Saturday, 28 March 2015

The Importance of Civil Liberties and the Dangerous Illusion of Safety

[I must disclaim that I've utmost respect for Mr Lee and that this post is not directly related to whether his rule was good or bad. It's unfortunate that such political correctness is needed but considering the emotionally charged atmosphere currently sweeping the country, this is necessary. This post is directed at former NMP Calvin Cheng's which is a laughable piece of social commentary.]

Some people have recently lauded Calvin Cheng's post about how we're better off not having the fundamental civil liberty of freedom that the West rattles on and on about, because we're free in our own way. We're definitely safe from general harm on the streets because we're orderly and safe from disease in the water because our infrastructure is good. We're also possibly free from discrimination, and Calvin hints at the meritocratic education system for providing fair access to opportunity (although that's at best contentious). I'm definitely grateful for these things. But the article has a severe misunderstanding of what fundamental civil liberties are and why they're important.

Fundamental civil liberties are personal guarantees and freedoms that the government cannot abridge, either by law or by judicial interpretation. Some examples of civil liberties include freedom of press, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, freedom from torture, the right to security and liberty, the right to privacy, the right to equal treatment and due process, the right to a fair trial, and the right to life. These civil liberties did not arise overnight; through long periods of philosophical inquiry undergirded by significant historical events, these ideals materialized in order to protect people from societal harm. Calvin Cheng's poor treatment of this important philosophical tradition reduces his article pretty much to noise.

It’s tempting to think of safety as a kind of freedom, and safety appears to be loosely interchanged with freedom in Calvin Cheng's article. However, safety is not freedom; a bird that is well fed in it's pristine golden cage with rations of food and water every day and is kept safe from the cat while behind metal bars still isn't free. Some people prefer safety to the proper civil liberty of freedom. That’s fine; people (should) have the right to choose whichever side of the fence they want to be on.

But why then, if Singapore appears to be able to do without civil liberties such as freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial (as in the case of political opposers who were detained or bankrupted), or even the right to life (the legalized death penalty simply makes the state a legalized killer which has its fair share of problems, such as in the recent case of Yong Vui Kong), should we perhaps care about civil liberties?

Civil liberties are important because they concern how much power the state should have when dealing with people who have compromised the law, especially when of course the state itself determines what the law should be. Caring about civil liberties is therefore important because the state is a powerful political tool, and whoever becomes the head of state has these political tools at his or her disposal. If you do not enforce and constitutionalize civil liberties, the balance of power falls heavily in favor of the state. If anything, the rhetoric of safety has been a useful political veil to stop people from questioning whether we truly are free. A country that does not value human freedoms puts its people at risk of anyone hungry enough to want and acquire that power for his or her own personal interests.

Why am I grateful for LKY? Because despite having so much power in his hands, he used it with more rather than less decency (and with such courage against so many odds too, I have to add). I am grateful because I am lucky. Yeah, people who are either legitimately marginalized or simply perceiving that they are marginalized by his rule will disagree, but as a beneficiary myself of the system I can’t not be grateful that he has been, on the whole, very kind to me. But are we always going to be this lucky that good leaders will keep getting behind the steering wheel of such powerful political apparatus? None of us can say for sure. To assume that Singapore will keep being such a pristine cage because we have chosen safety over freedom just shows how little thought we have and can put into the sort of political lives that we lead.

Fundamental civil liberties matter because they keep the government in check. They provide at least some means to challenge the state and protect the people should a less than competent leader come to power. Calvin Cheng's rhetoric about safety is embarrassing, to say the least. It’s rather funny and ironic how he ends off with "there was no trade-off. not for us", happy and unaware that anything has been lost. You can't really tradeoff when you're unaware that there’s a tradeoff at all.


Srinvasesvara said...

I think we also have to move beyond our narrow conceptions of freedom. Perhaps freedom needs to have a broader understandling like this article here: What do you think?

Jose said...

Hi Srinvasesvara,

I was writing with the intention to be quite specific about freedom as used in political philosophy because of the nature of the debate within the context of the original post by Calvin Cheng. This post is therefore really meant to be more to the point of clarification than anything else. But yep, it is always useful to think of broader notions of freedoms, generally speaking.