Uncategorized

“Society” is “not ready” to repeal 377A?

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Pink Dot

In PM Lee’s interview with BBC HARDtalk, he touched on the topic of 377A, which is a law in Singapore that criminalises private, consensual LGBT relations. He said the following:

“It is a matter of society values. We inherited this from British Victorian attitudes…We are not British. We are not Victorian. But this is a society which is not that liberal on these matters. Attitudes have changed, but I believe if you have a referendum on the issue today, 377A would stand.”

PM Lee is right about one thing. If people at large don’t embrace the value of equal rights, simply changing the formal law itself won’t be able to change people’s attitudes. It’s possible for the law to formally codify equality, but in reality people may act in all sorts of bigoted and discriminatory ways. But what does that imply? If anything, it  means that more must be done to educate people and change minds. Its one thing to say “oh, society is not ready so lets just wait and see”, and “lets spread ideas and engage in education, so people will be more ready”.

It is understandable why the PAP government is saying what it’s saying. Politicians expectedly, toe the sentiments of the median voter, and so won’t rock the boat. But it puzzles me that ordinary individuals echo this position. What’s even more surprisingly, sadly so, is that LGBT individuals themselves are so fatalistically resigned to the status quo.

No such thing as “society”

Another problem here is that the term “society”, is a misleading one. There is no such thing as “society”. Society doesn’t have values, individuals do. Society is nothing but a collection of individuals. If its true that “society” is generally still conservative – and I agree it is – then it only means that a majority of individuals are against abolishing 377A. So when people say that “society is not ready” to abolish 377A, what they’re really saying is that “we should go along with what the majority wants”. It’s an argument on behalf of majority-rules, not “society”.

So for those who think that “society is not ready” to abolish 377A, they need to explain: why should the majority continue have its way, when the law itself clearly harms the minority. One should not hide behind the nebulous word “society”.

Red herring?

The idea that “society is not ready to abolish 377A” then, may actually be nothing more than a red herring (an irrelevant point). If a majority of individuals are conservative, there’s no reason why the law shouldn’t be abolished anyway.

These conservative individuals are not forced into anything: if 377A was abolished tomorrow, a straight man won’t be forced into anything with another man. But the individuals who fall in the minority will now enjoy a freedom of association they have been deprived of.  Those who want to abolish 377A are not forcing anything on anyone.

Someone might come back to me and say “but the law currently doesn’t really punish LGBT people, because its not really enforced”. Well if that’s true (and it is), then there should be nothing to worry about if we abolish it! After all, if the law isn’t enforced, and LGBT people are already associating with each other, then how can abolishing it “force” anyone? Let’s move out of this muddled reasoning and embrace the obvious need for free association.

Moving forward

So what then? How do we move forward? Well, for starters, lets engage in a minds-changing exercise and get people to embrace the importance of equal rights. I’m part of the Libertarian Society of Singapore, which does precisely that. We advocate the rights of individuals, not just LGBT, and the importance of freedom and equality for all.

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Uncategorized

PM Lee, the accidental liberal?

Is Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong a liberal? No. But he did make an excellent argument for liberalism in his latest interview with the BBC, albeit accidentally!

The Interview

PM Lee was just interviewed on BBC HARDTALK by Stephen Sackur, and in it both spoke on numerous issues, including on trade concerns, US-China ties, and how the global economy was looking. At one juncture, PM Lee was quizzed on human rights and press freedom – just like how Lee Kuan Yew was similar confronted by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria about 20 years ago.

When pressed on freedom of the press, PM Lee first insisted: “I would not presume to tell you how your press council should operate, why would you presume to tell me my country should run?” He then went on to clarify that Singapore is “completely open, we have one of the fastest internet access in the world, we have no great wall of the internet, you can get any site on the world… so where is the restriction?”

Just like LKY did almost 20 years ago, PM Lee made reference to Western countries, specifically the USA and said: “You look at the Americans, they don’t lack fervour in moral causes. They promote democracy, freedom of speech, women’s rights, gay rights, at some times even transgender rights. But you don’t see them applying that universally across the world with all their allies. Yes, they do it where the cost is low, and then they can take a high position…”

Essentially, what he was saying is that Western nations have been highly hypocritical when talking about human rights and freedom, insisting that other nations adhere to it while they themselves have violated it at every turn. Western nations preach human rights, and practice it only when it suits them. That “Western hypocrisy” underlies criticism of the lack of human rights in Asia has been pointed out clearly by Calvin Cheng.

