Liberal or not?

August 15, 2005
Singapore Democrats

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I am glad to hear from Republican of Singapore requesting me to clarify what I meant by being a liberal.

Due to the constraint of space in my internship report, it is impossible for me to elaborate at length on what liberalism is. I have only tried to explain in my own words as succinct as possible, what I meant by being a liberal. Individuals interested in ideologies would better come to their own conclusions by doing their own studies or research.

In pointing out that liberal values are “Republican philosophy”, I agree that the founding of America is indebted to it.

John Locke (1632 – 1704), an English philosopher, politician and prominent thinker of early liberalism argued in his Two Treatises on Civil Government (1690) that all human beings have the right to life, liberty and property and that government exists to protect these basic rights. His ideas became the basis for the Declaration of Independence in the United States. In 1948, those ideas were adopted by the United Nations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In his letter, Republican of Singapore argues that tolerance is not an exclusive liberal value. I agree. One must, however, note it is the early and influential liberal thinkers who came up with the idea of tolerance. John Stuart Mill, considered an influential liberal thinker, in his book On Liberty argued for greater tolerance in speech and lifestyle while John Locke argued for greater tolerance in religion in his Letter Concerning Toleration in 1689.

I also agree with the writer that we should not confuse democracy with liberalism. Democracy can be simply described as a form of governance in which a government is elected through a free and fair elective process.

In today’s context however, democracy is however widely translated and understood as “liberal democracy”.

Liberal democracy can be summarized as a form of representative democracy where the power held by elected officials is balanced by a constitution that protects individual liberties and minorities’ rights. In short, majority rule, minority rights. What I am saying is that the term democracy has evolved to incorporate some of the basic elements of
liberalism.

As for views on social welfare, defense (terrorism, military spending etc), crime/punishment, distribution of income, business/trade and foreign policies, it would be simplistic to come up with a “one size fits all answer”. Not to mention that liberalism, being a non-dogmatic ideology, does not believe in simple answers to contemporary complex challenges.

The pertinent question to Singapore, is not whether I am a liberal or not, but whether our system is democratic, in the modern and liberal sense of the word.

CHARLES TAN

President

Young Democrats
Singapore Democratic Party