John Rawls, Constructing an Ideal Society, and Thai Food

On the eve of the U.S. Presidential Elections 2016, under the regal gaze of the recently-deceased Thai King Bhumibol, over steaming tom yam seafood soup and larb moo at Plus Sixty 6 (1A Short Street), we were having a spirited discussion about the political philosophy of John Rawls.

Thai food at Plus Sixty 6, Short Street, Singapore

It is the nature of any human society that there will be differing views about:

  • what an ideal society would look like, what values it would embody;
  • what system of government would be best to achieve such an ideal society, etc

Rawls thought that political philosophy could discover common ground on which the various factions in a society come build a reasoned agreement on these two points.

Rawls starts from several presuppositions*:

1. Presuppositions about the government of society

Rawls assumes a society governed by a democratic system, not, eg. a monarchy, oligarchy, dictatorship.

2. Presuppositions about the citizens (cooperative, reasonable, rational)

Reasonable citizens, who want to cooperate with one another on mutually acceptable terms, will see that a freestanding political conception generated from ideas in the public political culture is the only basis for cooperation that all citizens can reasonably be expected to endorse.

Rawlsian citizens are … reasonable and rational. The idea that citizens are reasonable is familiar from political liberalism. Reasonable citizens have the capacity to abide by fair terms of cooperation, even at the expense of their own interests, provided that others are also willing to do so…Rawls calls this reasonableness the capacity for a sense of justice. Citizens are also conceived as rational: they have the capacity to pursue and revise their own view of what is valuable in human life. Rawls calls this the capacity for a conception of the good. Together these underlying capacities are the two moral powers.

3. Presuppositions about the conception of an ideal society by Rawlsian citizens

The three most fundamental ideas that Rawls finds in the public political culture of a democratic society are that citizens are free and equal, and that society should be a fair system of cooperation.

Rawls sees justice as fairness as answering to the demands of both freedom and equality, a challenge posed by the socialist critique of liberal democracy and by the conservative critique of the modern welfare state. Justice as fairness sets out a version of social contract theory that Rawls believes provides a superior understanding of justice to that of the dominant tradition in political philosophy: utilitarianism.

First Principle: Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all;

Second Principle: Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions:

  • They are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity;
  • They are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle).

Rawls’s conception of society is defined by fairness: social institutions are to be fair to all cooperating members of society, regardless of their race, gender, religion, class of origin, reasonable conception of the good life, and so on.

Rawls also emphasizes publicity as an aspect of fairness. In what he calls a well-ordered society the principles that order the basic structure are publicly known to do so, and the justifications for these principles are knowable by and acceptable to all reasonable citizens. The idea behind publicity is that since the principles for the basic structure will be coercively enforced, they should stand up to public scrutiny.

Thai food at Plus Sixty 6, Short Street, SingaporeAnd so he thought that common ground could be found:

on the basis of public reason:

it is unreasonable for citizens to attempt to impose what they see as the whole truth on others—political power must be used in ways that all citizens may reasonably be expected to endorse.

…Rawls extends this requirement of reciprocity to apply directly to how citizens explain their political decisions to one another. In essence, public reason requires citizens to be able to justify their political decisions to one another using publicly available values and standards.
Citizens engaged in certain political activities have a duty of civility to be able to justify their decisions on fundamental political issues by reference only to public values and public standards.

The public values that citizens must be able to appeal to are the values of a political conception of justice: those related to the freedom and equality of citizens and the fairness of ongoing social cooperation. Among public values are the freedom of religious practice, the political equality of women and racial minorities, the efficiency of the economy, the preservation of a healthy environment, and the integrity of the family as securing the orderly reproduction of society from one generation to the next. Nonpublic values are the values internal to associations like churches (e.g., that women may not hold the highest offices) or private clubs (e.g., that racial minorities are rightly excluded) which cannot be squared with public values such as these.

Similarly, citizens should be able to justify their political decisions by public standards of inquiry. Public standards are principles of reasoning and rules of evidence that all citizens could reasonably endorse. So citizens are not to justify their political decisions by appeal to divination, or to complex and disputed economic or psychological theories. Rather, publicly acceptable standards are those that rely on common sense, on facts generally known, and on the conclusions of science that are well established and not controversial.

The duty to abide by public reason applies when the most fundamental political issues are at stake: issues such as who has the right to vote, which religions are to be tolerated, who will be eligible to own property, and what are suspect categories for making employment decisions. These are what Rawls calls constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice. Public reason applies more weakly, if at all, to less momentous political questions, for example to most laws that change the rate of tax, or that put aside public money to maintain national parks.

Citizens have a duty to constrain their decisions by public reason only when they engage in certain political activities, usually when exercising powers of public office. So judges are bound by public reason when they issue their rulings, legislators should abide by public reason when speaking and voting in the legislature, and the executive and candidates for high office should respect public reason in their public pronouncements. Significantly, Rawls says that voters should also heed public reason when they vote. All of these activities are or support exercises of political power, so all must be justifiable in terms that all citizens might reasonably endorse. However, citizens are not bound by duties of public reason when engaged in other activities, for example when they worship in church, perform on stage, pursue scientific research, send letters to the editor, or talk politics around the dinner table.