PM Lee then ended his point by saying the following: “The world is a diverse place, nobody has a monopoly of virtue or wisdom and unless we can accept that and we prosper together and cooperate together, accepting our differences; differences in values, differences in outlook, differences in even what we see that our goals to be, I think it becomes difficult…”

Asian values or conceit? 

Critics of the West – like Calvin Cheng – are right to point out that there’s much hypocrisy on their part. Westerners are not in a position to dictate values to Asians. No argument there.

But similarly, no one can also be in the position to speak of “Asian values”. How can anyone be in the position to claim to know what Asians value? What I value is different from what you value. To claim to speak on behalf of “Asian values” is precisely to claim a “monopoly of virtue or wisdom”.

What is liberalism?

The case for liberalism rests precisely on the fact of value pluralism – precisely that individuals have different values, outlooks and goals. Since this is the case, we should set up our institutions to reflect this diversity, so that people are free to choose how they wish to live, and not have government restrict them.

What does this mean specifically? Simply, it means that we should organise society around the principle of competition. Since monopoly is bad, it is good for differences to co-exist and compete. What’s the best type of smartphone to be produced? No one is in a position to know, but market competition helps us discover, over time, the “best” product combinations.

So very interestingly, by arguing that “nobody has a monopoly of virtue or wisdom”, PM Lee has unwittingly made an excellent case for liberalism, one I wholeheartedly endorse. 

I wholeheartedly support PM Lee’s exhortation for us to “prosper together and cooperate together, accepting our differences; differences in values, differences in outlook, differences in even what we see that our goals to be”. I take diversity & value pluralism so seriously, that I would like to point out the following restrictions that have stifled competition:

  • Political competition is stifled by electoral laws that systematically make it harder for opposition parties to compete. It is precisely because no one has a monopoly of political wisdom that we need competition between different voices.
  • Economic competition is stifled by the heavy presence of GLCs and industrial policy actions – which crowd out local enterprises and hamper their innovation. It is precisely because no one has a monopoly of economic superiority that we need market competition.
  • Competition between different lifestyles is restricted because laws criminalise LGBT relations. It is precisely because no one has a monopoly of virtue – as PM Lee so rightly pointed out – that we need a marketplace of values and lifestyles.

So when PM Lee asked “so, where’s the restriction?”, we have our answer.

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Singapore

Singapore needs political philosophy

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 ideological stone. 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.

I will argue that this overriding concern with pragmatism as a governing value, translates into a highly technocratic brand of policy-making which excludes useful insights that political philosophy can offer. By encouraging ethical reflection on fundamental values in society, political philosophy can equip policy-makers with tools needed if they wish to pursue moral reform, and also helps to enrich public discourse.

Technocracy

Since pragmatism is such a cherished value, it has translated into a technocratic form of policy-making. This means that policy issues are approached as mainly technical problems which may be resolved by experts. This model necessarily abstracts away from intangible moral issues in favour of quantifiable, empirical evidence that can yield a concrete outcome. Singapore uses this technocratic approach to analyse, predict future trends and act accordingly, accounting for the regular usage 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 Singapore as the “best advertisement for technocracy”. Doug Hendrie, lecturer at University of Melbourne, published an article on how Singapore offers a promising technocratic model of governance that Australia can emulate.

The value of political philosophy

While this approach has served us well so far, and contributed to our far-sightedness, I insist that it lacks an important component: ethical reflection. We need to realise that policy questions involve deeper trade-offs between competing ends in political society, which are ethical issues that a purely technical approach cannot grapple with. This is evident 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…”

As such, it is clear that political philosophy can reveal the deeper trade-offs between competing ends in political society. 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 useful 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 philosophy offers these tools because it involves 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.

