Juan Peron’s fall teaches us that dictatorial rule can only go as far as economic success

By Tay Kheng Soon

I have been watching a series of documentaries on Eva Peron of Argentina and it made me think of our situation in Malaysia and Singapore.

Our histories and politics are so different from Argentina because of our social class structure origins. Argentina was colonised by a European elite class, underpinned by their underclasses while the former lorded over the native population and imported African slaves.

By contrast, we are the descendants of the poor and the struggling merchant classes from India, China and Indonesia. These founders intermingled with the local Malay population which consisted of communities of chieftain led followers – a sort of traditional feudalism formed around river mouths. These were the only traditional elites there were. The British eventually preceded over this motely crowd.

Our societies both therefore evolved from humble origins.

Unlike Argentina, Mexico or Brazil we never started with an oligarchy who fled Europe due to European wars and power struggles to transplant Europe into a new continent. Therefore, Argentinian politics had and still has traces of oligarchic power expressed in military fascist coup after coup.

We did not have this phenomenon. But it is not to say that it may never arise. It did in Indonesia, Thailand and at troubled times in Philippines. In all humans there is always coexistence in everyone, whether a tyrant and a saint. These are twins which depending on situations one gains ascendency over the other.

In the case of Juan Peron and Evita, the two sides mesmerised the population. Eva could bring millions into the streets. Peron was a fascist and Eva the “saint.” He ruled for the benefit of his oligarchic clients and Eva kept the army in check through her good works and popularity with the masses.

She ran an extortion racket through her foundation that built thousands of schools and hospitals with money she squeezed from the rich under threat of investigation by Peron’s government. She also got every worker to contribute one day’s wage per year.

She thus spent 50 million per year on her good works which bought political dividends for her husband. Everything worked wonderfully until global recession bankrupted the state. She died and Peron went into exile. As South-east Asian states grew after colonialism, a rich and powerful oligarchy gets formed.

In Singapore the gap between the rich and the rest is becoming too obvious. The political elite class begins to be occupied by retired top military officers – the logic of LKY’s scholar as leader-ruler ideology. Soldiers make poor democrats. Military logic is strictly hierarchically based on command and control.

I am made to think about this because of Eva Peron!

So distant in time and space and yet so relevant. Eva teaches us that the military state can succeed if it has a saint beside it to do the good works. The only proviso is if it is financially sustainable and thus depends on global economic trends.