February 20, 2005

The open lid of pandoras box

Hey, i've been away. I have two major time-consuming things going on right now, one which is a university exam and the other that is my presidency for the Liberal students of Sweden. That exam has sort of kept me off the net for a bit.

Now, i remember that something like two years ago, i read this book by Singaporean dissident academic James Gomez. The most imporant thing i learned from that book is how and why Singaporeans are generally known to avoid and censor topics of conversation that are political. Opinion-building and debate is very tightly controlled in Singapore, the PAP government, in power since 1959, handing out permits for print and broadcast media at will. Leading government officials, especially Lee Kuan Yew, are known for taking divergent views that are heard in public all the way to court and sue for defamation. This is the most recent example.

Knowing this, everyone realizes it's suicide to advocate change in Singapore. Samuel Huntington argues in "The Third Wave" that a common factor for the democratization taking place in the world since the 70's is that the opposition in authoritarian countries has maintained unity, been able to mobilize the public and got their message across through some kind of mass media. The degree to which this has happened is of course different from country to country. None, however, had as little social space to mobilize as the Singapore of today. Even on web sites many stay anonymous for fear of the Internal Security Department watching them. Unless a space is opened up for free discussion and liberal expression, dissent can never organize sufficiently to make for a change in regime.

In light of Huntington, i think Singapore is going to change. just take the recently popping up mass of blogs in there as an example. Take a look at these:

Xenoboy SG
James Gomez
Wendy Cheng
Steven McDermott
Gilbert Koh
Think Centre
Awakening Redux
Deus Ex Machina
Mr Brown
Yawning Bread
And more....

The are two important conclusions to draw out of this. First, all of this has been created and came about outside of the government media permit process. The government cannot control the expression of a large number of "life-style" liberals and individualists. Not all of these blogs are overtly political - they need not be. The fact that they exist is a manifestatition of freedom that is 'out of pandoras box'. In various ways they turn against the regime in Singapore. Xenoboy goes against politics and they don't want that. Wendy Cheng is an expressive on-spot comedian that uses 'foul' symbols and language, that is - 'dissident' culture - that they don't want. Alfian is a poet and criticizes censorship - the richness of his examples speak for themselves. They don't like him and what he does. Gilbert Koh offers short poems of criticism against national symbols like the armed services and the laughable "speakers corner". They certainly don't like that. And so on....

Watch this TV sequence feat. interviews with some of the bloggers (Linked from xiaxue.blogspot.com).

These people are potential enemies of the state, because they dare put their chins out and be
individuals. Some of them probably don't even consider themselves 'media dissidents'. The fact that they express without permit makes them, perhaps unvoluntarily, very political nonetheless.

The second conclusion is the optimistic one. The latent opposition to the ways of the PAP government in all of these independent and personal voices is the basis for change in Singapore. We know that what James Gomez wrote in 2000 about the self-censorship and self-shaving off of the edges of common Singaporeans is not true in all cases. Some need to lead the way.

I will end this pretentious piece with a reference to one of my favourite authors, 1974 nobel laureate in economics Friedrich August von Hayek. He said that the "bon vivants", the performers in the art of life and expression, are the ones that will invent new life styles than can then be followed by others. The state may want to forbid and fight the free experimentation that these bloggers represent, but technically it can't unless it wants to set up an authority for controlling who can use computers and internet and for what. Hayek believed that if we stop some from experimenting with lifestyle and expression just because we don't like some things they do, we will all in the end be materially and spiritually poor.

The best thing about all this is that Singaporeans are expressing their individuality, it is really funny and interesting and there is nothing the PAP can do about it! It is a fundamental challenge to the PAP's system that it can never win. Singaporeans learn fast and they will learn from the examples of these self-styled opinion-makers.

Okay, i just wanna say before i shut down that 30 cm of snow and ice with -10C next week will really suck. I'll complain about the weather until it betters itself.

February 08, 2005

The emperor's new hat part 2

The head of the Institue against bribery writes today in Dagens Nyheter that he has asked the national attourney to investigate the Prime minister's new honorary doctorship in medicine as alleged bribery.

Actually, he mentions in the article that even the explicit reason given for the PM's appointment to doctorate status was his upgrading of Örebro to a university back in 1999.

During the last few months, we have seen a string of corruption scandals, with union and social democrat hotshots stealing from the state and also the needy that they claim to represent. Too much power for too long corrupts you.

