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Liberty and Asian Values



Is Libertarianism merely a western ideal?

Find out in this powerful video the inexorable ties between the ideas of freedom and our asian values.

The Problem of Authority

It is often said that the government derives its powers from a “social contract,” whereby the people have granted these special powers to the government. The only problem with this theory is that it is factually false—I have not in fact agreed to have a government, to pay taxes, or to obey the government’s laws.

A number of suggestions have been made as to how, despite my protestations to the contrary, I really have agreed to all those things. Here I will just mention one, because it is the one most often heard in conversation. This is the suggestion that I have “implicitly” agreed to have a government merely by residing in the government’s territory. (“If you don’t want a government, simply move to Antarctica!”) Very briefly, the problem with this suggestion is that it presupposes that the state owns all the territory over which it claims jurisdiction, or that for some other reason it has the right to exclude people from that area. But there is no way to establish such a right on the part of the state, unless one has already shown that the state has legitimate authority. This therefore cannot be presupposed in an argument designed to establish the state’s authority. In this case, the statist’s claim seems analogous to the leader of a protection racket claiming that his victims have voluntarily agreed to pay him protection money, merely by living in their own houses. There are other ways in which social contract enthusiasts claim that we have accepted the social contract, but as I explain in the book, each of them falls to equally serious objections, which show that the social contract does not come close to satisfying the generally accepted principles of real, valid contracts.

Another popular suggestion is that, in democratic nations (about half the world today), the democratic process confers authority on the government. The motivation behind this view is initially puzzling. Recall that the problem is to explain why the state may undertake actions that would be considered rights violations if anyone else were to perform them. Typically, if some type of action violates someone’s rights—for instance, theft, kidnapping, or murder—the action will not be converted into an ethically permissible, non-rights-violating one if a larger number of people support the action than oppose it. If you’re in a group of friends, and five of them decide they want to rob you, while only three oppose robbing you, this does not make it ethically permissible to rob you. Similarly, even if every law were directly authorized by a popular referendum of everyone affected by the law, it is unclear why this would render legitimate a law that would otherwise have been a rights violation. Matters are only more problematic in a society in which a minority of people vote, and they vote merely to select representatives who may or may not keep their promises, and may or may not do what their supporters wanted.

But doesn’t the government have to coerce us in the ways that it does in order to maintain itself in existence, so that it can provide law and order? And without government, wouldn’t society degenerate into a constant war of everyone against everyone? The first thing to note about this argument is that it could at most justify a tiny minority of all the powers claimed by any modern state. Perhaps the government must make laws against violence and theft and provide a court system to adjudicate disputes, in order to prevent a Hobbesian war of all against all. But why must the government control what drugs you may put into your body, what wages you may pay your employees, how much wheat you may grow on your farm, and whether you buy health insurance? Why must they subsidize agribusiness, send rockets to Mars, fund the arts, provide college loans, and run their own school system? The question is not, “Why are those programs beneficial?” The question is, “How are those programs justified by the threat of the Hobbesian war that would supposedly result from anarchy?”

-- Michael Huemer, The Problem of Authority


Sonny Liew’s recent triple award win at the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards has led to a resurgence of much-needed conversations on the topic of funding for the arts. An op-ed on the Straits Times by ex-Nominated Member of Parliament Calvin Cheng has propelled this discussion further, as many netizens from the corners of the web arise to disagree heatedly with him.

For one, I am very glad that Singaporeans are speaking up for the state funding of the arts. Indeed, art is extremely important. It is the embodiment of our shared cultural values as a country and the very essence of our national identity as a society. While I personally don’t watch many productions or plays that are funded by NAC (I much prefer American content like Game of Thrones and Westworld), a certain subset of the population obviously do consume these works. So who am I to say otherwise?

But while I pondered the necessity of government funding the arts, I came to a dreadful realisation.

Why isn’t dating state-funded too? Just like art, love and romance permeate the social fabric of our society - and we want to keep them flourishing. When I stroll down Orchard Road on Friday evenings, I see happy couples, hand-in-hand with glistening eyes only for each other. When I look on Instagram, I am swept away by vivid imagery of my friends celebrating their lovey-dovey relationships, anniversaries, marriages and childbirths. Love is in the air!

But not for all of us. What a shame that hundreds of thousands of Singaporean men and women remain single, utterly deprived of the bliss and wonders of love and marriagehood! These unwedded and partnerless individuals are just as deserving of the loving embrace of a partner. This is not only a disgrace, but a grievous injustice!

To fix this disastrous status quo, here’s what I propose.

The government should fund, nay, must fund dating. Yes, I have given this a fair bit of thought. The state must play an active role in facilitating the coming-together for potential lovebirds. Without the planting of this initial seed, there can be no eventual blossoming.

Just like local artists deserve more funding and empathy from art consumers who may not be particularly interested in state-funded works, so too do singles deserve the empathy of attached and married Singaporeans i.e., those who have drank deeply from the well of love.

Just like how state funding will invigorate and breathe life into the arts industry to raise the lack of consumer demand, state funding will too raise the market demand of single Singaporeans in the arena of love.

Hear me out. Abolish the current half-assed Social Development Network dating services that we have. What we need is a full-fledged and dedicated statutory board that is run by the government. Call it the National Love Council (NLC). The sole purpose of this council will be to “to nurture the romantic relationships of peoples and make it an integral part of life in Singapore".

As far as I can tell, Singaporeans are a materialistic bunch. This is good - we can work this to our advantage. NLC will vet and verify singles who are deeply in need of the TLC that they lack, with individual grants of $10,000 - $30,000, depending on how long they’ve been sexually inactive. With the use of these monies, singles can put their thriftiness aside and splurge on expensive restaurants and gifts for their dates. Alternatively, they can opt to take their grants in the form of vouchers to redeem at aesthetic surgery clinics or gym memberships.

