Will you parade in red?

I was wondering about how much I really care for Singapore (How much do you? If you want to, take a peek at what I think at the bottom.) Haven’t we been accused of lacking in freedoms?

We, the citizens of Singapore
pledge ourselves as one united people,
regardless of race, language or religion,
to build a democratic society,
based on justice and equality,
so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and
progress for our nation.

And these are the things we like to discuss, to plan for and to hope for. Justice. Egalitarianism. National happiness, wealth, and continued development. Would be very socialist, if not for that little bit about democracy. Perhaps you’ve heard the label of ‘social democracy’ bandied about before, to describe this nation of ours.

We, of course, reject the notion of our Singapore possibly being socialist. Should we not consider the largely government-owned housing we enjoy at affordable prices, as well as the government dominance of the local economy that brings stability and vision, as luxuries and advantages? Surely, the claim is absurd enough to not even warrant consideration. Didn’t we put all the Communists in prison a few decades back?

And so, we conclude that Singapore must be democratic. Haven’t we lauded ourselves for meritocracy, transparency, and minimal corruption? After all, democracy is, as Lincoln put it, ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people’. Clearly, what we have is what we have demanded: the same government for forty four years.

Unfortunately, all those liberal Westerners love to pick fights and compromise our conservative Asian values, don’t they? They barge in telling us we’re ‘authoritarian, not democratic”. And so, we’re left in a quandary;  are we still democratic, even as we appear to relinquish some rights of thought and expression for the happiness, prosperity, and progress we’ve enjoyed?

Forget, for a moment, about trade-offs between freedoms and wealth, and consider democracy.

Democracy finds its roots in social contract theory. Supposedly, it supplants systems where the government, being in opposition to the governed (e.g. a king all too glad to own for himself the lands of his subjects), needs to be controlled and restricted from abusing the governed. Hence, documents such as the Magna Carta. By placing the ruling authority in the hands of the governed, it was thought that no government could act against its subjects; that people no longer needed protection from the rulers.

John Stuart Mill would beg to differ.

In On Liberty, he sets out with how people have rights. And then he goes on from this simple premise. As the subjects’ rights needed protection from the king, so does the populace’s from the government. The problem with democracy being that the majority decisions can impinge upon the rights of some people.

What rights then?

Mill holds that the right to freedom of thought and expression, and the liberty to do as one pleases, without harm to another, should remain unmolested. Firstly, because such freedoms lead to discussion, which in turn lead to understanding, which gives rise to knowledge; if one holds a belief but has no understanding why, it is no better than prejudice. To understand a belief is to understand why one believes, and it is only through discussion with, not silencing of, the opposition that one can reach understanding.

Secondly, and more importantly, Mill believes that freedom has the value of improving Man. Without an atmosphere of freedom, men would be left at the mercies of custom and habit of the times. According to Mill, the worst kind of man is the kind that does no thinking himself, but bows slavishly to the custom of the times; and that, precisely, is why freedom is so important.

Similarly, a man should be equally free to not use his freedoms optimally, and to not pursue original thought and consideration of issues. For a thinking man to coerce him against such behaviour would be in itself an inhibition of freedom. ‘The power of compelling others into it is not only inconsistent with the freedom and development of all the rest,but corrupting to the strong man himself’.

So, why do we find such rights restricted, if it could only be for benefit? Well, one must always consider the potential for an ill-placed opinion to arouse anger and violence. And those, Mill most certainly concurs, are wholly unacceptable.

Given that free expression promotes improvement of Man and society, but that wrongly-placed it can cause harm, where then are the boundaries? All democracies have their limits on free expression; some stop at racially offensive language, others at Holocaust denial. So, what makes them qualitatively different from authoritarian states that imprison those who voice objectionable views? After all, it’s only a matter of scale and severity, from fines versus imprisonment and torture, from a few dissenters to a mob.

Discounting the merest literal interpretation of democracy, how can the rights-defending interpretation survive? It appears that the popular will, which may oppress a section of the populace, is incompatible with any notion of rights. How does one draw the line at what is permissible and what is not, without it being a mere subjective standard?

And, perhaps, we should ask, why should men have rights anyway? Does the argument that it allows others (should we care about others anyway?) to improve themselves hold any water?


