Rights as Capabilities in Autoritarian Regimes: The Glorious Case of Singapore

Kaleja, Ance (2014). 'Rights as Capabilities in Autoritarian Regimes: The Glorious Case of Singapore' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

The worldwide economic crisis has recently challenged the prospects of many countries to achieve high performance rates in the area of economic and social rights. Many democratic states have found it difficult to ensure increasing standards of living for their population, resulting in an eroding trust in their political systems. Meanwhile, many autocracies have managed to deliver a good performance in the sphere of economic and social rights, according to various indicators of human development, often used as proxies for economic and social rights assessment. This suggests that authoritarian states can and often do provide economic and social rights, sometimes even outperforming democracies at similar levels of economic development. But whether this is enough evidence to justify or even support the advantages of authoritarian regimes in attaining economic and social rights is a question that deserves more attention in the existing academic research. Whether these authoritarian examples provide a stable trend or reasonable exceptions remains to be seen. To understand the link between economic and social rights and political regimes, the state and its institutions needs to be 'brought back' in solving the puzzle, as the importance of institutions particular to certain political regimes can be of a greater importance previously supposed.

This paper is a case study analysis of Singapore as a country that provides high economic and social rights outcomes for what is expected of an authoritarian regime, outperforming a number of democracies in various empirical indicators. While the existing political discourse surrounding economic and social rights assigns a pivotal role to economic resources in achieving the fulfilment of these rights, the recent academic research suggests that the complex factors leading to high living standards cannot be ascribed to resources alone. It has been suggested that the high quality of governance observed in the case of Singapore can serve as a strong explanatory factor for the high levels of achievement (Rothstein, 2011). The paper seeks to present other explanatory factors connected with the institutions of the political regime in question. Through the approach of historical institutionalism it analyses the emergence of the institutions in Singapore and the role of its political regime in attaining these outcomes. Focusing on the institutional background in which these developments have taken place and the policy choices that political actors in these institutions have made, the paper aims to explore how and why Singapore has managed to provide the prevailing living standards (Steinmo et al, 1999:2).

Analyzing economic and social rights in authoritarian states through the capability lens requires to sacrifice a number of the normative claims made by the capability approach theorists. In an environment of limited civil and political rights, can people still have the capability to be and do what they wish and value? Do the high living standards in the case of Singapore provide a trend that could signal an authoritarian advantage in attaining economic and social rights or can the seeming empirical success be explained by factors that cannot be ascribed to solely political regimes? With an alarming number of authoritarian states worldwide, this study will contribute to the understanding of economic and social rights in non-democratic regimes, outlining prospects for the future of these rights in a world of an authoritarian reality.

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