Right up to the last moment, I wasn’t sure if I should use the preamble I had prepared. The point I wanted to make in the preamble was that I believed Singaporeans were going to be instinctively resistant to the idea of constitutional redrafting. Our aversion to taking risks, our long indoctrination in the idea that political experimentation would be extremely dangerous for a small, vulnerable city-state with no natural resources or strategic depth to rely on (yes, a habit of mind formulated by the ruling People’s Action Party, but today espoused by many as almost biblical truth), would likely mean that the idea I was about to float would be dismissed as a foolish, hazardous pipe-dream.
What made me think that Singaporeans in the main were of such a mind? I had no data to back up my gut feel, only a vague assessment borne of casual encounters each time I mentioned anything that was politically bold. People generally resisted bold ideas. The kneejerk reaction I often got would take the form of “Can’t we get the same benefit without doing something so unsafe? Can’t it be a case of just speaking up more and the authorities would listen?”
Many here still believe in paternalistic government. Petitioning and pleading was the way to go. Challenging, demolishing (and reconstructing)… why, that’s not the role of loyal “citizens” that we ought to be (!)
Or am I mistaken? Would I be making too sweeping an assessment of the political timidity of Singaporeans?
I never quite worked it out. So up on the podium, I decided to read a short version of the preamble as a compromise between the two sides of the debate raging in my own mind. In any case, brevity was all I could afford since I had twenty minutes for the whole thing, and so every second would count.
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At tea break after the panel session, a silver-haired member of the audience came up to me. I never got his name. “Don’t you think what you’re proposing is too drastic?” he asked. “Is it really necessary to do what you’re suggesting?”
Thank you, thank you, thank you! You’re my first data point confirming the political timidity I had long suspected. And so, this written (and rather longer) version of the paper I gave at the Singapore Dreaming Conference (7 Feb 2015) includes the preamble. I now feel totally justified to leave it in.
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Part 1 – the preamble
The famous aversion to risk we detect among Singaporeans extends to our politics. The result is a tendency to valorise the status quo. Words like “stability”, “order”, “peace and harmony” are comfort words. Anything said to produce these conditions must be a good thing.
By contrast, words and ideas like “controversy”, “protest”, “cause-driven”, “rights”, even “reform”, create a lot of anxiety. Anything that might lead this way tends to be considered risky, anti-social, even disloyal.
I’m not just speaking of the way such political rhetoric is deployed by the government. I am describing a rather common unease among ordinary Singaporeans over contestation, assertiveness and political experimentation. This is particularly visible in how the opposition party often accused of being PAP-lite, the one that ducks every controversial issue making the headlines, is the one making the most headway electorally.
I am laying out this preamble because the argument I want to make here will strike some as destabilising, as “rocking the boat”. As somehow “revolutionary”. It is outside their comfort zone of slow, incremental change, of never leaping into the unknown. Tinkering at the edges is “safe”. Sawing off root and branch? Way too risky! Way too disruptive!
Yet, it is not as if the system we have is such a good one. There are numerous flaws with it, not least the extensive power it puts in the hands of the ruling party, and the hollowing out of human rights that has followed. But so long as deep change is viewed with trepidation, Singaporeans are short-changing themselves. We’re unhappy with what we have, but we are fearful of doing what is needed to rectify things.
I will argue below that one of the necessary ingredients of the better Singapore many yearn for is a complete overhaul of our political structure, and since the constitution is the fundamental document raising that structure, what it means is that there is a need to revise it extensively. So extensively, in fact, that for all intents and purposes, it is a whole new constitution.
Cognisant of the deep fear Singaporeans have of chaos should we depart from the known world, even if it is a known world of a tightly regulated, intrusive, and to many, also economically or socially oppressive system, I will discuss how constitutional change is a normal part of political development. In the light of other countries’ experience, our deep insecurity about imagined risks from constitutional change is an uninformed and irrational one. If, in our shivering paralysis, we refuse to consider constitutional change as an essential element of political development, we will be forever stunted and chained.
