Lee Kuan Yew and the Meaning of Freedom

Critics and defenders alike get some things wrong.

Credit: The Real Singapore

The death of Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of the young republic of Singapore, has sparked a great deal of interest in the media around the world. Even though he was advanced in age, the timing is sad for Singaporeans: he didn’t make it to August, when they celebrate 50 years of nationhood. It’s undeniable that he will have a positive legacy as the leader of a country that could easily have failed. However, he’s also thought to be a suppressor of civil liberties (but economic liberties abound). People caught with illicit drugs can get the death penalty. You can’t own a gun. Newcomers are warned to assume that they’re being watched and listened to in public and on the internet. There’s no First Amendment like we have in the states. Famously, you can’t buy gum or spit it out on the sidewalk. But now, since the reasons Lee Kuan Yew had for curtailing some civil liberties are no longer quite valid, some Western writers hope there might be an expansion of them in the near future.

It does sound like a reasonable suggestion – although, of course, it’s up to Singaporeans to decide. And some have argued that they don’t want to change. Why?

Well, says Sahana Singh in this Washington Post piece, Singapore is a free country. Just not in the way many Westerners – especially Americans – think it should be. Its low crime rate and organization make people feel free.

After moving from India in 1998, Singh was amazed at her ability to move about the island by herself without being afraid of harassment and attack, and by the efficiency of “government that works.” That, to her, is worth trading in unrestricted speech for.

An article that appeared in The Independent yesterday asserts something similar to what Singh is trying to say, although in an even more forceful manner. Singaporean citizen Calvin Cheng believes that if you’re “a civilized person who wants to live in a civilized society”, Singapore is actually the place for you.

Listen, I know where these people are coming from. I spent a couple of years there myself, and I didn’t feel oppressed. I could go about my own business as usual. I understand some people’s frustration with the stereotypes surrounding Singapore. It’s no China, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, or Cuba. It’s… nice. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t missing something that might be of value to a lot of people.

Like free speech, for example. Cheng argues that there’s no need for anything resembling our First Amendment, because you shouldn’t want to start a big controversy by being openly bigoted or accusing public officials of wrongdoing. If you do, what’s wrong with you? You deserve the punishment you get. But I think he goes too far. He justifies curtailing free speech because race riots occurred during Singapore’s founding. If the new country was going to succeed, the diverse population needed to be united and the government, under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, needed to use force to preserve order. Is that still a reason to not have free speech? Shouldn’t members of a civilized society be able to use words, not violence, to counter people who express offensive opinions? Should we not respond to criticism of our side or our group with a rational defense supported by evidence, or criticism of our critics?  A question that’s not for Singaporeans alone…

Both writers also praise Singpaore’s cleanliness, as though that’s what decides whether a place is an “autocracy” or not.

The clean sidewalks are an exaggeration, by the way. Yes, they’re cleaner than the ones in most other cities I’ve seen. But immaculate sidewalks are an impossibility anywhere. And, call me crazy, but I think your right to buy a harmless substance and put it into your mouth might just trump your right to not seeing spots on the sidewalk.

The biggest reason why these people are defending Singapore is its safety. Although I do feel safe in Singapore, I might add that I have never felt unsafe at home in the United States, either. That’s because the areas I’ve lived in are not unsafe. There are some parts of the U.S. that are dangerous, and many that are not. The general population doesn’t live in constant fear of being assaulted or murdered. In fact, crime has decreased here over the past couple of decades.

Still, Singapore is exceptionally safe, and it is nice, despite restricting civil liberties – there’s something to be said for all of this, right?

Well, sure. But don’t, as these writers do, call it freedom.

Here’s the problem: Freedom, the kind people are talking about when they criticize Singapore, isn’t freedom from fear or want. It’s being free from coercion. It’s, quite simply, being allowed to do things you want to do. Absolute freedom is an impossibility if you wish to be a part of any society at all, and some people might not want more freedom than they already have. That’s fine. They can defend that. But they shouldn’t pretend freedom is something it isn’t.

Freedom is being able to say mean things. Freedom is being able to own a gun. Freedom is being able to protest. Freedom is being able to criticize the government. Whatever the pros and cons of those things are, they do indicate a relative amount of freedom. Defining freedom the way some of Lee Kuan Yew and the Singaporean government’s defenders are trying to is, well, meaningless in a political context. Is being “free” to socialize or watch your favorite show once you’re done with your obligations for the day the same as being free to take an action without having to forfeit some of your property, liberty, or even your life to the government? Clearly, we use the word “free” in various circumstances. If people are going to argue about freedom, they ought to define it in the same way.

What concerns me about both of these articles and the people who re-tweet and re-post in praise of them is the complacency they’re exhibiting. They’re sending a message that sounds like “Who cares if you can’t do this and that, as long as you’re relatively safe and happy?”  How far are people willing to take that? How many aspects of our lives are we willing to let the government regulate with the intent of keeping us safe and happy? There must be a limit on what people around the world are willing to let their governments do if they’re going to be free – and, ultimately, if they’re going to be safe. Too much freedom and you might not be safe, but too much coercion and you might not be safe, either. Governments have been responsible for a staggering number of deaths in the past century alone. We all know that and don’t have to go into details here. But we have to keep in mind the long-term risks of letting the government have control in a way that we don’t think is a big deal at the moment. We might say to ourselves “I don’t want to say anything bad about that particular group of people, so I don’t care if I’m not allowed”, but then what happens if someday what we do want to say is censored?

I’m not trying to make any claim that Singapore is going to become more oppressive anytime soon. I’m just worried about an attitude expressed in these articles that considers freedom to be freedom from worry and want. People can point out the ways in which Singapore is free. It’s capitalistic, after all, and equal protection under the law regardless of race, sex, and religion. Great. Point that out. People can also defend the methods Lee Kuan Yew had to use to quickly build a modern, prosperous society. Great. Defend them. Defend the ways in which Singapore is not free. But don’t claim those are ways it actually is free. Don’t twist the concept of freedom around to make it suit your position.

A brief history of Lee Kuan Yew and the founding of Singapore. 


Categorised in: America, Media

3 Responses »

  1. I assume you are Western and you believe that only your methods are the way, the truth and the life.

    Freedom, yes, cannot be bound by concrete terms. Freedom is subjective. Yes.

    To you, you find that Singapore is not, “free enough” for you.

    I respect that, freedom is subjective.

    To me, i find that Singapore provides just the right amount of freedom i need. And this is an opinion shared by many Singaporeans as well.

    We are happy. You can dig up those online polls that scream, “Singaporeans are the most unhappy people in Asia!” and whatnoy. But as for me, my friends, my neighbours, my family, we are happy. We do share self-volunteered national pride and are able to voice controversive views on public platforms and we aren’t actually total angsty/emotionless working robots. I’m so sorry that most Singaporeans don’t comply to your standard/stereotype of what a singaporean is.

    So, freedom. So, Lee Kuan Yew is a dictator in your eyes, in many western peoples’ eyes. Will the world according to your mind’s eye, become better governed, less corrupt and more free?

    Are you happy?

    Thank you for reading my comment, if you’ve gotten to here and not have it just brushed it off as a poor asian 15-year old with a non-westernized opinion. I appreciate it.


  1. Lee Kuan Yew and the Meaning of Freedom | Kelly's Thoughts
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