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

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.


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.


Brennan, Jason. (2016). Political Philosophy - An Introduction. CATO Institute .

If you were to get hold of any of the people both for and against LGBT rights here in Singapore, you would quickly find out that there is no consistent view of what the concept of rights entail. This is not merely a matter of opinion - there are people here in Singapore who have little to no understanding of what rights are, but yet hasten to develop comprehensive socio-political frameworks based on their approximation of the concept.

If you were then to evaluate the majority of either sides' arguments, you would find that both sides agree on a fundamental premise, that something as basic as the right to marriage only exists as a government-granted privilege. What both sides do not do, you will observe, is define an objective understanding of what rights are.

Because of this difference in definitions, the issue of LGBT rights have sparked rigorous debate. Contrary to popular belief, the human rights controversy, is not a subset of recent times; the concept of natural, inalienable rights stem all the way back to the 17th century. 

Recently, a short op-ed was published in Today Online, defending the Singaporean government's status quo position of same-sex marriage not being a human right.

The question remains: What exactly are human rights? 

Good Intentions Are Not Enough

Darius Lee, the author of the op-ed is primarily concerned about the future children of our society. He believes that all children should receive good parental care. That by itself is quite the noble goal, but by what means does he propose to achieve this? 

Lee does not falter when he quotes different legal charters from various courts to enforce his viewpoint, not once doubting that these legal charters are by no means omniscient (and thereby revealing his understanding of rights as purely legal convention). 

Legal Rights and Moral Rights

To even begin the discussion on "rights", we must have a strong philosophical understanding of what rights are and how they are derived. The question that has to be answered is whether such rights exist before the conferment of government or that they are valid only after the existence of the government?

While the liberal Pink Dot movement makes the encouraging case of marriage equality in our law system, human rights are not merely a legal convention. Human rights have pre-existed before law and government. It can be observed that there are, in fact, legal systems that both protect rights and yet violate rights at the same time. 

Rights are, and have always been a moral convention. To illustrate this point: Take for instance a traveller in ungoverned international waters - if his money were to be robbed at gunpoint by a pirate, would he then lose the moral claim i.e. his right to his money? Would it be justice (also a moral concept) if he were to get back what he owned?

Rights are dependent on the concept of ownership and responsibility, which are moral notions that exist prior to the existence of government. Your life, your body and your property morally belong to you and anyone who seeks to deprive you of your right to your property or to take away your ability to use such property is acting unjustly - they would be the moral equivalent to the robber in my analogy.

A country whose legal system is based on the protection of rights and not the infringement of them would be a country whose system is based on the notion of justice. Any deviation from protection to aggression would then necessarily mean a deviation from justice. 

Since Lee cites that we live in an "imperfect world", we shall always have to pursue the best set of legal conventions to protect human rights in order to promote the fairest way in which people can interact with each other. The key point to avoid is to implement legal conventions that divides society vertically by separating people into tribes and pitting them against one another.

How society evolves spontaneously is beyond the imagination of any one, including the government. The idea of having a network that can facilitate transactions and recreation, like the internet, would have been laughed at or thought of as mere science fiction in the early 20th century. This is self-evident when one honestly examines the history of mankind. How would society develop once it accepts that same-sex marriage will not be as linearly described as how Lee puts it?

Moral End in Themselves

Lee's cherry-picking of legal conventions around the world that support his views also brings to our awareness that there are legal conventions that violate basic human rights itself.

Government intervention into the private affairs of consenting citizens effectively turns them into amoral beings - instead of asking whether what he is doing is right or wrong, a person is often forced to replace this question with whether something is legal or illegal. It is a substitution of legality and morality.

Indeed, it is an alarming cause for concern when a government sets out to be the arbiter of morality, prescribing cut and dried formulations of value-judgments on its citizens. Any proponent of this cause must ask himself honestly one the most basic questions of moral philosophy - are human beings the means to some form of ends, or are they individual, sovereign and ends in themselves?

Advocates for the governmental moral policing rarely see the vicious extent of their beliefs - the implicit assumption that men are pawns to be moved around on a chessboard; slaves to be coerced into submission. 

Whatever these advocates espouse as their end goal, it is most certainly not compassion nor love of mankind that guides them.


The current split of opinions pertaining to the LGBT issue in Singapore is between two opposing camps. 

On one end is the prominent Pink Dot movement - they are the advocates of LGBT rights, marriage equality being one of such rights. Their cause is just and their movement worthy, but without proper knowledge of what rights are, they are reduced to pitting their emotions against the emotions of their idealogical opponents.