The duty to be able to justify one’s political decisions with public reasons is a moral, not a legal, duty: it is a duty of civility. All citizens have full legal rights to free expression, and overstepping the bounds of public reason is never itself a crime. Rather citizens have a moral duty of mutual respect and civic friendship not to justify political decisions on fundamental issues with partisan values or controversial standards of reasoning that could not be publicly redeemed.

bento lunchbox: quinoa, larb moo, baby spinach, cherry tomatoes

and a practical way of public reasoning is by donning the veil of ignorance:

The most striking feature of the original position is the veil of ignorance, which prevents other arbitrary facts about citizens from influencing the agreement among their representatives. As we have seen, Rawls holds that the fact that a citizen is for example of a certain race, class, and gender is no reason for social institutions to favor or disfavor him. Each party in the original position is therefore deprived of knowledge of the race, class, and gender of the real citizen they represent. In fact the veil of ignorance deprives the parties of all facts about citizens that are irrelevant to the choice of principles of justice: not only their race, class, and gender but also their age, natural endowments, and more. Moreover the veil of ignorance also screens out specific information about the citizens’ society so as to get a clearer view of the permanent features of a just social system.

and so ultimately by working the constructivist muscle:

Political constructivism is Rawls’s account of the objectivity and validity of political judgments. The original position embodies, Rawls says, all of the relevant conceptions of person and society and principles of practical reasoning for making judgments about justice. When there is an overlapping consensus focused on justice as fairness, the original position specifies a shared public perspective from which all citizens can reason about the principles of justice and their application to the society’s institutions. Judgments made from this perspective are then objectively correct, in the sense of giving reasons to citizens to act regardless of their actual motivations or the reasons they think they have within their particular points of view. Political constructivism does not maintain that the principles of justice are true: questions of truth are ones about which reasonable citizens may disagree, and are to be addressed by each citizen from within their own comprehensive doctrine. Judgments made from the original position are, however, valid, or as Rawls says, reasonable.

*because the Stanford Encyclopaedia entry is more useful than any explanation I could have coughed up, I’ve let them explain Rawls here.

“Democracy Kills: What’s So Good About Having the Vote?”

Sinar Pagi Nasi Padang, 13 Circular Road, SingaporeLunch at Sinar Pagi Nasi Padang (13 Circular Road) and we were talking politics loudly enough that neighbouring tables, who were discussing swaps and bonds when we sat down, had started to listen in.

Somewhere along the line I mentioned that I’d been reading Humphrey Hawksley‘s Democracy Kills: what’s so good about having the vote?

Rather than a tightly-woven argument with stats, Hawksley had chosen a more emotive approach with stacks of personal narratives. As one might surmise from its title, the leitmotif of book, as we travel from Africa to the Middle East and the Islamic world, to South Asia, to Latin America, to South East Asia, to Europe, is skepticism about the benefits of democracy.

We read about West-imposed elections in Africa ending with catastrophic consequences when would-be dictators took advantage of the weakness of fledgling political institutions to sweep into power.

We are brought to the Middle East where the relevance of elections is questioned in a society where power is commonly shared according to birthright and candidates are manifestations of societal (tribal) faultlines. And we are shown how wrong Condoleezza Rice is in alleging that dictatorships caused terror, so democracy would end it. Violence erupted whenever a Western power came along to overthrow a dictator, leaving a vacuum of power for various factions to fight over.

etc.

tauhu telor, Sinar Pagi Nasi Padang, 13 Circular Road, SingaporeDemocracy is not the panacea that the West (mostly, America) touts it is. Hawksley repeatedly suggests that American involvement in various countries is a fig leaf – it is about protecting U.S. interests and installing leaders they think will be friendly to them, rather than the welfare of the locals. Hence, the inconsistency in their labelling the democratically-elected Hamas as terrorists. Hawksley then contrasts the poverty and instability of suddenly-manufactured democracies with the prosperity and stability of monarch-ruled Dubai or authoritarian Singapore.

The oft-quoted dictum of Winston Churchill (from his speech in the House of Commons, 11 November 1947):

Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…

has just as often been forgotten. But, in any case, says Hawksley, it’s not enough just to observe this fact. More needs to be done:

  • educate the electorate: create a generation of people who can think calmly and critically, and reason well – something greatly hampered by sanctions on books
  • allow time for electoral candidates to make themselves known to the locals and not just be handpicked by eg. the Americans in Iraq, mentor them so they understand what the democratic system entails and know how not to be a bad loser
  • ensure proper planning for the future – it’s not just enough to plot to get rid of a dictator without a plan for how to run the country thereafter

a diet of yoghurt and muesli and political theory for breakfastWell, said AH, other than the absolute perfect rule of Christ over all (see, eg. Ephesians 1), perhaps the best form of government is the benevolent dictator. I suppose that’s just as feasible in this fallen world as a completely unselfish community-centred rational electorate.

The Myth of the Rational Voter – Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

Dipping into Facebook this last week has been repulsive. The thinly-veiled vitriol from all sides on so-called hot-potato issues like the AHPETC accounts and CPF.

Most annoying of course, is people button-holing you after church or at lunch to talk politics. But when asked to explain their anger about current policies or hostility towards the incumbent governing party (the People’s Action Party), they repeat rather selfish complaints (eg. I want money and I want it now) without any constructive alternative solution to the stated problem (probable failure to save for housing and retirement).

And just asking for more substantial views then gets you the accusatory finger of “oooohhh, someone’s pro-PAP”.

[In the spirit of “no link lei”, here are some gratuitous photos of food.]

hawker centre, Lorong 8 Toa PayohSo it’s Cooling Off Day. One day to think rationally about the choices we are to make at the ballot boxes for the Singapore General Elections 2015 tomorrow.

