20 Apr 2006

Democracy, liberalism and values

From Yawning Bread, whose writing needs no introduction...


I get well-written mail, and I enjoy the intellectual challenges that readers throw at me. I've also been humbled by mistakes they have pointed out.

Earlier this week, I received an email which I think cries out for a public answer, rather than a private response. So it is.

The reader wrote:

... you seem to have made some basic assumptions which I can find no grounding for.

1) Singapore's system does not have the necessary checks and balances to ensure proper governance.

The assumption then is that a step towards truer democracy would solve this issue. In theory, perhaps. But in reality, a look at Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia & even the U.S. will reveal that the corrupt will always be corrupt; if your reliance is on systems then there's always a way around it. Is S'pore's answer of blind faith in people of integrity the solution then? Surely not, but maybe there are no perfect answers.

2) You mention that we should value "freedom of expression" over supposed "Asian values" but i'm not sure where the basis of this argument lies. Is freedom of expression a higher value because it's constitutional? or because it's a Western value? or simply because it's something you value more?

I don't think that ministers simply use their own "conservative" values to decide on policies. Rather, they attempt to approximate a representation of what the people as a whole want. You and I might not be "conservative", but my uncles and aunts are, and probably much of the uneducated older generations. I don't think it's a religious reason that promiscuity is deemed unacceptable but rather the secular, pragmatic reason - that people don't like it. Is that right? I don't know, but in life too many supposed "values" are really a matter of personal preference. You would like to go about your activities and some pple would like to go about in self-denial that you are; is that not their right?

* * * * *

In response to the first question,
Actually, I seldom talk about "more democracy". Partly, it is because the word "democracy" has been so abused that it is no longer clear what people mean by it, but partly too, I wonder if political participation requires a certain minimum of being informed, rational and liberal. If large swathes of a population are neither informed, rational nor liberal, what would "democracy" represent? Mob rule?

Instead, although I think I don't quite say it in so many words, I am more concerned about liberalism, because this is one of the necessary conditions for democracy. A society can be prosperous and dynamic with liberalism alone, without democracy. Hong Kong under the British was one such example.

By liberalism, I mean the way we structure state and society in order to accommodate as many variations in opinion, culture and preferences as possible, no doubt within limits of security and civil peace. I am driven by the idea that as much liberty as possible should repose with the individual. The community and the state should take as little away from him as is absolutely necessary to function.

I argue repeatedly that Singapore is too statist and too communitarian, politically, socially and in some ways, economically too. We too often prioritise the demands of the state and community over the autonomy of individuals.

The state gets to control the mass media, at the expense of the individual's freedom of speech. Majoritarian ideas stifle artistic expression, unusual career choices and innovation generally, not to mention imposing "mother tongue" demands on tens of thousands of school children that is at variance with their home language. For a generation, many bright students have been denied university education on account of this conformist requirement. Needless to say, majoritarian ideas about morality trump the gay and lesbian persons' freedom to live his life as he wishes and his access to equal treatment in law, employment and social recognition.

Even with respect to the economy, liberalism, which is most consistent with laissez-faire markets, falls short in Singapore. Here, the state is extensively involved in the economy. For example, too much of our economy is bound up with government-linked businesses, with the result that the government mindset -- paper qualifications being supreme, scholars being highly valued and fast-tracked -- permeates through much of economic life. The elitist attitudes and unquestioning culture that this mindset brings tends to be inimical to competition and innovation.

Another example would be in the way our public transport system is basically a government-blessed duopoly. Entry barriers are set so high that potential new entrants to the bus industry are deterred.

Liberalism is founded on ideals of human rights, separation of powers, the free market and a general notion of limited government.

All governments have expansionist tendencies, wanting to control more and more areas of a country's social and economic life. In so doing, they steadily reduce the choices, intellectual, social and economic, that are available to citizens.

Censorship reduces intellectual space. State intervention in the economy beyond areas which are natural monopolies reduces livelihood and consumer options. Demands of social conformity strangle creativity and personal actualisation.

Liberalism has to be actively defended against encroachment by the state and illiberal social movements through adherence to a Bill of Rights, by a free press, an independent judiciary, and even, as is developing in Europe, the institution of ombudsmen, whose job is to scrutinise administrative actions by the government for fairness and respect for people's rights.

In addition, there should be robust civic institutions independent of the government, to speak up on various issues. For example, we might ask, where are the citizen's watchdogs over public transport, housing, education, healthcare or judicial behaviour? Where are the independent labour unions? Why must law and government policy be so suspicious and restrictive of independent organisations?

Not least, the multiplicity of voices should also be represented at the political level, so that it's harder to pass bad law in the first place.

This is what I mean by checks and balances. I feel that in Singapore, the instinct of the executive to widen its scope of control is not sufficiently balanced by due regard for defending the liberty of the individual.

