You’ve heard it before. You have probably nodded in assent each time you have heard it.
Life, you have learned, is a trade-off. You can’t have everything you want.
It’s a great idea. Mouth it and you will sound like a mature adult.
And yet, once you start having to make choices—if you get this you cannot have that—your mind will recoil in horror. Indignantly you will respond that you should not have to make such choices, and besides, you can have it all. In fact, you know someone who does. Or, at least you think he does.
Such were my first thoughts as I read Sahana Singh’s article about the time she and her family spent in Singapore.
With the death of Lee Kuan Yew, the father of modern Singapore, some media types have been jumping up to explain that while Singapore is freer than anywhere else when it comes to doing business, it is an autocratic horror when it comes to personal freedoms and first amendment rights.
We Americans seem to believe that social customs should become a free-for-all and that the business world should also be a free-wheeling free enterprise paradise.
In truth, as Camille Paglia opined, American students have become world leaders in decadence. She might have mentioned that America can also be a rather dangerous place. Apparently, college campuses are especially depraved.
All the while, American free enterprise is being stifled by endless regulations. American millennials are lagging just about all of their international peers in measures of competence.
Is that what the world looks like when you don’t make trade offs?
Singh describes her experience of everyday life in Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore. In particular, she notes that the Singapore described by Yew’s detractors—mostly leftists who prefer socialism to free enterprise—is a rank distortion.
From clean water and crime-free streets to reliable public transportation and easy access to libraries, the state government anticipates all the basic needs to provide its residents a good quality of life and eliminate the stresses that can impede personal progress. But in the coverage that followed the death of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on Monday, Western media has painted a very different picture. They describe a crushing autocrat that chained his people and stripped them of basic freedoms. My experience was quite the contrary. Outside of this tiny island utopia, I never felt more free.
What was it like for a mother with a baby? Singh describes it:
In my first days in Singapore, I worried about safely getting around town, especially with a baby. I had never used local trains and feared ending up in a dangerous neighborhood. But what would be reasonable fears for a newcomer in most countries were gratuitous in Singapore. Everywhere were street signs and directions in English, clearly marked and intelligently placed, as if invisible planners were anticipating your next question. On my first try, I navigated to Orchard Road, the nation’s retail hub, and back to my hotel without having to ask anyone for directions.
There was no litter in Singapore’s streets. Every building looked clean and every walkway looked newly washed. The national library hadnumerous branches, stocked with wonderful books. With my baby in a stroller, I could go practically anywhere. It was like an India I had always dreamed of: clean, green and hassle-free.
Of course, Singh does not define freedom in terms of Spring Break or the ability to get high and to pee in public:
There I was, freer than anytime I had been in my life. I had just found a job I loved. I could go see a movie with friends and return by myself late at night. I could fall asleep in a taxi, after reeling off my address, and the driver would safely take me home and gently wake me up. Singapore maintains an efficient – if strict – judicial system, fundamental to living in a low-crime society while practicing individual freedom. I had tasted the real freedom that came with security.
Singaporeans pay a price for this kind of freedom:
Many point to the price Singapore’s citizens and residents pay for achieving that security. The government imposes strict laws with steep fines and punishments for even minor transgressions: Breaching the ban on selling gum can fetch a fine north of $70,000. Vandalizing property can lead to caning. These kinds of sentences may be an affront to American ideals, but in Singapore, like many Asian countries, ensuring the greater good is paramount to self-determination. Americans, it should be noted, also pay a price for the premium they put on individual liberties.
The government of Singapore is certainly autocratic. It does not respect individual liberties and individual rights. It is decidedly intolerant of criticism and dissent.
Yet, it allows people from different ethnic groups to live and work together in harmony. Its schoolchildren regularly outperform America’s best by all measures of academic achievement. And it has produced the kind of place where you can bring up a child without being in constant fear. It does not have gang violence or drug wars. It doesn’t even have transgendered locker rooms.
Surely, Singapore is not an ideal society. Its people have also made trade-offs… only the trade offs are different from the ones that we have made.