In an increasingly globalised world, policy questions are becoming more complex, bringing with them, ethical conundrums that must be tackled. Another similar immigration-related case is the attempted entry of the Rohingya refugees into Singapore waters in 2009, which was officially rejected on the basis of our small size. While a valid reason, there is also need to consider deeper moral questions involved, for instance, on whether or not human beings possess a fundamental and universal right of movement, and whether as cosmopolitan citizens, we also have an obligation to strangers, especially in times of humanitarian crises. While pragmatism may ultimately determine the policy outcome, political philosophy helps us to determine in the first place, whether or not, less pragmatic considerations, such as humanitarian duty and global justice, should be used instead.

Political philosophy is a wide field of study, and has contributed much to humanity’s understanding of key social phenomena. Green political theory, for instance, 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 our parliament 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 the stifling of individual liberty – relevant concerns when reflecting on Singapore’s participation in human rights regimes.

Political philosophy also helps map out the terrain in electoral competition in Singapore. Jason Brennan, in his introductory work on political philosophy, highlighted three major philosophical positions in politics: conservative/communitarian philosophy, liberal/egalitarian philosophy, as well as classical liberalism. I have transposed this into the following table with which we can better map out the various positions that people usually take, and where various parties fall into.

  Conservatism/ Communitarianism Left-Liberalism/ Egalitarianism Classical (Market-based) Liberalism
Fundamental value A good and virtuous society A fair society A free society
Opposition to The lack of virtue and moral character in individuals and institutions Patterns and practices of oppression and exclusion Instances and systems of coercion and aggression
Attitude to economic issues Generally favour free market policies like lower taxes, minimal government spending, and free trade. Generally favour policies that regulate the excesses of capitalism, redistribution of wealth to increase equality, and social spending for the least well off. Generally favour free market policies like lower taxes, minimal government spending, and free trade.
Attitude to social issues Generally favour regulatory approaches against activities deemed morally reprehensible, e.g. criminalisation of vices, outlawing of LGBT marriage Favour greater tolerance and diversity in personal life, policies like drug legalisation, marriage equality etc. Favour greater tolerance and diversity in personal life, policies like drug legalisation, marriage equality etc.
Parties around the world Republican Party (USA)

Conservative Party (UK)

Democratic Party (USA)

Labour Party (UK)

Libertarian Party (USA)
Parties in Singapore People’s Action Party Singapore Democratic Party (SDP)

Embracing political philosophy

Given the above, the value of political philosophy maybe incorporated by giving it greater weight in key strategic points in our education system. Both policy-makers as well as future citizens should be at least, exposed to the process of ethical reflection that political philosophy encourages. Singapore may, for instance, learn from the example of France, where philosophy is given weight in the national Baccalaureat examinations, similar to the GCE A’Levels. Introductory concepts of political philosophy could be incorporated into our Social Studies curriculum, or offered as a separate subject at the pre-university level. Such a proposal should be dismissed simply as “more work” for students. It has great value in moulding critical citizens necessary for a healthy, progressive democratic society. This is precisely why Ireland has also offered philosophy for secondary-school age children. Citing the tumultuous challenges of 2016, Irish President Michael Higgins recently explained that, “The teaching of philosophy is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to empower children into acting as free and responsible subjects in an ever more complex, interconnected, and uncertain world.”

Policy-makers can also benefit from some exposure to political philosophy. This does not come at the expense of our famed pragmatism. In fact, in order to pursue “what works”, we need to determine in the first place what counts as “working”, hence, the inescapability of political-philosophic reflection. Accordingly, it is my hope that public policy training institutes, such as LKYSPP, and policy research organisations, such as IPS, produce research, hold events i.e. debates on moral questions and offer more courses on political philosophy, which does not necessarily distract away from more quantitative research issues, but may be a useful complement to them.

Political philosophy exists because of moral disagreement that individuals inevitably have. But its value stems from something we can all agree with: that we want policy-makers ready to confront policy challenges replete with ethical dimensions, and democratic citizens able to contribute critical content in public discourse.

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Uncategorized

Highlights of my 2016 and What I’ve Learnt

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I’ve recently had the desire to revive my blogging (not for the first time), and what better way to do that than to write a end-of-year reflection post. So here goes.