In any case, it is not as if our present constitution is so pure and pristine. It has suffered numerous amendments over the last 50 years, most of which have served to increase executive power at the expense of democratic rights, check and balance, and judicial oversight. I would characterise most of the amendments as acts of brutality on the original constitution, corrupting, amputating, and contaminating the original. Not that the original was ever that beautiful, but after the slashings and distortions inflicted on it over the past 50 years, it is a monstrous ogre today.
To chuck out our constitution is not to chuck out Mona Lisa. It is to do what we would do with the dead chicken in our fridge that’s coated with green slime.
Perhaps I should outline what I mean by serious flaws in the system we have. This may give a better idea of what I am trying to address.
Actually there are numerous examples of death by a thousand cuts. Each cut slices off a bit more of the rights and freedoms we should have. Just in the last few months alone, I can think of four. Perhaps you can think of more. But in each case, what is worse than the actual erosion of rights and freedoms, is the process behind it. The process reveals the workings of the system we have, and how broken they are.
After generations of music and drumming at Thaipusam, suddenly it is banned. No prior consultation, no public debate. A bit of our culture is extinguished, and for no good reason. Yes, there is an excuse – something about previous participants being unhappy that another group’s music makers drowned out their own as they made their way down the procession, but frankly, that is a pathetically poor excuse for such a sweeping rule that undermines several human rights — freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom to practice one’s culture — that for generations and generations barely infringed on anybody else’s freedom.
The test we should have applied, but didn’t bother to even think about is: Could the small conflicts be managed at a micro level, e.g. better separation of groups of music-makers (if indeed this was a problem that regularly bedevilled Thaipusam processions, and not just an excuse cooked up this week to post-rationalise the ban)? Instead, we reached for a sweeping ban. I strongly suspect that underlying this choice of a nuclear option is a deep racism on the part of our ministers: the notion that people of Indian ancestry are less civilised creatures, lacking self-control, fond of drink, and prone to outbursts. That it might be reckless to give them too much freedom, but also futile to attempt to manage conflicts through negotiation (we don’t negotiate with wild animals, do we?). That left shackles and an overwhelming display of authority and power as the only answer.
This was followed by the law minister K Shanmugam attempting to explain the ban. In essence, his explanation took the form of saying that Indians should count themselves lucky to have a mute Thaipusam procession at all and on major roads too, since no other religious group would be allowed an equivalent. This kind of Orwellian explanation is something Singaporeans get so often, many are no longer angered by it. Which is a reflection of how docile we have become — the point of my preamble again! We should be asking: Why level down? Why not level up? Why is there a near-total ban on religious or other processions in the first place?
On Facebook people are pointing out the hypocrisy of such an explanation. What about Chingay, some are asking? More pointedly, why are three or four days of deafening noise and closed streets allowed for the F1 race in the downtown? The F1 probably annoys and inconveniences millions of Singaporeans, whereas most of us would appreciate an authentic spontaneous Thaipusam.
What this incident shows is that reason will not prevail in the political discourse here. Brute power, wielded (at least in this case) in suspiciously racist ways, will reign supreme. What’s the use of a political structure that permits such outcomes?
Ban on public drinking at night
There’s a new law banning public drinking between 10:30 pm and 7 am — the Liquor Control (Supply and Consumption) Act. Again, public drinking is not a new phenomenon. Men and women have been imbibing (and getting drunk even) since time immemorial, at night and in public places. If they start to misbehave, we already have rules about disturbing the peace. All of a sudden the drinking itself is imagined to be a serious threat to our “good” values of order, peace and stability. Even though the the government’s concubine of a newspaper, the Straits Times no less, found a majority to be unsupportive of this new law, it was railroaded ahead.
