Published August 1, 1994
No doubt that’s true. A well-ordered society not only can be good for individual citizens; it is the prerequisite both to a civilized public life and to the kind of prosperity that Americans have long enjoyed—a prosperity that the new East Asian “tigers” are now justifiably proud of having achieved. But an exploration of what “well-ordered” means in Singapore helps us to grasp more precisely what the stakes are in the East Asian critique of the decadent West.
According to Freedom in the World 1993-1994, the authoritative survey by Freedom House of civil liberties and political rights in countries around the globe, Singapore ranks toward the bottom of those countries that are only “partly free.” The country’s “Internal Security Act” permits the detention of suspects—who in the past have included leaders of the opposition to the ruling People’s Action Party—for an unlimited number of two-year periods. The government has also used this act to restrict the travel, residence, publishing, and speech rights of political opponents; and in 1989 it amended the constitution to forbid judicial review of the constitutionality of any “anti-subversion laws.” The government also harasses political opponents by dismissing them from public-sector jobs, and by instituting or threatening libel suits.
A “Societies Act” requires any organized group of ten or more Singaporeans to register with the government. The ruling party systematically manipulates such purportedly non-political groups as trade unions and neighborhood associations, while using the Societies Act to prevent opposition groups from doing any serious grass-roots organizing. The police have to approve all speakers at all public functions, and permission is required for any meeting of more than five people.
The media in Singapore are highly controlled; it is a given that editorials and news coverage will be favorable to the ruling party. Only government-approved individuals can own stock in the holding company that publishes the major newspapers. The government also owns all three television stations and nine out of twelve radio stations. Distribution of foreign journals is governmentally controlled, and at present the circulation of the Economist, the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Asian Wall Street Journal, and Asiaweek is restricted.
And there is more. The government includes a “Psychological Defense Unit” whose purpose is to indoctrinate the population into an ideology of “one people, one nation, one Singapore” (as one government-sponsored “people-bonding song” puts it). To put it bluntly, the leaders of the Singapore School have not been content, on their home turf, with creating prosperity and order; they demand the authority to create and enforce national and personal identity as well.
Moreover, in “calm and well-ordered” Singapore, the demographics of that identity are not to be left either to chance or to personal choice. The government also sponsors a “Family Planning Unit” whose aims are quite unblushingly eugenic. At first, in the 1970s, when it seemed that overpopulation was a problem, an intensive government propaganda campaign (“Girl or boy—two is enough”), coupled with financial incentives for sterilization, succeeded in lowering the birth rate. But as Oscar Wilde could have predicted, nothing succeeds like excess: by the mid-1980s Lee Kuan Yew was issuing grave public warnings that his people’s “present standards” would be at risk unless they got back on the reproductive bandwagon. Lee’s concerns led to the creation of a new governmental “Social Development Unit,” whose propaganda instructed Singaporeans to “make a little room for love” in their evidently too-orderly lives.
Lee also got nervous about the racial mix in Singapore. By 1987 he had decided that the combination of a “birth shortfall” among the more highly educated Chinese (who now compose about 85 percent of the microstate’s population) and a bit too much “making room for love” among the less educated classes posed eugenic dangers to Singapore’s continued economic growth (and, just perhaps, to his political power). And so he changed the sterilization-incentive policy to encourage the sterilization of those below a certain level of educational attainment, while removing the financial incentive for those with better academic records.
Thus, as Jonah M. David, a freelancer living in Singapore, wrote in National Review, “sex, like everything else in Singapore, has come to require meticulous planning.” But that, of course, is wholly congruent with the ideology of the ruling party, which holds that “citizenship consists in the performance of an allotted role in an unfolding master plan”—a plan devised by the government. One would not be offending against charity or prudence by suggesting that this seems to be the position of the Singapore School, too.
All this reinforces the impression that the East Asian critique is not meant merely to call attention to certain excesses in the working out of the Western human-rights and democratic traditions in recent years. Rather, the East Asian critique as formulated by the Singapore School poses a sharp challenge to the Western democratic tradition at its roots.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.