Opinion

Around The World In 80 Days: Responding To A Critic

As the Around the World in 80 Days train rolls along, it is inevitable that we will attract more than a few critics as we go.  One comes from a Singaporean woman I will call Marie.  She is articulate, educated, and a Christian.  As a (rightly) proud Singaporean, Marie reacted strongly, negatively, to my article about her country.  She calls my article  “condescending,” a regurgitation of “dictatorship nonsense,” and “the typical tiresome drivel [of] Western commentators.”  Indeed, as you will read, you will see that Marie is greatly annoyed by the piece.  Even so, I suspect that I would like her very much.  Regardless, I am grateful for her comments because they helped me to flesh-out the argument more clearly.  I reply to Marie publicly because her comments were posted publicly on our Facebook page.  As a rule, I do not respond to critics for the simple reason that I don’t often read them and it is seldom a good use of time.  I mean, are you really going to change the mind of someone at BBC who trashes you or a troll on Twitter?  No.  Marie, however, seems an exception to this rule insofar as she isn’t a troll, she shares my faith in Christ, and her critique is substantive.  You can read her comments first and then my response below:

Facebook comment on the Singapore article:

As a Singaporean, I feel compelled to comment.  I bristled at the second half of this article.  I respect Larry Taunton and the work of Fixed Point greatly, and have recommended The Grace Effect to many.  However, this rendering of Singapore is simply the typical tiresome drivel we hear from Western commentators constantly, who can’t seem to grasp how a country like ours can be successful without a totalitarian dictatorship and a citizenry that lives in some mythical state of perpetual fear.  Might it say more about the commentators who can’t bring themselves to believe that a country can be that awesome without some creepy dark side?

Singapore is not a perfect country.  We have plenty of complaints and discussion about things that should be changed; we always have.  But to regurgitate this dictatorship nonsense ad nauseam and make us sound like some Communist surveillance state just makes our Singaporean eyes roll so far to the back of our heads.  If I have time, I’ll address your points one by one later.  Not every citizenry values the same things as America, and that’s because we come from a very different place.  We remember our history and what life was like for our parents and grandparents, and we are grateful for the decisions that led us to our current state.  We are also influenced by Confucian values.  Don’t think we don’t criticize our government and debate about issues (including the recent widely-criticized walkover election), because we do, but also know that my family and friends are genuinely happy to live where they do and have the opportunities they have.

Yet if I believed this report, I’d be too afraid to visit my own country.  Good gracious!  My friend from high school asked a group of us over for dinner, “Do you like living in Singapore?” and the answer was unanimous.  My friend, who is well-travelled and goes regularly to Japan said, “You know, I really love it here.  It’s really the best.”  And the thought of “surveillance” didn’t enter our minds for goodness sake!  How about maybe leave off the condescending tone in the observation that we “seem happy enough” and believe that we really are happy because we are living lives that our grandparents could only have dreamed of just 50 years ago.  The myth of this silently suffering, suppressed “Singapore” is all that is – a myth.

My response:

Dear Marie,

It was not my purpose to offend you.

Let me be clear on this point: I like your country.  I really do.  I think it is—currently—a marvelous place.  I very much enjoyed the people I met.  I was deeply impressed—as I have been generally in Asia—with the work ethic and service.  Both are superior to anything I have experienced in America.  And, architecturally speaking, it is a very beautiful country.  I am currently in Hong Kong and yesterday a local told me that he thinks Hong Kong and Singapore are very similar.  I had to laugh.  Both are hyper-capitalistic, but the comparisons don’t go much further than that.  Hong Kong is a chaotic mess of buildings, poor city planning, and smelly, crowded streets.  Singapore is precisely the opposite in every respect.

You say that modern Singapore is a country much-improved from the days of your parents and grandparents.  Of that, I have no doubt whatsoever.  What a remarkable rags-to-riches story Singapore’s emergence from the Third World has been!  Wow.  Were we going around the world in search of the planet’s “most improved” country, Singapore would certainly win the prize.  But that is not the standard we are employing here.  We are going around the world in search of greatness and, should we find it, to dissect the ingredients of that greatness so that we might replicate it.  I am looking for the country that would be a successor to what America has been, and that is, in the words of Lincoln, “the world’s last best hope.”

That country is not Singapore.

No, regardless of its wealth, celebrated educational system, and glittering skyline, Singapore does not fall into that category.  My criticism was not, as you say, that Singapore is a “Communist surveillance state.”  Communists—the real ones, anyway—are socialists.  Singapore is nothing if not capitalistic.  But Singapore is an “advanced surveillance state.”  Worse, according to Foreign Policy, the United States helped them build it and now wants to model it.  As with Western Europe, in the name of safety, cameras are watching people everywhere and the data of private citizens is being gathered “unfettered” by the government for who knows what purposes.  That apparently doesn’t bother you or, for that matter, many other Singaporeans.  It would bother me.