Let’s take a short detour for a moment shall we? Why should we bother about rights anyway? Take the specific case of political protesting, which is limited here in Singapore. Would anyone who has no intention whatsoever to head a political protest care about the right to do so? Does anyone fight for a right they don’t intend to excercise; does anyone feel offended by a restriction against plowing a car into a tree?

The matter at hand then becomes as follows: if you don’t intend to express opinion that may be offensive and risks censorship, why would one irrationally feel offended that other people can’t do it? To be involved in such disputes about rights would be absurd.

In the case of the censoring body, it becomes a little more complicated. However, the censor’s own improvement as a thinking individual, as one who considers his actions and rejects the bondage of custom and habit of society, is not jeopardised by reducing that of another.

Furthermore, Mill’s stand for permitting even the morally or religiously objectionable is reasonable only if the moral standards are non-objective. For the believers in higher authority, there is reason enough for censorship. For others, the imposition of moral standards then becomes on of personal taste, having disregarded the need for allowing others to supposedly improve themselves (escape the slavery of custom) through their views, no matter how objectionable.

Thus, we return to the issue of moral subjectivity.

For the religious, those with a codified set of morals, objectionable views surely cannot be permitted.

For those less inclined, we encounter to problem of extent. To what extent is expression tolerable, and to what extent is it not? As a society is composed of distinct individuals, so to do distinct views exist.  The multitude of standards, the differing of opinions as to what is tolerable and what is not, leaves us in the same quandary we began. The concept of rights seems incompatible with democracy. Literal democracy seems more like despotism by the majority, while rights-based democracy seems to really be restricted (expressive) rights, albeit to a smaller degree.

And to whether I care for Singapore? Well, I began wondering why my nation doesn’t treasure freedom, as much as others do. Had she really sacrificed Liberty for Prosperity? Well, it seems to me that Liberty isn’t a light that is on or off. It’s more like a tap that can range anywhere from dripping to gushing. It becomes a matter of how much and to what degree is comfortable. The prosperity is always welcome though.

And so far? I like the prosperity, I like it very much. But beyond whether Singapore is a good place to live, whether she provides wealth and freedom, there will come the time she will mean more, where, as the song goes, she’ll be home. And then, who cares? Family doesn’t look at the merits and failings, family doesn’t judge by attributes on a scale; family judges by emotions.


4 Responses to “Will you parade in red?”

  1. cancerstick99 Says:

    I wouldn’t count “Would anyone who has no intention whatsoever to head a political protest care about the right to do so?” as an act being absurd;
    perhaps the reason why one would feel compelled to fight for the right is because of an understanding that democracy pits voices against each other; and the silencing of one voice (and subsequently squelching any possibility of a fair debate) through political censorship would lead to monopolistic complacency on the part of the government, which can be considered inherently bad towards the society, and thus the protest.

    And with regard to your thoughts about liberty and prosperity, it is true that liberty and prosperity have to exist in a justifiable balance. The question is firstly, to what extent is liberty and prosperity mutually exclusive? In Singapore, it is intuitive to draw a causal link between the loss of liberty to the gain in prosperity, but we often need to understand clearly how much has our loss in liberty directly linked to our prosperity; in my opinion, our prosperity is derived mostly through our businesses and trade, instead of through our loss of political freedom. True, it is arguable that the loss of political freedom has led to greater stability in the volatile times of 1960s, but as much as societal stability is a key prerequisite to prosperity, drawing a causal link between the both would lead to an overcompensation of benefits to the ignoble deprivation of liberty; we may tend to overestimate the beneficial effects our lack of liberty has brought us.

    Secondly, as JSM argues, “freedom has the value of improving Man.” I would casually equate it to liberty being a mean towards societal progress; it is merely the multiplying the statement up from an individual man to an entire society. Anyway, is liberty a mean or an end to societal progress? I would also casually equate societal progress to prosperity; of course there are societies more prosperous than others / than itself years before, but they can all be labeled as prosperous nevertheless. Liberty is often seen as an end, an objective, a clear ideal of society, because it is a path towards prosperity, where man in his freedom can improve, as argued by JSM. But in the case of Singapore, liberty has been granted in a rather modest state, with some of it conveniently bypassed in the pursuit of stability; prosperity is achieved.

