By Benedict Chong
This may be sad, but it is almost certainly true. Every time Singapore parliament sits, Singaporeans are introduced to a deluge of inconvenient laws that serve little purpose whatsoever except to augment the powers and presence of the State.
Such was the case for the two bills recently introduced in January’s sitting. Given that vote proceedings in a legislative body dominated by the ruling party is a mere formality, we can reasonably assume that both bills will be passed with minimal opposition.
The two bills in question are the Medishield Life Scheme Bill and the Liquor Control Bill. Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and Second Minister for Home Affairs S Iswaran had the unfortunate job of tabling them, leading Singapore to just another nadir of privacy rights infringements and State paternalism.
The Liquor Control Bill seeks to prohibit the consumption of alcohol in public places between 10:30pm to 7am. Retail shops are also not allowed to sell alcohol beyond 10:30pm, unless granted exceptions, which would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Notwithstanding the logistical challenge in monitoring and enforcing the non-consumption of alcohol in public spaces during the allotted time period, this bill adds to the many policies that further exemplifies the paternalistic tendencies of the PAP government.
Several arguments against the implementation of this bill stems from its draconian nature and the fact that despite the ‘broad support’ received for this bill in public consultation exercises conducted by MHA, a separate online poll by the Straits Times indicated otherwise.
Unfortunately, the majority of dissenters would be arguing from the wrong standpoint if the backbone of their reasoning were justified by the lack of majority support.
Rights are not cumulative. The rights of a hundred individuals are no more superior to that of a solitary person. As John F. Kennedy so aptly puts it, “The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”
The instance we believe that a majority can control the activities of a minority, we place ourselves in a situation which Tocqueville coined “the tyranny of the majority”.
Therefore, even if a nationwide referendum was conducted and an overwhelming 90% voted for tighter restrictions, they would still have no right to control the remaining tenth of the population. Besides, is it not more efficient and morally appropriate to control personal consumption if the majority assents without abusing the rule of law?
In its defense, MHA provided a list and compared alcohol restrictions in other countries. But the subsequent claim that the bill was less restrictive than overseas is quite obviously, a red herring that distorts the issue.
While this article does not support alcohol restrictions in any form, a study of liquor legislations in Germany for example, would highlight the excessiveness of the recently introduced bill. Surely, as a country famous for its beer, Germany would have been studied by the Singapore government before coming up with this bill? Why the selective comparison then?
The PAP-led government has always (wrongly) argued that Western style civil liberties are not in line with Asian culture. Once again, the glaring anomaly of Hong Kong, a city not dissimilar from Singapore but with civil liberties enshrined in its constitution and cherished by the people, was conveniently forgotten.
In his 2013 National Day rally, PM Lee announced a universal health insurance scheme to be implemented in 2015. Well, the time draws nigh.
Every citizen will be drafted into a national health insurance scheme, with several caveats of course, as we are now discovering. The scheme is mandatory and whether the premiums are subsidized depends on the insured giving up certain private information – like personal income statements and medical history.
The government will necessarily point out that Singaporeans are given a choice whether or not to divulge said sensitive information. But the nature of the scheme is such that there really is no choice.
Being a compulsory national insurance scheme, the difference between disclosures of private information and otherwise are higher premiums and less coverage. As such, what choice is there if it is only between a cheaper and more expensive option?
In a private transaction, insurers would naturally request potential consumers to undertake comprehensive health screening exercises. This is to ensure that insurance premiums efficiently reflect the risks borne by the insurer.
In the case above, the consumer volunteers personal information and is able to walk away from any contract or pre-requisite that he may disapprove. For Medishield Life, there is no such choice. We either pay more to protect our privacy rights or less if we condone its infringement. Either way, the consumer loses.
While this may seem a minor issue to some, it is certainly not the first infringement of privacy rights. In a foreign policy article written several months ago, the revelation that large sums of public funds were invested in surveillance systems barely ruffled a feather.
The common argument of “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear” is easily refuted if directed at State agencies. For instance, if the government has nothing to hide, why do we not know the cost breakdowns of HDB residences, how CPF funds are invested, how COE quantities are determined, et cetera?
Indeed, Adam Moore, author of the book Privacy Rights: Moral and Legal Foundations argues most eloquently how the “nothing to hide” and “just trust us” arguments make little sense.
What should be done
As sovereign individuals, we must be free to make our own choices. What we are not free from are the consequences of our decisions. When we arrogate to others the ability to make personal decisions for us or even formulate our options, we lose ourselves as free and sovereign individuals.
Restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol after certain hours will not result in a safer environment. In fact, we may even be less safe as alcohol consumption may shift to less prominent public areas. Will there be police presence to enforce the law in every square inch of public lands? As it stands, this bill is both immoral to individuals and economically damaging to businesses.
It has also been proven that no national health insurance scheme ever worked in the long term due to inherent bureaucratic inefficiency. Health economists would naturally point out the success of several countries with such systems – the Scandinavian countries.
Yet, these countries only managed to preserve such economically unfeasible schemes with equally unsustainable high tax rates and exploitation of North Sea oil. Now, with declining oil revenues and tax rates already past the peak of the Laffer curve, cracks are starting to emerge.
We have already seen for ourselves the inefficiency involved in the management of our CPF funds. We have seen how CPF began from the humblest of beginnings as a simple retirement fund to the unchecked behemoth it is right now. Do we really want another State-managed nationwide policy?
In Singapore, the functions of demand and supply are neither allowed to determine prices nor send price signals to suppliers and consumers. The results include but are not restricted to an undersupply and soon to be oversupply of residential estates, increments in transportation fares just as oil prices are decreasing, and ever increasing prices of prepared foods despite purportedly low wages of foreign service crew (due to worker levies). And all these due to perpetual State mismanagement at best, greed at worst.
Ultimately, in evaluating any policy propagated by the State, we need only drill down to one simple assessment: Whether that particular policy reduces or enhances our liberties.
We must never judge a policy by the weight of support it receives. Doing so will only imply the sacrifice of minority groups, thus fracturing the highest concept of equality before the law.
While numerous politicians and commentators, incumbent and opposition alike realize that something is intrinsically amiss, the overwhelming response has been to tweak policy approaches instead of complete elimination. The default position always seems to be that it is the government’s job to do something.
But is it really that difficult to do nothing?