  1. Doing what you love 

This year, I finally ended my work with the Singapore government at SPRING, where I spent the better part of about 2 years. So I’m glad I’m now doing my Masters at King’s, thinking about precisely the issues of political economy and philosophy that started capturing my imagination during my time in NUS. I see it as a stepping stone to continue with my PHD after next year; surely a difficult task, but the right one.

Through my time with the government, and moving over to London, the well worn cliche of “doing what you love”, nonetheless resonated very clearly. I realise that having an understanding of who you are, and what you’re meant to do, is absolutely essential for all kinds of happiness, your peace of mind, and just going through dark days. It’s been rightly said before that having a sense of “why” in your life, helps overcome the “hows” i.e. confusion, uncertainty, adversity. It was much easier for me just to stay behind in Singapore, either get promoted eventually or find a better job. But just going off like that, alone for who-knows-how-long? If not for the overriding passion, I would be freaked out by this already.

However, it’s clear that most people don’t really have a clear and strong sense of their purpose. That’s unfortunate. But it’s asked: how do you really know what your “calling” is? For me it certainly wasn’t some burning bush experience. It was just a process of being honest with myself. I just reflected on my strengths and inclinations, which most of us do for sure, except that I wanted to scale this up to the largest possible degree, i.e. for me to be the best version of myself. I surmised that I liked ideas, talking about and teaching them, and being a romantic at heart, what better way to do this than to become an academic and apply myself to change things?

Knowing what you want to do is one thing, but how can these goals, especially if they’re lofty ones, be achieved? Mine certainly isn’t a cakewalk, but I thought to myself, hey, if there’s one mountain to climb and die on (even if the peak isn’t reached), it would be this one. I would be satisfied just knowing I tried.

So for whoever’s reading this, you should remember this cliche again. You need to listen to yourself, your heart probably already knows. You just need to tune out from the distractions and tune inwards.

 

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The people at SPRING I worked with for almost 2 years. Strangely, I miss them quite a bit. 🙂

 

2) Saying no to get something bigger 

Sometime before I moved to London, I was in this big dilemma about whether to take up a certain scholarship that was offered to me. The problem was this: taking this up, would on one hand, mean that all my tuition fees would be paid, but mean that I would have to return to Singapore for two years after and remain there. Doesn’t sound like a bad thing, except that returning to Singapore would mean I can’t continue my PHD here in London.

So I eventually turned it down. And saying no to that big sum of money (and the ego-gratifying feeling of attending those swanky award ceremonies) wasn’t easy, but it was a justified risk at the time. This brings me back to the earlier point above: letting go of that comfortable security for what you know is right, but uncertain.

Isaiah Hankel in “Black Hole Focus”, tells us to be strategists and not sheeps. Sheeps follow life’s lead, and run after whatever carrots are dangling in front, and run away from the sticks they face. They run around but go nowhere in the end. Strategists begin with the end in mind, then ruthlessly navigate the shortest path to it. Put in such terms, hey, how can I allow myself to be a sheep right?

3) Letting go of the past, and certain people 

Spent a lot of time this year thinking about the past, and the people I used to know and was close with. I realised somehow even though these people are gone, a part of me was still living for them, wanting their approval.

How unhealthy this is. So I made a decision to let go, and what better way to do it than to delete a lot of old photos and individuals from social media. It was very liberating when I did it, it’s like pulling out a bad tooth you grew too comfortable with. Nonetheless you are the people you associate with, so you can’t shortchange yourself.

4) Finding your tribe 

Now this is a very important one. Life gets better when you find your tribe where you belong, where people speak the same language as you do, and like what you like.

Several things this year helped. Attended the Liberty Forum in KL in February and met great people. Later in the year, I also got to gather the libertarians that I know in Singapore and we set up the Libertarian Society of Singapore (I have great hopes for it in the next year).

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Had some great travels this year as well. Of course nothing can beat my roadtrip in June in Germany. Bruh if you’re reading this, I luv ya. 🙂

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Books, Uncategorized

Libertarian family values?

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Those interested in the institution of the family and LGBT rights should read this excellent book by Steve Horwitz called “Hayek’s Modern Family”. Horwitz shows that the institution of the family is a product of cultural evolution. With this basic insight, he shows that BOTH conservatives as well as liberals miss something in their analysis.