On the other end, we have Pastor Lawrence Khong of Faith Community Baptist Church and Islamic religious teacher Noor Deros spearheading the "We Wear White" movement, declaring themselves to be spreading a "pro-family, pro-Government, pro-Singapore message”. 

It leaves little to imagination as to why the claims of "pro-Government" were a necessary declaration on their part.

The term “social justice” used to hold a precious meaning. In the 60’s, the mention of social justice brought to mind fearless men like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King championing civil rights for African Americans. In the early 20th century, it brought to mind feminists fighting for the fundamental right to vote, for the right to legal recourse for rape by their husbands. It brought to mind bold white men and women like William Lloyd Garrison and Margaret Fuller who so tediously paved the path of abolitionism so men like Abraham Lincoln could leave a legacy behind.

Today in 2016, the term social justice is but an empty shell of its former glory. What used to bring to the forefront of our minds the passionate fight for a fundamental equality of human rights, the words “social justice” has since been sabotaged by so-called progressives all over the world, squabbling ever so anxiously every time their precious feelings are provoked. In fact, the term “social justice warrior” (SJW) is used as a derogatory slang. How did such a term come to be so warped with negative connotations? One does not have to look very far on the internet for a prime example.

A recent debacle taking place in the Singapore social media sphere illustrates this retrograde behaviour of political correctness well. Local entertainment lifestyle site The Smart Local was criticised by several disgruntled individuals for a short video they produced on the Hindu festival Deepavali. The video that has been taken down, was attacked for being disrespectful and portraying the festival in a poor light, triggering the anger of thousands of Singaporeans.

Amidst all the backlash and infuriating ululations, a common accusation that was hurled against TSL was the notion of “Chinese privilege”, a colloquial term used to describe institutional racism against racial minorities in Singapore. To these critics, the claim for “racial diversity” is seen as a moral right; it is worn as a badge of honour.

Why Calling For Racial Diversity Is Racist In Itself

One social media spectator uses a picture of the TSL crew as “evidence” that the team was not racially diverse because none of them were Indians. What then, pray tell, is the solution here exactly? Should the government pass a law that ensures all businesses hire a strict quota of racial minorities? If we truly want to be racially diverse, why stop at Singapore’s racial “identities”? Why not also have the bill sanction that all companies meet minimum criteria of Caucasians, Africans, Mongolians and Australian Aborigines? Are these others races less important because they don’t live here with us in Singapore?

If you find this “solution” utterly absurd and ridiculous, it’s because it is. This claim is tantamount to demanding that women should play football alongside men for “gender diversity”. If we logically extend the argument of these critics to the extreme, that is simply what they are howling for: Racial diversity for the sake of racial diversity.

No longer are we unique individuals with different skill sets and talents; we’re simply Chinese, Indian or Malay. “Hire a person not based on his/her merits”, they yell, “Hire them based on their race! We must have racial diversity for the sake of having it!”

Racial equality and opportunity is the key, not racial diversity for the sake of having racial diversity – there is a world of difference. If we put aside our emotional knee-jerk reactions for a moment and think about it honestly, this “valiant” call for racial diversity is in fact precisely what racism is: judging one solely based on race.

The “insufficiently imaginative” attitudes of these deluded progressives are aptly described in the following video.

The real tragedy lies in the fact that the most grievous harm against racial equality is perpetrated by well-intentioned do-gooders like Pooja Nansi, Alfian Sa’at, Joel Bertrand Tan and so on. In their noble crusade for racial diversity, what they fail to realise is that their forced idea of racial diversity is more racist than anything else.

They are essentially saying: Any organisation or workplace composed mostly or entirely of Singaporean Chinese is bad, and is a sign of “Chinese privilege”. If employers took their advice and ushered in racial minorities under their payroll, then the employers themselves would effectively be practising racism against Chinese individuals! How can the solution against racism be more racism?

Oscars 2016 Boycott

To illustrate my point further, we look briefly at last year’s Academy Awards show. Prominent black actors such as Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee boycotted the awards show because there was a lack of black nominees. Lee wrote on his Instagram, “How is it possible for the 2nd consecutive year all 20 contenders under the actor category are white? 40 white actors in 2 years and no flava at all.”

Once again, we witness the conceited, self-entitled cry for a specialised racial privilege. The Smiths and Lee are upset simply because there aren’t any African-American nominees. Therefore, if the organisers of the awards show should wish to pacify them, what the Smiths would have them do is to specifically place black actors and actresses in the categories – not because of the prowess of their acting performances but simply because of the colour of their skin! If I were an African-American Academy Award nominee, how could I interpret this grievous insult any other way?

