Singapore is not an autocracy, but we’re not free either

Lee Kuan Yew and democracy (image - Singapore Rebel)

Lee Kuan Yew and democracy (image - Singapore Rebel)

Lee Kuan Yew and democracy (image - Singapore Rebel)

By Bryan Cheang

This article is written in strong opposition to the just published article “Critics call Singapore an autocracy. But I never felt more free than when I lived here“, written by Ms Sahana Singh on the Washington Post.

The author pours out her gratitude of having lived in this “paradise” called Singapore for 14 years. Ms Singh was apparently so enthralled that “outside of this tiny island utopia, she never felt more free”. She has written this so as to defend the legacy of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, against what she deems as unwarranted criticisms that Singapore is an autocracy.

I contend that her article is disingenuous, misleading and completely misses the point.

A gallery of straw men and red herrings

Lets examine the basic logic (or lack of) in her (non)argument:

Premise 1: Critics have called Singapore an autocracy.

Premise 2: But we’re not an autocracy because I actually felt so free when I lived here.

Conclusion: Therefore we are free, or at least, freer than many other democracies.

First, she commits the straw man fallacy. The point is not whether Singapore is or isn't an autocracy. No reasonable person would suggest that Lee Kuan Yew is in the same league as murderous autocrats like Hitler, Stalin and Mao. But just because LKY isn't like a murderous autocrat, and that Singapore isn't as hellish as totalitarian North Korea doesn't make us free either.

The point (and not the straw man Sahana attacks) that liberals like myself insist is that Singapore lacks important constitutional protections for individual liberty despite the relatively high standards of living we enjoy, and not that we’re an autocracy.

Sahana cannot in good faith suggest that just because Singapore isn't an autocracy, and that LKY isn't “one of the self-serving, corrupt dictators that developing countries produce so often”, this somehow leads to the conclusion that we’re such a free country or that LKY is a paragon of virtue. This is like saying because I'm not a murderer, I'm therefore a saint.

singapore workersAlso, it is disingenuous for her to use the problems that persist in America to elevate Singapore: “there was no gun-culture like America’s or neighbourhoods with street gangs to be avoided”. It is wrong to imply that it is the excess of individual liberty in the United States that has produced the “gun-culture in America” (if that exists) and those street gangs she fears so much. Many of these social problems that persist in America, is arguably due to the failure of Americans to be true to the principles of liberty that their country was founded on.

For instance, the imposition of the minimum wage and poor government management of inefficient public schools have left a disproportionate number of black teenagers out of jobs, thus exposing them to the underworld of guns, drugs and violence. The illiberal war on drugs and racial biases in the judicial system have also disproportionately punished poor blacks. Do not place the blame on the foot of Lady Liberty.

It is also disingenuous for her to use her bad experience with India’s lack of development as evidence for Singapore’s wonderful freedoms. Yes, we’re happy that she got to drink safe tap water when she came to Singapore, that she didn’t get mugged at 1am, that she got to read “wonderful books” in NLB – except those with gay penguins of course. All this is fine and good, and no one can take this achievement away from LKY, but this doesn't say anything about whether Singaporeans are free in the true sense of the word.

At the root of the author’s error is her conflation of freedom with security. She equates being safe and prosperous with being free. This subtle move on her part easily covers up the violations on what philosophers call “negative liberty” in Singapore. She fails to recognise that a large part of freedom is the ability to live free from government interference in our private lives.

Using this understanding of freedom, it is easy to see why Singapore cannot be considered free. LKY himself declared:

“I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn't be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.”

Therefore, Sahana may be right to thank LKY for his contribution to economic development, and bringing about safety and stability, but to equate this to being free is a step too far. In other words, the most she can do is to argue that the loss in freedom was justified in the pursuit of growth and stability, and not insist that Singapore obtained “real freedom with security”. She cannot have her cake and eat it at the same time.

I'm therefore not saying that Singapore is a backwater swamp, or that LKY is a ruthless murderer, I'm only disputing the idea that we are free from government interference. Economic development and stability in Singapore has been achieved at the price of individual liberty, and Sahana should defend this point upfront.

economic_freedomMore than not chewing gum

Point to real evidence of unfreedoms, you might insist! I know you can’t chew gum in Singapore, but why don’t you give me proof that we’re really being oppressed!

Allow me to list out two illiberal laws that exists on our statutes today. Those who insist that Singapore is a free society must argue that point and give an account for the following at the same time:

  1. 377A. Whether you agree with the homosexual lifestyle or not, the point is that this law criminimalises private sexual activity between two consenting adults. And it doesn’t matter if this is actively enforced or not, the point is that the threat of coercion hangs over every LGBT individual, especially so should the state apparatus gets taken over by social conservative interest groups. What then?
  2. Internal Security Act. This allows the executive to severely interfere with the affairs of private organisations who may simply be detained, arrested, and shut down on mere suspicion of ill-intent. Again, it is true that our neighbours don’t just disappear in the middle of the night because of a zealous Gestapo police, but the point is that this law’s existence cannot possibly square with the author’s description of Singapore as a “utopia”. History has provided at least some reason to suggest this law may not have been used appropriately. To call this utopia would be Doubletalk of the highest order.

