Perfection versus liberty — lessons from Singapore

Singapore's clean sidewalks

Singapore’s clean sidewalks

Do you remember, back in 1994, the big uproar that ensued when an American teenager was arrested in Singapore for vandalizing property?  In Singapore, the penalty for that crime was caning, which was a new concept to Americans.  Reading about the case now, it’s pretty clear that Michael Fay was a garden-variety delinquent.  Had he committed his acts of vandalism in America, we would instantly have accepted that he would get sent into the juvenile justice system, and we would have seen the door close behind thinking “that serves him right.”  It was the caning concept that shocked us so much, especially because the media kept emphasizing that Singapore caned people who spit on the sidewalk or who chewed gum in public.  I don’t think I’m the only one who came away believing that Fay was going to get 100 lashes for chewing gum.  Eventually, Singapore acceded to President Clinton’s request for clemency, so that Fay got only four lashes.

Thinking about it, four lashes for a vandalism spree is a much lesser punishment than putting a young man in our decrepit, violence- and crime-ridden juvenile justice system, which is essentially an incubator in which young criminals, often after suffering severe physical and sexual abuse at the hands of fellow juvenile prisoners, learn how to be adult criminals.  The Singapore system also has the virtue — unless the American State Department gets involved — of being a fairly quick punishment, with the trajectory being crime, followed by a lashing, and then freedom.  That’s quite different from the American juvenile justice system that steals years from young people’s lives.

Even though I’m arguing that quick, corporal punishment for serious crimes is not worse than, but just different from, our American justice system, that doesn’t mean I’d want us to be like Singapore.  The problem I have with Singapore, aside from its sometimes draconian corporal punishment, is that it aims for absolute societal perfection.  Singapore is that weird and unique totalitarian state that isn’t driven by socialism or militarism or even one person’s elevation to supremacy.  Instead, Singapore aims to be the tidiest, cleanest, best organized nation in the world.  That’s quite a goal.

Sometimes, it seems that there’s a virtue to the Singapore model:  sidewalks are clean and everything functions “just so,” as the British used to say.  Using swift, painful punishment, Singapore has achieved a certain perfection, one that has resulted in an organized and extremely tidy society.  But it’s also a very sterile society, one that values conformism over individualism and the innovation and creativity that flow personal liberty.  In other words, perfection is an extremely superficial construct, measured by clean sidewalks, rather than a dynamic citizenry.

One of the things that separates me from my friends on the Left (and I used to count myself among their number) is my recognition that government cannot create perfection.  In places such as Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea, or China the quest for “perfection” led only to an ever-growing stack of tortured and dead bodies.  Even in Singapore, though, which has not thrown itself into the moral maelstrom of collectivism, all one ends up with is a sterile simulacrum of perfection.  Why?  Because there is no such thing, or perhaps almost no such thing as human perfection.  It’s true that,using instruments, tools, and the power of our minds,  we can draw a perfect circle or make a perfectly airtight seal on something.  What we cannot do, without destroying the ineffable wonder of human liberty, is to legislate human perfection.  Our greatness comes from our deviations from the norm, not our slavery to a subjective vision of the perfect society.

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  • David Foster

    Aldous Huxley:
    In the field of politics the equivalent of a theorem is a perfectly disciplined army; of a sonnet or picture, a police state under a dictatorship. The Marxist calls himself scientific and to this claim the Fascist adds another: he is the poet–the scientific poet–of a new mythology. Both are justified in their pretensions; for each applies to human situations the procedures which have proved effective in the laboratory and the ivory tower. They simplify, they abstract, they eliminate all that, for their purposes, is irrelevant and ignore whatever they choose to regard an inessential; they impose a style, they compel the facts to verify a favorite hypothesis, they consign to the waste paper basket all that, to their mind, falls short of perfection…the dream of Order begets tyranny, the dream of Beauty, monsters and violence. 
    –Ape and Essence, 1948

  • Bookworm

    David, your fund of knowledge is unequaled and always impressive.  That is a perfect quotation.  Thank you for adding it to my post.