With swelling wallets, attractive physiques and sharper noses (if they so choose), the market demand for these now-appealing singles will rise. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

But what about those singles who aren’t moved by monetary gifts, the ones who defy the rigid assumptions of homo economicus?

Have no fear - there’s nothing more funding cannot solve. All we have to do is dip just a little further into our tax coffers. NLC can set up and organise a series of programmes to train these singles. They will acquire the best dating coaches and pick-up artists from around the world and send these undesirable singles for dating classes with these professionals; literary and culture lectures, sex yoga classes, seminars on “How to Impress Your Date Intellectually”, you name it. How wonderful it all sounds - it almost makes me giddy with excitement to be single!

Most Singaporeans will find themselves in complete agreement with me, because I am such an awesome and brainy “current affairs writer” who is able to tackle every viral topic with an opinion that demonstrates nothing less than brilliance. But even I cannot appease everyone.

I already fully expect what some of these despicable naysayers will retort with. These dreary pessimists (you know, the kind who goes on and on about government having the conundrum of choosing what to fund) who have nothing but hatred in their heart for singles will undoubtedly complain about the unfairness of it all. I can already hear them, eagerly yearning to infect all of us with their gloom: “Why should married Singaporeans fund the dating of singles? Why should those of us who are attached pay out of our pockets for those who aren’t?”

To that I need only respond with a privilege-checking line of rhetorical questioning: Don’t you care about finding love for singles? Aren’t you concerned for their overwhelming loneliness? Will you be an uncultured barbarian, like those who oppose art funding because they don’t understand the value of arts to our society? Will you stoop to the level of these primitive philistines who have zero appreciation for the beauty of love?

The bottomline is this. I’m all for Singaporeans taking steps to improve themselves in the market of romance. Some of them join dating classes voluntarily. Some of them take on a gym membership. In short, some of them do try to improve themselves by their own merit. But let’s face it: We have a problem on our hands and the government needs to step in to help some of these poor suckers. Not all men is endowed with a chiseled jawline and the charisma like that of Benjamin Kheng from The Sam Willows. Not all women are graced with the natural beauty like that of Fann Wong and Zoe Tay.

Some of these Singaporeans are fast approaching 30 and time is of the essence. If the government doesn’t start taking action by funding and helping them, who the hell will?



The author is a member of the Students for Liberty Singapore. You can reach out to him here.


Perhaps one of the most misused devices for arguing against classical liberalism has been the social contract “Taxes is the price we pay to live in society” is something one might hear to argue for state intervention and taxation. Before we dive into how social contract theory and classical liberalism interact, it is important to note that it is not the only explanation for the foundation of political society, but one among different ways that classical liberals rationalise it. Even within social contract theory, there are branches of thought. Ultimately, I aim here to explain how some classical liberals view the social contract, which other classical liberals will find as a contentious explanation for political society and that its conclusion is not necessarily statist. For anyone interested in another explanation for political society, I would direct you to Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia. In here, Nozick uses an invisible hand explanation that also sits well in the classical liberal tradition.

Let’s start with a little use of imagination. Imagine that you and your family are living in a time where life is “short, nasty and brutish” and where “force and fraud are the cardinal virtues”. It is a constant battle not just to survive nature but also other groups who might kill you or rob you for your hunt of the day, a practice your family and you participate in as well. Simply put, the struggle is real. How do you solve this terrible situation? You could try and strike a bargain with the other groups that you would not invade them in exchange that they act in equal restrain. Perhaps with a stroke of luck, a brief period of respite allowed for ease from the nastiness of invasion and all individuals in each group like that ease. The ease where no one would kill you, kidnap you into slavery or steal your food and tools. Having known the ease known as peace you can focus on making better tools and building better settlements. In either method, the social contract is formed explicitly or implicitly.

This life is what Hobbes calls in The Leviathan, the state of nature. Doesn’t sound too fun does it? It is not uncommon for me to hear “This is why we need government!” as the answer to this state of affairs. While it is true that this was also Hobbes’s answer to the problem, it does not make it a necessary conclusion that government – or in Hobbes’s case a sovereign with unlimited power – should arise.

The social contract does not tell us what ought to be done for us to uphold the contract only what we must not do in order to uphold it. What we must not do then is invading the life, liberty and property of each other. If we think of it this way, we are upholding the social contract when we do not take what is not ours, whether by coercion or fraudulent means whether socially, politically or economically. The social contract entails the recognition of each individual’s right to themselves, their autonomy and their property. If this is so, how does the social contract – which is the agreement not to invade and coerce each other – allow the notion of a coercive and invasive institution?

This is where Rousseau comes in, with The Social Contract. Rousseau argues that the collective is an individual and supersedes the individuals that compose it. He boils down his theory of the social contract to this:
“Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”
It is perhaps in this vein that we get this conclusion of the necessity of government. Yet there is something off about this line of thinking. What is the general will? How do we know the general will if one is all and all is one? If I am the general will as you are, how would either of us know the supreme direction to be taken when we disagree? A great deal of hocus-pocus is required to rationalise the general will. Rousseau’s rationale is this:
“As long as a number of men gathered together regard themselves as a single body, they have only a single will, which is concerned with the survival and well-being of all of them.”
Again this raises more question than answers. The assumption that there exist uniform desires and degrees of desires in each of us does not correspond to reality. This mystical general will then has no value so far as we can see in determining any direction, moreover the subtle claim of the general will’s moral supremacy is unsubstantiated as well.

How does classical liberalism view social contract theory?