Besides the above, there exists the Public Order Act, Newspapers and Printing Presses Act, Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, Films Act, Sedition Act, Telecommunications Act, etc., all of which infringe on the affairs of private individuals in some way or another. Private ownership of satellite TV dishes is forbidden and BBC Far Eastern Relay Station is the only radio channel that is entirely outside government control. The MDA actively ensures that you “read the right thing”.

Our “Constitution” can be easily changed and amended. Freedom House ranks Singapore as partly free with a score of 4 out of 7, and ourpress freedom rankings usually hover around 140 to 160 in the world. Even the much vaunted economic freedom we enjoy is riddled with a high degree of state intrusion due to the strong presence of sovereign wealth funds and government-owned enterprises (that’s where many Singaporeans have a good reason to call for transparency).

Is this what Sahana calls paradise?

It is interesting that in her article, Sahana talks about tap water, falling asleep in the taxi, walking anywhere with a stroller, borrowing books, seeing a movie, getting a job, “clearly marked and intelligently placed” street signs, seeing her daughter grow up, but never once does she ever discuss (surely!) very salient issues: the dynamics of political competition between parties, human rights records, censorship, tolerance of diversity, the use of libel lawsuits etc. And somehow we are to believe that Singapore is a “paradise” of freedom and safety!

Singapore city skyline dusk panorama (Image - Chensiyuan, 2011, Wikimedia Commons)

Singapore city skyline dusk panorama (Image - Chensiyuan, 2011, Wikimedia Commons)

The above unfreedoms I cited are bigger than just being unable to chew gum. I do not suggest that all these problems should be blamed on LKY himself. Far from it. In fact, I think it is the lack of exposure to liberal ideas, aided by erroneous beliefs perpetuated by individuals like Ms Singh, that have led to Singaporeans being content with the moral status quo.

At this point, I suspect that Ms Singh, and her defenders, would insist that I'm missing the forest for the trees. Should I not focus on the overall level of goodness that the average Singaporean enjoys, and not pour unnecessary light on the less stellar parts of our rights record?

I'm not merely nitpicking. Although the lack of freedom in Singapore isn't as dire as the hellish oppression that still exists in regimes like North Korea, there is still good cause for concern. After all, totalitarianism does not just appear on the scene and dictators don’t come to us in red-satanic costumes. The moment we take for granted that power can be concentrated and used only good purposes by virtuous men is the moment we allow power to corrupt, and absolute power to corrupt absolutely. The great 20th Century liberal Friedrich Hayek argued that slowly but surely, interventions into the private society and economy can bring the country on a “Road to Serfdom“, however imperceptible each step may be.

That LKY was not a corrupt, murderous autocrat is no guarantee that everyone else that come after him is as virtuous. Philosophy teaches that we should treat all men, especially political men, as “knaves” – self-interested individuals just like us. We cannot merely trust that wise, capable men will always be at the helm, to wield the same power that LKY had for our good. This explains the importance of liberal institutions to constrain the powers of government.

Western liberalism?

I think Ms Singh has a deeper assumption at work in her piece. Though it does not seem obvious, I suspect that she will agree with LKY’s constant insistence that Singapore, being an Asian, Confucian society, can never, and should never, embrace the liberal standard I seem to have used above. That must be the reason why she attacks her imaginary opponents for clinging on to outmoded “American ideals” (which was supposedly responsible for guns and gangs, oh no).

I think if Confucius was around today, he would be upset with the unfair use of his name to justify the ideas of authoritarianism. Surely, Confucius never defended indefinite detention without trial. I guess we will have to ask him personally if we ever meet him.

But political philosophers have suggested varied interpretations of Confucian thought, many of which can be seen in a liberal light. Some have used the Confucian doctrine of reciprocity, and concept of political legitimacy based on virtue to argue against authoritarianism and excessive state power.

Those who assert “Asian values” conveniently omit other important traditions within Asian philosophy. Even if Confucius really can be used to justify communitarian authoritarianism and benevolent dictatorship, other traditions, especially the Daoist school of thought, stress non-intervention by state officials. Lao-Tzu, the pioneer of Daoism – considered by some to be the world’s first libertarian (surprised?) – believes that the state must be kept limited as possible, because when government is kept simple and inactive, then the world may “stabilise itself”. Much work has also been done by various scholars explaining the harmony that Asian cultures can enjoy with liberal ideas (an interesting one would be Islam’s relationship to liberalism: see Mustafa Akyol‘s “Islam without extremes“).

The purpose of my article has not been to undermine the character and legacy of LKY. No one can take away what he has done. But there is much more to be done. Sahana may have been living in her version of paradise, but it sure ain't mine.

Bryan Cheang is a recent graduate from NUS and has been interested in libertarian political philosophy. He hopes that one day Singapore will become a truly free society respecting individual rights. He blogs at

Editor's note: The Washington Post had earlier published an article that offers a different perspective to Sahana Singh's article.

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