Why I think societies need to neuter excessive state power

Why I think societies need to neuter excessive state power…

Power tends to corrupt; and absolute power corrupts absolutely (Lord Acton). He observed that a person’s sense of morality lessens as his or her power increases.

I believe during the time of Acton (died 1902), corruption was raw and direct. Today, many so-called first world nations – led by the US – has invented legal and subtle corruption that is just as ruinous as third world direct corruption (as a thought experiment, can you think of Singapore examples?).

What are the three instruments for wielding and enforcing power? (J K Galbraith – The Anatomy of Power).
1. Condign power compels submission by threatening adverse consequences (POFMA and legal suits)
2. Compensatory power seduces submission by rewarding the individual so submitting (grass root business deals and gravy train for loyal cadres).
3. Conditional power encourages submission through a slow process of persuasion, education and changing beliefs (social conditioning).

Since LKY, the government has wielded and enforced all three types of power. The gradual acceptance of such a power structure is the result of social conditioning over a long period of time. Singaporeans have been socially engineered for so long that we are like fleas in the experimental jar without realising it. The HDB program, couched in benevolent terms, is one of the greatest social conditioning success experiments made by a government in the world (Chris Tremewan – The Political Economy of Social Control in Singapore).

The three prerequisites of power are
1. Personality
2. Wealth
3. Organization.

Without some or all of these above attributes, there can be no ability to exercise power. The instruments by which power is exercised and the sources of the right to such exercise are interrelated in a complex fashion.

From the perspective of Singapore, LKY represented power persona. LKY was a globally respected statesman and had a commanding personality which was associated with absolute power. After his passing, it is unlikely we will see another power persona like LKY.

LKY left behind a powerful PAP machinery that controls an enormous amount of state wealth like Temasek, GIC, GLCs, 80-90 percent of all Singapore’s available land, mandatory CPF contributions of citizens and PRs – all channelled into the state wealth system.

In the context of organizational power, the PAP-led government has the most sophisticated political machinery that has ever been conceived in a parliamentary democracy system (the public housing upgrading scheme, the grassroots organizations and the group representation constituency system, just to name a few). No other developed democracies come close to it.

Could the control of massive state wealth and organisational power by the PAP today offset the void in LKY’s personality power? Arguably, the PAP today still have close to complete power (condign, compensatory and conditional).

In the broad scheme of things, has unquestioned political power in Singapore been put to good use? Probably.

From a near zero economic base in 1965, the PAP government has provided jobs, homes, healthcare, recreational facilities, excellent transport systems, safety and security, good education and opportunities for all.

However, Singapore’s feigned meritocratic system has disproportionately rewarded brains far more than brawn and drove a gapping elitist wedge between overpaid bullshit jobs (David Graeber – Bullshit Jobs) and underpaid essential jobs.

But as imperfect human beings, can the pursuit of power be a completely selfless act?

In every society (and throughout history), the exercise of power is profoundly enjoyed. “The love of power is the love of ourselves” (William Hazlitt).
Who would not enjoy being a guest-of-honour at dinners and banquets, applauded speeches, riding with motorcades, walking with body guards and enjoying all the perks and special treatments that come with the possession of power?

Even LKY openly admitted that from his tailor to shoemaker, car salesman or the maker of his heart stent, every merchant he dealt with gave him an inside track. It helped their business to have him as a customer. Such is the reality of life, power, fame and influence.

How do societies mitigate against even an accidental, if not intentional abuse of power by people in power?

We live in a narrow corridor to liberty (Acemoglu and Robinson).

For a country to be great, both state and society must be strong. A strong state is needed to control violence, enforce laws and provide public services critical for a life which people are empowered to make and pursue their choices (The Narrow Corridor, 2019).

On the other hand, a strong mobilised society is needed to control and shackle the strong state. Without society’s vigilance, constitutions and guarantees given by the state or the elites controlling it are not worth much more than the parchment they are written on (we saw how the constitution in Singapore was easily twisted for the recent presidential election) .
A strong state will, over time, bring to bear its power through fear, repression and censorship. A weak state will, over time, lead to violence and lawlessness.

It is in this narrow corridor that the state and society balance each other out.

The question Singaporeans should ask ourselves is how far have we deviated from this narrow corridor?

The answer is that we have deviated very far for our own good. We need far greater checks and balance than we currently have.

 

by Charles Chow

* This post was recommened by a reader and is reproduced from the author’s Facebook page.

 

 

 

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