"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan
Brilliant Ideas Useless without the Power of Enforcement
Although I’ve always been supportive of my country’s authoritarian system and government, one however begins to truly appreciate it after making Western friends and going to the West itself.
Singapore’s GDP per capita is among the top five in the world, surpassing most Western nations. Lately however, we are so fixated upon the few countries who surpass us in terms of welfare and prosperity that we have failed to appreciate our fortunate escape of the fate of, quite literally, over a hundred nations.
Could Lee Kuan Yew have succeeded in creating our state without the help of talented and able man like Lim Kim San (the guy who organised our highly successful HDB or housing program) or Goh Keng Swee? No, of course not.
However, to put the point very bluntly, there will always be and have always been plenty of talented and brilliant people, but only by the grace of Heaven is a nation given a ruler of aristocratic disposition with the political will to enforce wholesome civic policies for the good of the nation over the petty squibbles of lesser minds. There is no point having excellent theories and plans in the abstract if you don’t have the political will or power to enforce them. There are many brilliant people, but there are few people with aristocratic or leadership qualities to command the respect and allegiance of the masses and enforce these brilliant policies.
In San Francisco for example, they have insane rent prices like a US$ 3000 per month for a one room apartment. And why? Because the government can’t provide mass high rise buildings or housing due to the NIMBY (not in my backyard) folks refusal to allow these to ruin the view. They have onerous complex building codes which prevents anyone from building high rise buildings as well as a thousand miniature local political entities which would block any such attempts. Thus, there is a scarcity of space which leads to astronomical rent prices. What follows from this is an unbelievable amount of homeless people all over the place. In Singapore you see them here and there in the parks or public benches. In Los Angeles, which isn’t as bad as San Francisco, you can bump into them virtually everywhere and in every street. It is simply staggering.
However if you have an authoritarian government like ours, then the government can virtually grant our HDB omnipotent powers to build anywhere and force everyone out of their ramshackle kampongs into these HDB flats. In one swoop you provide mass sanitation, plumping, electricity as well as centralised connections to public facilities and amenities.
Sometimes we accuse our government for aggressively centrally managing racial relations, however, the fact is that it is necessary with the power vacuum left behind by the British. During our colonial days, each racial community can live in their own neighbourhood and be left alone because everyone simply looked to the white guys to rule over all of us. By simply acknowledging the white guys to be in charge, we don’t have to worry about any one race dominating over the others.
However, once the British left, and we left Malaysia, the racial problem became acute. Can the Malays possibly accept the idea of being ruled by the Chinese? It therefore became necessary, while nominally leaving some bumiputra laws behind and Malay as our national language, to aggressively re-organise a new order which would mediate between the various race. Every housing estate has a racial quota, and later on, each larger constituency of Singapore must have a racial quota of political representatives. This enforced racial management prevents the divisive and factional ghettoisation that we see in the West. There you have political parties which represents a single racial interest as well as entire stretches of ghettos lived only by a certain race. Each race live separately from each other and develops divisive identities from each other. Western nations become mere empires presiding over a cacophany of warring tribes within their own borders.
We have managed to avoid a lot of the racial tensions in the West by virtue of our authoritarian and aggressively managed racial relations by our central government.
Law and Order
In Singapore we hear the siren once every three or four weeks, in LA I hear it every four or five hours. Our laws are harsh and draconian, we execute drug traffickers, kidnappers, gun traffickers as well gun users; we cane people for violent or disruptive crimes.
But think about it, when was the last time we heard of gang violence? Are there entire neighbourhoods entirely dominated by particular gang? How many kidnappings were there in the last four decades? I think you can count the number on your fingers.
Furthermore, many complain about our ISA which gives the government the power to detain anyone without trial indefinitely who are deemed a threat to internal security. Think now about the spread of global Jihadist ideologies where Western nations now have the problem of how to deal with Jihadist who go overseas to fight in Islamic wars and return back to their home countries. How can they prevent them from returning? On what laws and on what pretext? What laws have they broken back in their home country to warrant an arrest? Do they want to reintroduce a religious test for citizenship? Do they want to really arrest people for holding foreign policy opinions or taking foreign policy actions contrary to that of the government? Should they be charged for treason for disagreeing with the government on foreign policy?
However, in Singapore our ISA here has a real application. We don’t need to justify legally the detention of these Jihadists. If you fight to establish an Islamic theocracy elsewhere, when you return we will simply detain you without trial.
Thus, we have an amazingly low crime rate and virtually no shooting incidences. We can generally walk the street alone at night without fear of getting mugged or assaulted.
People complain about our jobs here and how much it pays, but we must have a sense of proportion. Yes, it could defintiely be better and there are actionable policies which our government can do to make it better. But compared to the rest, we are already amazingly quite fortunate.
In America the average college student (if you’re not Ivy League), will emerge into the job market with a 80k-100k university debt. You best employment prospect, assuming you didn’t go into medicine or law or engineering, would be, quite literally, flipping burgers. If you are lucky, you might get an *unpaid* internship at a real company. After which, you might, just might! Get a real job.
No matter how sucky it is here, just remember that it is worse, far worse even in the vaunted Western nations where a Cambridge graduate in England is happy to get a job in Amazon packing boxes.
Our welfare and healthcare system is one of the best and most affordable in the world. There are very few nations, even Western ones, which has rivalled ours in our ability to provide mass welfare, retirement funds and not burn a hole in our government’s pockets in the process. Again, if you need a reminder, just go to Western cities and see the masses of homeless people all over the streets.
Conclusion: In the Long Term
I still maintain that without a merger with a hinterland, we would not survive in the long term, and that given our inherent limitations, we have done the best we possibly could and a lot more.
It is important however that we do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Our government has done an incredible job over the past few decades. Such competent government is truly a rare gift of Heaven which would be remiss of us to take for granted. By being born here, we have won an amazing lottery denied to the citizens of over a hundred countries.
So yes, I appreciate the fact that our government executes drug traffickers and cane rapists that I might be able to walk the streets at night. I grumble about my CPF but I appreciate knowing that most of my fellow citizens will not starve or be homeless when they reach their retirement age and will be well taken care of. I like the fact that our government is not drowning in debt. I like the fact that I can see a doctor and buy medicines for a total of under thirty sing dollars. Although I complain about how low paying my job is, but I take comfort in the fact that my job prospects are much better than being condemned to burger flipping even with a degree. This does not include a thousand and one other little things like there being trees and flora everywhere in this city, even at the very heart of the CBD there are still potted plants and trees lining the roads. (When I went to the CBD of LA, it was like an utter arid concrete jungle with not a single plant in sight.) Not forgetting the fact that Singapore has one of the most efficient civil service in the world with functional public services no matter how much we complain about it.
Yes, I like the way that in the West and in particular America, one have such a vast range of options and space to be free and all that. However, what I saw in America is that freedom also means the freedom to fail, to beg, to be homeless and to be poor. Yes, there are many more opportunities and chances in America, but more opportunities also mean more opportunities to fail. I like the jaunty and energetic spirit of the Americans, I think the West is a great place to retire where you can afford to own your little plot of land and house. But it is a terrible place to grow up in or to be a citizen of. It’s a great place to go to have a holiday and to play, but a terrible place to build a life on the long term.
Maybe eventually, I will be forced to migrate because of my own individual circumstance. However, I shall do so with many regrets and a heavy heart, for this is truly a great place which our forefathers have built. A rare gem which we may not see in long time. So… Happy National Day Singapore! And long may your wonders last…