I have always believed that liberalism and civic institutions come first before democracy. Democracy without the freedom to express views, and organise to promote beliefs, without justice and the rule of law, is meaningless.

As for corruption, why are we only bringing up examples of Thailand and Indonesia? Democracy is not a cause of corruption, which some people imply when they posit the choice between Singapore's (authoritarian) status quo and "more democracy", e.g. Philippines. Consider New Zealand, Finland, Ireland, Israel. These are small countries, but they are liberal democracies with vibrant civic organisations and alternating parties in government. Yet there is very little corruption. Why can't we be like them?

One should argue that it is independent civic organisations that can act as watchdogs against corruption in government. A free media that is not deterred from investigative journalism, a sure-footed judiciary that examines government legislation and decisions with a sceptical eye, and independent ombudsmen in various areas that review administrative actions, all help to keep corruption in check. Even if a government turns dirty, independent bodies are there to hold them to account.

We are at greater risk for not having these checks and balances. I don't mean to knock the integrity of the present People's Action Party (PAP) leaders, but I point out again and again how we don't have a second line of defence. When the first line -– the PAP's integrity -– fails, we have nothing left to stop a complete rout.

* * * * *

In response to the second question:

I do not consider liberalism as a "Western value" that stands opposed to "Asian values". Like most political observers, I see the effort to sell "Asian values" as a ploy to mask authoritarianism.

The tension is between liberalism on one hand and statism/ communitarianism on the other. Very often communitarianism relies on the state for its coercive power, at the same time, it has little objection to an interventionist state, thus the relationship between the two can be symbiotic.

Communitarianism is not without its good points. The general principle is for the individual to submit to the norms of the community, in return for the community's care and protection afforded to him.

This can be quite highly recommended in societies that are rooted (immobile), culturally homogenous, not particularly fast-moving technologically, perhaps agrarian.

With little mobility, the individual has little choice but be part of the community; it is better then that the community accepts and extends its support to him. With cultural homogeneity, and relative technological stability, the individual's ideas and his options do not deviate too far from the mean anyway, so he doesn't have to give up much in order to conform.

One of the possible good things about communitarianism is a tendency to impose a burden of care on those who are better off. Philanthropy and mutual obligation helps to bridge economic divides.

The problem is that, for Singapore, the conditions for communitarianism are not there. Ours is a society of mobility and diversity. That diversity is heightened by a constant import of cultural and intellectual ideas, and rapid technological change, continuously opening previously unimagined economic horizons. Life options are numerous. People want to try new things and go off in different directions. Limiting their choices, holding them back, simply makes them unhappy. And then they leave, to our country's loss.

Worse, what communitarianism we have is not really a natural result of identity and community spirit, but is kept alive as a tool for statist authoritarianism and its attempt to monopolise "truth". The very attempt to re-label it as "Asian values" betrays the fact of its political capture.

Both liberalism and communitarianism have good track records as ways for organising society. But different societies call for different solutions.

* * * * *

Let me now come to values. I acknowledge that the government may, at times, be merely trying to approximate a community's values when they formulate policies. But sometimes, they themselves admit that their own personal values colour their decisions. In an interview with the Straits Times, Minister of State Ho Peng Kee admitted as much. See Is homophobia essential to our 'national interests'?

Our cabinet ministers are drawn from a very unrepresentative segment of our population, mostly because they are selected by induction. None of them are self-made politicians. There is a tendency for the incumbents to induct others of the same mould and outlook.

To see what I mean, just look at the new candidates that the PAP has introduced to the public for the coming general election. There are 17 men among them. All of the men are married. There is no bachelor, not even a divorcee among them. Why not? Bachelors and divorcees are not at all uncommon in Singapore, even among professionals and corporate leaders.

It won't surprise anyone of us if ministers tend to echo each other's values in cabinet discussions, creating the illusion that in the community at large there is a similar unanimity.

Even allowing that they may bend over backwards to try to reflect a community's views when they make their decisions, I still have three caveats:

Firstly, how they read public opinion can easily be coloured by their own personal views. Where are the objective surveys, for example, of public opinion? In the few cases where there are, how are the questions phrased? In the absence of impartial data, it is entirely human to believe that one's opinion has more support among others than may prove to be the case.

Secondly, policies can be formulated narrowly or widely. A certain value may be common, but it doesn't mean that other values must be proscribed; they can also be allowed and given fair space to co-exist. Now if you say that Value A demands that Value B be proscribed and the former is more popular, then you are back to a philosophical question of whether we wish to be a liberal or a conformist society. Without overriding threat to society itself, a liberal society cannot allow one value to banish another value, so no matter how popular Value A is, it cannot be used to justify the suppression of Value B. Yet in many areas, our government does this, censorship and bans being their chief tools. Have they no choice but to be illiberal?

