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Thursday, January 12, 2006

George Soros & A Global Open Society - A Dialogue with a New Generation

Someone suggested to me that we go for this event together, but unfortunately was unable to make it at the last minute; if the following seems too much of a narrative, you can blame her (hehe) since she asked me to tell her what the talk was like. In any case, though we had to pre-register, there was no confirmation of attendance, so in theory anyone could have crashed. Bah. My observations and notes are integrated into the passage, so although at times it may sound like I spoke at the session, the fact is I didn't.

I've always had some bit of skepticism regarding dialogues with the youth, not least because the youth who get to take part in or even spectate at these events are hardly representative of youth in general, coming as they do from a handpicked group. Do these outstanding students, one of whom was acclaimed as "the best" of our next generation, really represent the future generation of Singaporeans? How in touch are they with the bulk of their generation? Indeed, I am given to believe that participants in these events are always the same few people, or at least the same type of people, most of whom probably know each other. Then again, the bulk of the future generation are like the bulk of all generations - apathetic (to one degree or other), so the problem is how to bring the airy-fairy concept of an "Open Society" to the masses. Also, at this talk there were a grand total of 2 youth on the panel - one SMU student and one NUS student, so it was hardly a "dialogue with a new generation" (then again, the Young PAP was headed by a 45-year-old at one point in time, so I guess it's all relative).

I have always been of the opinion that there is no reason to go to too many talks, seminars, symposiums and conferences, since one hits diminishing returns sooner or later. After a while, you find yourself hearing as well as saying the same things (which you of course already know), and those who attend or participate in such are likely already educated and versed in such issues already, and so do not have that much to gain.

Soros singled out the failure of states and repressive ideologies as 2 serious threats to freedom and an open society. Yet, I would think that even in the absence of these 2 factors, apathy would be a powerful threat to an open society. Given that he was discussing how the US was becoming less open ("An open society that doesn't understand the concept and doesn't abide by its principles") in its war on terror by parting from "reality" and entering a "fantasy world", hitting innocents and endangering civil liberties in the process, I'm surprised he didn't discuss it - given that George Bush has been instrumental in rolling back civil liberties, Soros's campaign to oust him would've succeeded if he'd managed to raise turnout among fellow opponents of Bush.

When his turn came up to talk, Kishore Mabhubani asked a "provocative" question. He claimed that the "West" had a nominally open society, but a functionally closed one, while the rest of the world had nominally closed societies, but functionally open ones. When I heard this I was flabbergasted, and my shock did not diminish as he finished his "provocative" question, for in elaborating, it seemed he had conflated the "West" (already a term some deride as being unhelpful) with the USA, and offered nothing at all to substantiate the latter half of his "provocative" question (ie showing how the rest of the world has functionally open societies); just because the USA is not as open as it should be, used to be or is claimed to be does not magically make the rest of the world functionally open. Nor does the US being imperfect mean that the rest of the world has the imprimatur to be more imperfect. He claimed that the US has nurtured the illusion that it is open, so its citizens do not feel that there is a need to know more about the world and now travel less, know less and care less about the rest of the world. I am not sure that this is a new phenomenon, even if it might have become more pronounced in recent years.

In reply to Mabhubani's "provocative" question, Soros replied that the US has robust institutions and a tradition of freedom, so although it has lost its way, it can find it again because it can change, and people criticise the government. So despite the best efforts of the Bush administration, the attempts to make the US a less open society will fail.

Assoc Prof Locknie Hsu next made some general remarks about disputing the veracity of accepted facts, but very importantly zeroed in on how Soros had not defined "democracy" and "open society". I think that lawyers sometimes are too zealous about definitions, resulting in the definitions of concepts almost everyone has an instinctive grasp of becoming more and more precise lose more and more accuracy, until one can have oral sex without this being covered by the legal definition of sex (as it applies to the case). This was a very important point, and I wondered why Soros had not tried to define these concepts in his opening remarks (or indeed Kesavapany in his Welcome Address - after all, the key phrase *did* appear in the title of the dialogue session).

Soros replied to the comment about his not defining his key terms by saying they had no definition, and that people had to define these concepts for themselves. He did conceded, though, that the rule of law was important in an open society, and so you need some legal definitions. I would note that the problem with being so iffy is that definitions can be hijacked in pursuit of political agendas (some would argue that trying to promote civil society in a country is in itself a political agenda, but I have much more faith in the noble intentions of NGOs without vested interests trying to improve the lot of a country's citizens than the motives of repressive governments trying to stifle and control their citizens), and governments, with the aid of co-opted intellectuals, could find all sorts of excuses, including "Western Imperialism", "National Sovereignty", the people not being ready and "Asian Values" to disenfranchise their peoples.

Dr Suzaina Binte Kadir was up next and she voiced the usual question about the alleged dichotomy between economic development and democracy, and if a certain level of economic development was needed before democracy could be attained. This was hardly a new question to me, and I think at least half (probably more) the people in the hall were better read and more well-informed than me, so I wondered why the point was being brought up since it would be neither novel nor informative (see above about diminishing returns). A more interesting question was her asking if some people enjoying an open society was predicated on these people's getting rich at the expense of the rest of the world's population, and if a just and equitable distribution of wealth was possible in an open society (actually I didn't understand why this was necessarily the case, but nonetheless it was an interesting question, being what seemed to be a personal jibe). And then another slightly worn question followed about the role of religion and specifically Islam in an open society.