Within the natural theory framework that some classical liberals – like Locke and Hobbes – adhere to, the social contract is the mutual recognition between individuals to acknowledge the natural rights of individual sovereignty, which is violated by force and fraud. However, it is up to only this point that Hobbes is being followed, since his premise while strong is reasoned to an unnecessary conclusion, as mentioned before. It is here that Locke becomes a beacon. Locke saw that government was only meant to uphold the life, liberty and property of citizens. This government is necessarily built upon consent and the first object of consent is the rules of government and decision-making. Here Locke argues that consent to majority rule is a condition for government to be formed. We see then that government is very limited.

As set out before, that even within social contract theory there are variants, of which there is Gauthier and Narveson. They both set out the social contract in the form of a Prisoner’s Dilemma, within which individuals would want to maximise their gains and the result being the social contract. The assumption here is that we are all rational agents and that values are subjective. Given that nothing has inherent value but the one that we as rational agents impute to it, consent arising from a mutually advantageous exchange lends itself to the creation of the social contract. This approach is thoroughly minimalistic and gives one a better view of the various approaches to social contract theory.

Of course social contract theory is not without its weaknesses, namely how can we prove that the contract actually exists or if at any one time in history this occurred and why are any of us bound to a contract that we did not agree to. These are questions that demand answers since they threaten the foundation of social contract theory, namely consent.

It is not uncommon for the accusation of “hyper-individualism” to be thrown at classical liberal thought. However, that is a result of conflating the political and the social use of individualism. No one is born in a vacuum and we have communities that we belong to, but that does not immediately translate into extending political action into the social sphere. Within the social sphere an individual is free to do whatever he pleases except using force and fraud. Whatever lifestyle is chosen is equally acceptable and norms are developed by participation to whatever degree one chooses to. This allows individuals to express themselves free from coercion by virtue of the social contract.

Hopefully when one is thinking of invoking the social contract as a call to state intervention, one will question if it requires the use of force. Laws and policies are necessarily backed by force and the social contract does not mean that we get to rob each other blind through a third party i.e. government by mere votes. Individuals willingly doing good for their fellow men instead of being extorted is the purpose of the social contract and the classical liberal call.



This article is written by Job Lee, member of Students for Liberty (Singapore). Job is a fresh graduate of law from the University of Northampton and is temporarily working in the belly of the beast at Strata Titles Board as a case officer.

A Brief Overview
Singapore is a young country, having only gained independence from the British in 1965. Since then, the country has been ruled solely by the People’s Action Party (PAP), headed by the revered statesman Lee Kuan Yew who is often credited as the “founding father” of Singapore. He passed away at the age of 91 in 2015.

The country’s ethnic diversity is made up of predominantly Singaporean Chinese (76%), with Malays (15%) and Indians (7%) in racial minorities. The population on the whole is English-speaking. For a small country the size of only 719.1 km² (that’s ⅔ the size of New York City), Singapore hosts a dense population of 5.61 million (as of June 2016). Citizens are less than two-thirds of the population (3.41 million), while foreign workers and non-residents make up 39% (2.19 million) of the population. The success of Singapore’s relatively high intake of foreign workers in past decades has likely in part to do with the ruling party’s staunch stance against a traditional welfare state. Foreign workforce growth has however slowed in recent years due to citizen unhappiness.

The PAP’s official philosophy is one of meritocracy and pragmatism, although this has been fiercely challenged by Singaporeans for the inequalities it entrenches. The government has been rated highly on the Economist’s crony-capitalist index, although it is also often held up as a an exemplary model for lack of corruption.

Economic Haven
As one of the Four Asian Tiger economies that saw rapid industrialization in the second half of the 20th century, the city-state of Singapore today is often held up as a standard of how embracing free and open economy measures can lead to prosperity.

Within libertarian circles, Singapore generally enjoys a good reputation for its economic freedom. The country often comes out on top of the rankings of the annual Index of Economic Freedom as well as the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World Index as one of the freest economies of the world. Property rights are secured and respected (it should be noted however this has not always been the case historically), contracts are enforced and its government is often touted as an ideal corruption-free bureaucracy, ranking 9th in the 2016 Rule of Law Index.

Singaporean citizens also enjoy one of the relatively lowest tax rates in the world, based on a progressive tax rate that starts at 0% (individuals making an income below $22,000 annually are exempt from taxation) and caps at 22% for an income above S$320,000. There is no capital gain tax and its inheritance/estate tax has been abolished as of 2008.

The State Monopolies: Housing, Health Care, Education, Transport
The Singapore government’s approach to health care, housing and retirement lies in the Central Provident Fund (CPF), a mandatory savings pension plan. Singaporeans are required to pay 20% of their monthly salary into an individual CPF account, while employers contribute an additional 17%. These CPF funds may only be withdrawn at the age of 55 in partial amounts, although it may be used for a variety of purposes such as the purchasing of medical insurance or public housing prior to that.

The Housing Development Board (HDB), the public housing arm of the state, houses more than 80% of the population in high-rise apartment homes. An average four to five room flat in Singapore costs about 215,000 USD – 360,000 USD while a private condominium would range from 700,000 USD to 860,000 USD.

Education is largely monopolized by the state from the primary school level up until the university level (although private universities, too, are regulated by the state’s Committee for Private Education). Its local universities such as the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University are ranked among the highest in the world, while private universities are usually considered to be an inferior choice. It is also worth noting that primary education in Singapore is compulsory. While students can choose their subject combinations in at the secondary (middle-school) level, there are subjects that may not be opted out of such as the Social Studies classes, a subject often criticized for a one-sided portrayal of the nation’s history by the ruling party of the day.

What about transport? Due to its small geographic size, Singapore is notorious for its sky-high car costs to prevent congestion; a Toyota Prius could cost about 150,000 USD. Because of this, its public rail and bus public transportation is heavily relied on by the general populace, and is often lambasted by citizens for its inadequacies and occasional breakdowns although it is comparatively efficient when held up against public transportation systems around the world.

