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The problem with more government – limiting civil society

civilsocietyBy Benedict Chong

“Because to take away a man's freedom of choice, even his freedom to make the wrong choice, is to manipulate him as though he were a puppet and not a person.” – Madeleine L’Engle

The last two articles have discussed how the expansion of government activities led to the decline in freedoms in the economic and political scene, both with negative repercussions. In this article, a third sector will be discussed – that of civil society.

Civil society is, according to the dictionary, “the aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens”. As such, it would also include the family and private lives of the people, a distinct third sector from the business and political spheres.

Put simply, civil society is a social sphere separate from both State and market. Or so the definition says because in Singapore, the State’s presence is widely felt in civil society.

For example, Singapore males are conscripted into the armed forces in their prime under the Enlistment Act, workers must contribute to a compulsory savings scheme, consensual sex between males are prohibited by law, specific numbers of children are recommended for families, social enterprises are regulated to the point of extinction and together with numerous other policies, run our private lives through the rule of unjust law.  Where is the private choice?

Such enforcements are of course argued favorably by the State. They are said to be necessary for protecting the integrity of the country, prudent for the nation and vital to the moral upbringing of our young.

From young, students are inducted into mostly State run schools with standardized curriculums. Subjects such as social studies designed to provide government perspectives of social issues quickly mold impressionable minds.

Having had the ‘opportunity’ to take the subject before, I ‘learned’ that placing the State at the center of all life in the country is positively good and advantageous. Many students with young and susceptive minds then accept it as the norm without question, resulting in a politically apathetic electorate expecting government to be the solution to every problem.

The government’s assertion that its leaders are selfless and would necessarily act in the best interests of the people is noticeably and actionably incoherent. Actions speak louder than words and paying themselves handsomely can hardly be seen as a sign of altruism.

Besides, the infamous argument that ministerial salaries need be high to prevent corruption is ridiculous. If we pay our politicians for being incorruptible, perhaps we should also pay criminals to commit no crime. This way, Singapore may become the first ever country to report zero crime rates.

lawFundamental rights are not cumulative

Another case of State intervention in civil society is through 377A. Thio Li-Ann, a supposed ‘proponent’ of human rights, shot herself in the foot when she publicly supported the continuation of gay sex criminalization in Singapore.

Criminalizing a victimless activity simply indicates that some individual has more right than the persecuted victim. In addition, rights are not cumulative and the rights of a majority are no more valuable than that of the minority.

It says a lot about a country when a human rights lawyer appointed to an NMP (Nominated Member of Parliament) position for that very purpose freely disregards the rights of others.

But if there is one lesson we can learn from the debate involving 377A, it is that if government panders to the demands of the majority to the detriment of the minority, we face what John Adams called the “tyranny of the majority”. Genocides and politically motivated arrests have occurred for lesser causes.

377A is simply a legacy of the past with no justification except to please a traditional majority. If government cannot protect the rights of a persecuted minority, what then, is the use of government?

Immorality of social engineering

Every few years, whenever the State releases its population white paper, critics would immediately decry the paper as unrealistic and condescending. But the true denouncement should be how the paper diminishes our value as human beings. Our birth and death are mere economic digits, to be supplemented when ‘production’ falls short.

Instead of being treated as individuals with the right to decide how many children we desire in our families, the State sees us as national resources to be exploited. Does this not violate the most basic principle of individual dignity?

In addition, the government still fails to learn from historical policies. Introducing schemes such as the baby bonus scheme and various other financial incentives totally missed the point. Families certainly do not start or end because the State dangles the carrot.

population growthAttempting to generate a crisis mentality through threats such as “[Singaporeans] passively watch ourselves go extinct” is hardly going to resolve anything either. In fact, it may even exacerbate the situation, as few parents would want to raise a child in such situations. In any case, how many families are going to have babies just because it is in the ‘national interest’ to do so?

When Friedrich von Hayek wrote the book The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, he highlighted the logical and practical flaws of central economic planning. In Singapore, we go a few steps further in an attempt to engineer population dynamics, a possibility not even Hayek considered would cross the minds of governments.

Let people make their own decisions

As a moral principle, individuals must be free to make their own decisions and to succeed or fail in accordance to their own choices. Individuals have negative rights that are inalienable and absolute from birth. Rights are not some arbitrary entitlement to be given or taken from the State at its own volition.

In his book Dead Right, David Frum eloquently argued that “as a practical matter, when people are shielded from the consequence of their actions, we get a society characterized not by thrift, sobriety, diligence, self-reliance, and prudence but by profligacy, temperance, indolence, dependency, and indifference to consequences.”

As educated and enlightened individuals, we should be able to decide what is best for our future and ourselves. We do not need the State to inform us on how much to save, how many babies to ‘produce’, which countries to visit or invest in, or anything for that matter.

Detractors who claim that the Singapore government merely provides financial rebates to incentivize certain behaviours while giving us a choice whether or not to accept fail to see the full picture. People are rational individuals and subsidizing any activity actually reduces choice as the real costs are artificially diminished. Is it really a choice then?

The importance of the constitution will also be emphasized once again. Some may only deem it a glorified piece of paper, but it still is the highest law of the land, both for government and the people.

Every citizen has equal claim to constitutional rights. Constitutional limits should also be imposed on legislative bodies to curb their ability to pass laws that inhibits the notion of equal rights for all.

John F. Kennedy once said, “The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” His statement is necessarily true as everyone has equal rights and the reduction of any individual’s rights would decrease everyone else’s. It is thus of utmost importance to be aware of our rights and vigilant against their desolution.

Do also read the other two parts in this series: