Same-same but different. That’s the impression I get when I think of Singapore in 1965 and Singapore in 2015. Singapore has gone a long way in the past 50 years. From colony to nation, harbour town to global trade hub, the city-state has reached a level of prosperity and progress many are envious of and few will ever attain. But as Singapore celebrates her 50th birthday today, I’m stepping back and wondering, where is Singapore going from here?

I’m not an optimist. I’m not going to wax lyrical about life in Singapore. I’m confident many other bloggers can write far more eloquently about this than me — and, more importantly, I’m not an optimist. Instead, I see challenges on the horizon, challenges that Singapore needs to face if we are to survive for the next fifty years.

Civic Participation

Singaporeans of the 1950s and 1960s were not Singaporeans. They were colonial subjects or immigrants who happened to share the same geographical location. They were Chinese, Indians, Malays and other people brought together in a small space, all of whom did not identify as Singaporean. The Singapore nationalist movement only really kicked off after WWII; outside of the intellectual elite, there was no coherent sense of a Singaporean nation among the people noticed by history.

The riots and turmoil of this era can be understood in context. People did not see themselves as Singaporeans. They saw themselves as Hokkien, Malay, Cantonese, Javanese, Bangladeshi, Taiwanese — as people of specific ethnic or national groups. Diversity of cultures plus competition for limited resources in close proximity equals conflict.

While the People’s Action Party took over from the British in 1965, they did not fundamentally change the way the British did things. They simply placed themselves in charge. They adopted British laws and Parliamentary customs, then altered laws and politics to solidify their grasp on power. The state grew and grew, becoming the all-present ‘Gahment’ that looms over Singaporeans and benevolently guides the country to greater heights. Like the British, the PAP placed itself itself in charge by becoming a powerful government that can ram through social engineering policies to enforce assimilation and diversity, stifle political opposition through laws and lawsuits, and crush all threats (terrorist and otherwise) with an iron fist.

For good or ill, this method of maximum government created an entity people from different identity groups could fear and respect, allowing them to put aside their differences and work towards a greater good. Given Singapore’s ethnic diversity and the conflict that stemmed from it, it could even be argued that such measures were necessary to ensure civil peace.

But 2015 is not 1965. My generation are born-and-bred Singaporeans. They have known no homeland but Singapore, no identity but Singaporean. They live alongside people of different races and religions, and for the most part do so peaceably. They have grown up in a time of prosperity, and generally do not need to worry about making ends meet. Further, many Singaporeans with higher education levels would be able to write their own check elsewhere, instead of staying in Singapore.

So why will Singaporeans want to continue to be part of Singapore? What will make them stay? The PAP’s traditional answer is that they have friends, family and homes here. But with public housing remaining expensive (the supply crunch is only beginning to ease), and technology allowing people to remain connected halfway around the world, why else should people stay here?

The only answer I can think of is that they feel they are part of Singapore, and for them to feel they are part of Singapore they want to get involved in running their country. That means participating in the civic process, to exercise the rights of citizenship. The government would not object to young Singaporeans joining the PAP, civil service or volunteer groups. But what about those who refuse to join in? What about those with different views, people who prefer to join an opposition group or run as independent candidates, people who want to take more action to be heard in Singapore?

This means freeing up the civic space for discourse. This means the government has to put away the velvet glove and unclench the iron fist. It means the government will have to talk to people and treat them as citizens. Not just people who don’t know any better, but citizens with legitimate perspectives. It also means the government needs to share information: instead of having private chat sessions to share confidential information with influential bloggers, they need to be as transparent as possible, making all the data available so Singaporeans can understand what is going on in their country, and help make Singapore a better place.

Diversity and Demographics

On the flip side of participation is diversity. The world is becoming an increasingly diverse place, and that is not necessarily a good thing. Singapore saw what happened when a country has diversity but no overarching identity. This has echoed throughout history: the fall of Western Rome to the Visigoths, when too few Romans would defend the empire; the breakup of the USSR after the collapse of communist rule, with the nations of Eastern Europe going their own way; the genocides of Africa, where tribe-on-tribe violence and massacres are a way of life.

I’m concerned the events of the 50s and 60s might one day happen again. Maybe not in as large a scale, but any such eruption would be devastating to our way of life. Singapore’s birth rate is falling, and the government’s answer is to encourage immigration from elsewhere.

The problem with immigration is that a country can only absorb so many immigrants at once before points of friction set in. If immigrants do not fully assimilate into a country, they remain outsiders. When people with different values, norms and customs interact in close proximity, friction tends to occur. A lot of angst aimed at immigrants tends to be rooted in the perception that these new immigrants do not think, behave, speak or act like Singaporeans.

And perhaps a measure of this is objectively true. Singapore’s bridging language is English, but there is no requirement for English fluency to become a Singapore citizen. There is also no requirement for immigrants to attend extensive courses to learn to become Singaporeans, and male immigrants not not need to serve National Service. Contrast this to places like the United States, which administers citizenship tests, and the road to citizenship usually takes years — or else requires service in the US military. When a Singaporean man looks upon a male new citizen, he does not see a fellow Singaporean; he sees a man who enjoys the rights of citizenship without having earned it. And service in the Singapore Volunteer Corps is nowhere near the same as National Service.

Exacerbating matters is the coming of the ASEAN Economic Community. Slated to come online in 2015, it remains a very low-profile matter in local media. Public discussion is almost nil, and the only people interested in it seem to be high-powered businessmen and governments. I think we will not see the AEC come to fruition this year, but I can’t say it won’t happen at all. One of the key components of the AEC is the ASEAN single market. Like the European Union, the single market aims to induce the free flow of goods, investment, capital and skilled labour.

The last is a problem. As the case of the EU has shown, the implementation of the ASEAN single market would allow workers from low-income countries to break into the Singapore market. They will undercut locals through demanding lower wages, knowing that it is still a small fortune when converted to their home currency. Or else they may choose to stay on as immigrants and bring their families over, faster than Singapore can assimilate them.

On the reverse side, there is also nothing stopping Singapore’s professionals from moving overseas. Singapore has one of the best education systems in the world, and that means an educated Singaporean professional can move to a country with a lower standard of living and write his own check. He won’t see a need to come home either, and may choose to bring his family overseas and settle down there.

Compounding matters, the rest of the world is fracturing along civilisational lines. Globalisation has erased national borders and reduced government control over their own countries; this means people will revert to smaller and older identity circles. This increases diversity and decreases proximity, but on the micro scale, at the level of neighbourhoods and cities as opposed to provinces and countries. This means that an increasingly diverse Singapore without an overarching identity, which equals greater potential for internal conflict.

What can be done about this? We can’t increase proximity. What we can do is decrease diversity, by enforcing greater controls on immigration and migrant labour, to ensure that Singapore can absorb the immigrants we do take in — and that these immigrants do indeed want to contribute to Singapore. Instead of classifying Singaporeans along the CIMO model, Singapore needs to start talking about a greater Singaporean identity. Instead of handing out new citizenships, the government has to ensure that would-be new Singaporeans have earned their place — and, in the long run, move away from encouraging immigration and towards boosting birth rates.

The Vicious Cycle

What Singapore faces is a vicious cycle. Without the ability to meaningfully participate in civil affairs, Singaporeans will see that they cannot avert the demographic bomb. They will switch off and revert to smaller identity circles, and maybe even move out of Singapore. People from elsewhere will move into Singapore and enjoy citizenship without being seen to have earned it, and would not necessarily be assimilated into Singapore. These people will likely vote for politicians who will benefit the people they identify with — not necessarily Singaporeans — further alienating local Singaporeans. The cycle continues until conflict breaks out, and something changes.

Going forward, I think Singapore needs to do three things. It needs to develop an overarching sense of identity, one that unites people regardless of race, language or religion. It needs to allow citizens to actually be citizens and participate in the creation of the country. It needs to lay out the responsibilities and rights of citizens, and ensure that only people who live up to the former get to enjoy the latter — regardless of where they come from.

I hope Singapore will get to celebrate her 100th birthday in continued peace and prosperity. And for that to happen, Singapore needs to start thinking about what it really means to be Singaporean: not just an inhabitant of this island, but a citizen of this nation, distinct from others.

Reclaiming the Centre Through Word and Deed

In an op-ed for today’s Straits Times, Bilahari Kausikan intuits that European liberalism is failing, but I sense he jumps to the wrong conclusions. He says:

In West Europe, for instance, the political arrangements that we now call liberal democracy were arrived at only after several centuries of an often violent process of accommodation between different varieties of Christianity, each of which claimed a monopoly of divine revelation. These accommodations are now subject to the political, economic and cultural pressures generated by immigration – legal and illegal – from North Africa and the Middle East as well as from other parts of Europe. That large numbers of these new arrivals are ethnically distinct and Muslim are additional complications.

European liberalism, indeed all varieties of Western liberalism, have proved inadequate to deal with contemporary challenges. This is because liberalism prioritises one system of values and places it at the head of a hierarchy of value systems. But it is precisely this hierarchy that is now being contested – and contested not only by the new arrivals.

The liberal democratic value systems that formed the basis of late 20th century Europe’s political accommodations are now under pressure from European electorates. Hence, the rise of extreme right-wing – sometimes neo-fascist – movements across Europe. Their emergence points to a gap between the values of European elites and substantial numbers of their peoples that needs to be bridged if is not to metastasise into something darker and more malignant.

Across Europe, multiculturalism – an ideology derived from liberalism – is giving way to pressure for assimilation or integration. But assimilation or integration to what? What is, or ought to be, the core and what is the periphery? These are not abstract questions.

Since Kausikan will not mention what this ‘system of values’ and ‘hierarchy of value systems’ are, let me spell it out.

European culture is indeed based on democracy and Christianity: one man one vote, separation of Church and state, freedom of speech and expression, respect for minorities, human rights, and peaceful coexistence.

These immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East carry a different set of values based on Islam and Arabic norms: tribe above all, the majlis is the state, do and say nothing that will bring dishonour upon the tribe, minorities must submit to the majority through tax and slavery in exchange for ‘protection’, women are far less important than men, and the House of Islam and the House of War.

These aren’t simply a ‘hierarchy of value systems’ — these values are incompatible. They were developed in different lands, over different time periods, with a different set of historical baggage. Many immigrants entering Europe, especially the illegal immigrants, do not wish to integrate and become Europeans; instead, they are bringing their cultures into their new homelands, living by the old ways in the ghettoes and no-go zones instead of co-existing with their new neighbours.

Barely a century ago, humans used to call this ‘colonisation’.

Multiculturalism is indeed giving way — but not to assimilation. Assimilation is a symptom. Liberalism is giving way to nationalism: the outright rejection of immigrant culture and values, especially those from Africa, in favour of local cultures and values. The ‘centre’ of this loose ideological movement probably would have little objection to immigration, so long as the immigrants assimilate into the culture of their new homes and adopt their norms.

Specifically comparing the staff of Charlie Hebdo and their murderers, Kausikan says:

Both were equally wrong. I am not arguing that there is a moral equivalency between the terrorists and the cartoonists; clearly there is none. Nothing justifies murder. But is it right to constantly lampoon a religion?

I pointed out that even from the point of view of freedom of expression, a double standard was at play. France, like many other European countries, has laws against the denial of the Holocaust. When the law was challenged on the grounds that it infringed freedom of expression, the United Nations Human Rights Committee held that it was justifiable as necessary to counter anti-Semitism. Even the United States prohibits hate speech.

The central argument of Western political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, is that there is not only one Good, but that there are multiple Goods and these often contradict each other and so cannot be simultaneously realised.

If this idea is accepted, the goal of a movement of moderates cannot be agreement or even consensus, only peaceful co-existence; a modus vivendi that allows for peaceful co-existence between ultimately irreconcilable systems of values. Such a modus vivendi is necessarily always tentative and constantly needs to be renegotiated. To seek a still, unchanging point of eternal nirvana is not only futile but to court an extremist response.

So how do we get to where we all want to go? The Langkawi Declaration on the GMM (adopted by Asean leaders in April this year) prescribes certain approaches, among them outreach programmes, interfaith and cross-cultural dialogues, sharing of best practices and information and academic exchanges.

What is only partly and indirectly stressed is the role of the state. There is no country that is today homogenous. Attempts to homogenise a country are today frowned upon: It is called genocide.

Notwithstanding education and the promotion of understanding, conflicts of values, including values that define core identities, will therefore inevitably arise. When this occurs, it is the role of the state to act as neutral arbiter, to hold the ring between different conceptions of the Good and to maintain whatever modus vivendi pertains at that point, if necessary by exercise of the coercive powers that are the legitimate monopoly of the state, including the pre-emptive or prophylactic exercise of such powers.

When conflicts of values lead to violence, it is usually due to state failure: Because the state or government was caught by surprise; because the state or government was too weak or too timid to take decisive action; because the state or government was unable to resist the temptation to seek political advantage by privileging one group over another; because the state or government was hamstrung by its own ideology.

Of course the West does not practice freedom of speech fully. I recall reading an observation that Greeks of 7th century BC Athens enjoyed more freedom of speech than a modern-day American. This is due to the West’s obsession with liberalism. Holocaust denial offends Jews — therefore, it must be censored. Hate speech aimed at blacks offends blacks — therefore it must be censored. Hate speech aimed at Islam offends Muslims — therefore it must be censored.  The key word here is ‘offend’, as in, ‘hurts the feelings of’. Not speech that incites to violence, merely speech that someone can interpret as insulting.

But if you look at how hate speech is actually defined and prosecuted, one would see roots in liberalism’s respect for minorities. Hate speech against whites, men, and Christians goes unpunished and uncommented.

This points to two things: the West is weak, and states cannot be trusted. The latter is not a Western notion either. In Malaysia, the government punished Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee for posting a photo of themselves eating pork during Ramadan, but did nothing about a group of Muslim protesters who demanded that a Christian church take down its cross. In Uganda, the government passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act in 2014, condemning all convicted homosexuals to lifetime imprisonment.

The state cannot play the role of a neutral arbiter because it is not neutral. The government running the state will have to pander to its support base, the people that confer legitimacy upon it, to remain in power. If the support base do not believe in unlimited freedom of speech then the government will not respect that freedom either. And if that support base screams that it is offended, then of course Big Government will step in to save the day.

It means more Kill the Gays bills — and any attempt to criticise it will be slammed as anti-Christian. It means more Alvin Tans being jailed while Muslim mobs walk free — and any attempt to criticise this will be slammed as anti-Muslim. It means more people being enslaved, tortured, and enslaved by Daish, the Lord’s Resistance Army, drug cartels that worship Santa Muerte, and other such groups — and attempts to criticise them will be slammed as anti-religious. And from these criticisms come punishments, to tell everybody else to keep in line – or else.

Unlike Kausikan’s thoughts, people cannot have it all. Rights and values need to be measured against each other. If you want freedom of speech and protection of human rights, you cannot have protection of  religion. If you want protection of religion, you cannot have freedom of speech. If you want the state to intervene, it will act in the interests of the government and then the interests of the people. Freedom is not freedom only for the ideas you find palatable — that would lead to tyranny. Freedom must be freedom for all.

So, what can be done to reclaim the centre?

The centre is representative of society as a whole. The values the centre embraces must in some way represent the values that bind society, so the first thing to do is to determine what values guide society. And different peoples must decide what societies they want to live in.

I believe in a society that seeks to maximise the rights of the individual while balancing that against obligations to the state. The society would respect the rights of groups while ensuring protection for the individual. It grants every individual the potential to influence the direction society is going, while preventing any interest group from hijacking the rest of society and undermining its core values.

By necessity, this is a society that respects rights over feelings, freedom over censorship. No religion should be protected from blasphemy, and equally representatives of every religion are free to respond to criticism in the marketplace of ideas. The state will plays a role as an arbiter, but it does not police all speech. it monitors instead speech that incites to violence — religious or not, racist or not, the motivation is unimportant — and takes appropriate measures to defuse the situation: counselling wayward attention-seekers, ignoring harmless moonbats, and in the gravest extreme prosecuting terrorist ideologues. The state must serve all people, not the group that keeps it in power, and the best to do that is to limit its role to words and deeds that would harm people, no matter the source. And by ‘harm’ I mean violence against people — not the temporary heartscrapes caused by hearing people express different opinions. Within the state, there must be checks and balances to ensure that it will uphold its duty: ombudsmen, a Supreme Court actually interested in justice, a body that consults with the people to ensure that the government is in touch with the citizens.

The state will probably fail in its duty as protector. It would likely be prejudiced in favour of the group that put it into power, overreact, or fail to act at all. It is inevitable: the mechanisms of state are run by people and people are imperfect. But in such a society, the media and the people would be free to point out the failings of the government in a bid to rectify it — and in this society, the government cannot crack down on such people on the grounds of alleged hate speech without consequences.