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Blast from the Past May 9, 2007

Posted by Ned Stark in Uncategorized.

The discussion on Aaron’s blog has gotten this one’s brain juice churning. Being a history buff has always made me link historical issues to current issues; as i subscribe to the view that “history repeats itself”. The spur to this post however was in LCC’s comment.

“And if I am not wrong, some prominent U.S. academic (it was Samuel Huntington, I think) once said that the democratic system implemented by Lee Teng Hui will live on after him but the system built by Lee Kuan Yew will disappear once he is gone.”

If the above is true (and the above rather compelling if one takes into account the cheerleading during the budget debates) then such a situation will bode ill for Singapore in the future, for a variety of reasons. Of course besides Lee Kuan Yew there are still heavy weights around (Goh Chok Tong, Teo Chee Hean..so on) but what happens if the old guard goes and the new guard come into their own?

An interesting Parallel

The Roman Empire dominated much of the known world; from the Isles of Britain to the sands of Parthia. Yet as in all things the massive empire began to rot from within and face more challenges without. Eventually the Empire Split into the Western Empire and the Eastern Empire thanks to the reforms of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (284-305). Eventually the Western Empire collapsed due to pressure from the various barbarians (the official end of the Western Empire is recognised as the date Romulus Augustus, the last emperor abdicated, namely 4 September 476). The Eastern Empire, now known as the Byzantine Empire, continued for a millenia. With its capital at Constantinople (present Istanbul) the Byzantines were the rivals of the ancient chinese in terms of culture, technology, economy among other things. The West in the middle ages could not compare to the glory of the Empire.

Unfortunately the Empire was beset by enemies. The bulgars, slavs, arabs, normans and turks constantly tested the Empires strength. In 1071, the Emperor Romanos Diogenes was captured and the Byzantine army defeated at Manzikert. In one stroke, the Empire lost the Anatolian heartlands. Eventually Romanos was freed only to be faced with rebellion. He eventually surrendered and was blinded and executed. Michael Doukas became Emperor and the Empire steadily lost more land.

A Strongman Arises

Emperor Nikephorus III Botaniates had an able general in Alexios Comnenus. Nikephorus administration left much to be desired and the Byzantine currency continued to depreciate. Eventually Alexios, while marshalling troops to defend Italy against the Normans, was approached by the Doukas faction who wanted to overthrow Nikephorus. A bloodless coup ensued and Alexios was crowned Emperor by Patriarch Kosmas I on April 4, 1081.

At that time the empire faced threats from the Normans and several of the other tribes at her borders. Through skilled diplomacy Alexios succeeded in dealing with the various tribes. To retake the Empires territories in Asia Minor, Alexios I Comnenus appealed to the West for aid. This appeal impressed Pope Urban II that the Pope preached a Crusade, leading to the 1st Crusade and the eventual establishment of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. During that time the Byzantine Empire, with the aid of the crusaders, succeeded in reclaiming Western Asia Minor (1097-1099).

Alexios instituted several reforms. Previously the Empire had been divided ino themes. Alexios coopted many of the noble families into the Imperial Family, and by extension the government. The army, which had been raised through the Theme system, was reconstituted into a new Komnenian Army. While in the past the Theme based armies had relative autonomy, Alexios’ reforms ensured that the Imperial Government would have greater control over the army and the economy. These reforms changed the character of the Byzantine government as the coopting reduced the opposition to the Imperial Family. Alexios reforms heralded a period known as the Komnenian restoration, whereby the Byzantines experiences a financial, territorial and military recovery.

The End

The Emperors of the Comnenied dynasty were similar in mold to Alexios; their diligence helped to safeguard the Empire for more years to come. Unfortunately all this ended with the death of the last Comnenid Emperor, Andronikos I who was deposed and killed (12 September 1185) after an uprising which was a result of his attempts to suppress the aristocracy. Isaac II Angelos succeeded him heralding a start of the decline of the Empire. The Angelids were the worst dynasty in history; being more concerned with pleasure rather than administration. As the system of government established by Alexios relied heavily on the personal intervention of the ruling emperor, the lack of a competent emperor made the state extremely vulnerable in times of crisis. (As a matter of note, the Angelid Emperors presided over an era which saw the Sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade,1204) Though it took a long time for the Empire to finally be extinguished, the seeds could be said to have started, ironically, during the start of the restoration. By establishing a system which depended heavily on the presence of a competent ruler, Alexios failed to take into account the presence of an incompetent ruler and thus could be said to have played a part in the Empires eventual decline. Eventually, in 1453, March the Armies of Mehmed II laid siege to Constantinople and on May 29, the city fell to the Ottomans, the last Byzantine Emperor having cast of his imperial reglia and joined in the last stand of the cty. An interesting point to note was that out of 7000 defenders, fully 2000 were mercenaries. Only 5000 Byzantines participated in the defence of their capital.

So the point being?

So what has a long dead empire to do with modern day Singapore? For starters one should compare the similarities in government. The Byzantine government was vastly superior to that of the Western kingdoms. It was much akin to that of Imperial China. But the interesting point is the fact that Alexios I, the Emperor who instituted the reforms which allowed for the Empires revival, was also partly instrumental to causing the decline of the Empire. His system of government was too reliant on the competence of one man and thus the absence of such a variable would lead to catastrophe.

If one looks at LCC’s comment again then its apparent that therein is the similarity between the current system in Singapore and the one instituted during that period of time. The institution of policies which help entrench the current party, for example the GRC, could lead to a situation in the future whereby the Singapore government would be missing the variables to do with competent leaders. If that happens then this country could be in for a long haul.

And that is why Mr Ngiam Tong Dow’s point that Singapore should have an alternative elite is compelling. The absence of strong competition would eventually cause the system to atrophy, and if there should be a crisis then the new guys who had it easy may not be able to cope and then Singapore would really be in trouble. People and PAP members alike have to accept the fact that Singapore is larger than the PAP, and just because PAP was the ruling party long before independance is no guarantee that PAP would have the competence in the future. The historical example of the Byzantine Empire is particularly interesting; Constantinople’s sack occured during the reign of the Angelid Emperor who succeeded the previous Komnenid.

And if any unintelligent joker would like to take issue with the comment on GRC, saying that people should not expect the ruling party to make things easier for the opposition, the fella is missing the point of this post. The example of GRC is just that, an eg to show by what means PAP has tried to raise the barrier for contest.

Here is Gerald’s post about the need for an alternative elite.



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