense of community and nationhood, a disciplined and hardworking people, strong moral values and family ties.

This system, hailed ‘Asian Style Democracy’, asserts that the concept of natural rights is alien to Asians and, is in fact, unnatural. As the argument goes, it is against the sensibilities of Asians living in Confucian culture, hence, the political system.

But the notable Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen argues that the notion of ‘Asian values’ is irrelevant and against Confucian and other Eastern philosophies. For Sen, this notion of “fundamental difference between Western concepts of society and government and East Asian concepts” is the enterprise of a highly selective interpretation of Confucian ideals and it is often intentionally perverse.

As Sen argues, a wide-ranging historical and economic survey of Asia reveals little substance in Lee’s defense of authoritarianism. The reading of Confucianism that is now standard among authoritarian champions of Asian values, he argues, does less than justice to Confucius’ own teachings as Confucius did not recommend blind allegiance to the state. This is what has been referred to as a ‘Confucian bargain’ between the states and the public.

This belief and longstanding cult of ‘Asian values’ grew in the 1990s as the economies of East Asia and South East Asian economy dramatically transformed, giving impetus to the ‘Asian values’ claim. However, against the backdrop of this argument, Asian countries are increasingly and gradually being drawn to democracy with examples set in India, Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia and South Korea.

This body of argument was behind the Arab world’s despotic and authoritarian regimes where political Islam was deemed incompatible with democratic norms and values. However, the Arab Spring brought an unprecedented wave of democratisation and credible political reforms toward open society and responsible government.

Here in Africa, as well, for too long, leaders have been arguing against democracy to linger on in power for decades questioning the level of consciousness and capability of Africans to tame democracy. Poverty and deprivation, fragile statehood, security and stability and backward African cultures have been the unfounded rationales raised by African incumbents and some scholars to clamp down on political and civil liberties.

In a statement highly reminiscent of Lee, Meles, according to the Human Rights Watch Report 2010, said that “when Revolutionary Democracy permeates the entire society, the individual will start to think alike and cease having their own independent outlook. In this order, the individual thinking becomes simply part of collective thinking because the individual will not be in a position to know concepts that have not been prescribed by Revolutionary Democracy”. Just like ‘Asian values’, Revolutionary Democracy posits itself as an antithesis to liberal democracy.

This entails that Revolutionary Democracy is meant to serve as a transition between pre-capitalist and socialist societies. Of course, this stance has now been redefined with a tale that the destination is a capitalist society following, what the party called, the ‘renewal movement’ in 2002/03. Meles stated “because revolutionary democracy is a ruling principle for a specifically designed transitional period to capitalism, attaining its goals, then, it will die, and its death is its best.”

Just like the socialist vanguard party, the introduction of liberal laws is meant without abandoning Revolutionary Democracy, to create a hybrid notion of democracy under democratic centralism with the mask of multiparty democracy. For Meles and the EPRDF, the ‘social structure’ and the fundamental objective conditions do not seem fertile for liberal democracy to blossom, whereas for Lee that was not even the desired goal.

Meles’ notion of Revolutionary Democracy and the developmental state paradigm and the ‘Asian values’ should be seen in juxtaposition, with this monolithic molding of society in one unitary form through a top-down approach. Both leaders aspired to social engineering and worked to institutionalise their social control through a monolithic understanding and imagination of a political community.

As Lee was admired for his balancing of interests between regional players, such as between Japan and China, and between US and China, he was also criticised for milking the two powers in his strategic national interest. Meles was also strategically aligned with China for its economic and development assistance, in the form of untied aid and long-term loans to build infrastructures. On the other hand, he relied on US support for its massive aid and diplomatic alliance to counter terrorism, presenting his nation as a regional hegemonic power to realise order and stability in the Horn.

As much as Lee sought economic success as the only way out of the vulnerability Singapore faced, Meles also, as stipulated in the Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Strategy, proclaimed that the country’s vulnerability emanated from its geopolitical factors and the poverty striking its people. Both Lee and Meles were right in building their states to mitigate the geopolitical and economic threats. However, their deliberate intolerance of political diversity and substantively competitive electoral democracy would cost their nations even after they were laid to rest. Their ill-conceived and misguided shuttle evolved without considering the fact that vulnerability primarily comes from the fragility and inability of the political system to accommodate political differences. Pluralism will remain their huge shortfall in history.

Due to his conception of society and regard for ‘Asian values’, some see Lee as Machiavelli’s Prince and the PAP’s policies as Machiavellian virtues and Lee’s task as nothing less than that of the Prince of Florence. Along this line, he even recurrently quoted that “between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I am meaningless”.

But the comparison goes beyond this. Machiavelli, as Isaiah Berlin elucidates, set Roman virtues in opposition to his contemporary Christian morality. Lee can be said to have chosen Asian values over Western liberal democracy.

The comparison does not stop of Machiavelli; it also goes to the philosopher king, Plato. Lee, due to his temptation to provide philosophical or theoretical justification for founding the state and its continuation, advocating the ’Asian values’ and Confucianism for its survival and excellence, eschewed the demands of the philosopher king. Like Plato, he had doubts about democracy. His view of democracy could also be an axiom of this analogy.

His intellectual-like and scholarly approach in analysing geopolitical, strategic, economic, philosophical and political arguments were designed to demonstrate this philosopher king orientation of his ‘idealistic leadership’. His dictum that a few selected meritocratic individuals should lead, is typical of this Platonist philosophy.