The racial privilege rhetoric that progressives like to trot out every chance they get is nothing more than a smart rhetorical ploy that very deviously shifts the argument from the empirical-based evidence of how institutions should be structured to a personal attack on an opponent. From there on out, the argument then turns to whether and how privileged the person is and goes downhill from there.

This vitriolic politically-correct culture does not stop at racial issues, and continues to undermine the fundamental freedom of speech and expressing ideas around the world.


Every time someone hurls the accusation of "Chinese privilege", my immediate reaction is simple. What solution do you propose? Crying "Chinese privilege" and "you do not understand because you are in a position of privilege" is not very useful, and in many ways obscures the issue more than it helps. We who are not blind have a "vision privilege", right-hand individuals have a "right-handed privilege", tall people have a "height privilege" - should we they gouge the eyes and amputate the limbs of all who possess this "privilege" so everyone would be on a more equal standing with the "unprivileged"?

Racism (institutional or not) exists in Singapore. Surely only the most intransigent bigot would deny this claim. But instead of rallying for racial diversity, we should instead channel our efforts toward racial equality and opportunity. Racial minorities do indeed face real challenges, but imposing diversity quotas instead of tackling the complex issues that are the root of these challenges is truly irrational. Call me crazy, but I believe people’s abilities, aptitudes and success should be measured precisely based on their abilities, aptitudes and success – not on the colour of their skin. Until these people can overcome their emotional infatuation for “racial diversity”, the words “social justice” will continue to be nothing more than a common internet slur.

The author's original Facebook post was first published here.
Disruptive Culture for a Disruptive Economy | Libertarian Society Singapore

A Disruptive Future

Recently at the 2016 National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong strongly highlighted that “disruption”, is the defining challenge that the Singapore economy will have to deal with moving forward. He pointed out in his speech: "Old models are not working, new models are coming thick and fast, and we're having to adjust and to keep up, because of technology and globalisation. And the disruption will happen over and over again, relentlessly.”

A broad look at the global economy over the past decade reveals that great pace of change, and how companies today must innovate to stay ahead. Singaporean SMEs must, engage in what Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School calls “disruptive innovation”, which creates new markets by discovering new customer segments, as opposed to “sustaining innovation”, which merely preserves the firm’s existing competitive advantage. PM Lee, is therefore, spot on when he mentions that “we all know we cannot stop progress. Even Uber and Grab are going to be disrupted!”

In his speech, PM Lee then proceeded to highlight how the Singapore government plans to get the economy prepared for the disruptive future. The economic agencies of Singapore, EDB, SPRING, IDA, IE Singapore, etc, will work various stakeholders, including trade associations and chambers and private firms, to ensure that firms and the local workforce are “future-ready”. This explains the formation and function behind the “Committee on the Future Economy (CFE)”.

Government is not the solution

What may be observed from the above account is that PM Lee proposed an essentially governmental response to an economic challenge. His position assumes that governmental solutions are appropriate when it comes to dealing with an economic future, that for all intents and purposes, is highly complex. I will argue in this article that proposed governmental response is disingenuous, and potentially counterproductive. To be truly prepared for a disruptive economic future, we must foster a disruptive culture and build a disruptive people, which are tasks that preclude governmental involvement.

Conformism in Singapore

To prepare for a disruptive economic landscape, the key focus should be to foster a disruptive culture. Singapore needs to have a culture that not just accepts, but also embraces individuality, creativity and risk taking. Students should dare to question their teachers and not shy away from unconventional courses. Sportsmen should dare investing their time and effort in their field without feeling like they cannot secure a “stable future”. Artists should dare hone their craft without the constant reminders that “art has no future” in Singapore. Aspiring entrepreneurs should not be deterred from the world of business due to the real possibility of failure. Dreamers who want to dream should be given wings, not be discouraged by the cold logic of pragmatism that rules in Singapore.

There’s evidence to show why the soft aspect of culture matters. Singapore is ranked 1st in the Ease of Doing Business Ranking by the World Bank. Despite this, a 2010 Gallup Survey found that only 16% of Singapore residents who are not already business owners have thought about starting a business, a dismal result in relation to the 40% in Hong Kong and 33% in Taiwan. Singapore is a pro-business nation lacking the risk-taking, entrepreneurial mindset necessary for business excellence and innovation.

