Yale-NUS Lecture on Global Affairs: ‘How Democracies Die: Lessons for the Future’ by Professor Daniel Ziblatt

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I attended a Talk by Professor Daniel Ziblatt the Eaton Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard University and co-author of the New York Times bestseller “How Democracies Die” (2018) earlier this evening.

The talk was essentially about the tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism in that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy – gradually, subtly, and even legally – to kill it.

I took away three important lessons for Singapore from this talk which I would like to set out here.

Legal Subversion of Democracy

First and foremost democracy’s erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible.

He pointed out an interesting phenomenon. Since the end of the Cold War, most democracies have not been overthrown externally by violent military coups, but internally through the ballot box and the subsequent capture of political institutions by autocrats.

He had explained this more fully in an earlier article he wrote for The Guardian: ‘Many government efforts to subvert democracy are “legal”, in the sense that they are approved by the legislature or accepted by the courts. They may even be portrayed as efforts to improve democracy – making the judiciary more efficient, combating corruption or cleaning up the electoral process.

Newspapers still publish but are bought off or bullied into self-censorship. Citizens continue to criticize the government but often find themselves facing tax or other legal troubles. This sows public confusion. People do not immediately realize what is happening. Many continue to believe they are living under a democracy.

This is how elected autocrats subvert democracy – packing and “weaponizing” the courts and other neutral agencies, buying off the media and the private sector (or bullying them into silence) and rewriting the rules of politics to tilt the playing field against opponents. The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy – gradually, subtly, and even legally – to kill it.”’


Second, political elites invariably mobilise and weaponised deeply entrenched divisions in society to subvert democracy. In America like in Singapore these divisions are polarised largely along racial lines.

it is polarisation that kill democracies. Demagogues know this and exploit racial and other hard to change fault lines to engineer the break down of a democracy. Dysfunction is injected by exploiting both peoole’s fears and other emotions.

Singapore’s efforts to achieve racial equality as our society grows increasingly diverse have instead fuelled insidious reactions both within our existing population and against new immigrants which have otherwise intensified polarisation which I call a “war of identity”. This is a very serious problem.

The study of democratic breakdowns in history have made one thing clear; it’s that extreme polarisation undermine democracies.

Legitimacy of politically rivals

Thirdly, a key indicator of authoritarian rule is in terms of the treatment of political rivals as illegitimate enemies is clearly most unfortunately present within the Singapore context.

He explained that democracies work best and survive longer where constitutional frameworks are reinforced by two necessary but unwritten norms that serve to stabilise governance in a democracy as to mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance. These norms also enable checks and balances to function without hindrance.

The first norm refers to the acknowledgement of the legitimacy of one’s political opponents to compete for power through the democratic process. Mutual tolerance means the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals requiring those in power to resist temptation to use their temporary control of institutions to maximum partisan advantage.

Institutional forbearance means the idea that
politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives, not using all the tools that you can technically, legally use.

These norms are disturbingly completely missing within our democracy reflecting the extent of the authoritarian rule we suffer here.

This denial of the legitimacy of political opponents usually manifests itself in a culture of demonising your political rivals by describing them as disloyal or unpatriotic orcas charlatans. When you start viewing your political opponents as traitors, when opponents have become enemies instead, mutual tolerance has broken down and a necessary norm for the functioning of a democracy is missing.

These observations are a most striking lesson in terms of the talk of “disloyal charlatans” we witnessed in our Parliament yesterday.


It is clear that our democracy has been hijacked by the PAP Government. It was butchered by the PAP Government by a thousand cuts slowly over the years and we live under authoritarian rule that have subverted our democratic institutions.

We need to rescue our democracy and we need to do it now. The key is to reject the polarisation that the PAP Government has engineered and to reverse engineer our society into the one united people we pledge ourselves to be.

People of Singapore unite – you have nothing to lose but your chains!