    Like the Maslow’s hierachy of needs, where we only look upwards at what is unsolved, instead of being appreciative about what we have (and have taken for granted), the rights and freedom which the nation has granted us has seldom been brought up in the criticism of our political censors; I would say that we are not a perfectly liberated society, but nevertheless one which is comfortably liberated; instead of seeing ourselves, say 3/10 empty we should see ourselves as 7/10 full.

    But nevertheless, back to the argument, would it be easy to categorize which principles fall into which categories: means, or ends? Is liberty or prosperity the mean or the end? It is certainly a tedious and endless debate, one which will end up as a practically unsolvable conundrum. The problem is not with the soundness or validity behind the arguments to whether liberty and prosperity should be the means or the ends, but rather; the problem is the attempt to clearly categorize the 2 principles. To talk about granting its citizens liberty, freedom and rights, a society must be stable and prosperous to even engage in such an endeavour; you see stable countries like America brandishing its belief in rights globally, yet you do not see war-torn and unstable countries granting its citizens rights; stability and prosperity are thus essential pre-requisites for people to even fathom about having a society with freedom and individual rights. On the other hand, as JSM argues, it is through liberty where society can improve. The link is rather intuitive, whereby only through political transparency and active debate can issues be resolved and improvements made. Both liberty and prosperity are arguably interdependant, although my definition for both has been very broad – for a conclusive answer to be drawn, it still boils down to a question of definition of the principles.

    One can still argue that ultimate prosperity can be achieved through many means, of which one is liberty. Liberty, although good, is neither essential nor completely instrumental in the construction of a prosperous society. For example, communism in its theoretical and fetal form places plenty of emphasis in totalitarianism and prosperity with no space for liberty. So why have liberty when we can achieve prosperity through other means?

    It is here that works of fiction, especially those pertaining to utopias/dystopias, serve us well. In Brave New World, an inarguably prosperous yet totalitarian regime is thoroughly evaluated, and the conclusion is that it is still rather undesirable. Perhaps it is due to our dogmatic minds which worship the sanctity of rights and freedom (the citizens of the society in Brave New World are free from such dogmas), but as of now, we do see that a society which lacks freedom is inherently undesirable. Likewise, it is obvious that society without prosperity and with plenty of freedom will descend into chaos and anarchy, something which we recognize as undesirable too.

    Thus, it would be reasonable to conclude that what makes a society inherently good or desirable is the co-existence and mutual inclusiveness of both principles; liberty is of course a higher-order concern as compared to basic stability. Its importance in society should not just be defined as its role and ability to bring society and man into a state of prosperity (an element of a desirable society), but rather, a defining characteristic of a desirable society as well. With regard to Singapore, my sentiment is that it would be unfair to deride the sacrifices to liberty which has been made to stability. Both pillars are interdependant after all, it is inevitable that they be balanced and individually compromised to ensure that the society is desirable to a large extent. I agree there exist much room for improvement for Singapore, but I would commend that Singapore has come a rather long way in achieving this fine, yet imperfect balance between prosperity and liberty.

    Anyway this is my little foray into thoughts regarding society and freedom in general; I have never read much nor heard much about such issues, merely developing (rather baseless/backgroundless) arguments after reading your essay. I hope I am not dreadfully wrong or misguided in my views.

  2. cancerstick99 Says:

    anyway i’ve chosen to debate (rather irrelevantly) in the shallower waters of your post. I am not too familiar with all those subjective/objective stuff which smells KI-ish.

    Anyway I don’t have much to say about how the tyranny of the majority leads to the rights of the minority being trespassed. I would say it is true that democracy promotes certain rights yet demotes other rights at the same time. Perhaps a place to look into is the comparison between the value of the gain in rights as versus the value of the loss in rights, since not all rights are equally important to the functioning of a society, if you prioritise society as above all other concerns.

    Also on our current knowledge there exist no perfect political ideology or model which can fully grant all rights and freedom to people, if democracy is the best, albeit a little contradictory and oppressive, then be it. Nevertheless, we must always be vigilant about such problems with ideologies, instead of just acknowledging it and leaving things as they are.

    And as I said, I don’t think I should venture too deeply into your argument about subjective/objective morality since I have barely any prior knowledge about such issues.

    GP kid mixing with too much KI ideas: Do not want. Thus sorry for my rather irrelevant and roundabout reply to your post.

  3. jx1992n Says:

    Before I begin, let me note that correlation between stable and prosperous nations and liberty, and the less so with reduced liberty, does not indicate a causal relationship; stability and prosperity cannot be shown to be necessary for liberty.