Conservatives see the “traditional family” as under attack by liberal norms, but don’t realise that this model of the family isn’t as traditional as they suggest. The family and institution of marriage has changed over time, and this means that they are simply romanticising one slice of time.

Liberals on the other hand, don’t realise that the diversity of family forms that they embrace, actually are a result of changing economic conditions that preceded them. It was actually capitalism and the wealth that “freed the family from a concern with material survival and have opened the space for it as the site of our deepest nonmaterial aspirations.”

Read more on this at Reason Magazine here

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Books

Reaching the peak – Reviewing Anders Ericsson’s “Peak”



Just finished an amazing book that I would like to share with everyone here. This is written by K Anders Ericsson, perhaps the foremost expert on the science of expertise. Basically, Ericsson is answering a question that most of us have had before: what is it that separates expert performers, those who are at the forefront of their fields, from the rest? It’s not the first engagement I’ve had on this topic, but the depth of his research on this brings my understanding to a whole new level.

With extensive scientific research, his findings suggest that individuals reach the peak of achievement not due to the magic of innate talent, but a long process of hard work, and quality practice. This is not simply blindly doing something over and over, and not merely reaching 10,000 hours. Quality practice follows what he calls “deliberate practice”, the gold standard of practice, which is focused, purposeful, with a clear plan of action. It also requires constant feedback under the tutelage of an effective coach and role model. The key ingredient is mental representations: the ability to perform a task excellently without needing deliberate thought because similar situations have been so well practiced that they seem second nature.

Ericsson looks into experts from all fields, from top athletes of various types, chess grandmasters like the three famous “Polgár sisters”, music prodigies like Mozart, writers, mathematicians, and shows that these “expert performers develop their extraordinary abilities through years and years of dedicated practice, improving step by step in a long, laborious process.” Natural talent may help at the outset, but confer no advantage in the long run or at higher levels.  Continue reading

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Singapore, Uncategorized

The Pragmatic Case for LGBT Inclusion

Singaporeans, being socially conservative, seem to be rather averse to liberal ideas which champion tolerance and gay rights. These ideas are deemed foreign to an Asian context, and to Singapore as well. This may explain why LGBT inclusion lacks traction locally, as compared to many other nations today, where even the legality of gay marriage is being increasingly accepted.

However, the case for LGBT inclusion need not necessarily be grounded on the language of liberalism (though that should suffice), but may also be made on pragmatic grounds. I argue that if Singaporeans want to maintain our strong record of economic growth, pursuing LGBT inclusion may be a practical necessity we cannot avoid.

The late Lee Kuan Yew himself was famously pragmatic, and enacted policies that were not cast in ideological stone. This has long been a principle of the PAP government, and has translated into policies meticulously calculated to bring tangible socio-economic benefits to Singaporeans. In the Singaporean consensus, the logic of pragmatism reigns supreme.

On this basis, one should note the widespread benefits to businesses should they embrace LGBT inclusion. According to a recent study, “Out in the World, Securing LGBT Rights in a Global Marketplace“, by the Center for Talent Innovation, productivity and innovation in workplaces suffer when LGBT employees do not feel comfortable being open about their orientation. Accordingly, businesses benefit in three ways when they embrace LGBT rights: inclusion improves their employer branding and thus attract and retain the best talent, a diverse workforce can help capture more consumer segments, including the ‘pink dollar’, and an inclusive organisation culture breeds innovation. Perhaps this is what Singapore needs to boost its sagging productivity numbers and low levels of innovation.

This has implications on a national level too. 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.

Another study involving American cities, by Richard Florida of George Mason University and Gary Gates of the Urban Institute highlighted that a higher presence of homosexuals were correlated with a greater presence of high-tech industries and economic growth, since inclusive cities facilitate the formation of a “creative class“.

These studies are not meant to prove that homosexuality leads to creativity, but it underscores the important point that diversity pays off.

LGBT inclusion is not just a matter of liberalism. It drives economic growth and social progress, the kind that pragmatic, pro-growth and pro-business Singaporeans have always long strived for.

 

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