Among the statements made in an attempt to mollify objections was that sale and consumption of alcohol would remain possible past 10:30 pm inside licensed establishments or in homes. This is still unsatisfactory. Firstly the effect of this would be to drive drinkers into commercial establishments, giving them windfall profits. Those who cannot or do not want to pay the higher prices to drink inside a bar, restaurant or coffee shop are discriminated against. Even more inconsiderate is the declaration that foreign worker dormitories do not count as “homes” — even though they are the only home-like spaces for low-wage workers — which now means that the lowest-paid segments of people here have nowhere cheap to enjoy a beer. Since the mental picture of a low-wage foreign worker is usually browner than us, if the ruling that dorms are not “homes” for the purposes of liquor control strikes you as yet another manifestation of the aforementioned deep racism among policy-makers, you’re not alone!
Cherian George and academic freedom
I don’t think I need to say too much about what happened to Cherian George, since he has himself explained the sequence of events so eloquently in a post dated 24 December 2014. The nub of the matter was that he was denied tenure for “only political and not academic reasons” even though he had earned it. He was told, he wrote, that there was “a ‘perception’ that [his] critical writing could pose a ‘reputational risk’ to the university in the future.”
The Singapore government likes to proclaim that there is academic freedom in Singapore. Its loudness in proclaiming this should tell you there is something to conceal. Cherian’s case is not the first, only the most recent.
Criminalising male homosexuality is perfectly constitutional, said our courts
Then of course, there was in 2014, the Appeal Court’s decision that Section 377A of the Penal Code was not unconstitutional. It was a very poor quality decision. It set a precedent in saying that the legislature can pass discriminatory laws as they pleased, so long as one tiny reason can be proffered by the state that might justify such a law. In rigorous justice systems, courts will examine the totality and balance of the justifications and counter-indications, and will demand a very high bar before giving a nod to legislation that is inherently discriminatory. The public interest justification for discriminatory state action has to be overwhelming to pass muster. But not, apparently, in Singapore.
Furthermore, the court took a very narrow view of the ambit of the equality clause in our constitution, restricting itself only to explicitly enumerated characteristics like race, religion and place of birth, and shying away from applying the same principle across other characteristics such as gender and sexual orientation when in any living constitution such natural extension would be called for.
Where advanced justice systems tend to adopt a purposive approach to constitutional interpretation, our courts shrank from it, preferring to cling to the theory of parliamentary supremacy. A purposive approach would be to look at any clause in the constitution with a view to discerning a general principle that can be applied to newer circumstances not foreseen by the original framers of the constitution. This is the way to keep constitutions relevant and responsive to changing circumstances and new awareness of issues.
Our Court of Appeal ran away from this responsibility. It insisted that Parliament was sovereign, and in so saying, declared that they had no mandate to go beyond the most literal of readings of archaic words. Some of us ridicule religious fundamentalists for taking such a view of scripture, and who, in so doing, keep trying to drag people back to social conventions of the bronze age. Guess what? Our Court of Appeal does the same.
Parliamentary supremacy as an operating principle wouldn’t be so bad if Parliament were at least (a) responsive to the public mood, (b) capable of critical and skeptical thought, and (c) watchful of how the executive might want to overstep its limits, stamping on rights and liberties. But the examples above — Thaipusam and the public drinking ban — tell us (among plenty of other examples) that our parliament is incapable of doing or being the above. The fundamental difficulty is that our constitution has created a democratic deficit. How can parliamentary sovereignty have value in such circumstances?
In any case, when it comes to fundamental rights and liberties — and the 377A case centred on Article 12 of the constitution that supposedly guaranteed equality and non-discrimination — even if Parliament were representative of popular will, would it be the best forum to arbitrate such matters? It would be very troubling. Minority rights are seldom high up among the concerns of majorities — that’s a fact of life. Which is why the concept of separation of powers and of check and balance arose in the first place, and why courts are generally considered the appropriate venue to weigh the objective and rational arguments and settle such questions.
