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The Byzantine oracle on the PAP

Posted by theonlinecitizen on May 23, 2007

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.


14 Responses to “The Byzantine oracle on the PAP”

  1. JK said

    The point about the dangers of one-person benevolent rule applies to most systems that have them. Having said that, your point about the Byzantine empire is somewhat controversial. Most historians would point the the decline to the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 by Catholic Christian crusaders, or some point after that ( don’t ask me I’m not a historian by trade).

  2. Ned Stark said

    Yes it has been said that the decline traces its roots during the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. However note that the rulers at that time, the Angelids, were ill equipped to deal with the Western Crusaders, as compared to the Commnenid rulers. And by that time the Byzantines had gotten to dependant on their Emperors such that there was no inherent system to kick in should there be no competent direction from the ruling Emperor, which was the case with the Angelids.

  3. Singapore may probably not head the way of Byzantine due to the fact that Lee Kuan Yew also recognises the absolute importance of that one man (or group of man), so much so that even in the 1960s, he was already looking for a successor. The key to the longevity of PAP’s hegemony is their ability and will to renew themselves, advising (and even forcing) older members to leave political office (and sometimes at painful costs), as well as their relentless search for new talents. Political renewal is a constant in the PAP> I acknowledge some glaring exceptions, but I think this general rule is obeyed pretty well.

    That being said, and since I’m not well versed in history, may I ask if Comnenus has such a focus on successor?

  4. Pay-and-Pay said

    Just becos pap actively “renews” itself or that our pm is “looking for” a successor, it does not mean sg will not go the same way. the question is whether the successor will be able to fill up the space vacated by the strongman.

    in sg, where pap “successors” are walk-ins rather than elected, they command very little respect from the pple.

    if it takes losing a few grcs and critical mps as well as resultant chaos to change the direction of sg, i say LET’S DO IT.

  5. Silent Bok said

    The point about mercenaries is spot on. The PAP is resorting to money politics to woo supporters and buy loyalty. The party is already in decline.

  6. Ned Stark said


    Alexios actually worried about the problems about succession right until his death bed. But the point is as what Pay and PAy said, even if you do have a successor you have to groom him and there are many unforeseen circumstances so that even if u groom him well, the instant something untoward happens, then you are in trouble. Furthermores the term “talents” is rather debatable and with regards to grooming, it looks more like molly coddling to me.

  7. jj said

    LKY may have “found” a successor, but he still runs the country, if only as MM. I conclude from this that LKY is ultimately more concerned about his own survival than the survival of Singapore, so in my eyes, he is no hero or patriot.

  8. […] has posted about Byzantium and Singapore. I find it interesting the point he makes about the need for competition. He points out that when […]

  9. Well, the point I’m trying to make here is that most authoritative regimes fail because of deteriorating leadership (which led to population dissatisfaction). Will PAP’s relentless renewal efforts prevent this? It remains much to be seen.

  10. scb said

    The decline of Singapore has incubated for sometimes in my opinion, it is a cultural decline but one that really matters. I am referring to the value system that has evolved and is progressively evolving steadily and negatively. The sense of patriotism, filial piety, ethics, morality, propriety have almost all gone the way of the dinosaurs. And if anyone thinks that racial and religious differences have been mended over the years, it is far from being so. All kinds of economic, social, cultural and political divides have widened beyond repairs and decline is inevitable unless Singapore is merged with the bigger geopolitical surroundings. Should it insists in maintaining its’ individualistic existence amongst its’ neighbours, it may end up like the frog that owns the well it dwells in. And that is when it needs helps when the well dries up, it hears the wall of the well echoing his(frogs’) calls(for helps). Or alternatively it lives peacefully alone and dies of maturity which for a frog is’nt too long.

  11. ex-Old-Guards said

    Actually for more than 30 years, I have been very patriotic in
    my heart and I was very proud of my country called Singapore. I held our leaders in very high regards and respect. I would have been willing to die for them if necessary.

    However, over the last 15 years, I started to see the erosion of the more important values and principles, some of which have been mentioned by another post above. So, I will only mention these: a sense of fair play, mutual respect, proper decorum, humbleness and humility, compassion and empathy, and truthful integrity. In fact, the opposite negative traits have surfaced. They are: unfairness, injustice, greed, shamelessness, callousness, ruthlessness and outright hypocrisy.

    I also saw that People have become very miserly and stingy, yet publicly proclaimed by their lackeys as being very generous. I also observed People, instead of showing good examples, they display negative ones. I also felt that People have forgotten how to be humble and began to be very arrogant, haughty, overly-proud and shamelessly greedy. I began to think that People must have been staying in their ivory towers for too long, so much so that they have become over confident, insensitive and extremely calculative.

    After contributing so many years of my life in nation building, from the very beginning, during those hectic and unstable pre-independence days, until my health refused to allow me to carry on in the last 10 years, I am now very saddened by the gut feeling deep inside me that whispers to me that Singapore will very soon disintegrate.

    However, there is one saving grace. There is Malaysia to fall back on. We can rejoin Malaysia again on her terms. The legacy of the PAP govt can go down to the gutters for all I care. What we the commoners need is very simple: food, lodging, medical and freedom of movement.

    We don’t need to care whether the country will still be 1st World or not. We don’t have to care whether our leaders are extraordinary or not. We don’t even to be bothered whether our ministers have to be paid $millions or not.

    If you ask me, “Corruption how?” I would answer you: Which country in the whole world does not have corruption? Corruption is part of the nature of people who are power hungry. And corruption is very broad. It does not just cover monetary corruption. It covers favoritism, e.g. giving all the key govt posts to own family members, relatives and friends. It also covers ill-will, e.g. if you did vote for me your estate will not be upgraded. It also covers using official status for personal gains, e.g. writing books and promoting their sales while still in the office and using official staff to help in the gathering of data and reference materials. It also covers abuse of power, e.g. using official power to unjustly arrest and detain an individual without giving him access to legal counsel.

    Also, whether money is transferred under the table in the dark or over the table in broad daylight, both are still outright corruptions. Only difference is that legalized corruption is worst than ordinary corruption. This is called extraordinarily very high class corruption, where the highly ingenious and innovative perpetrators are protected by the law from anyone who dare to bring them to court. Only a new govt can bring them to justice.

    So, if you ask me: “Will Singapore fall or not?” I would answer you: Of course, it would fall. Its only a matter of time. If people like me, who are the foundations, have already been very badly shaken, what can prevent it from falling?

  12. Hi ex-Old-Guards,

    What do you think is needed for Singapore not to “go down the drain”? Or do you think there is absolutely nothing we can do and that it’s only a matter of time before we disintegrate?


  13. HAKKAisBEST said

    I like this part best:”There is no guarantee that PAP would have the competence in the future just because it has long been the ruling party.”

    Reminds one of those fine-line rpints in disclaimers by unit trusts, funds, etc, which go something like “Past performance is no indication of future direction … ” Heehee

    Well, in any case, HAKKA IS BEST! Deng Xiaoping, Lee Teng Hui, Tan A-peeh The Flat & Flattened Chen Shuibian… anyone else comes to mind?

  14. […] result in slow decision making. I acknowledge that. However current monopoly too has inherent and historical precedent has shown can lead to stagnation and eventual […]

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