Khush Chopra




9 Responses to “Yale-NUS Lecture on Global Affairs: ‘How Democracies Die: Lessons for the Future’ by Professor Daniel Ziblatt”

  • Haigen-Diaz:

    That’s where we have failed. Our educational systems, including universities, fail to teach (to most) the basics of civics and the critical thinking imbued by liberal arts. Instead the focus is on vocational training of even the most intellectually gifted.

    Beyond that, what we have created is a society in which everyone is afraid of failing, of getting injured in an accident or ill. We know we won’t be taken care of in any decent way. If we go off the rails we may not be thrown in the street, but we’ll likely live in squalor. This makes people horde, doing what we can to save money to protect ourselves.

    It’s a vicious cycle– we reinforce the fear and send the message that economic self interest is the only way to save ourselves. Fear drives extreme selfishness. A lack of “critical thinking” makes that selfishness unenlightened, shallow.

    That’s what brings us where we are today.

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  • unthinking robotic gdp cogs:

    //the basics of civics and the critical thinking imbued by liberal arts.//

    if daft sinkies know too much (critical thinking), the white idiots and gang would have been VO long ago ? the white idiots do not have any interest in promoting the kind of “critical thinking” which is not in their favour lar ?

    the white idiots prefer ‘unthinking robotic gdp cogs’ (e.g ten-year series followers) to keep on turning & to generate the figures for their own comfortable stay lar ?

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  • Irene Vanessa Wan Si Hung:

    The democracy was not there in the first place to be hijacked. People say it’s a democracy but in practise, it is not.

    GD Star Rating
  • TruBlu:

    When you get addicted to $ucking LOLLIE$ paid by other taxpayers, you just wanna $uck n $uck non-$top like cry-babies???

    Grow up sgs.
    Or face being sidelined like your parents n aunties n uncles even if you are highly educated.

    Dont be $uckers.

    GD Star Rating
  • About those rotten hijackers:

    Q: Whats the difference between a politician and a snail?

    A: One is a slimy pest, and leaves a trail everywhere and the other is a snail.

    GD Star Rating
  • Harder Truths:

    $ingapore was never a democracy. Not long ago it was a pirate outpost for the Johor Sultanate – a monarchy or theocracy – whichever way you want to define it.

    Then the British came and took over and gave $G ‘democracy’ as a slave colony – but still things seemed not too bad as Asia goes.

    Then the Japanese came and started slaughtering for their 3-foot emperor and now the descendants of those slaughtered by the Japs want to become Japanese and eat sushi and boys wearing makeup.

    Then the despot came and gave us real ‘democracy. – again.

    All the time there were people going in – out – in – out. Every one wanted to come here to stab someone else in the back and get his place.

    Exactly when did this bastardised migrant colony become a ‘nation’? No one has yet given me a good answer.

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  • HDB flat depreciate to ZERO:

    This is really irrelevant to Singapore, i.e., it does not apply. Why? Because Singapore is a FAKE democracy. You cannot lose something you do not have it in the first place. It is that simple.

    GD Star Rating
  • A Fair Warning:

    “Let not your love become attachment, nor your hate become destruction … He who wins through fraud is no winner… God loves moderation and hates extravagance and excess.”

    The caliph of Prophet Muhammad, Umar al-Khattab

    GD Star Rating
  • oxygen:

    WHY MUST I BE REMINDED YET AGAIN of this facile fart of “foreign influence” from political scoundrels when the reality is this?

    Khush Chopra:First and foremost democracy’s erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible.

    He pointed out an interesting phenomenon. Since the end of the Cold War, most democracies have not been overthrown externally by violent military coups, but internally through the ballot box and the subsequent capture of political institutions by autocrats.

    I have always asserted that PAPpypolitics is 1% truth, 99% lies, fantasy and propaganda.

    And PAPpynomics of asset enhancement policy is a rotten scam transferring wealth from the masses of the poor to the elite few aristocrats who actually also print their own paycheck whilst always farting morality to peasants.

    GD Star Rating
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