    In fact, you have reiterated both of Mill’s arguments for liberty: the instrumental and the intrinsic.

    Firstly, through critique (or even the possibility of critique without repercussion), improvement of thought and understanding occurs, rather than the “monopolistic complacency” you refer to.

    Fiction such as Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984, on the other hand, evoke disgust at such clear impingement of rights; surely, we consider rights to have some intrinsic value.

    If one accepts the necessity of rights, it then appears that the mark of a good government would be as follows:
    -Prosperity and provision for citizens; fulfillment of social contract
    -Protection of intrinsic rights

    And now, I delve back to the original post.

    If one seeks only self-benefit, the argument for the improvement of mankind, to no longer be held captive to custom but to instead provide escape from society’s chains by freedom of thought breaks down.

    The instrumental argument, that freedom gives rise to understanding, without which truth is worthless, seems more dependable.

    We agree, then, both rationally and intuitively, that rights are worth defending. Even the rights of others, rights one has no intention of exercising, are valuable. All the more so if one cares for the state of one’s fellows.

    The trouble, then, lies in application.

    We have seen that, in all places, under all governments, there has always been a restriction on views that have potential to be divisive and damaging. The point of contention is what exactly constitutes such intolerable views. No censor can be objective.

    Even if there were, as you claimed, a causal relation between prosperity and liberty, governments cannot use that as a guage for the degree of freedom permissible. Often, restriction of liberties is less as issue of prosperity but of moral disagreement.

    And so, we are still left in the conundrum: Is democracy compatible with maintaining of (usually minority) rights? Are democracies that restrict freedoms in any way (i.e. all of them) different from the so-called authoritarian states that restrict freedom, except for scale and nature of censoring body?

    In the course of writing this, I’ve come to realise that the issues of prosperity and rights may not be linked. I can be thankful for the prosperity Singapore has enjoyed, but at the same time take stock of the situation of rights.

    So, while remaining glad for Singapore’s wealth, I question the degree of freedom available, and have realised that Absolute freedom is impossible in a democracy; all that’s left is a spectrum to choose from.

    The spectrum is one of personal taste and preference; both the religious and the non-religious have their choices, and each thinks theirs is the absolute standard. You, me, we all have our standards of permissibility.

    Which leaves choice of country a personal choice as well of course. When one can evaluate prosperity and freedom separately and choose which criterion is more important, to complain about trade-offs between liberty and prosperity seems foolish.

  4. cancerstick99 Says:

    The area of mismatch between both arguments is primarily the reason for censor: whether it is a disagreement in views, or the consequences of derisive and irresponsible statements.

    I believe you to be talking about the stifling of views which can potentially generate political dissent; such as attacks on the credibility of the ruling party of Singapore; this I agree that it is a problem with selfish and weakly-justified censorship. Perhaps an act of a machiavellian government.

    However, I still do see the compromise between liberty and prosperity, due to their partial mutual exclusivity in certain situations; a situation which is different from the territory of yours.

    You argue that the censorship of divisive statements is unquestionably problematic, as it is a matter of moral disagreement (and whoever is in power) which leads to the result of whichever party being silenced; the party at the losing end will thus lose their rights in this democratic debate.

    However, my stand is that not all statements made in reality may faithfully convey the spirit of the group whom the statement is affiliated to. Certain statements, such as racist remarks, do warrant some form of censor to ensure that conflicts do not occur.

    Censorship can be irresponsibly used in the power-hungry government to reaffirm it’s control of the nation; but it also serves to eradicate irresponsible and offensive statements of individuals; to silence these people does not necessarily imply giving their clan the shorter end of the stick in political debate.

    In my opinion; censorship is entirely subjective, with its intent highly contentious, different in every case. Rights, also, or the judgement on which rights should be granted in whatever circumstances, can be partially arbitrary, pending on authority and circumstance.

    Lastly, I would argue that prosperity of a society necessarily brings forth the more basic (and arguably, more important) rights, such as to live and own property; of course, the opposite of prosperity in this case would be political instability filled with riots and unrest.

    To control certain rights which have the potential to compromise those earlier mentioned, would be a clear situation where liberty, which we so often fight for, is compromised in favour of prosperity and the other rights it implicitly brings.

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