Our higher educational establishments also need to embrace innovation. This is not to say that our local universities are doing poorly, far from it, as shown in the 12th and 13th places achieved by NUS and NTU on the QS Rankings of World Universities. Looking at other indicators however, may suggest room for improvement. The Thomson Reuters List of 100 Most Innovative Universities place NUS only 94th in 2015. This asymmetry suggests that our academic excellence is a product of top-down effort, not spontaneous creativity.

Institutions matter

A society’s culture does not and cannot change overnight. It is a slow process, but one that can be hastened if we understand the impact of institutional reform on cultural development. Institutions, which are simply, the laws, dominant norms & practices, and politico-economic structures, shape the incentives of actors that live under them, and eventually determine outcomes.

In other words, if we change the rules of a game, we can incentivise a particular type of behavior aligned to our goals. Institutions matter. Just as increasing the penalties for foul play in a football match would reduce the incidences of bad tackles, putting in place institutions that incentivise individual innovation and enterprise will prepare Singapore for the economic future characterized by disruption.

Two areas of reform

There are two main areas of institutional reform that are in order. Singapore should first and foremost, move away from a centrally planned economic system that has dominated economic policymaking since our independence. Additionally, this has to be accompanied by socio-political reforms that embrace civil liberties.

Competition as a discovery procedure

The intellectual contributions of the political economist Friedrich Hayek are of utmost relevance in considering Singapore’s preparedness for its economic future. Hayek argued that the market system should be understood as a “discovery procedure”, in which trial-and-error learning takes place. Over time, the process of competition would enable us to devise better goods and services, better techniques to our problems and challenges. 

This model, which sees the market as a process, and not as a static outcome, should warn policy-makers in Singapore who are used to a top-down approach of economic management. Such an approach is problematic because it assumes that innovation can be planned, top-down. But innovation cannot be predicted or planned. The notion of planned innovation is fundamentally, an oxymoron. The discovery of the law of gravity, surely a momentous development, was itself the product of a fortuitous set of circumstances, where an apple hit Newton on the head.  Innovation happens, and best occurs in an unhampered, laissez-faire economic environment.

A specific area of reform would be to do away with the practice of giving out government incentives to promote productivity, restructuring and innovation. Local SMEs in Singapore for instance, are beneficiaries of a slew of incentives administered by SPRING Singapore. Such subsidies have the result of creating a “crutch mentality”, where our local enterprises become dependent on such monetary benefits from the state.  Instead of investing effort and resources into creative endeavors, the availability of state privileges creates an attractive target of opportunity for entrepreneurs to divert their resources into unproductive, rent-seeking activity.

The lamentable situation today – in part highlighted by the annual SME surveys - is that our businesses struggle with innovation. There is also an obvious absence of internationally recognized Singaporean firms on Fortune Global 500 lists. If wish for our SME sector – which employs 7 out of 10 workers in Singapore – to be more innovative, then they must be exposed to the cut-and-thrust of harsh competition, not be shielded from it. What SMEs need is more competition, not more subsidies.

Tolerance as a practical necessity

Aside from adopting a more decentralised model of economic management, which would surely free up the creative-entrepreneurial juices of Singaporeans, there is also a need to reform the socio-political institutions in Singapore into one that tolerates diversity and dissent.

A cross-national study by Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute for International Economics demonstrated that societies which embraced diversity, including towards LGBT individuals, tend perform better economically. Specifically, “more tolerant countries attract more FDI, obtain better ratings, and exhibit more entrepreneurship.” This should not come as a surprise: people more readily create and innovate when they know their unique differences are celebrated.

Our social policy in Singapore must therefore change. Laws that stifle social diversity is most clearly evident in the Penal Code 377A which criminalises private homosexual relations. This is not to say that LGBT individuals are actively victimized, but such formal laws do nothing to promote the tolerance of diversity, which is so necessary for socio-economic progress. Accordingly, it seems that toleration of diversity in Singapore is an urgent economic imperative.

Political authoritarianism also does not bode well for the economic future. Where dissent is discouraged, how may outside-of-the-box thinking be fostered amongst individuals? Expecting Singapore to be prepared for a disruptive economy, but doing nothing to better enhance civil liberties makes no sense.

Accordingly, one aspect of reform will be to abolish speech laws in Singapore, even those that touch on “sensitive” and “hateful” speech. Yes, even hate speech has value. By allowing the right to offend, society can break taboos, and thus facilitate social progress and understanding on what was previously kept in the shadows.

Being aware that the economic landscape will be marked by disruption is already the battle half won. But talk is cheap. Nothing short of fundamental institutional reform will suffice in fostering the disruptive culture so necessary for economic progress.