The ones who pay the price for this sad little story are the student of Örebro University. They can no longer be sure that the university achieved it's status by producing good research and education but rather a case of political back-rubbing. They invest 4 or maybe more years, and the question will remain in their heads long after this issue is out of the public light: Could my university not apply to become a full-fledged university because of merits?

It is these people that are compromised and have to take the blow from careless, self-centered and short-sighted politicians, whether they are prime minsiters or members of a university board.

February 07, 2005

DPP and the "New Tide"

Taipei Times reports today that the new Chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party Su Tseng-chang (a favourite for the presidential elections in 2008), has appointed a stalwart member from the left-leaning "New Tide" faction as a deputy secretary-general for the party. The New Tide is widely regarded as the biggest and best organized of all factions in the DPP (a highly factionalized party). The New Tide is like a social democratic "party within the party" while The DPP as a whole can be regarded mainstream social liberal, much like the american democrats or european ALDE.

As Andreas Martin Fulda describes in his paper on DPP factions, the New Tide is a group that centers around the belief in the big state as a means for solving social problems. They are also allied to the labour movement, more specifically the more dogmatic TCTU. Seriously, not even the Swedish socialist union has that much venom to spare for the word "neo-liberalism".

What we see is that the leftists in Taiwan understand how to do politics; how to bargain and attain influence in a party, how to build alliances with NGO:s, how to slowly try to change the debate, intellectual climate and values of a greater portion of the public.

The liberals, that are expected to defend individual empowerment, self-ownership, non-discrimintion and the equality of all before the law are nowhere to be found as some of these things can be pitched away slowly in a confused game of politics where few factions have real ideologies and principles except for the New Tide.

Due to the influence of the New Tide, we cannot be sure that the DPP defends Taiwan's economic freedom - a force that ensures growth, which in turn brings down remaining poverty brick by brick.

What about the KMT? Well, they still don't concede their defeat in the 2004 presidential election, and use their majority in the legislative Yuan to appoint a committee that is supposed to find evidence that president Chen's re-election last year was a conspiracy. Like small children, the KMT leaders, lacking evidence to back up their claim, still point fingers at the "fake" president. The KMT thus effectively singles itself out of the really important, defining moments of the debate on Taiwan's future direction.

I'll keep nagging about this: Where are the liberals?

February 06, 2005

Acamdemic freedom under threat in Taiwan?

On the subject of academic freedom, i demonstrated below that the meaning of the word in Sweden lapses by the day. This happens when the state lacks effective limits and is run for a long time by the same elite.

Unfortunately, i found these news from the Taipei Times, january 7. It appears the Ministry of Education in Taiwan wants to curtail the rights of professors to appoint their own dean. The ruling DPP, which is party i prefer over the KMT, is making a serious mistake. Already Taiwan suffers from the same problem as Sweden in the sense that the budget for higher education is spread out over too many state-funded institutions. i don't think the Taiwanese would like this proposal if they see what has happens when politicians run the academia as in Sweden. Hopefully the ministry's proposal gets thumbs down in the Legistlative Yuan.

The degree of freedom in Taiwan is essentially what separates it from China, what makes it a civilized, mature and impressive country. More people need to realize this and oppose these proposals that attack the soul of Taiwan. Taiwan without a great deal of individual freedom will be only marginally different to China.

The emperor's new hat

PM Göran Persson was promoted yesterday to honorary doctor in medicine at Örebro University. Interestingly, the event does not appear as news on their homepage, only a reference to criticism published in today's Svenska Dagbladet. Obviously they are not 100% proud of this.

As Johan Norberg writes, This is clearly a matter of sucking up to the very same political leadership that turned Örebro College into a university. Svenska Dagbladet reports that the university board, responsible for the decision, includes 8 people and that 5 of these are social democrats. On top of that, the principal is the former municipal council president in the northern city of Umeå, also a social democrat, of course.

However sad a story of academic corruption this is, we have reason to believe it is the top of the iceberg in our "egaliatarian" and "socially just" country. The Christian Democrat party recently published a report measuring the social democratic supremacy in university boards.

I study at Stockholm university. Last year the wife of the PM was replaced by a former social democratic minister as chairman of the board. How wonderful that we have so many competent social democratic party activists that are so very competent, in fact so competent that they and their allies have a majority in all 11 university boards in the nation!

On another note, we must have really bad academics, clearly not competent enough to run the universities they put down their entire careers for themselves. How grateful we should be to the social democrats for ensuring that the academy is controlled by the democratically appointed majority, in the best interests of the people, to ensure the best democratic and qualitative academic work.