However, this wasn’t my central reservation with your country.  This is merely a symptom of a much larger problem.  You object to my critique because, if I understand you correctly, you see Singapore as a country that has beaten the odds by crawling out of the Third World quagmire and where, now, its citizens enjoy a high standard of living, life expectancy, and just about everything else.  All of this is true.  But it is also beside the point as far as my critique is concerned.

According to Jack Tsen-Ta Lee, Assistant Professor of Law at the School of Law of Singapore Management University, “if you define a democracy as requiring broad freedom of speech and freedom of assembly [as I think most do], then it might be said that Singapore is somewhat lacking in this regard as there are various restrictions on these rights.”  Somewhat lacking.

So surveillance doesn’t bother you.  Okay.  But what about the recent “election” of a president in the absence of an actual election?  Doesn’t that bother you more than just a little?  You say you “criticize the government” for it.  How?  Where?  There are virtually no civil rights in Singapore—no freedom speech (on the grounds that it causes civil unrest); no freedom of assembly (the government must grant a permit—and they don’t, as a rule, grant such permits); no freedom of the press (all agencies are state-owned); no freedom of information (the internet is very carefully and strictly controlled); no real opposition party (the People’s Action Party maintains a strict control of elections and has done so since 1959); and, most of all, there is no transparency with your government.  Who are these shadowy people who, on the eve of an election, disqualify all candidates but the one who just happens to represent the ruling party?

This would alarm me deeply and I think it should alarm you, too.  For what it’s worth, my advice is this: be very careful how and where you criticize such a government.  They brook no opposition.

My guess is that these things don’t trouble you because you are, as you said, “generally happy.”  In other words, since the surveillance, lack of civil rights, and lack of authentic democratic institutions haven’t been an impediment to your personal happiness, you aren’t greatly troubled by this aspect of Singaporean life.  After all, you’re prosperous and you don’t have to empty the “toilet bucket.”  This gets at the heart of what so alarms me about governments like Singapore’s.  They aren’t the “Big Brother” governments like that of Orwell’s 1984, that is, controlling the masses through fear (though that aspect is certainly a part of Singapore); they are closer to Huxley’s Brave New World—controlling the masses through prosperity and pleasure, they create an apathetic citizenry who sleepwalk through their government’s dubious political activities.

Finally, let me add this.  You have wrongly assumed that I have applied an American standard to Singapore and that this is the reason I don’t really understand why Singapore is “awesome.”  In the FAQ for this trip I do quote the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution and say that this is a pithy summary of what we are looking for in the governments of the countries we are visiting on this trip:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

But the values expressed in the Preamble are not exclusively American values.  The framers of the Constitution were appealing to what they understood to be an absolute, universal standard of human rights.  To quote the late Forrest McDonald, an American Constitutional historian of some eminence and a professor of mine: “The Declaration [of Independence] refers to God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Preamble [of the Constitution] introduces a document whose stated purpose is to secure the rights of life and liberty.“  Reading your post and your eulogy to Lee Kwan Yew, I got the impression that you value these things, too.

Singapore has achieved elements of this, but it is not a constitutional government; it is a government with a constitution, and there is a big difference.  As I’m sure you know, constitutional governments are governments that are ruled by and subject to their constitutions.  By contrast, governments with constitutions alter or ignore their constitutions at will, as yours just did with the recent non-election of a new president.  America is increasingly tilting in this direction with an opposition party’s unprecedented effort to remove, by whatever means necessary, a lawfully elected president.  Not only does this demonstrate a contempt for the will of the people, it demonstrates a startling disregard for the Rule of Law.  This dismays those Americans who value the protections a constitution like ours is meant to provide.

Foreign Policy has described Singapore as a “curious mix of democracy and authoritarianism, in which a paternalistic government ensures people’s basic needs—housing, education, security—in return for almost reverential deference.  It is a law-and-order society, and the definition of ‘order’ is all-encompassing.”

That strikes me as spot-on.  Life in Singapore is, for most people, very good.  The government keeps the many happy while denying the rights of the few who are unlucky enough to fall afoul of it.  And while this current regime is, as the Huffington Post described it admiringly, “a benevolent dictatorship,” who’s to say that will remain so?  I mean, the mechanisms are all neatly in place for a dictatorship of an altogether different kind.  The founding fathers of the United States, deeply influenced, not by the philosophy of Confucius, but by the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Judeo-Christian values of the Bible, generally accepted the idea that human nature is fallen and, as consequence, those with power cannot be fully trusted to wield it honorably.  To guard against abuses, “checks and balances” were built into the government they established.

That is precisely what is missing in Singapore.  Does the absence of this reflect the influence of Confucius’ teaching, which was, at best, ambiguous about human nature?  I don’t know, but it certainly reflects the absence of Christian teaching on a critical point of human behavior and the preservation of good government.

Thank you for your interest in Fixed Point, my writing, and this trip.  I hope you will continue to find our work helpful.

Kind Regards,

Larry Alex Taunton