  • Earl

    Well….from that photo, they DEFINITELY need a wider sidewalk, if everything is to be “perfect”!
    We spent a few days in Singapore in 2002, and enjoyed it immensely.  People were nice, streets were clean, crime extremely low….and on the night tour at the zoo, I got “hugged” by a rather large fruit bat that took a shine to me!!

  • Oldflyer

    Book, you call it a sterile environment, or a facsimile, of perfection.  I would characterize it somewhat differently.  It seems to me that Singapore simply strives for an environment in which a large number of people can coexist without intruding on the space of others.
    If it takes rather draconian punishments to inculcate those habits among the populace, then so be it.
    As I look at our litter strewn streets and parking lots,  I see that large segments of our own populace simply do not care if they inconvenience their fellow citizens. I do not agree that the opposite is a form sterility.  It is simple courtesy toward others and care for our common space. These attributes are not exclusive of a vibrant, robust society.   I also do not see enforcement of laws that protect members of a society from impingement by the thoughtless and destructive as totalitarian.  Our system of laws is  also  designed to guarantee individual liberty, but only as long as the exercise does not adversely impinge on the lives of others.  We just do not enforce our laws.

  • Ymarsakar

    Singapore and Japan are examples of how centralized security and power works, in terms of actual successes rather than totalitarian death pits like NKorea.
    The US and some other places, like Switzerland, are examples of de-centralized systems of security.
    The primary difference is where power pools at, the top or bottom. Switzerland arms its people with training and military weapons. The US is full of opportunity to acquire said weapons or to acquire said training, though they are not a requirement (yet). In order to have something like Singapore and Japan work, however, one would need to take away the weapons from the people and place the authority in other areas of society. This can only succeed when societal trust is high and corruption is low. Without methods to resolve community problems with authority, a centralized system merely turns into tyranny but the other option is a successful benevolent dictatorship.
    While the centralized systems of Singapore and Japan don’t cross the threshold into benevolent dictatorship, they are the closest to such ideals as it is possible to see working on planet earth at the moment.
    Centralized systems are very good at concentrating power and applying it to all sorts of hotspots. De-centralized systems react faster, but have problems applying power to problems given how every faction has a different idea of what the solution should be. It’s much akin to the way insurgencies work vs occupation forces.
    Overall, a centralized system like Japan still wouldn’t work if the citizens themselves weren’t motivated. As seen in the various disasters vs Japan, the citizenry will go out of their way to help their neighbors, without theft, abuse of power, or looting, because they feel as one community in their hometowns, as one solidified hierarchy under those with power at the top. This requires conformity in return for security, stability, and cooperation. America decided to utilize the other side of the spectrum, one where individuals not only had the motivation and initiative to solve problems, but doing so by collecting power to the point where the top most hierarchy was no longer needed. Even still, the ideals of community, societal trust, and initiative in maintaining the security of your own society and neighbors, is at the heart of the great machine.
    What the Left offers you, is neither.

  • Ymarsakar

    “But it’s also a very sterile society, one that values conformism over individualism and the innovation and creativity that flow personal liberty.”
    Almost the entire reason the Left wasn’t crushed in the 1960s revolution was precisely because they convinced the mainstream Americans that to crush them would be valuing conformism over individualism. The same argument doesn’t tend to work against the Left or China, when they get into power.
    Once a society has reached a certain level of societal trust, the status quo is maintained in everyone’s interest. Japan would look very different if they adopted Leftist socialist work ethics, for one thing. No matter what the policies of the state, what matters are the views, ethics, habits, and virtues of the people. If one took Singapore’s laws and applied them to North Korean cities or Detroit, what you would get isn’t Singapore’s order and law. What you would get is something very different.

  • jj

    I come down on the side of Earl and Oldflyer.  I like Singapore – and there are plenty of people to whom I’d cheerfully take a cane.  And – Singapore has Raffles.  A couple of nights there will contribute a lot to your vision of the attainability of perfection. 

  • Ymarsakar

    A nation full of sex slaves, peons, and aristocrats can value freedom and become the Red Light distract of organized world crime.
    A nation full of sex slaves, peons, and aristocrats can value autocracy and become the next totalitarian Deus Ex Machina of humanity.
    Strangely enough, a virtuous people will succeed and prosper, no matter what system or laws they adopt. No matter what.