The needs of the many and of the few

October 24, 2007
Singapore Democrats

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Brian Yap
The New Straits Times
24 Oct 07
http://www.nst.com.my/Wednesday/Columns/2066527/Article/index_html

One of the characteristics Malaysia has accepted as intrinsic to its nature is a belief that social order and the welfare of the majority supersedes that of the individual.

For instance, former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad once said: “The laws in the West place too much priority on the individual’s right that allows him to do anything he pleases even though his actions may threaten the peace and security of the society.”

It’s a value that Singapore shares as well, as often espoused by its founder Lee Kuan Yew. Stability and prosperity of the country at large is more important than freedom of speech, thought or other forms of civil and personal liberties.

Taken as is, they are convincing arguments. Essentially, the idea is that it is better for each person to “suffer” than entire communities. Better for each of us to sacrifice a bit of freedom than let society slide into chaos.

It goes without saying that this concept is how law and order is maintained. If everyone disregarded all traffic laws simply because they’re not convenient to follow, then driving will not be a pleasant experience. That that’s exactly what driving in the Klang Valley is like is beside the point.

Or maybe it is. After all, what better way to illustrate the selectiveness with which we apply this principle that social order is more important than the individual’s right to do as he or she pleases?

Of course, I’m not so naive to believe that Dr Mahathir and Mr Lee Kuan Yew were referring to illegal parking and beating the red lights (though considering the orderly ways of Singaporeans, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was). They were both obviously referring to political freedoms specifically.

While there’s a belief that respect for personal freedoms can be postponed, or even denied outright, I would argue that at some point they are necessary for the same reason some say they aren’t – for stability, peace and security. If there are no avenues for critical opinions or dissenting views, eventually people will find less palatable ways to get the message across.

I believe every society should aspire to become one that is able to accommodate the views and interests of the minority without falling into chaos. That Malaysia isn’t there yet is undeniable. That we don’t seem to have a plan to move in that direction, however, is disappointing. If the lack of understanding between communities is a problem, it’s not likely to get better in the future with even less communication.

Just as disappointing, however, is how this principle that the interests of society at large should take precedence over the freedom of individuals or a small minority of people doesn’t seem to apply to other aspects of our lives. The concept also generally applies, conveniently enough, to political freedoms. What about when the interests of a minority take precedence over those of the public?

All the hue and cry over the construction of Datuk Zakaria Mat Deros’ mansion in Klang has pretty much amounted to naught, as it still went ahead, even with stories about the finished house in the media to boot. But I thought we don’t place priority on the individual’s right at the expense of society at large?

What more, next year, we’re looking forward to an increase in toll rates on selected highways. The burden, once again, will be on the majority, with the profits, in the hands of a minority.

Or what about the 10 people arrested by the ACA over mismanagement of public funds? No doubt, no small group of individuals should be allowed to get away with wasting millions of taxpayers’ money, if they are indeed the only ones responsible for spending our hard-earned money like it was going out of fashion. To let them get away with it, whoever they are, is essentially forsaking the interests of the majority to protect only a handful of individuals.

It is, after all, when the interest of an individual takes precedence over that of society at large that corruption comes about.

If our society placed as much emphasis on making sure that no individual is allowed to profit at the expense of the majority – whether through bribery or unethical business practices – as it did on keeping dissenting voices quiet, I think that much sought-after peace and stability would be more likely to come by.