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.