Amidst the thick haze, there is a cacophony of noise – and it sounds just like lemmings running at full tilt, blinded by biases:

anti-government, anti-authority bias

  • we are unhappy. Therefore, something, or everything!, about the government is making us unhappy.
  • we don’t have the power the government has. Therefore, they are oppressing us and we are marginalised (or we will find people who look like they are victims – single mothers, singles, self-identified LGBT, minority races, low wage earners). They are arrogant and out-of-touch, we are the people who really know what’s going on.

We find it easy to love those who are worse-off than us; who, conspicuously, have less power or money. For no substantial reason, they seem more authentic.

This is why José Mujica, the last president of Uruguay, acquired some international fame as the “world’s poorest president”. His austerity has been an inspiration to a world so engorged with possessions that “de-cluttering” is one of the newest fads. But governing a country requires more than that. New Republic tried to find out if he actually improved the lives of the Uruguayans, and discovered some disappointment. So Eve Fairbanks reflects, philosophically:

It’s a pattern: We keep creating saviors whom we expect to single- handedly restore lost values. Then we lash out at them when they inevitably fall short…

We’re searching for the one figure who can break the binds. We want someone simply different enough to plot a new direction for a world that often feels full of deadly momentum toward existential decay and harder to steer than the hurtling Titanic.

Because actual experience tends to reveal the limits of candidates’ power, we’re also drawn to heroes with less and less experience, blank slates onto which we can project our fantasies for change.

And what about Aung San Suu Kyi, once the icon for a liberal marketing basket of peaceful demonstrations, democracy, human rights, progressiveness etc? Now that she’s got some political power, the junta smirk as she too has been coming under fire – in the last few years, for her silence about the plight of the Muslim Rohingya in West Burma. Her halo has slipped, tarnished, said some. She’s acting just like a “any other politician: single-mindedly pursuing an agenda, making expedient decisions with one eye on electoral politics, the other on kingmakers in Naypyidaw and the domestic political economy”, say others. Oh and why not just accuse her of bad faith and say she’s “taken advantage of the perception of her as an unerring statesman and humanitarian and chosen to collude with tyranny against the people who need her most”.

Mellben Seafood, Lorong 8 Toa Payoh

In his book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan states four other major biases that affect the electorate’s rationality and critical thinking faculties. Courtesy of The Economist:

  • anti-market bias

People don’t understand that the pursuit of private profits often yields public benefits. There is the tendency to underestimate the benefits of the market economy.

Most people fancy themselves to be victims of the market to be preyed on by corporations (the “greedy monopolists”), rather than as they really are – participants in the market.

When asked why petrol prices have risen, the public mostly blames the greed of oil firms. Yet economists nearly all attribute it to the law of supply and demand. If petrol prices rise because oil firms want higher profits, why would they sometimes fall?

  • anti-foreign bias

People underestimate the benefits of interactions with foreigners. They tend to see foreigners as the enemies.

“Most Americans think the economy is seriously damaged by companies sending jobs overseas. Few economists do. People understand that the local hardware store will sell them a better, cheaper hammer than they can make for themselves. Yet they are squeamish about trade with foreigners, and even more so about foreigners who enter their country to do jobs they spurn. Hence the reluctance of Democratic presidential candidates to defend free trade, even when they know it will make most voters better off, and the reluctance of their Republican counterparts to defend George Bush’s liberal line on immigration.”

black pepper crab, Mellben Seafood, Lorong 8 Toa Payoh

    • make-work bias

People equate prosperity with employment rather than production.

“The make-work bias is best illustrated by a story, perhaps apocryphal, of an economist who visits China under Mao Zedong. He sees hundreds of workers building a dam with shovels. He asks: “Why don’t they use a mechanical digger?” “That would put people out of work,” replies the foreman. “Oh,” says the economist, “I thought you were making a dam. If it’s jobs you want, take away their shovels and give them spoons.” For an individual, the make-work bias makes some sense. He prospers if he has a job, and may lose his health insurance if he is laid off. For the nation as a whole, however, what matters is not whether people have jobs, but how they do them. The more people produce, the greater the general prosperity. It helps, therefore, if people shift from less productive occupations to more productive ones. Economists, recalling that before the industrial revolution 95% of Americans were farmers, worry far less about downsizing than ordinary people do. Politicians, however, follow the lead of ordinary people. Hence, to take a more frivolous example, Oregon’s ban on self-service petrol stations.”

    • bias towards pessimism

People tend to think economic conditions are worse than they are.

“The public’s pessimism is evident in its belief that most new jobs tend to be low-paying, that our children will be worse off than we are and that society is going to hell in a variety of ways. Economists, despite their dismal reputation, tend to be cheerier. Politicians have to strike a balance. They often find it useful to inflame public fears, but they have to sound confident that things will get better if they are elected.”

hawker centre, Lorong 8 Toa PayohAnd what does this all translate to at the ballot boxes on polling day?

Caplan says:

“Since delusional political beliefs are free [ie. cost them nothing], the voter consumes until he reaches his “satiation point,” believing whatever makes him feel best. When a person puts on his voting hat, he does not have to give up practical efficacy in exchange for self-image, because he has no practical efficacy to give up in the first place.”

“The same people who practice intellectual self-discipline when they figure out how to commute to work, repair a car, buy a house, or land a job “let themselves go” when they contemplate the effects of protectionism, gun control, or pharmaceutical regulation.”