A Civil Rights Disparity
Singapore suffers from a severe lack of press freedom, ranking at an alarming 151 in the World Press Freedom Index (see also the 2017 Freedom Of The Press Report by Freedom House), below authoritarian countries such as Russia and Pakistan. The Newspapers and Printing Presses Act requires anyone setting up a print newspaper to be registered with the local government, and therefore be bound by severe rules and red tape. As such, traditional media has been monopolized by the state, a state of affairs that persists so until today. The advent of the internet and social media in the early noughties has however brought about some media diversity, although they are also fiercely monitored and gazetted under the Broadcasting Act.

Buttressed by restrictive laws such as the Films Act, media content like films or comics that are deemed to be seditious can be and are easily and swiftly censored. In a recent case, 17-year-old blogger Amos Yee was jailed after being found guilty under the Singapore Penal Code for “wounding religious feelings” through his YouTube videos. The state also controls public broadcasting from television to radio. Opposition politicians such as J.B. Jeyaratnam and Chee Soon Juan has been sued by the ruling Prime Minister himself as well as political dissidents and bloggers (see Roy Ngreng).

In the realm of LGBT rights, the government maintains the illegality of homosexual behavior, a delicate status quo much supported by some religious communities. Gay establishments are allowed to legally operate however, and these boundaries have been slowly challenged by LGBT activists at the annual LGBT Pink Dot event.

Singapore is perhaps most well-known for its non-tolerance of drugs. Drug users can be jailed or housed in rehabilitation centers for up to three years and drug traffickers face the death penalty.

The infamous Internal Security Act (ISA) although designed to target mainly communist threats of the past, is today used for arrests and searches without the need for a warrant in the name of preserving public order and national security, and has been used several times in modern history.

Singaporean males are also subject to mandatory conscription of up to two years by the age of 18, a law that has been in effect since 1967. Civil ownership of guns are outlawed in Singapore and the issue of gun rights does not permeate the political sphere whatsoever.

The political arena
Political actors face overwhelming restrictions and limitations in Singapore.

The organization of elections are not carried out under an independent body. Instead, they are organized under the Prime Minister’s Office. This means that the announcement of constituency boundaries (announced with as little as 8 weeks before elections), the monitoring of campaign spending limits, designation of rally locations are all subject to the Prime Minister Office’s discretion. This decision-making process does not include  input from the opposition and is carried out behind closed doors.

Under the Elections Act, campaigning periods can be afforded as little as 9 days to a maximum of 8 weeks. Opposition parties have not been afforded any more above the bare minimum of 9 days since 1963. In addition, the methods and techniques during election campaigning is fiercely constrained. For instance, the Films Act prohibits the production of political films or videos while the Public Order Act restricts public speeches or assemblies unless a permit has been issued.

The Political Donations Act disallows foreign funding to political parties and organizations that the government deems to be “political in nature” (news sites, activist groups etc). Large donations must be registered in name, deterring donors who prefer anonymity.

Cultural consensus
Despite the fact that the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index has consistently ranked Singapore at the top, its government is oftentimes criticized by opposition politicians and citizens alike for its top-down fostering of a stifling intellectual climate through its public schooling education system that places a heavy emphasis on technocratic skills. Critics believe that this suffocates business innovation and creativity in the arts.

Voters are generally in favor of the ruling party’s authoritarian rule, although it is also worth noting that citizens are by and large politically apathetic. As the media in Singapore is state-controlled, the strongest opposition to the ruling regime is often found on the Internet through sociopolitical news sites, forums and social media.

Citizens in large part do believe that freedom of speech is an idealistic fantasy, and that mandatory conscription is necessary for the security of the country given our small population and precarious geographic location. Lastly, the notion that there is a role for government to regulate and monitor the activities of businesses and individuals (from Uber and Airbnb to smoking) is a widely-held belief. Of course, these are general sweeping statements, but they should provide a good starting guide to understanding the Singaporean cultural consensus.



This was first published on Students for Liberty.

Here's something that you might've missed if you haven't been looking carefully.

Did you know that Singapore's minimum age requirement to be a taxi driver is 30? It's almost hard to recall, but yes, it's true. Growing up, before Grab and Uber hit our shores, our roads were populated by older gentlemen who found a profession in driving cabs.

I have a few young friends who are Grab and Uber drivers, and I've always been intrigued by why they've decided on that as a career. My experience watching society's paradigm of the "taxi uncle" made me believe that it wasn't a job that young people found much interest in.

A fresh-eyed graduate still in university, my friend, whom we'll call James, is a part-time taxi driver who works with both Grab and Uber to get money to pay his school fees. He tells me that he enjoys the high profit margins, the flexibility of the job, and also the ability to make new friends along the way.

Since its inception, companies like Grab and Uber have greatly benefited ordinary citizens like you and me. Hate to stand along the streets and wait? Call an Uber. Want to pool? Call an Uber. These little luxuries were not available to us before they arrived, so imagine my surprise when it was made known to me that the government, instead of allowing this wonderful enterprise to grow, has decided to clamp down on this booming industry. Why would they do that?

Pirate Taxis

Doing some research, I found that the issue that we are facing is remarkably similar to the "pirate" taxis of the 1950s. Pirate taxis were the term to describe private cars that operated as taxis without the meddling hand of the government. They picked up passengers at negotiated rates and were often touted as economically beneficial and convenient.

