As we approach the Fourth of July, Americans get ready to celebrate freedom. But what is truly free? From our time in Singapore, I'd like to explore some perspectives on freedom you may not have considered.
My Earliest Understandings – And An Instructive Comparison
As an American, I grew up with the sense that we should spread the American political system to all countries of the world, so everyone could enjoy freedom like ours. Our trip to Singapore this summer has made me question that idea.
A comparison of the two countries’ foundings is instructive and should add some perspectives on freedom.
On July 4th, 1776, a group of English colonists signed the Declaration of Independence, a document declaring America’s independence from England that contained a long series of grievances against the English king including unwarranted taxes, lack of representation in Parliament, and heavy-handed punishments for colonists who went against laws. “Freedom” to the rebels meant freedom from control from an autocratic dictator.
On August 9, 1965, the Malaysian parliament passed a resolution that severed Singapore’s ties to Malaysia. Malaysia itself began with a merger of former British territories in 1959. The new Republic of Singapore had gained freedom from England while reluctantly breaking off from Malaysia. This happened in just over five years! “Freedom” to the population of the new republic meant the freedom to decide its own destiny. This despite being dependent on water from Malaysia, and having no military or economic resources.
How The Two Countries Got Started
In America, George Washington collaborated with other founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin. They put together a new form of government based on the separation of powers. This included a fine balance between the power of states and the federal government. These measures protected freedoms derived from John Locke’s ideas of Natural Rights.
In Singapore, brilliant new prime minister Lee Kwan Yew brought together a team of people including Goh Keng Swee, S. Rajaratnam, Toh Chin Chye, and Lim Kim San. These men built a highly disciplined society based on strict laws and fines that punished corruption. As a result, the Republic of Singapore became one of the richest economies in the world within a generation. The freedom to choose their destiny included restricting personal freedoms with swift punishment for anyone who got out of line.
Chewing Gum & Forgetting To Flush The Toilet?!?
In Singapore there are laws against spitting in public. You can’t sell chewing gum. The government fines you heavily for littering or feeding pigeons. And heaven forbid if you fail to flush a public toilet! Consequences run from $500 fines to three years in prison for the above offenses.
Another punishment might include public caning in order to shame the offender into stopping improper behavior. A Saudi diplomat learned this lesson earlier this year when he received four strokes of the cane for groping a female hotel worker.
In addition to these social behavior restrictions, the punishments for bigger offenses are draconian. For example, if you fire a gun with intent to hurt a person, bring illegal drugs into Singapore with the intent to sell, or kidnap a public official, you can receive the death penalty.
So isn’t Singapore an example of a country that would benefit from American-style freedoms? After all,the government seems to control its citizens more than the British government controlled the rebels of the American colonies!
In America freedom means being able to pursue life, liberty and happiness as the individual chooses without government interference. In Singapore, the government restricts personal freedom in order to quash corruption and help the society as a whole progress.
So Which Country is More Truly Free?
Perhaps it’s not an either-or situation. Different countries with different cultural contexts require different systems to make them work. Rather than think that our way is the only way, we need to learn about and from others with an open mind. Indeed, travel can offer us new perspectives on freedom.
In our travels around Singapore, we heard many people express their satisfaction with life in Singapore. When we asked them about the strict laws, they felt that, as a small country with few resources, the strict rules led to a discipline necessary to achieve success.
Admittedly not every country is a Singapore. There are many governments around the world that oppress their citizenry and do not provide the benefits that either America or Singapore enjoy.
That being said, when trying to determine how to help those countries, we cannot assume that American-style democracy would be the best fit. If we try to force our style of democracy on others, we may find that it doesn’t work the way we think it will work. In fact, it could even backfire and lead to more oppression.
What is Most Needed
If we truly listen to and learn from other cultures, however, we may discover that the systems of other places may contain ideas that can help us be freer. For example, learning from Asian cultures about the importance of valuing the nuclear family might free us from bondage to broken marriages and homes. As well, learning from developing countries that aren’t addicted to wealth might teach us that valuing people over things might free us from bondage to materialism. Although the American system enjoys great freedom, there’s always room to grow.
Wanting people throughout the world to enjoy freedom is an admirable thing. As we thoughtfully listen to one other with an open mind, we discover the essence of true freedom: that true freedom comes from combining ideas from many cultures.
Does your culture contain an element of freedom to share?
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