Lee saw society structured as a pyramid, with an exceptionally talented minority of leaders at the apex, a middle stratum of talented executives, and a large base of the general populace. This structure, which he describes as a ‘meritocracy’, has been characterised as ‘Asian Patrimonialism’.

Many scholars see Plato’s The Republic and Machiavelli’s The Prince as diametrically opposed. They are similar only insofar as they both discuss hypothetical leaders – idealism versus realism. However, their conceptions of leadership share some key features.

Both Plato and Machiavelli treat the revolutionary leader in the same vein, essentially prescribing the same leaders through the same process, and each finds his respective society fundamentally lacking in political efficacy. Thus, they seek to reestablish their conception of the political cycle. They also both ascribe to their leaders the understanding of pervasive metaphysical forces, and advocate similar treatments of knowledge, and the presentations of public image. It is with this intrinsic astonishing similarity and resemblance of Plato’s ‘philosopher king’ and Machiavelli’s ‘prince’ that author of the book Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew, Tome Plate, concludes “it seems to me that Lee Kuan Yew is where Plato meets Machiavelli in the special land of Confucius.”

Here in our nation, some argue that Meles is a devout disciple of Machiavelli and there are truths to their side of the story in drawing the analogy depicting him as the Prince of Florence. Like Machiavelli and Lee, Meles believes in strongman and masterful usage of political power and preferred to be feared rather than loved.

When it comes to Meles, specifically, the image he tried to cast as an intellectual-style leader resembles the philosopher-king nature of Plato as exercised by Lee. The description of Meles as a voracious reader, intellectual, ‘world class mind’ and the architect of the state by the state and its affiliate media, aspires to show the experiment of ‘philosopher king’ that was in power ruling Ethiopia for more than two decades. From the resemblance, one can fairly conclude that Meles worked hard, though not successfully, to see the combined effect of the ‘philosopher king’ and ‘the prince’.

Especially the postmortem portrayal of the late Prime Minister as an accomplished statesman, giving credit for every detail and issue/theory and practice, to his acclaimed brilliance and exceptionality, is the result of this philosopher king mania. It is this approach that makes critiquing a difficult job since the philosopher king is unquestionable and unexamined. He is portrayed as beyond any ordinary man’s thought and ability to comprehend, with the complex extending to ruthless treatment of critics and dissidents.

The difference is that for Meles and his party, commitment and allegiance to the party would better him for leadership. While Lee has formed an efficient and effective meritocratic state, Meles and the EPRDF have created a state where patronage and rent-seeking are rampant and inherent systemic problems. It is important to note that, at least theoretically, in both cases of the Meritocratic Pyramidal of Lee and the Democratic Centralism of Meles, the leadership is elitist and hierarchical, which entails a few elites deciding for the mass and representation is not even an issue.

Both leaders are critical of and strongly detest liberal democracy and the individual realm of thought and plurality. For Lee, if Singapore became a western-style democracy it “would go down the drain” and warns “not to foist their system indiscriminately on societies in which it will not work”. For Meles, the liberal democracy and its values are incompatible with the development aspirations and socio-economic exigencies and contexts of Ethiopia.

However, Meles claimed to be democrat and the system he built is a work in progress. Meles’ and EPRDF’s view of democracy is instrumental – if it does not add to the development aspirations of the party, it should not be desired.

Nonetheless, considering democratisation only as an instrument, Meles and EPRDF leaders firmly argue that democratisation is not incompatible with the goal of economic development as Jean-Nicolas Bach asserts in his piece “Abyotawi Democracy: Neither Revolutionary Nor Democratic, a Critical review of EPRDF’s Conception of Revolutionary Democracy in Post-1991 Ethiopia”. Here, in Ethiopia, in the last two and half decades, we know that the narratives and the practice are irreconcilable, if not antagonistic.

The very difference between the Revolutionary Democracy of Meles and Lee’s ‘Asian values’ emanates in their aspired and desired goals. Though both preach value singularity, they plan different outcomes from their grand policies.

Meles’s aspiration could be summed up in his words, “when [the developmental state] has done its job it will undermine its own social base, to be replaced by a social democratic or liberal democratic coalition”. For him, development and a strong state were prerequisites for human rights and democratic order though contradictorily asserting the system is democratic, and Ethiopia needed to establish these first at the same time. For Lee, the system of government in Asia, including China, will change, but it will not end up like the Western style of democracy. For him, whether a state follows a one-man one-vote or anything of that sort does not matter as long as governments are meeting the needs of their citizens and are maximising opportunities.

With both men acting as ‘enlightened autocrat’ under their tenure and establishing one-man and one-party states, the opposition has been reduced to dust by political imprisonment, structural control of the political and electoral process and draconian laws that turn any utterance against the authorities into financial and political bankruptcy. Dissenting voices are crushed to political rubble, subduing citizens to a comfortable self-censorship.

In this case, both Lee and Meles can be regarded as devout disciples of the Florentine gospel. When one turns the pages of history books on both leaders, one cannot find political and civil liberties and democratic order as their cause of ascendancy and ascent to power. They will, instead, be associated with killing the aspirations of millions of their devout citizens to do so.

By Zerihun Addisu
Zerihun Addisu - zerihun.addisu@yahoo.com – a foreign trade relations and negotiation expert.

Published on April 20, 2015 [ Vol 15 ,No 781]



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