In the debate on the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill in 1957, late legislative assemblyman Mr. Lim Cher Kheng says:
"I still remember, Sir, during the Hock Lee riots and the strike by the Singapore Traction Company, that I suggested the relaxation of certain measures against the pirate taxis because, during that time, it could be said that our entire transport facilities had come to a stop and that the pirate taxis then rendered a valuable service. They were running in the most reasonable way. For example, I took three trips, one from Robinson Road to Alexandra Road, for which I paid 50 cents; from Bras Basah Road to Serangoon Road, I paid 70 cents, and from Changi Market to Changi Point, I paid 50 cents. I think it was a wonderful service to the public during that period."
The era of pirate taxis was a period of flourishing. What did Singapore do in response to this?
The government essentially declared war on pirate taxis syndicates through measures such as raising diesel taxes, and stronger enforcement like the suspension of pirate taxis drivers' licences for one year if caught and denoting pirate taxi operations a seizable offence where offenders could be arrested on the spot on the spot and charged the following day. -- 50 Years of Urban Planning in Singapore, Chye Kiang Heng
If you're shocked, you're not alone.

In the very same debate above, Mr. Lim Choon Mong, father of current MP Ms. Sylvia Lim leaves us with this very quotable gem.
"The existence of pirate taxis is an evil, not because it comes about of its own free will. It is created by our bad transport system. If our transport system had been good and if it had been convenient for everybody to travel by this means to their places of employment and homes, pirate taxis cannot exist: I should say that people would not even want to own private cars if the public transport system is good."
Indeed, if public services can sate the demands of the public, there would not arise a need for private services.

Unfortunately, that is not the case, and despite the constant calls for improvement, public taxi services are unable to match the efficiency nor quality of private hire cabs.

The Bane of Regulation

"Regulations are good - they protect the consumer!"

What happens when regulations trump common economic sense? On the surface, whilst the idea to protect citizens via the means of strict regulation has been always been thought of positively, what actually happens when lawmakers enforce such regulations to "promote competition" is that it creates an artificial barrier to entry; it entrenches the current status quo and makes it harder for entrepreneurs to go into the industry. Entrepreneurs will also find it harder to stay in business given the elevated requirements and operating costs.

Some very prominent examples include the telecommunication companies regulated by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA). Companies like Singtel, Starhub and M1 have very little incentive to improve the values that they offer - since any competitor that might want to come into the industry would have to pass the bureaucratic red tape of the IDA first. What this eventually leads to is less value-for-money for the consumer.

If one questions the veracity of this claim, simply observe the mass migration from existing telecoms to new entrant Circles.Life, and of how the established companies scrambled to maintain market share upon its launch. The discerning can also see that this is not merely isolated to telecommunication companies - Uber and Grab consistently have promotions because they're competing with one another for consumers to use their app, once again clear evidence that competition leads to better outcomes for consumers.

Some might, at this point, cry out indignantly - "What if companies want to be greedy and sell us defective products?"

To that, I point you to the expensive lesson that Samsung has learnt -- to this day it has not quite recovered from the stigma of exploding phones. It's precisely the profit motive that serves the consumer; it is healthy, free competition that protects them against monopolistic prices and exploitation. Government regulation inevitably erodes the latter while misguidedly championing the former.

If economic progress is something that we want, it is government intervention that we need to leave out of business. Indeed, be it taxis or telecommunications, the dire need for innovation and progress in our country is precisely why we cannot afford such "protection" for our companies.

All we need to do is to allow the marketplace to function.

Lee Hsien Loong had an interview with BBC’s Stephen Sackur which was praised by his supporters. Some concerns with his statement has been separately pointed out by a fellow member of the Libertarian Society of Singapore. Along the same lines, this article points out the lack of consistency in the PM’s statements.

At a certain point during the interview, in response to Stephen Sackur’s query on the state of press freedom in Singapore, PM Lee replied, “I would not presume to tell you how your press council should operate, why would you presume to tell me my country should run?”

PM Lee is right and so are Singaporeans who share this sentiment. Who are foreigners to tell us how a sovereign country should run its own affairs? The simply logic of national sovereignty implies that Singaporeans have the ultimately say in our own affairs should be governed. Unfortunately, if one believes this, he should also extend this down to the individual level. Consistency demands that. 

Sovereignty for the Individual
                                                     
In our day to day life, we mind our own business. We do not get into people’s faces and tell them how they should run their own lives. We do not tell our neighbours what is the appropriate shower time. We do not tell how people they should eat their chicken rice. Yet, the irony is that many Singaporeans are too keen to let the government regulate how individuals run their personal lives, giving the government a free hand in doing so. Examples of this include Section 377A, CPF, the banning of online gambling (with exceptions) and the restriction of private property owners from renting out their apartments through Airbnb. If one believes in sovereignty, shouldn’t the individual be sovereign over his own body too? If so, why should 377A remain? If sovereignty is important, shouldn’t CPF monies be ultimately controlled by people, and not the government? If foreigners shouldn’t have a say in a country’s affairs, why should other parties foreign to the individual decide how one disposes his property, whether in online gambling or renting out an apartment via Airbnb?

Any attempts to regulate one’s property and personal life is unjust. It is because we own our bodies and we own our own property therefore we can decide to do what we want to, even if it harms ourselves. This principle of individual sovereignty lies at the heart of the libertarian spirit. Libertarians take this seriously on all levels, not just when it’s a matter of national sovereignty.

Those who believe that government ought to regulate personal behavior and how one disposes of his property share the same paternalism as Westerners when they impose their own values on Asian countries. There is essentially no difference. Both claim a moral superiority and wisdom to decide on behalf of others, revealing the irony of PM Lee’s statement that “nobody has a monopoly of virtue or wisdom” in the same interview.

If Singaporeans are so gung-ho about protesting against foreigners who tell us how to run our country, why are they so gung-ho about having the government run people’s lives, for some vague notion of the common good? For consistency sake, Singaporeans should condemn the government’s efforts to regulate our personal life and property, in the same way we oppose foreign imposition of values on our soil. 


There is a saying that Singaporeans are particularly fond of touting: “The government doesn’t owe you a living.”