Thirdly and most important of all, I have elsewhere argued that it is false to argue to that government policy merely reflects public opinion, when the government, through censorship and bans, go out of its way to shape public opinion. Example: So Singaporeans are in the main homophobic, and therefore the government must maintain homophobic policies, they say. But how can Singaporeans be anything other than homophobic if gay-positive news and opinion are censored out, if government ministers themselves keep on making homophobic remarks, and the education ministry has programs to drum into people that homosexuality is sick, immoral and illegal?

* * * * *

As the reader who wrote to me says, there may be no perfect answers. And I certainly don't claim to have any. But what I am concerned about is how, through their domination of the media, the Singapore government has got too many people thinking that only they know the best answers.

But for goodness sake, where in history is there an example where a government has all the best answers? If Singaporeans believe that we are some kind of ahistorical exception, we must be the world's greatest fools.

© Yawning Bread


Anonymous said...

What can i say? Yawning Bread is absolutely brilliant. This is the way to put forth one's points in the most convincing, water tight and infallible manner.

*clap clap clap*

soci said...

I have to agree, he is good. I would love someone to attempt a rejoinder though.

Anonymous said...

I don't have perfect answers too so here's my take on your argument:

a) It is argued that we need more liberalism because we are too statist, too communitarian, too asian. Okay, asking for more is fine but if one truly believes in liberalism (I don't know if your version is in actuality, pluralism), then liberalism should just be one of the many values to be pursued freely in the society. It should by no means be the only one out there that once found, should remain for all time and place. Given so, it looks like we need some kind of a balance point where we can say, okay, so much liberalism, and so much communitarianism, and so on but I don't know if you provide some criteria of how this can be achieved?

On this, I don't know if Singapore is so harsh to the point where people are unable to pursue some degree of liberalism (your weak degree within some civil peace and security)? The ultimate test is this: if you are not happy, then leave. If the authorities don't stop you, that's quite liberal. Most of the time, the Singapore 'training' is welcomed in many countries, a bonus package on the way out. Singapore always has open doors both in and out. That to me, is quite liberal.

b) I don't know if you can call an entire nation state striving to be a communitarian state! There is some responsibility of the individual to his or her community in even non-communitarian societies and conditions of mobility and diversity can coexist with most notions of communitarianism. Many migrant families who live outside of their motherland often continue to contribute to their own communities even when they are so to speak, mobile. And I can be immersed inside a world of diverse changes without losing some of my own responsibility to my hometown too.

I think Singapore is precisely a place which is different which seemed to have adopted a different solution to HK or the USA, just as you have said, so I don't know what's the point of that. To me, this appears at best as an unargued intuition?

c) There are some correlations to what you say about the lack of diversity in policy makers. Well, the only thing I would say here is that it is more important for them to think differently than to share the same marital status. I have seen a group coming from a roughly even demographic data region arrived at different ideas (i.e. a classroom) so lack of demographic diversity does not necessarily and sufficiently equate the lack of diverse ideas.

On your second point, K.Arrow has shown that given the circumstances of a liberal society, it is still theoretically impossible to choose one value over another for policy making. So one way or another, it really depends if the criterion of choosing is justified for some ends they make. I don't know which value you are talking about so that's all I can say.

If I may, what you are trying to say on your third point is that policies are justified by a given public opinion. Well, this may not be an adequate answer but if no one makes noise (or they cannot be heard or they cannot make noise), then it is justified whatever the justifications. I have seen a few policies in my life when people actually made noise and that false consensus was revoked. Perhaps then that we can conclude that Singaporeans are less homophobic than homoapathic.

You are absolutely right. Singapore's government does not have the best answers, nor should we expect them to have them. What we should ask for is that they should support the populace to attempt to find answers to collective questions. That said, there is no more blaming game but soul searching instead.

million dollar baby said...

"You are absolutely right. Singapore's government does not have the best answers, nor should we expect them to have them. What we should ask for is that they should support the populace to attempt to find answers to collective questions. That said, there is no more blaming game but soul searching instead."

Ever heard of 'accountability'? The blaming game began not without a reason. When the PAP started labelling themselves as gentlemen of integrity, infallible, exceptional talents etc etc and therefore paid themselves the highest ministerial salaries in the known universe, one would expect them to have solutions and answers instead of u-turns, rethinks and honest mistakes. The irony and lie cuts like a knife and is crystal clear.

Anonymous said...

Is this envy or accountability? High salaries hold no guarantee of solving difficult and complex social problems.

Anonymous said...

I had read about COMMUNISM, and I think S'pore functions quite similar like communist in many areas. E.g, having secret police to control, individual rights are suppressed in the name of social control, many government-linked companies, the government people earning and having many privileges ordinary citizens won't get, having a restricted and controlled media and press to brainwash its citizen in believing the Party is great, suppressing its oppositions etc. Singapore govt is really sophiscated, its economy operates like western democracy, but the government acts like communist bullies. Are the SG govt acting in the name of ASIAN VALUES or Communism in order to maintain its POWER which is greatly enjoyed by the ELITE?