Is a democracy (however defined) better than an authoritarian regime? Is living under an elected government better than being ruled by a sovereign?

At the end of the day, one thing is clear – we are all sinful people (voters, politicians, government types, rebels) who must try to regulate our societies the best we can under the circumstances of this fallen world. But even in the midst of the frustration of it all, we look forward to a day when the whole world will be ruled by Jesus who is God himself, who is perfectly just, perfectly loving, and perfectly wise, and to whom we can submit wholeheartedly.

hawker centre, Lorong 8 Toa Payoh

The Myth of Democracy As Perfection?

So it’s time for the Singapore General Elections 2015. Nomination Day was 1 September 2015 and since then, posters, illegal stickers, billboards, Facebook posts have be sprouting like mould on a wet book in the tropical humidity.

Heading home one day, I came upon a sizeable crowd heading to a Hougang field. A Workers’ Party rally was on:

Singapore General Elections 2015: Workers Party Rally in HougangIt doesn’t take long to observe how the concept of “democracy” is thrown around freely, without any attempt to define what it means.

To my shame, I’ve never really thought much about politics, much less democracy, until returning to Singapore. If someone’d asked what form of government I thought to be the best, I would have unequivocally replied “democractic”. Clumpy thinking on my part – democracy = human rights = freedom = civilised = good.

So thought I’d better have a read around to see what it was all about. Going to very messily dump thoughts here:

(1) definition of democracy

(2) use of democratic over the course of human history (akan datang)

(3) touted benefits of democracy as system of government of a people (akan datang)

(4) what is necessary for a successful democratic process

Singapore General Elections 2015: Workers Party Rally in Hougang Singapore General Elections 2015: Workers Party Rally in Hougang

(1) Definition of Democracy

This actually a hard one! Other than the lowest common denominator of voting in the government, Roger Osborne says in Of the People By the People – A New History of Democracy:

  • “when we try to pin down exactly what democracy is, we find ourselves chasing rainbows. The problem is that everytime we get near to a definition, or compile a list of conditions that any democracy must fulfil, we find examples of fully functioning democracies that do not comply, or of societies that are not regarded as democratic but nevertheless fulfil some of the criteria” [Comment: wait, but then by what criteria is a society defined as “fully functioning democracy” and “not regarded as democratic”?]
  • “Our story shows that democracies exist at different times, but democracy does not necessarily improve over time.”
  • “However imperfectly, democracy attempts to solve the great dilemma of human life: how to flourish as an individual while existing as part of a community?”

Singapore General Elections 2015

(4) what is necessary for a successful democratic process
Mortimer Adler in How to Read a Book mentions the need for (i) minds that can read well, that have their analytical and critical powers developed; (ii) people who can communicate and discuss matters intelligently, who aim to persuade by reason rather than by force:
“One of his motives in starting the Honors course was to revive college life as an intellectual community. If a group of students read the same books and met weekly for two years to discuss them, they might find a new sort of fellowship. The great books would not only initiate them into the world of ideas but would provide the frame of reference for further communication among them. They would know how to talk intelligently and intelligibly to one another, not only about the books, but through the books about all the problems which engage men’s thought and action.

In such a community, Erskine said, democracy would be safe, for democracy requires intelligent communication about and common participation in the solution of human problems. That was before anyone thought that democracy would ever again be threatened. As I remember, we did not pay much attention to Erskine’s insight at the time. But he was right. I am sure of it now. I am sure that a liberal education is democracy’s strongest bulwark.”

“The mind which is trained to read well has its analytical and critical powers developed.”

“The mind which is trained to discuss well has them further sharpened. One acquires a tolerance for arguments through dealing with them patiently and sympathetically. The animal impulse to impose our opinions upon others is thus checked. We learn that the only authority is reason itself—the only arbiters in any dispute are the reasons and evidences. We do not try to gain ascendancy by a show of force or by counting the noses of those who agree with us. Genuine issues cannot be decided by the mere weight of opinion. We must appeal to reason, not depend on pressure groups.”

“We all want to learn to think straight. A great book may help us by the examples it affords of penetrating insight and cogent analysis. A good discussion may give further support by catching us when we are thinking crooked. If our friends do not let us get away with it, we may soon learn that sloppy thinking, like murder, will always out. Embarrassment may reduce us to making an effort we had never supposed was within our power. Unless reading and discussion enforce these demands for straight and clear thinking, most of us go through life with an amazingly false confidence in our perceptions and judgments. We think badly most of the time and, what is worse, we do not know it because we are seldom found out.

Those who can read well, listen and talk well, have disciplined minds. Discipline is indispensable for a free use of our powers. The man who has not the knack of doing something gets tied up in knots when he tries to perform. The discipline which comes from skill is necessary for facility. How far can you go in discussing a book with someone who does not know how to read or talk about it? How far can you get in your own reading without a trained ability?

Discipline, as I have said before, is a source of freedom. Only a trained intelligence can think freely. And where there is no freedom in thinking, there can be no freedom of thought. Without free minds, we cannot long remain free men.”

Singapore General Elections 2015: Workers Party Rally in Hougang“They have experienced the pleasure of talking about serious problems intelligently. They do not exchange opinions as they would the time of day. Discussion has become responsible. A man must support what he says. Ideas have connections with one another and with the world of everyday affairs. They have learned to judge propositions and arguments by their intelligibility and relevance.

