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What Good Governance Looks Like

August 24, 2009

From a speech by Lee Hsien Loong, prime minister of Singapore, on the potential repeal of section 377a from Singapore’s penal code:


Mr. Lee, in this speech, is defending his government’s position to retain section 377a, which criminalizes, among other things, sodomy in the Republic of Singapore. (Stay with me.) Loong explains that his government will not actively enforce the provision, but that it will be maintained, symbolically, as a measure of the fact that Singaporean society is broadly conservative.

What is remarkable about this speech is not the specific position laid out by the government, but the way in which it is laid out. Lee feels it necessary to give a detailed, well-thought-out, 30 minute speech to Parliament on the reasoning behind this decision, to the point that even if you were to disagree with Lee and his party, you would at least respect the fact that they gave the issue serious consideration. He’s talking to his citizens as though they were adults, not children, and as though they were customers, who could leave Singapore with relative ease if they were dissatisfied.

This is more remarkable when you consider that Singapore is a broadly authoritarian society. Lee, and his father Lee Kuan Yew, have held power in Singapore continuously since its separation from Malaysia in 1965. With this sort of dynastic power structure, one would hardly expect the government to be this responsive to its citizens. But it is. Why?

In a word: exit. Singapore’s political structure is based heavily on the immigration of skilled citizens, because the birth rate in Singapore is well below replacement – only 1.29 children per woman of childbearing age. Not only do they have to attract new citizens to ensure the health of their polity, they have to ensure that their existing citizens don’t leave. And given that most of their citizens are wealthy immigrants, and that Singapore is a relatively small country, the relative ease of leaving Singapore has a way of focusing their leaders to work hard on providing what can be considered good customer service.

But, you might say, Singapore has these draconian restrictions on drug use and consensual sexual behavior – if that is the future of competitive government, then that’s not a future I want to be a part of. The key here is to remember that if we Let A Thousand Nations Bloom, some of those nations will probably be socially conservative, and while Singaporean society might be illiberal, it is still a liberal goal to ensure that people can live in a society that meshes with their values. A political world based on exit, and not voice, will have plenty of societies that any given individual would find unsuitable. But just as you don’t have to buy every product you see at the supermarket, you don’t have to live in every single polity. You just need to find the one that fits.


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4 Comments
  1. August 24, 2009 7:24 pm

    That was a rather cringe-inducing speech, but I agree that his tone was quite admirable and impressive. On the other hand, would it have killed him to put on a suit? He’s in charge of a country, for crying out loud. With just a shirt and no jacket or tie, he might as well be an Israeli politician (shudder).

  2. happyjuggler0 permalink
    August 24, 2009 7:28 pm

    “just as you don’t have to buy every product you see at the supermarket, you don’t have to live in every single polity. You just need to find the one that fits.”

    I think of this kind of situation as “minivan theory”. I remember when minivans first came out, “everyone” (including myself) thought they were butt ugly. But they also sold a boatload of them, and still do, year after year. Why is something that “everyone” thinks is a monstrosity of a visual design such a best seller?

    The key is to understand that there is one particular demographic that absolutely adores minivans, namely parents. Yes it is butt ugly, but it is enormously functional and spacious, at least from the point of view of parents. Nothing else comes close, in fact they basically killed the station wagon that preceded it.

    It doesn’t matter if everyone else hates it, what matters is that people who have to live with it simply love it. Another group of people simply adore small, boxy, high mileage cars. Yet another group adores cars with sleek styling and great pickup. Speaking of which, yet another group simply adores pickup trucks.

    Not only does one size not fit all, but you aren’t hurt when someone else fits wonderfully in a different “size” than you. Or at least you aren’t hurt so long as they don’t try to force you into their “size”, even when it doesn’t “fit” you.

  3. John permalink
    October 20, 2009 11:58 pm

    What you say about Singapore just being another political product, so its, is okay as far as it goes, but it ignores the fact that people are born in Singapore

    Libertarianism is inherently more valid than any other governmental system.

    In a Libertarian state (or lack thereof), people could still be free to live by their prejudice values. They could join clubs that didn’t allow gay or black people, they could live in gated communities that didn’t allow gay people.

    The difference is, in a libertarian society, that it would not involve aggression, and state sponsored aggression at that.

    If you happen to be born in Singapore, as a young gay teenager who doesn’t yet have the ability to relocate himself (not forgeting that relocation is often prevented by other governments), then Singapore is not just another product you are free to choose, its an oppressing state destroying your life.

    • Erik permalink
      December 13, 2012 10:54 am

      And if you’re born in a sufficiently large gated community as a young gay teenager who doesn’t yet have the ability to relocate himself?

      You’re trying to have it both ways, and you can’t. Either you use force to break up all the societies who ban sodomy – not a particularly libertarian option, if you ask me – or you accept that there will be nonlibertarian societies who ban sodomy, some of them large, and difficult for young gay teenagers to get out of.

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