In a country where welfare programmes are generally shunned upon by the government, what they mean by this, I think, is that Singaporeans should not expect to be taken care of and coddled by the state. The government does not owe us a living or a job - we must fend for ourselves. We should be prepared to work hard and forge our own career paths in life in order to provide for our families and ourselves.

This message on the surface seems to be rejecting self-entitlement. After all, only a truly self-entitled person would claim to have a right to a job. But a closer look at Singapore’s political discourse on immigration will unveil how Singaporeans still by and large strongly subscribe to forms of self-entitlement.

Do Citizens Come First Ahead of Foreigners?


Immigration has been for the longest time dominated Singapore’s political dialogue. The PAP is often levied with the criticism of its lax immigration laws, seen as the root cause of Singapore’s domestic jobs being “stolen” by the influx of skilled foreign expatriates and blue-collared workers, minimising our rice bowl and leaving Singaporeans with lesser opportunities and/or lower wages.

This criticism stems from the view that the government should take care of its citizens first, foreigners second. The popular belief is that Singaporeans have a more significant stake in their home countries; they invest in this country’s economy and will be here for the long haul. Therefore citizens should enjoy special privileges and a higher priority.

Let us not be mistaken by the intentions of this argument. What it is saying is, “Because I’m Singaporean, I deserve a priority over foreigners”. So what is being asserted here is essentially that citizens have a “larger stake” simply by virtue of the fact that they were born in a specific place at a specific time, not by personal achievement, not through the sweat of their brow.

The problem with this reasoning is that it justifies itself based on random and accidental factors. That Singaporeans possess a larger stake rests on a shaky premise: The construct of a “nation”. Since “nations” are essentially artificial borders drawn by men, one’s societal rights and economic privileges in life are determined solely by the physical position where we’re born - a completely arbitrary circumstance in life.

Therefore, on what moral grounds can we deter individuals from more poverty-stricken nations to seek a better living in Singapore? Because we were “here first”? But we were “here first” purely out of chance - why does this justify the supposed privilege that Singaporeans should be entitled to? The purely arbitrary element of this argument that seeks to buttress its point by asserting national or geographic borders makes it hard to give it considerable worth or merit.

Furthermore, foreigners who join the workforce too will contribute to the revenues of the state insofar as they continue to work, through various forms of taxation such as the income and property tax, CPF payments and GST (Goods and Services tax). Just like Singaporeans, they too will contribute to the economy.

Consider the fact that a hardworking high school teacher in Indonesia can make no more than $5000 a year. In Singapore, this same teacher would be making easily 8-10 times of that. For such reasons, I believe that immigration is an urgent moral imperative of today.

We see foreigners as competitors but this is a grievous mistake. Foreign workers are fellow human beings too; blue-collared workers (maids, construction workers, cleaners, nightlife call girls) flock to Singapore in search of a better living because of the lack of opportunities back home or due to political instability.

It is true that white-collared workers crowd out PMET jobs in Singapore, making the competition stiffer for the our professional workforce and university graduates. But as I have asked earlier, why should a Singaporean be more entitled to a job than an equally-qualified foreigner? We certainly don’t see it the same way when a job opportunity we are interviewing for is being competed with fellow Singaporeans. This sounds like an enormous claim of self-entitlement, that you should be taken care of first, ahead of a fellow human being whether they be Malaysian, Filipino or Indonesian.


A Basic Right to Freedom of Movement

Whether you’re a political philosopher or a primitive Amazonian jungle tribesman, freedom of movement is recognised as a fundamental liberty and human right, only justly restricted in cases for criminals.

Picture an alternate Singapore in which citizens living in the west - neighbourhoods like Jurong, Bukit Batok, Chua Chu Kang - are restricted from travelling out of their neighbourhoods freely, subject to stringent regulations and checks should they wish to travel to other regions of Singapore.

Imagine how their lives would be extraordinarily inconvenienced and would have to undergo a major upheaval. They’d have to settle for jobs only within their neighbourhoods. Meeting their loved ones and friends for a meal would be severely restricted to a handful of dining options. We would immediately recognise this law as an outrageous transgression of their rights to travel freely within the country.

Yet Is there really a difference between this scenario and one with migrant workers, but an extension of the principle of freedom of movement to a larger scale of open borders and immigration?

In the case of the Orwellian Singapore, residents in the west did not choose to be born in these neighbourhoods. They were simply unlucky to be born into a family who lives there. Similarly, citizens of third-world nations did not choose to be born there, and it’s easy to see how the denial of the freedom of movement for foreign workers (blue or white-collared) is morally unjustifiable.

If we see it as wrong (morally) to prevent a Singaporean born in Jurong from traveling around Singapore, then it is also wrong to prevent an Indonesian from relocating to Singapore for work. Even the subjecting of the worker to criterias like work visas and employment passes approvals are equally indefensible (does a Singaporean need a visa to travel from home to your place of work?). The artificially-drawn map lines separating Jurong and the rest of Singapore bears no difference from the map lines separating Indonesia and Singapore.

But ask the average Singaporean if they’d like immigration restrictions to be loosened for foreigners to find work and chances are it’d be a resounding no. Daresay you even mention open borders, and it’ll trigger the unpleasant all-too-familiar rhetoric of “there are already too many foreigners in Singapore”. In their minds, the visions and images conjured are that of noisy, uncouth Bangladeshi men in “our” trains. Instead of viewing them in a hostile light, we should respect their right to freedom of movement from their third-world homes into Singapore - exactly what we would hope for too if the tables were turned.


What About Security?


Opponents of immigration at this point will often seek to bring home the argument by asserting a hypothetical extreme. It goes like this: “Does this mean that if 100,000 immigrants wants to come into Singapore, we should automatically allow them to? What about security?”