Where men lack the arts of communication, intelligent discussion must languish. Where there is no mastery of the medium for exchanging ideas, ideas cease to play a part in human life. When that happens, men are little better than the brutes they dominate by force or cunning, and they will soon try to dominate each other in the same way.

The loss of freedom follows. When men cannot live together as friends, when a whole society is not built on a real community of understanding, freedom cannot flourish. We can live freely only with our friends. With all others, we are constantly oppressed by every sort of dread, and checked in every movement by suspicion.

Preserving freedom, for ourselves and our posterity, is one of our major concerns today. A proper respect for liberty is the heart of sound liberalism. But I cannot help wondering whether our liberalism is sound. We do not seem to know the origins of liberty or its ends. We cry out for all sorts of liberty—freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly—but we do not seem to realize that freedom of thought is the basis for all these others. Without it, freedom of speech is an empty privilege, and a free conscience nothing but a private prejudice. Without it, our civil liberties can be exercised only in a pro forma way, and we are unlikely to retain them long if we do not know how to use them well.”

“…in his recent commentary on American democracy, called Of Human Fredom, Jacques Barzun cautions us not to be misled by the boast that we have the most literate population in the world. “Literacy in this sense is not education; it is not even ‘knowing how to read’ in the sense of taking in quickly and correctly the message of the printed page, to say nothing of exercising a critical judgement upon it.”

Techniques of communication, which make for literacy, are our first obligation, and more so in a democracy than in any other kind of society, because it depends on a literate electorate.

Slighting the three R’s in the beginning, and neglecting the liberal arts almost entirely at the end, our present education is essentially illiberal. It indoctrinates rather than disciplines and educates. Our students are indoctrinated with all sorts of local prejudices and predigested pap. They have been fattened and made flabby for the demagogues to prey upon. Their resistance to specious authority, which is nothing but pressure of opinion, has been lowered. They will even swallow the insidious propaganda in the headlines of some local newspapers.

Even when the doctrines they impose are sound democratic ones, the schools fails to cultivate free judgement because they have forsaken discipline. They leave their students open to opposite indoctrination by more powerful orators or, what is worse, to the sway of their own worst passions.

Ours is a demagogic rather than a democratic education. The student who has not learned to think critically, who has not come to respect reason as they only arbiter of truth in human generalizations, who has not been lifted out of the blind alleys of local jargons and shibboleths, will not be saved by the orator of the classroom from later succumbing to the orator of the platform and the press.

To be saved, we must follow the precept of the Book Common Prayer: “Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.”

The Brits are Back to the Ballot Boxes

Today, the Brits go to the polls.

Friends back there have posted some links to useful material on the relationship between Christians and politics. Just bookmarking them here for future reference:

Faith at the Ballot Box, Johnny Monro and Thomas Creedy

“For the Bible Tells Me So” – Evangelical Faith and the Complexities of Secular Political Engagement, Thomas Creedy

Theos – politics

Democracy – What does the Bible have to say about engaging with politics?

 

 

The Thought Collective’s Diverse-city Trails: Little India Trail

Enjoyed The Thought Collective‘s Diverse-city Little India Trail. With such a groan-worthy pun, no prizes for guessing that there is a link Ben & Jerry’s, of the delicious ice-cream-with-corny-names fame.

The Thought Collective Little India Trail, SingaporeThe aim of these Trails (there are two others in this series – one in Toa Payoh and the other in Jalan Besar):

Thinkscape’s [Learning Experiences (LEs)] are designed to help people see current issues and institutions in a new light. We hope to help participants develop a sense of ownership over these issues, and propel them towards meaningful and much needed action. Thinkscape also aims to be a citizenship portal for young people. We encourage youths to explore and form opinions on issues critical to Singapore’s survival and success, maturing their own narratives and building harmony with our nation’s broader story.

The pedagogical approach appears to be one of curated social learning (if there’s such a thing! and vs. social constructivism) through the lens of narrative inquiry:

Thinkscape creates experiences that advocate new perspectives on industries, institutions and issues in Singapore. We believe that experience is a powerful means to bring conviction and reality to our learning.

Thinkscape’s Learning Experiences (LEs) take the form of trails and workshops, and are designed by The Thought Collective, which comprises of educators, social innovators and advisers from public agencies and civil society groups. Through building narratives for Singapore, we aspire towards transforming the social and emotional capital of our nation.

Having just returned to Singapore, I was keen to get to know certain areas again. Little India was one of the places I’d spent quite a bit of time in the past. Still, the trail was eye-opening.

The Thought Collective Little India Trail, SingaporeSome part of the trail (tour!) was an introduction to the Little India world through the lens of a Indian transient worker, usually working in the construction industry: here is where you’d go to get comfort food when you are off sick, here is where you watch your beloved cricket matches, etc.

The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore

Other bits helped us interrogate the architecture and use of space of the area – to understand the demographic and social changes that (may) have taken place in the last few years.

We were fortunate to meet the one of the few garland weavers left in Singapore. He had previously spoken to our trail leader of the frustration of not finding a worthy successor. The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore

Certain structures and signs (green fences, an open space converted into a car park, a row of shops, prohibition signs, and void deck obstacles were pointed out. They were put in place to discourage the congregation of foreign workers in those spaces, especially during the weekends, and to stop them from cycling through the void deck. The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore

We peeked into some living spaces in pretty old terraces along Rowell Road, and then took a brisk walk through the red-lit back alley of Desker Road: The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore

Then there was the opportunity to talk to people in the Lembu Road open-space: The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore The Thought Collective Little India Trail, Singapore

The pedagogical methodology of “experience and explore” rather than “educate” meant the trail leader’s commentary was somewhat ambiguous, though leaning slightly to the left. This seemed merely to reinforce the perceptions already in the minds of the participants (by sample size of people paying good money to walk around their own country, probably already laden with certain sympathies).

