What does ‘freedom’ mean to you?

If you have read Calvin Cheng’s article titled “The Legacy of Lee Kuan Yew and the Myth of Trade-offs” it is likely that you reacted in one of these two ways. Either you probably felt validated by this article as you bought into the clever suggestion that security can be conveniently redefined as freedom as the author suggested. Or like me, you shook your head and sighed deeply, disappointed by yet another prejudiced and facile article amidst the plethora of mind-numbing articles that are popping up like poisonous mushrooms in the wake of LKY’s death.

I am glad to say that there was a third response, and that response was to write an article that exposes the very elementary mistakes that Calvin Cheng’s makes in his article. Donald Low bothered to engage and write an article clarifying the important distinction between security and freedom and how that relates to Singapore’s needs today. As Low elucidates in his article, security and the delivery of high quality public goods are not contingent on the presence or the absence of a participatory democracy, but rather a strong and competent state. Neither can security or or the presence of high-quality public goods in Singapore be logically redefined as ‘freedom’ even in the Singaporean context. Following this article, Calvin Cheng rebutted by saying

“Mr. Low states that that I conflate security with freedom; I have done no such thing. I am in fact arguing that security is a precondition to real freedom.

Take a very real life example. You could tell me that I am free to go wherever I want in a crime-infested area of say New York or London, because there are no laws or physical impediments to prevent me from going. However, because my personal safety may be threatened if I do go, that ‘freedom’ is a hollow one. It’s not real freedom. Conversely, if there is law and order, I am truly free to go wherever I want.” (taken from a comment on Low’s article)

I feel very bothered by Calvin Cheng’s response because it smacks of intellectual dishonesty. First of all, unlike Low, he never once stated that security is a precondition for the exercise of freedom. Cheng merely argued that Singapore has it’s own version of ‘freedom’ because it has clean air, public safety, and so on and so forth. Sounds very much to me that he is saying high-quality public goods + security = ‘freedom’ (in Singaporean context).

Secondly, why on earth would you or I decide to walk down a crime-infested part of NYC or London? It just doesn’t make logical sense, it’s the same in Singapore, would you under normal circumstances, decide to walk alone in the dark alleyways of Geylang at 3am in the morning? (I’m not talking about the parts of Geylang where you go to for supper, but the parts where prostitutes and pimps ply their trade) I have been to London and NYC, multiple times and felt safe everywhere I went. I remember taking the underground from the JFK airport to the Time Square station at 12am at night and walking then walking across Times Square to my friend’s apartment around the corner, lugging my suitcase on rollers. I felt completely safe as the streets were brightly lit and still busy with the bustle of city life even at that late hour. I got to my friend’s apartment unmolested at 1.15 am or so, and never thought twice about it.

Thirdly, I really do not understand why Calvin Cheng compares walking around in Singapore to walking around a crime-infested area of New York or London. It’s not even a fair comparison because the crime infested parts of Singapore reside mainly in government and politics, which is why we definitely need greater political accountability. This requires greater political participation, especially in opposition parties, however, for the same reasons that most of us would avoid walking down a crime-infested street of New York city, most of us who are concerned with self-preservation would avoid getting into opposition politics.

Just think about this, almost two million USD a year goes to the Prime Minister, to govern tiny little Singapore, while the leader of the free world, Barack Obama gets less than a quarter of that, to overlook a country 13420 times larger than Singapore and deal not just with national issues, but with many issues concerning international security on a daily basis. Tell me, is the high pay that ministers in Singapore get not simply a form of legalized corruption? Did we as citizens have a significant say/power in deciding how much our ministers should get? Do we, as Singaporeans, get to decide which laws are implemented and which are abolished? It is really crazy that an entry level minister in Singapore is getting paid almost twice as much as Obama, especially in Singapore which is supposedly ‘meritocratic’ and ‘corruption free.’ People, this is not representative of a meritocracy or a country with a corruption free government, but rather an oligarchy. The biggest ‘gang’ we have in Singapore now is the PAP. But that’s slowly changing.

I live in Crenshaw/Baldwin Hills Los Angeles. A place that is notorious for criminal activity and rival gangs in L.A. Yes, I would never venture to walk around in this neighborhood at night at 3am or leave the door to my apartment open. In the same way, I would not risk doing the same in Singapore, even in my ‘safe’ Sunset Way neighborhood back in Singapore, just because…commonsense. In the same way, I do not feel that my freedom is curtailed because of the relatively high-crime occurrences in my L.A neighborhood; as long as I take the right precautions, like not walking around the neighborhood in the wee hours of the morning, and locking my apartment doors, for example, I feel safe. My husband’s car got broken into once and his sub-woofer got stolen, but that is because there was a malfunction in the locking system which left the trunk unlocked. (We didn’t realize this until the subwoofer got stolen, otherwise we would have locked the trunk manually) Other than that, in the two years that we have lived here, we have not had any run-ins with crime. Sure, Crenshaw/Baldwin Hills is definitely less safe than Clementi, or most parts of Singapore, or many other parts of LA like Beverly Hills or Santa Monica, but for all of my regular needs and creature comforts, it is completely adequate: I go grocery-shopping at the local supermarket and run/walk alone in a green space a couple of blocks away from where I live. The irony is that living here actually affords me more freedom and greater spending flexibility on an otherwise tight-budget.

There is an over-supply of public tennis courts here that are available for use throughout the day that I would frequent more often if I had a regular tennis partner. Most people in the ‘hood’ do not play tennis. Tennis courts are not as accessible in Singapore, unless you live in a private estate with tennis courts or are a member of a sports club. In some ways, I would say that the quality of my life in this high-crime neighborhood is higher than it could ever be in Singapore, with the current income we have. There is no way that we would be able to enjoy the luxury of a 800 square-foot 1 bedroom apartment in a gated community in Singapore for a mere rent of $900USD monthly. Also, on a relatively tight budget, both my husband and I each have our own individual cars that have already been paid in full, to be used completely at our discretion, something that could never happen in Singapore on our current income. (we would have trouble surviving in Singapore on our current income) A Singaporean friend of mine decided that he would never in his lifetime invest in buying a car in Singapore because with the same money spent on maintaining a car and paying for COE over 20 years, he could send his daughter to study in the States when she became old enough. I did the math and then realized that if ever moved back to Singapore, I would never buy car there, because it would just be a bad investment, unless of course I were rolling in money. This all comes down to what we define as freedom, to Cheng, freedom = security + high-quality public goods. To me, freedom means something else altogether.

Once again, do take the time to read Donald Low’s article and share it. In doing so, you will be taking an important step in raising the standard of political maturity and discourse in Singapore.

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