Can’t chew gum at the same time
The Freedom Fanclub’s love for Singapore shows its true priorities

For the most humourless society on Earth, Singapore does do one form of comedy brilliantly: accidental satire. Who else could make its most famous building a shopping centre full of prostitutes? Or respond to an article about silencing political opposition with libel suits with a libel suit? How better to pay tribute to the late Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s authoritarian founding leader, than closing Speakers’ Corner, the only place in the nation with a semblance of free speech. (A semblance that includes regulations about loud-hailer use, banner composition, and the attendance of non-citizens). This week Singapore also produced an irony beyond its borders – effusive praise for its soft tyranny from advocates of personal liberty.

“Sure, his authoritarian version of democracy had its drawbacks and will need to evolve, but […] his model has succeeded,” wrote Chris Kenny. “Some in Singapore would have liked a more liberal regime domestically, but no one can doubt Singapore’s overall success,” wrote Greg Sheridan. Two sentences that can’t wait to get to the “but”; specks in a sea of compliments. Freedom Commissioner Tim Wilson took the time to tweet his respects: “An enduring legacy of Lee Kuan Yew was his understanding of the importance of property rights to improving the human condition. Vale.”

Wilson clarified that he wasn’t lionising Yew as a human rights champion, and we should be fair. After all, everyone is a hypocrite in the political sphere, one way or another. And it’s no surprise that some wingnuts who claim speed cameras are fascism get misty about caning people for graffiti, or excessive deference to tradition. A few drinks deep they can get just as wistful about Joh Bjelke-Petersen, or even Mussolini. It’s a bit of a performance piece.

What makes these more sober appraisals significant is the singular nature of Singapore’s repression. It’s exactly the kind of pervasive, personalised nanny-statism libertarians are supposed to be implacably opposed to, and it’s implemented for reasons they loathe. Years ago, my brother toured the country with a school orchestra, only to have a low-level government spook step in to strike out the theme from Superman. It was “too Western”. There’s something especially pathetic about censorship this small-bore, cramming the power of the state into the nooks and crannies of everyday life. But this pettiness is quite deliberate.

“I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens,” Lee told the Straits Times. “Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn't be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn't be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.” Both Yew’s vision and the nation it created are the antithesis of libertarianism.

Kissing in public, any pornography, political assemblies, and homosexuality are all illegal. No Singaporean leader has ever lost a defamation action in local courts. Oral sex was illegal until 2007. On press freedom, Singapore ranks 153 out of 180 countries. Every play must be passed by a government censor. Songs were banned for referencing “making love” as recently as 2001. The rationales for all of this are familiar: promotional racial harmony, paternalism and public safety. It is still, in the words of American novelist William Gibson, “Disneyland with the death penalty”.

Right now, conservatives are exercised about speech restrictions at universities, mocking safe spaces and deriding “no platforming” as a form of intimidatory censorship. But extend the concept of a “safe space” to a whole nation state, and that condemnation turns to praise. The supposedly inviolable, almost sacrosanct quality of liberty, never quite defined, turns out to mean “low company tax”.

None of this is an aberration. Political libertarianism has a dismal record of excusing the right kind of tyranny. Compare Tim Wilson’s statement to this letter from one of his intellectual antecedents, the classical liberal economist Frederik Hayek: “If Mrs Thatcher said that free choice is to be exercised more in the market place than in the ballot box, she has merely uttered the truism that the first is indispensable for individual freedom, while the second is not.” Here are two of the chief architects of modern “personal liberty” politics, quite happy to trade away something as fundamental as the franchise, as long as the price is right.

Hayek applied these ideas in a sorry career as a collaborator with not one but two dictators, António de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal and Augusto Pinochet in Chile, fitting in a brief sideline as an apologist for apartheid South Africa. None of these regimes even implemented his beloved free-market ideals, but then neither has Singapore. It’s a libertarian success story where 90% of the population live in government housing, and a permit to buy a car can cost $100,000. But personal liberty fans on the right have a way of overlooking these affronts along with all the others. You might say it’s excessive deference to a tradition.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys US correspondent and contributing editor. 

@rgcooke

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