My four examples show how, in just a few months alone, several rights that should be freely enjoyed have been eroded. Add up fifty years’ of abuses and we should be ashamed that we still haven’t built barricades in the streets. But worse, the very institutions that are supposed to protect those rights: a vigilant legislature and an even more vigilant judiciary… they are just not there. They’ve all shrunk away. For all this to have happened, just like that, should tell us that the defects of our system run very deep.
There is no need, I am sure, to spell out how the present situation springs from the huge parliamentary majority enjoyed by one party. But I think I do need to spell out that just voting another party into power isn’t necessarily going to correct it.
The problem is that the electoral system we have has a bias to producing huge majorities. I have written about this a few times before, but I feel it may be necessary to lay out my arguments again.
In a relatively spread-out country where there are significant differences in demographic profile and therefore political views from one place to another, a first-past-the-post system is a fairly good way to produce a legislature that is representative of the spectrum of political opinion and party support. Moreover, there is a stickiness in people’s locations. It’s not easy to move from one region to another region. The family may have to be uprooted, a new job has to be found. So, the differences among regions are not easily erased by movement of people.
But in a compact urban place like Singapore, especially one where HDB public housing can be found in all constituencies (with the exception of Joo Chiat), there aren’t enough differences in average voter profile from one constituency to another to produce much variation in voting outcomes. A minority community is a minority nearly everywhere. A minority political opinion is a minority nearly everywhere again. When it is easy to change residential (and therefore voter) address – because distances are short and people can move house without having to look for another job, because similar homes are on the market, similar schools and shops are everywhere — the ‘contrast ratio’ of political opinion from one constituency to another is reduced.
It’s like putting marble chips, glass beads and peanuts into a bowl. Stirring, which represents the movement of people among the different districts and suburbs, tends to produce a certain evenness in the mix. There is a tendency to homogeneity. And this homogeneity of averaged voter profile from one constituency compared to another, tells us that a small popular majority will translate into a huge parliamentary majority.
We then compound this by creating Group Representation Constituencies. So even noticeable variations in voter preference at a level of 20,000 or 25,000-voter Single Member Constituencies, are evened out when agglomerated into GRCs of 100,000 – 150,000 voters.
Such electoral effects are not unique to Singapore. It is inherent in the mathematics. For example, Barack Obama received 52.9% of the popular vote in 2008, but this translated to 67.8% of the electoral college. In the US, each state’s delegation has to vote as a block in the electoral college, so all you have to do is to win the slimmest of majorities in a state, and the entire state’s delegation has to vote for you at the electoral college. It’s a super GRC system.
In 2012, Obama received 51.1% of the popular vote, but 61.7% of the electoral college vote.
I’ve done some extrapolations over the years based on Singapore’s parliamentary election results, and my estimate is that it only takes a popular majority of about 52 to 54% to produce a two-thirds majority in Parliament, in other words a majority large enough to amend the constitution to perpetuate itself in power if a party were so inclined.
The result of a system that produces such hegemony of power we can see today: Weakened institutions and neutered civil society.
But my point is this: because the defect is not just in the attitude and behaviour of the ruling party but in the very system we have, as written into our constitution, changing party in power will not actually cure the defect. We might end up exchanging one abusive party for another which will have the same levers to entrench itself.
Too many liberal-minded people in Singapore don’t pay enough attention to the possibility that whatever succeeds the present government is not necessarily a more liberal one.
You know what I am leading to: the system needs to be changed.
My preferred system is a mix of proportional representation and single-member constituencies. I think 50% of parliamentary seats should be filled by proportional representation. I have other refinements of this idea too, but this is not the place to get into such detail.
It may be pointed out that certain other features of the present Singapore system, for example, the reluctance of judges to step outside the safety of “parliamentary sovereignty” or the question of academic independence aren’t related to electoral reform. I’d argue that they are indirectly related. It is the hegemony of power that our system produces which lies at the root of so many other institutional weaknesses. Rectify the system’s bias towards an over-powerful executive and electoral sweep, and soon you’ll find many other groups and institutions becoming more assertive.