Firstly, let us bear in mind that if opponents of open borders desire immigration control for reasons of security, then such standards should be observed across the board for tourists, businesspersons and international students. To be consistent, the tourism sector, one of the major industries of the Singaporean economy, should then be strictly minimised and destructured, perhaps even completely. Yet, this line of thought is practically non-existent.

Secondly, there needs to be strong evidence linking the effectiveness of immigration control to the improvements in security. Limiting immigration legally is easy, but whether borders are officially open or closed are unlikely to deter smugglers, criminals or terrorists who are determined to get into the country.

Lastly, security measures comes at its own costs. Constant and painstaking surveillance of both foreigners and locals moving in and out and within the nation puts a tremendous burden on the taxpayer, not to mention the risks it poses to citizen privacy for any democracy.

That’s not to say that security is not important. But immigration restrictions should be sensibly drawn. If a significant amount of radical Muslim fundamentalists inextricably linked to a terrorist organisation that has no problem using violent means to achieve their ends were to try and cross the borders of Singapore, any reasonable person would see the threat that looms over Singapore’s secular society.

Singapore being a small city-state, a question that merits serious consideration is whether the existing infrastructure can withstand a huge population growth. But we must bear in mind that this concern is centred around structuring the ease of immigration flow in order to keep jobs intact and the economy from toppling. Denying immigration could perhaps then be justified on these grounds, but not to preserve jobs for citizens or existing job-holders.

Unfortunately, the motivations behind denying immigration to foreigners are vastly different for Singaporeans. As seen with opposition politicians like Chee Soon Juan, the discussion is often focused on how many jobs are being lost to foreigners or how we should structure it so that these jobs are retained for locals. Self-entitlement is the ugly underbelly of these claims.

Conclusion


The principle behind restricting immigration to save jobs or wages for locals is nothing more than a self-entitled declaration. There is no right to a job or a wage rate, only the right of freedom of mobility from one place to another in search of better economic opportunities or political freedoms. Singaporeans who continue to howl for job or wage protection from foreigners are deeply misguided. Never have they been entitled to such a “birthright”, and no amount of wailing will mask the blatant self-entitlement behind these claims.

If there indeed is such a notion as a right to a job, then there will be no need to send our youth to higher education, and no need to better ourselves through work training programs and courses. Just have the government rig the job market further in the favour of Singaporeans. After all, we’re owed the job, so there’s no need to work hard for it.

We live in a precarious time where presidents are getting elected on platforms of nationalism and courting anything perceived as anti-nationalist would be political suicide. As the volume of flag-waving jingoism intensifies in an increasingly-globalised world, it is now more than ever that Singaporeans need to take caution.

To take pride in being Singaporean is one thing, but to assert privilege for Singaporeans over foreigners lingers dangerously close to xenophobia. If a foreigner wishes to carve himself a future on the shores of Singapore, make an honest living and send a portion of his wages back to his family, then we as Singaporeans who have been privileged to be born in a first-world nation have no moral right to prevent this from happening.