If I’d led the trail, I’d wanted to have been explicit about the concerns and cares of all stakeholders concerned in each case.

Assuming the first step to social cohesion is understanding the perspectives of a group you would not normally hear from or sympathise with, then airtime must be given to both the perceived victim (in this case, the migrant workers) and the perceived oppressor (usually, the rich, the ones in authority – the government or employers, the majority race):

  • not just to transient workers who may be lodged in overcrowded dormitories and have fallen foul of poor workplace practices, but to their employers who may have taken all measures to prevent such things from happening;
  • not just to foreign labourers with no place to congregate, but also to the old people living in the flats above who find themselves living their twilight years almost as if they themselves were in a foreign land, or think themselves in constant danger (a fear either baseless or based on experience) of being forcefully robbed and falling and hitting their head, etc.

I think we have all already been well-fed on the usual tropes of poor victimised migrant worker, and rich fat cat oppressive people in power. But the world is more complex than that, and there are more narratives (and not very straight-forward ones at that) from sinful people than we would like to listen to. Not all poor people are honest or un-opportunistic or non-manipulative; not all the rich got that way by stealing nor will they always fail to care for their workers. We need to be able to give all sides a fair hearing to be able to empathise, and seek real solutions. This is what justice looks like.

You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit. (Exodus 23:2-3)

15 “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbour. (Leviticus 19:15)

The Thought Collective Little India Trail, SingaporeGot a bit fed-up with an Australian on the trail, who rolled out the usual “look at all the shiny condominiums and skyscrapers you have in Singapore, built by the blood of Indian workers. You don’t bother with proper safety regulations. And when they fall sick or have an accident, you send them home. You use and dispose them. Exploitation!”

When different groups spoke with various workers chillaxing in the square, they cheerfully assured us that not only were they cognisant of the necessary safety requirements (helmet, vest, ropes, belts, practices), they also knew the Ministry of Manpower guidelines for pay, overtime work, days of leave etc. And they were happy here. There was no work at home, so any sort of work in Singapore was a godsend.

And I recalled acquaintances in the real estate industry wringing their hands over how, much as they tried to implement safety practices on worksites, holding weekly nagging sessions, checking safety gear at the gate, implementing spot-checks, and even fines, terrible accidents still occurred. Some workers, convinced that this namby-pamby society was encumbering them with all sorts of unnecessary safety equipment took them off at every opportunity.

The Thought Collective Little India Trail, SingaporeIn addition to the need for multiple perspectives on certain social issues, I thought there was too much conflation of the purported aim of the trail. The trail leader kept asking what could be done to help transient workers to “integrate” and “assimiliate“. As a Malaysian Indian and I pointed out, (i) it takes two hands to clap; and (ii) transient workers aren’t interested in integrating or assimilating. They were here to earn money to pay off agent fees, then send the bulk back to family, and hopefully save enough to return home and raise their kids and start their own business. And this isn’t just the goal of transient workers but also more generally of the bulk of white-collar types like teachers, IT professionals, researchers.

Being clear about the aim helps us craft solutions more specifically. So while there is no need to help them to assimilate into Singapore society, there is alot that can be done to make them feel welcome in our country, just like you would a visitor to your home.

Little Vietnam (Guillemard Road) and Immigration Policies

Had my pho fix on the way home from London, but we were quite happy to help F satiate her Vietnamese food craving at Little Vietnam Restaurant (facebook, 511 Guillemard Road, #01-25, Grandlink Square). Little Vietnam Restaurant & Cafe, 511 Guillemard Road, Singapore

Possibly because the place was staffed by Vietnamese people, the pho, bun bo hue, bun xeo, and fried quail tasted exactly right.

What a pity if Singapore, like so many countries in Europe and in the rest of the “Western” world, were to close her borders to immigrants. We would lose more than good food from around the world.

Remember Philipp Rösler, the dynamic Vice-Chancellor of Germany a few years ago? He was born in Vietnam, adopted and raised in Germany, and identified as a German. Yet, his “Asian face” was raised as an issue, instead of his achievements as Health Minister and Federal Minister of Economics and Technology. Whether or not this was the reason why his party did badly at the polls, he resigned as chairman of the Free Democratic Party thereafter, and is now on the board of the World Economic Forum. If race had indeed been an issue, it would have been stupid of the Germans to deprive themselves of a good public servant just because of a problem with the colour of his skin, not with his intellect or leadership or integrity.

A few months ago, I commented to an Indonesian friend that the dislike of foreigners seemed quite rife in the Singapore society I’d returned to.

“Not dislike, she’d said,”outright hatred.”

“The government keeps bringing in foreign talent who take our jobs” goes the common refrain, not just in Singapore, but all around the world. But surely this xenophobia bodes especially badly for Singapore.

quail. Little Vietnam Restaurant & Cafe, 511 Guillemard Road, Singapore

Taking a leaf again from Rawls and applying the presumption of good faith, I thought to examine Lee Kuan Yew’s past speeches to understand the rationale for our immigration policies, and not only that but how the need for talent for the survival of the nation impacts taxation and education policies:

  • the need for talented people to lead the country:

    From 23 years of experience in government, I have learned that one high-calibre mind in charge of a Ministry, or a Statutory Board, makes the difference between success and failure of a major project. A top mind, given a task, brings together a group of other able men, organizes them into a cohesive team, and away the project goes.