More generally, what I wish to point out is this: even though nothing I have said is especial insight, and it is obvious that there are serious weaknesses in several parts of our constitution – not just the electoral system or the limits placed on human rights – there is very little discussion about the need for constitutional change.
Partly, I think it is because, as I mentioned at the top, Singaporeans have internalised an aversion to disruptive change. They may also see any discussion about the constitution as a questioning of the legitimacy of the PAP government, and we have internalised a deep fear of taking this step. Given the intolerance of the PAP against any questioning of their legitimacy, the instinct for self-preservation is easily observed.
There is possibly another reason. I call it the curse of the English language – our lingua franca in Singapore. It’s like this: Our adoption of English as our main language has also meant that we tend to look at world politics through an Anglo-saxon lens, and the thing about the Anglo-saxon political experience when seen through the centuries is how gradual and evolutionary constitutional development has been — at least that’s how it looks from a distance. Even when we know that a country like the United States or the United Kingdom went through a traumatic crisis and emerged from it changed, it is not quite seen as “constitutional” change.
An example would be the US civil war and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments to the United States Constitution adopted between 1865 and 1870, the five years immediately following the conflict. These amendments profoundly changed the scope and meaning of citizenship, democratic participation, and protection of law. Their subsequent effects include indirectly extending the protections in the US Bill of Rights to actions of states (i.e. it strengthened federal government over states’ rights), and a re-apportioning of electoral representation in Congress among the states. The US before and after the Civil War looked very different, but constitutionally, people tend to see continuity.
Another example would be the crisis around 1910 when the House of Lords blocked the UK government’s proposed budget. After much wrangling, the result was the Parliament Act of 1911 that severely curtailed the power of the House of Lords over finance bills, and even non-finance bills. It was a major departure from parliamentary principles that had been operating for centuries. Scholars recognise this event as one of major constitutional change, but it is not often in popular consciousness.
This year is the 800th anniversary of King John’s grudging acceptance of the Magna Carta, the first English document that set England on the road to constitutional government. But it’s just one of many documents that came along such that England, and today’s United Kingdom, is said not to have a written constitution. But precisely because it doesn’t have a unified written constitution, we can’t quite count how many times it has been rewritten. We can’t easily grasp that they have chopped and changed many, many times over the centuries. What we perceive as 800 years of constitutional evolution has actually been 800 years punctuated by revolution, civil war and constitutional reconstruction. Moreover, because there was no single written constitution, reforms, even sweeping ones, have taken the form of ordinary legislation (e.g. the Parliament Act of 1911). We are left with the impression of gradual, polite evolution, simply because there has not been any paper constitution people could burn or tear up with dramatic effect.
Here’s a secret yet: There wasn’t one Magna Carta but three! The first one that King John agreed to in 1215 was repudiated within months. The barons revolted again and John’s successor, Henry III, reissued it, but with somewhat different clauses, in 1216. Nine years after, there was another crisis, and a third version was issued in 1225.
My point is this: constitutions are contestable documents. Lively politics have them in the boxing ring too.
American political rhetoric has made the Anglo-saxon illusion worse. Across the fifty states of the US, there is a rather unseemly, quasi-religious reverence for their constitution of 1787 (which came into force in 1789). There is the notion of the Constitution as something that is etched in stone, something permanent, inerrantly wise, and defect-free. Almost like the tablet containing the Ten Commandments that Moses received. Constitutional scholars know it is nothing of the sort, but in the popular American imagination, it is unbecoming to speak ill of the Constitution, and almost traitorous to suggest that big parts of it should be shredded and replaced.
Because we speak English, we absorb the same habits of mind from the American discourse. We too find it hard to speak unflatteringly of our constitution, we too are unsure what we can say about tearing it up. We fear such speech won’t be received well, and we’d be accused of disloyalty, especially when Singaporean minds have been tuned to fear anything disruptive and destabilising.
