Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

A Latin American Lee Kuan Yew

State of the Union: Nayib Bukele is turning El Salvador into a Central American Singapore, forcing tough questions on some theoretical priors.

Credit: Casa Presidencial

Much has already been written about Nayib Bukele, and this piece doesn’t aspire to change the already established strong feelings on either side. But the stats don’t lie. 

“Until recently, criminal gangs controlled huge portions of this small Central American country of 6.3 million, terrorizing locals. A study by the central bank and the UN Development Programme in 2016 estimated that extortion payments added up to 3 percent of GDP, and the total annual cost of gang violence, including the lost income of people deterred from working or investing, was a staggering 16 percent of GDP,” the Economist reported. 


Bukele sorted it out. “More than 72,000 people have been arrested under a state of emergency Bukele requested in March 2022 after a surge in gang violence. The special powers that Congress granted Bukele suspended some fundamental rights such as access to a lawyer and being told the reason for one’s arrest,” AP reports

The result, a striking transformation. El Salvador is no longer the murder capital of Latin America, and Bukele is now by far the most powerful and revered leader in the continent. “Today, I come to tell you that that debate is over,” Bukele was quoted by AP. “The decisions we took were correct. We are no longer the world death capital and we achieved it in record time. Today we are a model of security and no one can doubt it. There are the results. They are irrefutable.”

Now, he has posted a video of the new national library that would put most Western countries to shame. With compulsory child education programs, Bukele, who claims to be the Platonic “Philosopher King” in his twitter handle, is now focussing on infrastructure and development. 

Which brings us to a fundamental question. What is the purpose of government? 

Lee Kuan Yew, perhaps the last true “Philosopher King” politician, once posed this question to the people in his book on democracy. He said that, in a multi-ethnic and modern state, you can ultimately have order or democracy. You cannot have simultaneously the fullest forms of both. The purpose of democracy is basically giving choice to those who share the same understanding of society and a similar ethos and cultural priors. Democracy is not possible in a society that doesn’t share those, and too much freedom and rights in such a scenario leads to chaos and disorder, which in turn necessitates the rise of someone to reestablish order. 


“The main purpose is to have a well-ordered society so that everybody can have maximum enjoyment of his freedoms. This freedom can only exist in an ordered state and not in a natural state of contention and anarchy.” LKY wrote, arguing that multi-ethnic states are imperial and require benevolent, far-sighted strongmen to maintain order. “The exuberance of democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions which are inimical to development.”

In the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata, Yudhisthira, the eldest prince of the Pandavas, says that the greatest crime for a King is the perpetuation of arajakata (anarchy). 

The 21st-century worship of democracy as both a means and an end is dependent on material and historical conditions peculiar to their time. Those conditions, if they change, would change the conception of (and the desire for) of democracy as well. Some writers have argued that we are returning to neo-feudalism. Some have argued that we are already existing under conditions of post-liberalism, and that the future generations, both left and right, will not be as tolerant or liberal. 

All that is to say, that with the loss of shared culture, the idea of democracy as a perfected end state of human organization and governance may diminish. This is not an endorsement or repudiation, but simply a statement of fact. Most normal people say they crave choices, but their revealed preferences demonstrate that what they truly desire is order. 

Nayib Bukele, by turning El Salvador into a Central American Singapore, is forcing those questions upon us.