Speak Magazine

Montreal Features

Is There a Zero-Sum Choice Between Social Well-being and Individual Rights?

Photo by: Se7enw00d | Used under a creative common license

Photo by: Se7enw00d | Used under a creative common license

by Madeleine Shea

In the past few decades, Singapore has received considerable praise for its social and economic policies. According to the Council on Foreign Relations,“conventional wisdom has held that economic growth will lead inevitably…to democracy.” Singapore has defied this logic; while it has experienced massive development, it has not become democratic to a corresponding degree. It has made huge economic strides: the government’s Economic Development Board has been instrumental in creating one of the world’s strongest economies. The World Bank named Singapore the “world’s fastest growing” and most “business friendly” economy in 2010. This is partly because it has some of the lowest levels of corruption in the world as well as top notch infrastructure, extremely high standards of living, full employment, and, according to World University Rankings 2011, “one of the world’s best performing education systems.’ Singapore is also ranked ninth in the world in highest per person GDP by the Economic Intelligence Unit and has the world’s highest per capita ratio of millionaires.

Interestingly it is classified, however, as only semi democratic. A semi democracy is a state which, according to the Economic Intelligence Unit, has “irregularities in elections, opposition parties and the media are often intimidated by the government…and the judiciary is not independent.” Singapore fulfills this definition: its electoral laws are highly prejudiced in favour of the dominant, incumbent party. For example, according to Professor Erik Kuhonta, incumbent governments can restrict popular participation by banning rallies and campaigns, restrict opposition parties’ access to media, use bureaucracy to create policy in its favor, use legal institutions such as electoral commissions to rule in their favour, sue any critics for defamation, create an imbalance in campaign funds, and use electoral gerrymandering to create electoral districts in its favour. Garry Rodan, former director of the Asia Research Council, believes that Singapore uses “a host of constraints on the activities of opposition political parties and dissident individuals in a dominant party system…a virtual merging of the institutions of party and state.”

Along with electoral laws, Singapore’s semi authoritarian nature can be seen in its treatment of rights that Western countries consider universal, including freedom of speech. As Human Rights Watch deputy director Phil Robertson stated, “Free speech is an endangered species in Singapore.”  Through its use of libel laws and a captive judiciary as well as control over the press and other media outlets, Singapore’s ruling party and political elites severely curtail any criticisms of its policies or authoritarian tendencies. Stanford professor Donald Emmerson, for example, writes that the “intolerant” regime uses “methods of repressing dissent, including relying upon a compliant judiciary to bankrupt opposition politicians” who are found guilty of libel or slander and must pay high prices when they criticize the regime.

It is ironic that rights to free speech are ignored, given that Singapore prides itself on the priority it places on other universal freedoms, such as religious tolerance. Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong praised this quality at a Muslim religious festival (which was open to members from all other religions), stating that “Our underlying tenet of tolerance and respect for other people’s religions while peacefully practicing our own has brought us harmony, stability, and progress.” The high priority the government places on development and social peace has led to economic efficiency and a remarkably stable social environment. The government has created some of the best living conditions and infrastructure (the Economic Intelligence Unit ranked Singapore eleventh in the world for overall quality of life), liberal business environments, and social development in the world, as well as incredibly harmonious inter religious, class, and ethnic relations.

These priorities of social and business development do, however, have a dark side: the government ensures that its citizens have high quality lives without the ethnic and religious violence that have destroyed communities in other Southeast Asian countries, but declines to protect human rights (most particularly rights of free speech and expression) that it sees as threatening to its regime. Further, people found guilty of breaking the law are given harsh punishments which do not always fit the severity of their crime. For example, the Human Rights Watch has stated that Singapore “is believed to have one of the highest per capita execution rates in the world…Singapore’s drug law, which carries a mandatory death penalty in some cases, fails to meet international human rights standards.”

This disregard of certain human rights is justified in a specific cultural context: the former Prime Minister, Lee Kwan Yew, cites the existence of separate “Asian values” which do not parallel Western values completely. These values place social harmony and the good of the entire community above complete individual liberty. The dominant party, the People’s Action Party, has a list of values which should underlie the political system as a whole; Garry Rodan states that these values place “nation and community ahead of self, and consensus over contention.”  The suggestion is that guaranteeing individual rights above all else leads to chaos and violence, and ultimately makes people less prosperous and happy than a system in which some freedoms are given up but that allows peace and sustainable social development for even disadvantaged members of society. In an interview, former Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew stated that “In the East the main objective is to have a well ordered society so that everybody can have maximum enjoyment of his freedoms. This freedom can only take exist in an ordered state and not in a natural state of contention…the individual…is not pristine and separate [but] is part of…the wider society.” He compared the social success of Singapore to the US, and criticized Western “guns, drugs, violent crime, vagrancy, unbecoming behavior in public…the expansion of the right of the individual to behave or misbehave as he pleases has come at the expense of orderly society.”

Nevertheless, not everyone is convinced by Lee Kwan Yew’s argument.  Harvard professor Amartya Sen does not see the diminished place of individual liberties as an inherently Asian social value, and also does not think that respect for all human rights is at odds with Asian culture. He points to ancient Asian leaders such as Akbar and Ashoka and their emphasis on mutual toleration and respect for a rudimentary form of a human rights regime. Further, he states that “the case for liberty and political rights turns ultimately on their basic importance and on their instrumental role. And this case is as strong in Asia as it is elsewhere.” Appeals to differences in cultural values or the importance of social harmony do not decrease the necessity of protecting all universal rights. Going even further, Professor Donald Emmerson cites a New York Times article in which William Safire writes that the government, “despite oleaginous pretensions about a new Asian culture that transcends human rights, represents old fashioned European totalitarianism.”

Everything that builds a successful society-families, educational institutions, governmental structures, businesses-begins with the individual and their willingness to work towards this success. This also means that respect of their rights-rights that come from their status as a human being- need to be respected across nations and cultures. Lee Kwan Yu states that “It is my business to tell people not to foist their system indiscriminately on societies in which it will not work.”  While cultural imperialism is uncalled for, there must exist a compromise in which cultural differences between groups are expressed while carefully keeping human liberties intact.


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Speak is an online magazine that publishes and discusses rights media pieces. Rights Media is the process of writing, collecting, editing, producing and distributing media that creates societal dialogue on human rights issues. Speak magazine mainstreams human rights issues through, progressive, balanced and objective reporting into everyday news stories.

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