In addition to what I mentioned about the deep changes following the US civil war, what we don’t often realise that this hallowed US Constitution was actually the US founding fathers’ second attempt at writing a constitution. Their first constitution – they didn’t call it a constitution, but Articles of Confederation – was an abject failure. It barely lasted a decade. The US governments created by this constitution could hardly function. The exact reasons why it failed are not important here. The point I want to make is that the US Constitution people so revere today was not born immaculate at first try. They had to tear up the first one and rewrite the whole thing.
You might want to picture God telling Moses the first Ten Commandments are no good and have to be withdrawn. “Here is the second set of Ten Commandments,” you’d see him say, with many items in the second set contradicting what was said in the first set. It’s not easy to treat the second attempt with the same veneration.
And so it is with the US. The United States we know today is not the first republic, but the second republic. Which is why I consider the popular reverence for the US Constitution to be so quaint.
If we look at some non-Anglo-saxon countries, which are at peace and which we consider to be economically and culturally developed, and politically enviable in terms of their resilience and continuity, we see many of them making major reforms or rewriting their constitutions altogether at regular intervals.
France is into its fifth republic since the revolution of 1789. That’s an average of one republic every 45 years.
Sweden’s constitution is made up of four “fundamental laws”, the most recent two of which date from 1974 and 1991.
- The 1810 Act of Succession
- The 1949 Freedom of the Press Act
- The 1974 Instrument of Government
- The 1991 Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression
For a nation that’s been in continuous existence for centuries, their chief constitutional document, the Instrument of Government, is younger than ours.
Five times since 1948, South Korea rewrote its constitution almost fully. The current version is the 1988 version, making the present Republic of Korea, the sixth republic.
Look at Canada. The constitution that the United Kingdom bequeathed to Canada did not have strong wording regarding rights. They were generally implied through Common Law, but by 1960, Canada felt a more explicit set of rights was needed. The federal parliament passed a Bill of Rights that year, binding all federal acts and legislation to the new standard. Like so many other examples here, first try wasn’t good enough. All sorts of shortcomings soon became evident, chiefly that it did not bind provincial legislation and so had limited effect.
In 1977, a Human Rights Act was enacted. It created a Human Rights Commission to provide a mechanism for rights protection, and included more specific language that prohibited discriminatory practices based on sex, disability, or religion.
Still it wasn’t enough. Rights protection should be enshrined into the constitution, it was felt, and so finally in 1982 the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was enacted.
It seems to me that healthy political systems should not be static. They should be responsive to the democratic will, as well as reflective of constantly developing ideas in political morality, such as human rights and justice. Reviewing and rewriting constitutions should be a normal part of political development.
What I have tried to do above is to contrast the Singaporean’s reluctance to consider this subject with the empirical fact that other societies do it all the time without the imagined catastrophe that so haunts us.
Especially as the defects in our political system are so clear and so worrying for the future, I think it is timely and important to open a conversation about rewriting our constitution. We shouldn’t be paralysed with fear that it will be destabilising, contentious or ruinous. Or rather, we should see that we will enjoy no progress unless we also allow room for creative destruction. And in any case, when something is as useless as our current, much-distorted constitution has become, destabilising or wrecking it is probably a good thing.
Just to round off, let me list a few features I’d like to see in a new constitution:
- A stronger, more comprehensive Bill of Rights
- Greater independence for various public institutions and bodies; greater provision for check and balance
- Directly elected president with something like veto-powers. For instance, when presented a new law he considers unwise, he should be able to direct that the law cannot go into effect until 100 days after a subsequent general election. This allows the law to be among the issues assessed by the people when they decide at that general election whether to return the government to power.
- At least half the members of parliament to be elected by proportional representation. The balance elected via single transferable vote in Single Member Constituencies.
- Either inject senior foreign judges into our Court of Appeal, or sign up to a supranational court of human rights as the ultimate court over Singapore (or both).
