Friday, December 11, 2009

Freedom For Sale

Dec 11, 2009
Not for sale
In a world that's increasingly willing to trade individual freedoms for prosperity and security, British journalist John Kampfner is a lone warrior who refuses to buy into the 'pact' that has swept up emerging giants like China and Russia as well as Western democracies like Britain and the United States. Insight taps the views of the author, who was rebuked by the Singapore Government last year.

By Rachael Chang

Author and journalist John Kampfner stands by his belief that freedom should not be for sale. In his new book Freedom For Sale, which has been named book of the year by several publications, he argues that civil liberties are necessary for a healthy civil society and a robust body politic.

VETERAN British journalist John Kampfner incurred the ire of the Singapore Government last year when he propounded his thesis on the 'Singapore model' in a blog post for a leading English daily.

Last week, he held court here with a lively audience of mostly academics for about two hours as he expounded on his controversial ideas in a seminar at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Penning an entry for the Guardian's website titled The New Authoritarianism, the political writer had asked: Why are a growing number of people, well-travelled and well-educated, willing to hand over their freedoms in return for prosperity and security?

The model for such a 'pact', he argued, is Singapore. Whether intentional or not, it is being exported to the world, he said.

Nascent global powers like China and Russia have been learning to replicate the model, he wrote, proving that 'free markets do not require a free society in which to thrive'.

This is how he described the pact: Citizens do not agitate for public liberties like freedom of speech and a free press which are denied by the authorities. In return, the individual is allowed to create wealth and consume as conspicuously as he chooses.

Back came a salvo from the Singapore Government. 'Some in the West like John Kampfner feel a calling to go forth and convert the heathen to Western liberal democracy.

'But the true test is what works in the real world, with real societies,' charged Singapore's High Commissioner to Britain Michael Teo in a reply published on the Guardian's website two weeks later.

The exchange was reported in The Straits Times a day later under the headline 'S'pore ticks off British writer'.

A year on, Mr Kampfner's blog post has evolved into a 267-page book titled Freedom For Sale published by Simon & Schuster. It is available in local bookstores.

The first chapter is on Singapore and titled 'Comfortable Model'. The rest of the book elaborates on how the pact has been put in place in societies from India to Russia and even Britain, where Westminster-style democracy involving two opposing parties came about.

However, Mr Kampfner draws a clear distinction between these pacts and the totalitarian dictatorships in countries like Myanmar and North Korea. The fact that citizens have entered into these pacts voluntarily, with eyes wide open, is central to his thesis.

At the end of the Singapore chapter, Mr Kampfner reflects on the kerfuffle over his blog post and wonders if there would be reprisal: 'Would I be refused entry into the country - or perhaps locked up on my arrival?'

He was not. Last week, upon returning to launch his book at the seminar, he breezed through immigration at Changi Airport without a second look from the officer.

East v West

FREEDOM For Sale is Mr Kampfner's fourth book. His previous works include 2003's well-received Blair's Wars, which chronicled the five turbulent years of British foreign policy that spawned two wars under former prime minister Tony Blair.

A former foreign correspondent for Reuters and the BBC, Mr Kampfner was editor of the magazine New Statesman from 2005 to 2008.

Married to a BBC journalist, Mr Kampfner - who was born in Singapore - is now chief executive of the Index on Censorship, an organisation which champions free expression.

The reception by local academics at the recent seminar was one of interest mixed with intrigue. Questions touched on the impact of the global economic crisis and the rise of the Internet on the author's thesis.

Some people might arguably see it as the third act in a political play that has been unfolding since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and Soviet Communism soon after.

First came the triumphalists like American intellectual Francis Fukuyama, who declared in his famous or infamous essay, The End Of History, that the fall of communism won the argument for liberal democracy.

All the world would soon follow suit, give or take a few decades. Authoritarian capitalist countries like China and Singapore were merely in transition. Soon, they would evolve into liberal democracies as their citizens start to demand democracy to accompany burgeoning economic freedom.

Some Eastern European countries did embrace democracy. But the Fukuyama idea made no headway in fast-rising Asia, and thinkers in the East soon provided their own rebuttal.

