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The idea of ‘soft authoritarianism’, as a general description of many Asian societies, can be defined as a political system in which there are minimal components of democracy such as elections and political parties but, as a consequence of rapid modernisation, state control of the economy and an emphasis on export-driven growth, basic social and political rights are often compromised. Typically, these states govern in the name of constitutionalism but often use the law to suppress political activity on the part of citizens. These societies have often replaced the rule of law with neo-Confucian rule of virtue in which the duties of the citizen to the state are more important than the responsibilities of the state towards the citizen. In these authoritarian polities, the state constructs an educational system to discipline the electorate rather than to create an informed citizenry, simply because there is low trust between leaders and electorate. The duty of the passive citizen is merely to consent to the legitimacy of the regime; the duty of the state is to provide security by weeding out citizens who are troublesome. We argue that Singapore has, until the recent election in 2011, been the classic illustration of soft authoritarianism, but we conclude by asking whether Singapore is moving from governance based on a gardening metaphor of weeding out bad influences to a more mature and open democracy.


Institute for Religion, Politics, and Society

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Journal Article

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