Fifty years is long enough. It’s time for a brand new constitution; time for a Second Republic.
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I received two substantial responses after I delivered this talk.
The first was a question from the floor — I’m sorry, I never got the name of the guy who asked it — seeking (if I remember correctly) my thoughts on why political participation in Singapore was so low.
My reply was that it was because the price of failure was extremely high. I think it goes without saying that the “Singapore price” is much higher than in many places, and engineered to be so to the advantage of the party in power. This too is yet example of how badly served we are by the present system.
I drew the parallel with another feature of our landscape. Entrepreneurship in Singapore is also comparatively low. Few people aspire to go into business on their own. Albeit there are different root causes, the parallel with the low rate of political participation is noteworthy. Again, it’s because the price of failure is very high too.
But just as most would agree that a higher level of entrepreneurship would be good for our economy, making it more adaptable to changing circumstances, creating more opportunities for people to be happier, increasing the variety of products and services available to the rest of us, so would a higher level of political participation. New ideas are floated and debated, and people enjoy a wider choice of programs, visions and potential leaders.
The high price of failure (both politically and in business) is linked to the prevailing belief that because Singapore is strategically precarious, we can’t afford to take risks or “waste resources” through competition. A high price of failure is a means to weed out the “frivolous” or “unworthy” participants — concepts that are extremely problematic in the first place.
I think that such a mode of thinking, drawing such an idea from a somewhat paranoid sense of insecurity, is actually self-injurious. Limiting participation, like limiting entrepreneurship by exacting a steep price for failure, eventually leaves us poorer or less resilient as a society, and hence even more insecure.
The second response came from NUS sociology professor Chua Beng Huat. He remarked that I seemed to be assuming that a more liberal order was the way to go. He held the view that this was historically exceptional, representing an immense international success of the American take on liberalism. Is that the only alternative to the rottenness (my words, not his) of the First Republic? What about the possibility of communitarian values as the underpinnings of a Second Republic? He didn’t quite say it in these words, but that’s how I understood his point.
I caught up with him at tea break. I made no apologies for holding fast to liberal values myself and arguing that enshrining them would represent progress. In fact, Beng Huat, in his comments had also referred to his own observation that over the last two decades, there has been a significant liberalising trend in Singapore. He gave the example of Pink Dot. Twenty years ago, if anyone suggested that there’d be an annual gay event of that size and prominence, people would think the speaker had taken leave of reality.
I conceded however that I could have been clearer about the distinction between liberal values with respect to fundamental rights, such as freedom of expression, equality and non-discrimination, and other (also known as liberal) values that have more to do with economic rights. Should the state be involved in providing a minimum standard of housing? Should basic education or healthcare be a right? In these areas, the term “liberal” (in American usage) tend to signify state involvement, but strictly speaking, these might be called communitarian values. If Singaporeans believed in these values, we are being liberal or communitarian? The messy vocabulary doesn’t help at all.
On these economic rights, I myself would be quite ambivalent. Unlike fundamental rights, economic rights can be costly. They need significant economic resources (obtained largely through taxation) to realise them. Consequently, what one member of society enjoys as a right, another might see himself as the one paying the price for it. Clearly economic rights are necessary to an extent to secure fundamental rights. Illiteracy, poverty and chronic ill health would render rights such as freedom of speech, or equality in access to employment, meaningless. But where to draw the line between provision and non-provision is probably a very difficult issue, and one in which few should take absolutist positions.
Coming back too to fundamental rights, might Singaporeans be more comfortable with speech limits when it comes to race and religion — which then makes us more communitarian than liberal?
Indeed, these are debatable points, but the intent of my talk was not really to get into the substantive issues; I wanted to first open a conversation about constitutional change, and break down the prevailing wall of ignorance and anxiety surrounding this as a topic of discussion. As Beng Huat summarised it, Singaporeans really need a debate about political values as we go forward.
I hope I have contributed to it.