This was the 'Asian values' argument popularised by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in the early 1990s.

Quite simply, the argument is that Asians prefer collective well-being over individualism, social harmony over dissent, and socio-economic progress over human rights.

The influential Clash Of Civilisations school of thought propagated by American political scientist Samuel Huntington entrenched these ideas in the public domain.

It argued that different civilisations - Western, Chinese, Islamic - have irreconcilable values and ideals. The future of the world would be one of civilisations coexisting uneasily.

As the century rounded the corner, major events reinforced the idea of a possible clash. The traumatic events of 9/11 cast a long shadow over foreign policy. It seemed that all-out conflict between diametrically opposed civilisations had begun.

Another source of tension was that authoritarian-capitalist countries like China were growing from strength to strength, becoming more confident in their mode of government instead of transitioning to liberal democracies.

With the economic crisis giving momentum to the Eastward swing of the pendulum of power, the East versus West argument is gaining new traction.

Lonely cry

WHAT makes Mr Kampfner's thesis notable is that it is about a new phenomenon that seems to be taking hold all over the world. In an interview with Insight after the seminar, he notes that 'although differently expressed, the pact is just as alive in my country, in Western European states, as it is in 'authoritarian-capitalist' states (like China and Singapore)'.

'This is not, 'Look at the East rising to challenge the West',' he points out.

As one Singaporean academic asked at the seminar, is illiberal democracy the more stable environment? And will liberal democracies eventually come to believe that the 'Singapore model' is the 'last model'?

Some of Mr Kampfner's harshest criticisms, in fact, are reserved for pacts in the United States and Britain, supposedly foundational Western democracies.

Not yet released in the US, his book has received favourable reviews in Britain. It has been named book of the year by two newspapers.

In both countries, a rising tide of illiberal policies put in place to combat terrorism has wrought societies where citizens wilfully turn a blind eye to the freedoms they have lost - or sold.

According to the journalist, Britain is becoming a surveillance state - thanks to millions of closed-circuit cameras and authoritarian policies like ID cards which hold 50 categories of personal information.

In the name of wealth creation, he charges, its leaders turned a blind eye to corruption within the borders, allowing London to become a money-laundering haven and playground for Russian oligarchs who have amassed billions through criminal means.

To a liberal democrat like Mr Kampfner, a lack of public freedom is not one of the characteristics of a new mode of government, but instead a sign of a government ill at ease.

Why, he asks, would greater dissent and democracy lead to instability in Singapore?

'The confidence of Singapore society is surely much stronger than it used to be,' he argues. So 'the need to impose constraints, for fear that a lack of constraints will lead to chaos, is a false fear'.

This control also leads to a 'weak, pliant and unchallenging' public realm, he points out, 'with people leading their lives almost exclusively in an atomised fashion, looking after themselves and their own'.

But fewer and fewer people seem to share his indignation, which is amply proved by the finding that pacts exist in all the countries he surveys.

It is a fact which clearly bewilders him. In the end, he struggles to answer his own question posed at the start: Why?

'So what does all this say about us, the people?' he asks towards the end of the book. 'One argument would be that perhaps people require less freedom than they would like to believe,' he writes.

But his liberal heart is not in this interpretation because, to satisfy his thesis, it must mean that the priorities of individuals have somehow fundamentally shifted.

Or perhaps liberty was not really the fundamental desire of individuals after all, at least not fundamental enough to not be bartered away.

Where once the right to free expression was elevated above all else, now modern dangers like the threat of terrorism and the spectre of poverty seem to have cast it into the shadows - rightfully so or not.

Mr Kampfner is adamant that these freedoms are necessary for a healthy civil society and a robust body politic.

But in demonstrating how millions of people seem content to go without these freedoms, his is ultimately a lonely cry, of a liberal watching a world grow unrecognisable.

He is caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. Once the pact is in place, it is hard to shake loose.

What may undermine it, he says, would be the state not fulfilling its side of the bargain, that is, failing to deliver prosperity or security.

Then there may be democracy. But at what cost?

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