In Singapore, “pragmatism” forms the basis of our approach to governance. It is largely a reflection of the late Lee Kuan Yew’s own worldview, in which policies are not cast in ideologicalstone. For instance, LKY pursued an open economy based on foreign investment and free trade, even though this ran counter to the norms of economic nationalism in post-war Southeast Asia. This is the mantra of we do whatever works best.
The supremacy of pragmatism is accompanied with a reluctance to commit to any one particular set of values. When the status of LGBT rights is discussed for example, the so-called liberal values of tolerance must – as pragmatists insist - be balanced with the conservative attitudes of other Singaporeans. Anyone adopting a singular ideology might be castigated as an ideologue with no benefit to the common good. Pragmatism is seen as the rational middle ground that can smooth out differences in values and unite us.
This has also translated, I believe, into a form of policy-making that is highly technocratic. Policy issues are approached as mainly technical problems which may be resolved by experts. This accounts for the regularusage of scenario planning within our government agencies, and the heavy investment in the best talent to fill civil service positions. That Singapore's policy-making follows technocratic lines is no secret. The Economist Magazine puts up Singaporeas the "best advertisement for technocracy". Doug Hendrie, lecturer at University of Melbourne, published an article on how Singaporeoffers a promising technocratic model of governance that Australia can emulate.
In this article, I argue that such a technocratic brand of policy-making, where only considerations of pragmatism carry weight, excludes a lot of important considerations that political philosophy and ethics can bring to the table. Political philosophy, by bringing into the picture, ethical reflection on the fundamental values that society should be organised around, enriches the moral imagination of policy-makers and citizens, and enriches public discourse. To the extent that policy-makers wish to pursue progressive reform, political philosophy is useful. Our citizens also may also better equipped to critically think about policy challenges, especially the value trade-offs that are often involved.
What is political philosophy?
I will define Political Philosophy, as simply the systematic and logical reflection, of the fundamental values of political society. Political philosophers ask fundamental ethical questions such as: what is the best form of society? What rights do people have and what should government do, or not do? What is the nature of an individual's relationship with wider society? Not only do political philosophers ask these questions, they also, as best as possible, approach them in a critical way, applying careful reflection, sifting through these ideas, and making coherent and informed conclusions.
Value of political philosophy in policy-making
Understood this way, it is clear that political philosophy can reveal the deeper trade-offs between competing ends in political society. Let’s analyse this in the context of immigration policy in Singapore, in which the dominant position articulated expresses the importance of welcoming foreigners for the larger goal of economic competitiveness. The value of economic growth however, conflicts with other social ends that Singaporeans may cherish. PM Lee himself acknowledged this in a recent 2015 interview, when he mentioned that when managing immigrants and foreign workers, “there are no easy choices”. He clarified: “there are trade-offs. If we have no foreign workers, our economy suffers, our own lives suffer. We have a lot of foreign workers, the economy will do well, (but) we have other social pressures, other problems...”
Policy questions are complex, because values and ends that people cherish, conflict. Should economic growth in Singapore come first? Or should it be sacrificed for the sake of social objectives? PM Lee is right when he mentioned that there are no easy answers. These questions, are by nature, philosophical questions, and not technical ones. Hence, they must be confronted in the realm of philosophy. Political philosophy, by equipping one with the tools to navigate such questions of value, enable policy-makers – and the public at large - to think more critically when facing such challenges, and make better choices, both in policy-making and at the ballot box. Political theory provides these tools because it involve applying reason and logic to carefully evaluate various moral claims, help to reveal any potential contradictions that may exist, and provides one with justifications to accept some as superior to others.
The danger of an approach that excludes all political-philosophic reasoning altogether, is that it closes off consideration of new moral possibilities that may be much needed in society, and in the world at large. Using the same example of immigration cited above, it is also important for policy-makers, in fact Singaporeans in general, to think beyond economic growth and national identity. The question of immigration also touches on whether or not human beings possess a fundamental and universal right of movement, and whether as citizens, we also have an obligation to strangers. This consideration cannot be avoided, especially when the Rohingya refugees, facing a dire humanitarian crisis, have tried to enter Singapore waters in 2009. The official reason for Singapore’srejection of these migrants was due to our small size. This is certainly a valid reason, but we have to wonder whether or not the moral considerations raised above were considered. Even if they are ultimately rejected in favour of a pragmatic position, there are good reasons for more robust value-based debate to be conducted in the first place, where considerations of justice, duty, obligation are raised and questioned.
To the extent that policy-makers wish to pursue moral reform of the status quo therefore, political philosophy helps one think of new institutions, and new ways to organise our society and economy. It does so because it reminds us that our present institutions, are just one set amongst many variations, and are contingent on time and place. Things could change, as they always have in history. Of course, this is not to suggest a false sense of utopianism. Governing a country is a messy and difficult task, and is different from the sterile task of ivory-tower philosophising. I do not suggest that policy-makers should simply think philosophically and apply such ideas wholesale, however, I do believe that in a complex policy landscape, policy-makers will at least be more equipped to confront ethical questions with the help of philosophy.
Value of political philosophy in enriching public discourse
The value of political philosophy in enriching public discourse is even more pronounced. As democratic citizens, we all have a role to play in voting for our leaders, and indirectly shape policy. Some might say, that there exists an obligation to be informed as voters. Part of such an obligation is to engage in critical discourse about policy challenges, ranging from CPF issues, the affordability of housing, rising inequality, challenges of productivity-led growth in Singapore, etc.
On this note, I am convinced that without political philosophy, our public debate will lack critical depth, and lose its constructive potential. The value of political philosophy is that it help us determine the ethical standards with which we can judge whether policies are good or bad, just or unjust. Before we can just do "what works", we need to determine what counts as "working". Without such standards, our public debate will lack critical depth. Some Singaporeans will shout “we want less foreigners”, only to be shouted down by others who insist “we need them”, with both sides talking past each other, since the deeper normative assumptions of both parties are left unexamined. Eventually, we may just throw up our hands in resignation as we are left in a state of moral confusion.
A study of political philosophy can help enrich citizens’s thinking, not only in helping to formulate better answers, but to ask better questions in the first place. There are a range of political philosophic traditions, which have insights very relevant to Singapore at this juncture. First, green political theory criticises the sustainability and justice of present-day institutions and asks for instance, if the interests of the non-human world should be taken into account in policy-making. Such ideas are relevant as Singapore considers environmental challenges resulting from our economic development.  Another contribution is from feminism, who have challenged society to rethink its notions of masculinity and feminity. Reflection on gender is relevant to us, as we think about the representation of women in ourparliament and politics. Social democrats have enlarged out our conception of democracy to include the economic arena. Might we learn from this tradition when thinking about Singapore’s rising inequality? Alas, libertarianism, with its skepticism of political power, warns us against government overreaching in its goals and stifling individual liberty.
Political philosophy can also help one better map the terrain of Singapore’s electoral politics, and understand it better. A helpful classification is offered in the political philosopher Jason Brennan’s helpful introductory text PoliticalPhilosophy: An Introduction. There are mainly three ideological persuasions that people, and parties, usually fall into: conservative-communitarian philosophy, left-liberal/socialist philosophy, as well as classical liberal-libertarian philosophy. Conservatives envision a “good” and emphasise order, moral virtue and community. Left liberals on the other hand, want a “fair” society, as they seek policies to ensure greater equality and reduce oppression. Libertarians, finally, value a “free” society, as they warn against government overreaching in its goals and stifle individual liberty. With this framework in mind, we can see that the PAP, and Singapore at large, embrace conservatism the most, with other persuasions less active.
As democratic citizens, understanding the variation in political philosophies – like the account above – helps us frame our political debate in more fruitful ways, and recognise that our disagreements with others may reflect more fundamental conflicts over what we each value. Political philosophy, inspires us to think about new possibilities and imagine potential for reform. Singaporeans should not be afraid to make deeper, value judgements in public. Our debate about policies should go beyond superficial technicalities of GDP growth and unemployment, and into deeper considerations of values like freedom, equality, justice, and the nature of the ideal society, which are the bread-and-butter of political philosophy. Our educational institutions and civil society organisations should also foster a culture of such robust debate.
After all, what we can all agree is that we want good democratic citizens, and this can only come about when people are equipped with the philosophical tools to assess and make meaningful judgements about politics. We can help foster social progress, which can only happen when we have an engaged citizenry willing and able to question deep political values, and not allow them to be frozen into a stale consensus.

References

Brennan, Jason. (2016). Political Philosophy - An Introduction. CATO Institute . https://www.libertarianism.org/books/political-philosophy-introduction