I will say it again. Every university student in this country studies at a university run by politically appointed, social democratic loyalists. And people ask why the americans get all nobel prizes. Gee, i wonder why.

February 04, 2005

Democracy and Singapore - the liberal perspective

As a classical liberal, i have a different view of what is a "good" democracy as opposed to the mainstream one.

Most supporters of democracy claim it is a system where the people rule over their common affairs, where everyone is equal in the sense of one man-one vote and that the citizens will depose of politicians that do not further the (diffuse) concept of the "common good".

Karl Popper, the 20th-century Austrian liberal that invented the term "The open society", argued in "The open society and it's enemies" that democracy is to be understood not as a means to sort out the best leaders but rather as a means to stop the bad leaders from doing harm. I think that the purpose of democracy is to uphold individual freedom and the rule of law, equal for everyone. Those must be the foundations of a good society. The spontaneous order that individuals carve out on these foundations by voluntary cooperation with each other, following their own personal interests, according to this worldview, brings us the best possible development and welfare for all.

Singapore is rich and prosperous because Lee Kuan Yew understands some of this - he understands that general rules for human behaviour must be applied indiscriminately and that the purpose of this law is to allow some individual freedom. He also understand the need for some freedom, notably economic.

What he does not understand (or maybe he does but doesn't care), is that all of these values are threatened in the long term if the country is not a democracy where citizens can get rid of rulers that sit a little too long on their thrones. In my country, the Social Democrats have ruled 90% of the time the last 70 years. This is a problem not essentially because of the party's platform and because of the fact that corruption scandals involving this party are in the news every so often.

It is a problem because power itself corrupts. If you are in office for too long, staying there is at the top of the agenda, and the price you are prepared to make citizens pay for it increases by the day. Thus, less and less means are taboo the longer you are there. The civil service, first upholding and ideal of neutrality towards different parties, slowly become infested by servants associated to a specific party. Not because that is good for rule of law, but because it is easier for the party to rule that way.

You don't need to be Einstein to realize that the courts in Singapore treat cases threatening to the monopoly on political power by the PAP according to this logic. Of course, the court functionaries want to keep their jobs and be able to stay with their families in Singapore.

February 03, 2005

Shelley Rigger on Taiwanese political parties

Great, finally someone "you ming de" (famous) that agrees with me about one very imporant problem in Taiwanese politics. Shelley Rigger, accomplished Taiwan studies scholar, points out a lack of ideological coherent foundation as a major problem behind the contemporary unability of Taiwans politicians to impress it's subjects.

It's irony folks, that in Taiwan, after the long reign of a more dogmatic KMT with totalitarian ambitions, Taiwanese associate "ideology" to be inherently bad. Ideology in Taiwan in itself has a bad name.

During my time at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy last year, one of my central conclusions are on the role and need for a stronger, more independent youth involvement in politics. When you are young in a political party's youth wing you are not immediately exposed to the details and warring of negotiation, compromise and majority-gaining pork-barrel politics and log-rolling. To resist and avoid the most incoherent, corrupted, populist and short-sighted of the honorable representatives of the Legislative and Executive Yuan, it would sure help if they at least agree on some basic political philosophy before they start pushing buttons and spending other people's money, lest politics will result in contradictory policies and a complete waste of resources that were accumulated by the hard-working Taiwanese people.

Is is really not that complicated, since the relevant question in this context is: what kind of society do we want? Should the state be further restricted and society rely more on market forces and individual initiatives to lead ut into development or should the state do this by more social rights and european-type Keynesian welfare states. I dare say that the understanding of this fundamental conflict in social science is very little understood in mainstream politics in Taiwan.

Taiwanese can, and will, do this. It is a matter of time. Perhaps the youth just need to say "sod off!" the next time some politician wants to use them to hand out flyers and look cute for the cameras.

A wise young Taiwanese woman wrote me "conflicts happen everywhere, no conflicts - no improvements". This is a conflict that Taiwan's youth will handle adn turn into improvements, because they are tired of being treated as stereotypes that "are politically apathic and care only about vicious and funny things". The DPP, which is the party i have knowledge on in this sense, is still waiting to set up it's youth/ student wing. Will that happen during Su Tseng-Chang's tenure?

See an exchange i had in the Taipei Times with a Taiwanese socialist ph d candidate (here and here). I will defend the liberal view since still few others seem interested in doing so. Come on, Taiwan! Even China has free-market liberalism think tanks.