The Diplomat speaks with John Kampfner about the trade-offs between prosperity, consumer power and public and private freedoms.
Your book describes the global phenomenon of people willing to give up their freedoms in return for an easy, comfortable life. You suggest that we’d all make this trade-off, regardless of the political system we’re in. Could you name some of what you think are the most striking examples of this?
The trade-off applies equally to countries that are long-established democracies and those that have a recent totalitarian or authoritarian past. In the UK, for example, the population was seemingly entirely comfortable with giving up all civil liberties from ID cards, to plans for a universal DNA database, to a surveillance state that allowed local councils to eavesdrop on phone calls and emails if they suspected citizens were being irresponsible in the way they threw away their garbage.
In Italy, people voted not once, but three times, for Silvio Berlusconi, in spite of his systematic assault on the independence of the judiciary and media, and the emasculation of parliament. Why? As long as they continued to enjoy the ‘private freedoms’—the freedom to lead their atomized lives as they pleased—and as long as they could aspire to great wealth and consumer power, people were quite happy to give back their ‘public freedoms.’
How does this apply to your country of birth, Singapore, which was described in the 1960s as a 'cesspool of squalor and degradation' but which now has one of the highest per capita GDPs in the world, and is often ranked very highly for indicators such as health and quality of life?
Singapore is the model for the pact. It’s no surprise that authorities from China to the Middle East and beyond go there to learn the secrets of its success. What I have long found intriguing is the extent to which Singaporeans I know, well-travelled with high-flying degrees and jobs, extol the virtues of the trade-off. They do so willingly, having experienced the more politically open alternatives elsewhere, but see virtues in their state’s very different approach towards the rights of the individual.
Kishrore Mahbubani has said that these 'authoritarian capitalist' states are delivering 'modernity' to their countries and are characterized by good governance, growth and the rule of law. Would you say it's such a bad thing, then, for people to be content with prosperity and stability?
I have great respect for Kishore, and indeed spoke to him in detail during my research for the book. The National University of Singapore even hosted an event to publicise my book in Singapore, an act I found extraordinary given that earlier on the Singapore government had twice denounced me for writing it. Therein lies the dilemma and the difficult dynamic for Singapore and similarly-minded states. They know that countries prosper when individuals are allowed the intellectual space to explore and to ask difficult questions. At the same time they are trying to control this process. Can systems such as Singapore and China turn on and off the tap of criticism and argument? This question will be crucial to the development of these states.