Wednesday 3 June 2015

Freedoms, Liberties, Democracy - Why Everyday Singaporeans don't give a fuck about two of these.

A follow-up of sorts to this previous post on Democracy.

To be honest, I really do not want to write about Democracy. Again.

Most people don't understand it, and trying to establish common understanding of Democracy tends to make any post I write rather long.

Nor am I interested in writing a primer for Democracy. Most people won't read it or if they did they probably won't agree with some or all of it and you end up in a semantic argument over WHAT is Democracy.

Then there is Freedom. And Liberties. Or to be precise, civil liberties. (Which suggests that somewhere out there are uncivil liberties?)

This (extract below) appeared in the second half of this rather long post.
Calvin Cheng wrote a piece defending SG and LKY against criticism that SG sacrificed fundamental civil liberties in pursuit of economic success. This is perhaps the gist of what he wrote:
"Freedom is being able to walk on the streets unmolested in the wee hours in the morning, to be able to leave one’s door open and not fear that one would be burgled. Freedom is the woman who can ride buses and trains alone; freedom is not having to avoid certain subway stations after night falls. Freedom is knowing our children can go to school without fear of drugs, or being mowed down by some insane person with a gun. Freedom is knowing that we are not bound by our class, our race, our religion, and we can excel for the individuals that we are – the freedom to accomplish. Freedom is living in one of the least corrupt societies in the world, knowing that our ability to get things done is not going to be limited by our ability to pay someone. Freedom is fresh air and clean streets, because nothing is more inimical to our liberty of movement than being trapped at home because of suffocating smog."
Donald Low rebutted Cheng's piece - pointing out that those examples of "Freedom" were actually examples of security. "That only by conflating 'Security' with 'Freedom' can Cheng claim that there was no trade-off of Freedom for Economic success."
Erudite, that Donald Low (he is after all the Associate Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy).
But the distinction is only of semantic value...

Calvin Cheng's answer may not be academically correct, may have conflated "security"with "freedom".
So what?
The freedom he wrote about are the "freedoms" Singaporeans understand and enjoy.
As for "trade-offs", again Cheng is correct. There were no trade-offs. There is a trade-off only if one values the intangible, the academic, the insubstantial, the impractical ideal. We are a practical people. This may be an insult from some perspective. From our perspective it is simply descriptive. Perhaps because we are a practical people.
Subsequently, I thought I should provide a shorter post. Hence the post on "Democracy First", which was intended to be a short parable about democracy as espoused by ideologue(s), and political reality as practised and implemented in Singapore. And simply to point out that Democracy should be a means to an end, and not the end in itself. Unless you are an ideologue.

Then there is this article from 2009 I discovered recently: Freedom for Sale. The argument from the author of a book by the same title, is that "civil liberties are necessary for a healthy civil society and a robust body politic."

The question is, civil society for what? And robust body politic for what? First of all, what is politics about? What is political science for? What is democracy for?

Is democracy the end itself, or a means to an end. If you think democracy is an end in itself, you are either American, or a democracy ideologue. Or both. Which would be redundant.

If you think that "Democracy" is simply a means to an end, then the question is, what is the end?

What many are starting to realise is that Democracy is about electing good government.
"... China, Singapore and Malaysia demonstrate that you can have sustained growth, stability and happiness without being democratic in the Western sense. Let's also bear in mind that democracy is now being replaced with the idea of good governance."
So the reason to have a robust body politic, a civil society with strong civil liberties is so that we can have good government.

BUT, democracy in the West (like US) have shown that good governance does not flow automatically from democracy.

[2017 addendum. Just found a quote from H. L. Mencken on "democracy":
Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule — and both commonly succeed, and are right...The United States has never developed an aristocracy really disinterested or an intelligentsia really intelligent. Its history is simply a record of vacillations between two gangs of frauds.
Which is a sad reflection of the resurgent Republican gaining all three centres of Legislative powers - the Presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. And how despite their control of all three are failing to govern. Because of democracy?]

Democracy is just a way of selecting or electing a government, but it does not ensure that the government thus elected is able, competent, capable, or even adequate.  Moreover, some "freedoms" (e.g. freedom of expression) that provide for the "free" marketplace of ideas, end up generating more heat than light and does not serve to enlighten or illuminate. Thus issues are continually mired in argument, without end, without conclusion, without decision, and without denouement.

A truth about Freedom of Speech is that those who feel strongly about something tends to speak. And one tends to feel strongly about something if one disagrees with it. Those who agree tend not to be very vehement about it. They end up the Silent Majority. Thus the Vocal Minority hijack the debate. And that is why the National Rifle Association (or vocal elements therein) have managed to undermine and prevent most proposed laws on gun control in the US. Despite being in the minority.

Even elections results may be challenged drawing out the process and making a mockery of democracy.

Lee Kuan Yew accepted that Democracy had one advantage - it allowed for the peaceful transfer of power according to the will of the people.

But the political machinations in the US have shown the Democracy is simply a game to be played, where the points don't matter and the scores are made up anyway.

Previously, I had also pointed out that Democracy is incompatible with Meritocracy. To summarise, Democracy is a popularity contest, where you win the right to govern based on your popularity. However, there is weak or no correlation between popularity and ability to govern.
Meritocracy fails when what is meritorious is not what gets one the job.
The argument for democracy, and the accompanying civil liberties, as I understand it, is this.

Democracy is government by the people, in that the people gets to choose the government. However, in order for the people to have informed choice, there should be freedom to express ideas, to rally the people, to convince the people, to persuade the people, the voters. And there should be freedom of the press to report these ideas. So that the people can be properly informed of the choices in the election.

And the reason it is important that the right candidates are elected into power is for... FREEDOM.

But instead of Freedom of Speech, Freedom of the Press, Freedom of Association, (the "Freedoms of"), what we want good government for, is to give us Freedom from Crime, Freedom from Fear, Freedom from Poverty, Freedom from pollution and unsanitary conditions, Freedom from Health hazards, Freedom from Job Insecurity & Unemployment, Freedom from Exploitation and oppression, Freedom from Sexual and other Abuse - the "Freedoms from".

The Freedoms Calvin Cheng wrote about.

If it helps, we can use Donald Low's taxonomy.

We require Civil Liberties (the "Freedoms of") only insofar as it is necessary to serve Democracy in order to get good government to provide us with Security (the "Freedoms from").

The flaw in the hypothesis above is that Good Governance can ONLY be gotten through Democracy.

Put another way, Calvin Cheng's article is basically saying, we already have freedom/security. Freedom/civil liberties as espoused by democracy ideologues are merely a means to an end we already have.

We therefore do not need to have Democracy First before we can have freedom/security.

[2017 addendum (II). The election of Donald Trump is a case study of how Freedom of the Press, and Freedom of Expression, have instead of ensuring that debates and political contests are served by facts and information, distorted and resulted in the election of a moron. To quote Mencken again: 
“As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."
Baltimore Sun (26 July 1920)

Within Democracy lies the seeds of its own destruction: populism. And the 2016 POTUS election shows how easily Democracy can be undermined if not subverted.]

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