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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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