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The Byzantine oracle on the PAP

By Ned Stark

As a fan of history I subscribe to the view that “history repeats itself” (this post is spurred by LCC's comment on Aaron Ng's blog.)

A prominent American academic (I believe it was Samuel Huntington) had said: “The democratic system implemented by Lee Teng Hui will live on after him, but that built by Lee Kuan Yew will disappear once he is gone".

If true, it bodes ill for Singapore.

An interesting parallel

The Byzantine Empire, which succeeded the Roman Empire, provides an interesting – if disturbing – lesson for Singapore.

Though it once rivaled the Ancient Chinese in culture, technology, and economy, it relied heavily on the personal intervention of the ruling emperor. Absence of a competent emperor made the state extremely vulnerable in times of crisis.

A strong man arises

The Emperor, Alexios I Comnenus, who ascended the throne on April 4, 1081 after a bloodless coup, heralded a time of revival and restoration of the Byzantine Empire.

He succeeded in reclaiming (1097-1099) the Byzantine Empire’s lost territories in Western Asia Minor. He also instituted reforms that included co-opting members of the artistocracy into government and reduced opposition to the Imperial Family.

The End

The Emperors of the Comnenied dynasty were similar in mould to Alexios.Their diligence helped to safeguard the Empire for some years.

Unfortunately, all this ended with the death of the last Comnenid Emperor, Andronikos I; he was deposed and killed (12 Sept1185) in an uprising sparked by his attempts to suppress the aristocracy. (Picture right)

Isaac II Angelos succeeded him. The Angelids were the worst dynasty in history, being more concerned with pleasure than administration. Thus began the decline of the Empire.

Though it took a long time for the Empire to die, the seeds could be said to have started, ironically, during the start of the restoration.

By establishing a system that depended heavily on the presence of a competent ruler, Alexios failed to take into account the presence of an incompetent ruler. Thus he could be said to have played a part in the Empire’s eventual demise.

On May 29, 1453, the Armies of Mehmed II laid siege to its capital, Constantinople, and the city fell to the Ottomans. An interesting point is that, of the 7000 defenders of the city, only 5000 were Byzantines. The rest were mercenaries.

So what has a long dead empire to do with modern Singapore?

For starters, one should compare the similarities: the Byzantine form of government was akin to that of Imperial China.

The interesting point is that Alexios I, the Emperor who instituted the reforms that revived the Empire, was also partly instrumental in causing its decline.

His system of government was too reliant on the competence of one man whose absence led to catastrophe.

If one looks at LCC's comment again it is apparent that therein lies the similarity between the current system in Singapore and the one instituted during that period.

The institution of policies that helped to entrench the current party, e.g. the GRC, could lead to a situation in the future whereby the Singapore Government would be missing the variables of competent leaders. If that happens then this country is in for a long haul.

An alternative elite

That is why we find compelling Mr Ngiam Tong Dow's point that Singapore should have an alternative elite.

The absence of strong competition would eventually cause the system to atrophy. In a crisis the new guys who had it easy might not be able to cope – and Singapore would be in serious trouble.

People and PAP members alike have to accept the fact that Singapore is larger than the PAP. There is no guarantee that PAP would have the competence in the future just because it has long been the ruling party.

The historical example of the Byzantine Empire, viz. the sack of Constantinople, is particularly arresting.

Also, read Gerald Giam's post on the need for an alternative elite here.

Visit Ned’s personal blog here.