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“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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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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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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Singapore, Uncategorized

Singapore should understand liberalism, and embrace it

I refer to the letter titled “Singapore should not fall prey to demands to be liberal” written by Mr Tam Wai Jia on 25th February 2016. 

 Using Madonna’s upcoming concert as an example, Mr Tam argued that Singapore should resist calls for liberalism because this would mean giving in to “public indecency” and “blasphemy”. Such a result would apparently upset the delicate social balance and destroy Singapore’s exceptionalism. 

 While Mr Tam’s commitment to his values is admirable, he misunderstands the nature of liberalism and its implications, should it be embraced in Singapore. Singaporeans should actually take this chance to better understand what liberalism is really about, and embrace it. 

Liberalism as a political philosophy, does not entail a commitment to any substantive set of moral values, but is rather, a minimal conception that simply demands individuals respect the free choice of others.  Simply put, embracing liberalism does not mean endorsing a particular way of life, but it means that we refrain from coercively suppressing, by law, how others pursue their version of the ‘good life’. According Madonna the right to parade an adulterated cross does not imply endorsing her beliefs. 

Should Mr Tam or any Singaporean feel uncomfortable at Madonna’s concert, or what they deem as indecent or blasphemous, there’s nothing stopping them from simply disassociating themselves. As a matter of fact, it is only in a liberal society will the rights of conservatives like Mr Tam be strongly protected, where he will be left free to disassociate himself from events or groups he deems unconscionable. Ironically, Mr Tam, for his railings against the “demands to be liberal”, will derive many benefits from a liberal system since religious minorities will be protected from majoritarian pressures to conform. 

A truly multi-racial or multi-religious society is one that embraces a diversity of values, where no singular set of “values” necessarily holds a privileged status. “Local mores”, in Mr Tam’s words, are not monolithic, and should not be. Our public space should be open to contestation.

Singaporeans are famously pragmatic, and rightly so. We have come so far, after all. If we really want Singapore to remain exceptional, the only sustainable approach would be to “let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend”. This harnesses the collective energies of Singaporeans, and is the spark of innovation, creativity and progress. 

So lets welcome the loud, the irreverent and the downright controversial. Doing so also reveals the degree to which we hold fast to the notion of multi-culturalism and openness. This is how we remain committed to the belief that while we are all different, we are still equally valuable.

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