This article was written by SFL Charter Teams Member Bryan Cheang, a Ph.D. candidate at King’s College, London, who is also the head of SFL Singapore.
Singapore, is by most standards, one of the richest countries in the world. It is safe, clean, peaceful, and an all-round excellent place to live. Singapore’s success is considered by many observers to have been “government-made”. Despite the relatively high levels of economic freedom in Singapore, the incumbent government has unabashedly planned the economy on a large scale, believing itself to be the “planner and mobiliser of economic effort”.
It is no surprise, therefore, that there has never been any libertarian or market-oriented organisation in Singapore. It’s hard to make a case for free markets when government seems, at least on surface, to have been so successful in generating positive outcomes. Until now.
In 2017 this year, against the better counsel of our peers, we started Singapore’s first libertarian organisation, Students for Liberty Singapore, with the aim of promoting the classical liberal intellectual tradition in a rather challenging landscape. Such an effort has not been easy for us. Aside from navigating Singapore’s onerous regulations on free association, we face the constant challenge of exciting young people with our ideas who otherwise prefer to focus on academic and social pursuits.
Yet, through the passion of our team, we have since organised a series of events and have engaged a total of about 200 unique individuals through them, and dozens more through our personalised outreach to members of specific civil society organisations locally. We have featured speakers like Mr Wan Saiful and Dr Carmelo Ferlito from the Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) in Malaysia, and local market-oriented speakers like Mr Tomas Forgac and Mr Bart Remes. Through these events, the message of individual liberty was communicated to students from our local universities, as well as Singaporeans from various backgrounds.
The team has also generated considerable intellectual output. One of our members, Danny Koordi, a recent university graduate, has launched and currently runs our “Economical Rice Podcast”, where we interview various guests and discuss economics concepts tailored to a local context. This podcast has covered topics such as the Universal Basic Income, market failure, and recently, the issue of whether bike sharing should be regulated. Our members have also written and published on international platforms such as FEE.org (see here and here) and CAPx (see here). We are currently enhancing a full-scale web platform, Learn Liberty-style, which will host our podcast, editorial content and event announcements, all of which will cater to a Singaporean audience.
Our outreach began with our first event in July titled “LGBT Rights and Market Capitalism”, where I, as the Head of the team, showed how free societies promote tolerance and social progress. Contrary to concerns about how capitalism hurts the LGBT community through corporatisation, gentrification of cities and the oppression of gender minorities, we made the case that markets empower LGBT individuals to customize alternative lifestyles for themselves and live financially independent lives. We are pleased to have invited members from the Inter-University LGBT Society for this talk as well as other civil society activists working for LGBT equality in Singapore.
Capitalizing on the hot topic of “populism”, which is sweeping the world, we next invited Mr Wan Saiful, CEO of IDEAS, to speak about its dangers. He explained, through theory and his extensive personal experience, how politicians have a constant incentive to push populist policies, to the detriment of market freedoms.
Our third guest was Mr Tomas Forgac, a Bitcoin expert and libertarian activist, who spoke on “The Bitcoin Revolution”. Well attended by many in the financial circle, this event explained how Bitcoin as a digital currency is changing the way we live, and creating opportunities for us to live outside of the tenuous, government-controlled global monetary system.
Our team decided also to touch on a most controversial topic: the prohibition of harmful substances, a favorite policy of the Singapore government, which has, against international consensus, maintained strict drug laws and heavy regulations on tobacco & alcohol. If there’s any one topic that remains taboo in Singapore, it is this. Drug traffickers and users can be, and have been, executed by the government, which has repeatedly condemned efforts by international organisations to petition for the abolition of the death penalty.
To this end, we invited an Austrian economist and business consultant, Mr Bart Remes from Economica Action, to speak at our event titled “Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll”. Bart masterfully explained the unintended consequences of prohibition and regulation, and this event also pointed out the failures of plain packaging in Australia, something that the Singapore government is currently considering to emulate.
The strategy my team has taken has been to focus on intellectual activism rather than political activism, which is the surest way to attract unnecessary government scrutiny in Singapore. Positioning ourselves as an educational platform, our events have been run as seminars that investigate classical liberal concepts and theories that Singaporeans would otherwise not have encountered. We have particularly focused on economic issues rather than political ones, and have reached out to economics-societies and business groups in local universities.
In line with our focus on economics education, our last two events are on “Entrepreneurship and Capital in the 21st Century”, as well as a film screening scheduled for December that will touch on the failures of foreign aid as a development strategy for the global poor. We were privileged to invite Dr Carmelo Ferlito, an Austrian school economist who has studied the topic of entrepreneurship extensively, to speak on the role of the Schumpeterian and Kirznerian entrepreneur in driving the market process.
Our film screening in December aims to capture the moral high ground in the debate over the role of capitalism in society, and show that contrary to popular misconceptions, top down initiatives often do more harm than good. The award-winning documentary Poverty Inc that will be shown, will hopefully inspire our Singaporean attendees about how economic freedom can empower people to live better lives as private entrepreneurs.
The road ahead, for sure, is long. Singapore is far from a libertarian paradise, as some may have (wrongly) suggested. But my team and I are not ones to be fazed. The American revolutionary Samuel Adams himself declared that “it does not take a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority willing to start brushfires of freedom in the minds of men”.
We are confident that with dedication and inspired hearts, and the continued support of our partners at Atlas Network and Students for Liberty, we can continue to create change in a region that sorely needs it.
Disclaimer: This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions. If you’re a student interested in presenting your perspective on this blog, click here to submit a guest post!