    That was the way Goh Keng Swee set about the Ministry of Finance in June 1959. He picked Hon Sui Sen as his principal lieutenant, Permanent Secretary (Ministry of Finance), and then in 1961 made him Chairman of the EDB. Hon Sui Sen collected an able team in the EDB and Singapore’s industrialization slowly and steadily gathered steam.

    Even in 1982, I find it difficult to imagine how we could have made the economic development of the last 23 years without the ability, the creativity, and the drive of these two able men. Whenever I had lesser men in charge, the average or slightly above-average, I have had to keep pushing and probing them, to review problems, to identify roadblocks, to suggest solutions, to come back and to discover that less than the best has been achieved.

  • the inability of Singapore to withstand potential harm brought about by mediocre leaders:

    Decline into mediocrity disastrous

    There may be those who believe that having sound men with modest minds in charge of the government will not make all that difference. Indeed, an anti-elitist ethos prevails in many Western countries, especially amongst New Left groups in Britain. They glorify mediocrity into a cult. They condemn excellence as elitism. They advocate wild programmes to dismantle their own institutions of excellence because the children of manual workers are under-represented in these institutions.

    There is a heavy price to pay if mediocrities and opportunities ever take control of the government of Singapore. And mediocrities and opportunities can accidentally take over if Singaporeans, in a fit of pique or a moment of madness, voted for the politics of opposition for the sake of opposition. Five years of such a government, probably a coalition, and Singapore will be down on her knees. What has taken decades to build up in social organization, in industry, banking commerce, tourism, will be dismantled and demolished in a few years. The World Bank has a queue of such broken-back countries waiting to be mended: Jamaica, Uganda, Ghana, Nicaragua, to name a few recent casualties seeking emergency World Bank aid. At least they have land for plantations or mines to dig from, or rivers to be dammed for hydro-power and irrigation. Singapore has only got its strategic location and the people who can maximize this location by organization, management, skills and, most important of all, brains. Once in disarray, it will not be possible to put it together again.

    Singapore, a small, barely established, nation, cannot afford to have anything less than her ablest and her best, to be in charge of the government. If we are to preserve what we have, and more, to build on the present, and achieve further heights, we cannot have mediocrities either as Ministers or Permanent Secretaries. Prompters and ghost-writers are a luxury for those who have large margins of safety due to their large size, great wealth, and considerable institutional strength.

  • the negative knock-on effects of having mediocre or bad leaders:

    Here we see a law similar to Gresham’s at work. Gresham pointed that bad money drives out good money from circulation. Well, bad leaders drive out good men from high positions. Idi Amin was a bad leader. He killed or drove out good Ugandans, ruining Uganda for decades. Solomon Bandaranaike was not an evil man like Amin. But he was a bad leader who brought race, language and religion into the centre of political debate. He ended up, intentionally or otherwise, by driving out good Ceylonese, and later Sri Lankans, from politics, whilst able administrators took jobs in UN agencies, leaving their own administration impoverished of talent. On the other hand, a good leader, in government or in large corporations, attracts and recruits top talent to reinforce his own capability to overcome problems. Hence the high quality of Germans in top position under Konrad Adenauer, and of top Frenchmen under Charles de Gaulle. Charles de Gaulle’s Cabinet included Pompidou and Giscard d’Estaing, both to become French Presidents.

Ok great, one might say, so where can we find this talent? What about within the Singapore population?

  • the lack of natural talent in Singapore due to its small population:

    What was the most important single factor for Singapore’s rapid development since 1959? Without hesitation, my answer is the quality of the people. For not only are our people hardworking, quick to learn and practical, Singapore also had an extra thick layer of high calibre and trained talent . In the protocol list of the first seven persons in Singapore, I am the only Singapore-born. The President, CV Devan Nair, the Chief of Justice, Wee Chong Jin, the Speaker, Yeoh Ghim Seng, the two Deputy Prime Ministers, Goh Keng Swee and S Rajaratnam, and the Minister for Finance, Hon Sui Sen, were not born in Singapore. One Singapore-born out of the top seven Singaporeans! This is the size of the contribution from the non-Singapore-born. If we had relied solely upon the talent of our natural population pyramid, Singapore’s performance would not have been half as good.

  • well what about giving scholarships so that our best and brightest will, in return for university expenses being paid for, come back to contribute to society? Well, we know how that’s going – scholarship holders accuse the government of violating their rights and tricking them into bondage for a few years while they were still teenagers! They feel justified in breaking their bonds for better job offers elsewhere.
  • the lack of a wide range of talent even amongst remaining non-bond-breaking scholars:

    Let me spell out our talent problem. Most of our scholars went into medicine, the law and engineering, but none into banking or finance because they were professions that were not open to our bright students. Even now our banks want to reserve their top jobs for the sons of the families that control them. Moreover we draw our talent from only 3 million people. A short mountain range is unlikely to have peaks that can equal Mt Everest. You need a long mountain range like the Himalayas…

  • the lack of necessary leadership traits in remaining non-bond-breaking talented scholars:

    Alas, not all of these bright minds have strong characters, sound temperament, and high motivation to match their high intelligence. I have found, from studying PSC scholarship awards for the last 15 years, and reading confidential reports on their work in the public service and the SAF, that the scholars who also have the right character and personality, effectively works out to 1 in 3,000 persons. In the 1970’s, our annual births went down to 40,000. The numbers of talented and balanced Singaporeans will be between 12-14 persons per annum at one per 3,000.

bun bo hue. Little Vietnam Restaurant & Cafe, 511 Guillemard Road, Singapore

That’s tough. How can we get this paltry number to stay in Singapore? Well, there are school programmes to instil love for the nation in schools but many teachers and students and parents dismiss them as mere propaganda, not realising that it’s not the PAP who will lose out but they themselves. And perhaps, also, it means we can’t assume that all theories of distributive justice and equality of opportunities are right in all circumstances and can be applied wholesale to the Singapore context:

  • preventing brain-drain by instilling patriotism and self-respect, and holding off punitive taxation:

    Now, we ourselves may be threatened by a brain-drain of Singapore-grown talent. These figures have serious implications for us. The figures for engineers and other professionals are less devastating only because they are less professionally mobile across national boundaries. Unless we are able to instill patriotism and self-respect, unless we succeed in inculcating a sense of commitment to fellow-Singaporeans in our talented youths, we can be creamed off. We shall become diluted like skimmed milk. We must ensure that because Singaporeans value their Asianness, they will not want to be tolerated and patronized as minorities in predominantly Caucasian societies. Therefore, any policy which denies trained talent its free-market rewards by punitive taxes, as in Britain, must lead to a brain-drain and to our inevitable decline. It is the chicken and egg cycle. As long as we are able and growing, our talented will stay and help our economic growth. Because they stay, we can offer them comparable standards of life, and decent prospects for their children’s future. Furthermore, we can attract talent from abroad to work in Singapore. The reverse cycle will be devastating and swift in bringing about our ruin.

    The Singapore-born must be the pillars on which we can place the cross beams and struts of foreign-born talent to raise us up to higher standards of achievement. If we begin to lose our own Singapore-born and bred talent in significant numbers, then the pillars are weakened, and additional cross beams and struts cannot make up for pillars. The Singapore-grown talent must, by the nature of his upbringing and schooling, be the most committed, the most emotionally and intimately attached to Singapore. We shall lose our own Singapore-grown talent if our policies punish the outstanding and the talented by progressive income tax with the objective of income redistribution. It has happened in an old established society like Britain.

  • amidst the usual sometimes green-eyed chatter about growing income inequality, and the common sneering at elite schools and disdaining the perceived elitism of the Gifted Education Programme, training and rewarding the talented might actually be the best for the whole society:

    It is in the interest of the not-so-talented that the talented should be adequately rewarded for the contribution they can make to the total progress of Singapore. Drained of our trained talent, Singapore will be like a man with a truncated right arm, unable to function effectively.

    If a brain-drain ever happens in Singapore, if our brightest and our best scatter abroad, because of populist appeals to soak or squeeze our able and successful professionals to subsidize those who are less able, less educated, and less well-paid, Singapore will be ruined. The sufferers will be the mass of the workers and their families who cannot emigrate because they are not wanted by the wealthy and developed English speaking countries.

And since we have such a small local pool of talent, who may not even stay in Singapore, how can we entice foreign talent to come and help us survive in the future? Foreigners “prepared to start life afresh in a strange new environment, are usually exceptional in enterprise, drive and determination to succeed – key attributes for high performance”.

  • Everyone knows that Shanghainese are the brightest and sharpest of people. But few know why. It is because for over a hundred and fifty years, ever since it became a treaty port for the foreign powers it has drawn the ambitious, energetic Unless we change our mindsets, we will be out of this race. We have to go out to tap talent. To get top talent, you must take in those who have not yet reached the top but are on their way up because when they are in their 30s we do not know which of them will make it to the top. You will only know when they are in their 40s, 50s and 60s. This is the way to protect our future.

  • Singaporeans must realize and accept as desirable the need for more of the able and the talented to come to work in Singapore. We have to compete against the wealthy developed countries who now also recruit such talent. We have to make these people feel welcome and wanted, so that they will make Singapore their permanent home and contribute to the overall progress of all our people. We should encourage them to take up permanent residence with a view to citizenship so that they can enjoy the same opportunities to buy HDB executive flats and HUDC homes as Singaporeans, and to shoulder the same responsibilities. They can give that extra boost which has lifted our economy andour society to heights we could not have achieved if we had depended only on Singapore-born talent.

all quotes a mash-up from: “THE SEARCH FOR TALENT” BY LEE KUAN YEW, PRIME MINISTER

And also this arrow from LKY:

Instead of getting high quality men; we have imported over 150,000 unskilled workers as work permit holders. Instead of importing first-class brains, we have imported unskilled brawn. To continue this policy is to court disaster.

LKY was a magnificently holistic thinker. As Christians though, we have even more reason to welcome foreigners whether of the brain or brawn variety. Though we are not part of a nation like Israel, nor do we intend to build a nation in this world, the rationale for care-for-sojourner still stands:

33 “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Actually, our incentives are greater – we haven’t just been rescued from slavery and brought to a mere physical Promised Land as the Jews were; we have been rescued from spiritual darkness and eternal death and brought into the light and given eternal life. And we have been given God’s Spirit in us who helps us think his thoughts after him. So if God does not change, then his compassion for the weak, helpless, and the foreigner has not either.