Soros's answer was that material reward and prosperity was needed for a society to become and remain open: "I spent half an hour grandstanding about an Open Society, but for the first 50 years of my life I was making money... When you're hungry you think about making money... I couldn't stop making money." He said he became successful first before he devoted himself to promoting Open Societies, and that he respected people who did that without becoming rich first. But then he qualified this by saying that an Open Society helps create prosperity by liberating people's creative energies - a bit iffy, and ignoring the role of transparency and openness in encouraging good governance and limiting governance, but fair enough.

Then followed some de rigueur remarks on his part about freedom of belief/faith being necessary because no one was infallible, and an observation that since there is no Church/State divide in Islam, no separation like in Western socities, Islamic politics becomes guided by religion. He drew a parallel with religious fundamentalism in the US, and how "literal interpretation of scripture, frankly", was in conflict with critical thinking because the rules would be set down once and for all. He observed that Islam was struggling with this, especially with regards to women, and that conditions have changed since Islamic scripture was written, and modern realities had to be reconciled with them.

Professor Tommy Koh asked Suzaina if secularism was necessary in an open society, and asked if there was a contradiction between Islam and an Open Society. She replied that although there was no Church-State separation in Islam a la the Enlightenment, they were thinking about how to attain it and so the two were not irreconcilable, at which I chuckled, having witnessed what apologists have managed to do - nothing is irreconcilable!

Next came the two students. Alvina Teh asked how the international community could be persuaded to support an Open Society in a country, since military force, being against the principles of an Open Society, was proscribed - in short, how to bring Open Society to a country needing freedom. Soros replied that people had to be protected when they couldn't protect themselves, and wryly remarked on the UN as a failed tool for protecting people: "It is an imperfect organisation, like all big organisations. Maybe a bit more imperfect than most".

Mabhubani, noting the popularity of UN bashing, then quoted an immortal line he attributed to Margaret Thatcher (the original quote is welcome): "If you don't like the UN, look at a mirror. It reflects you... It's the 109 member states that have screwed up the UN". He then related how a Western intellectual, when asked by him to define the "International Community", said it was the views that developed Western states dictated to the rest of the world.

Soros mused on how the Security Council reflects the power balance in 1945, and warned that only they can fix it, or it will become increasingly irrelevant. But then, I observed that those with the power to fix it have no incentive to do so. An application of game theory, it would seem.

Soros talked about how Canada was the first country to propose the phrase "responsibility to protect", and that when it did so, there was an uproar, but last year, the phrase was sneaked in to a summit document.

The last panelist was Benjamin Lee, who asked how India and China would feel on the developed societies leading the way forward in pursuit of Open Societies (presumably on their being left behind, I think). He also questioned how, if individuals were on the same level as states, an Open Society was not to degenerate into anarchy. Finally, he asked the million dollar question - how far Soros would rate Singapore as an open global society, and where on the spectrum it would lie (someone would definitely have asked this during Q&A if it hadn't during the panel session. I know I would have).

The million dollar question was, of course, greeted with much mirth and approval. Soros was forthright in his appraisal: "Obviously Singapore does not qualify as an Open Society". This was, of course, also greeted with much mirth and approval. He qualified his words, of course, by saying that Singapore was prosperous and so eventually would become an Open Society. The usual platitudes about our enlightened leadership, his admiring their achievements and hoping they would take the next step in the country's development followed. He even talked of how he met one person who was sued for libel and bankrupted, and commented that the use of "libel can be a tremendous hindrance to freedom of speech, or freedom of expression", and recommended that it not be used to suppress those freedoms anymore, to more applause from the audience.

And with that, the Question and Answer session started. Some of the questions were: insipid, uninspiring, trite, irrelevant or one or more of the above, so I will not bother recounting them or their replies here.

One person reminded Soros that he hadn't answered Benjamin's question about anarchy, and so he replied that each society had to draw its own line, and he was not advocating introducing Western democracy to the world. Of course, I think this had its own perils (see above on "Asian Values").

Some people asked Soros financial questions for some reason, even though this talk was not about finance at all. His answer to one was interesting in its own right, though, so I will record it here: he said that he was against market funamentalism because financial markets do not tend to equilibrium since perfect knowledge does not exist; the expectations which people hold change the future, so markets tend to extremes, and he recommended intervention if they swung too far from equilibrium (but not to guide them to equilibrium in the first lace).

One NUS Business School student took trade disputes to be a sign of isolationism in the EU. Huh? In (sort of) reply to that, Soros observed that the EU was a prototype of an Open Society, since no one has majority power, and that the way its principles developed was one step at a time, proceeding incrementally towards an end goal, while realising the imperfection of each step, but that it couldn't go on developing at this rate because it had been driven along by the elite, and people felt alienated so they needed to engage the grassroots (again, nothing new here). Meanwhile, one HCJC guy asked whether speculators destabilised the global community (to which Soros gave the clever answer of their destabilising it half the time and stabilising it the other half).

A "SMU alumni" (sic) asked if Soros felt he was fighting a lost cause, and said he was appreciative of what he had done. Tommy Koh interjected: "You're so young and yet so cynical... I think 'Open Society' is a sunrise concept, 'Democracy' is a sunrise concept". He then continued by saying Soros's answer earlier (about Singapore not being an Open Society) was too abrupt, and that this sort of thing was not a black or white issue: the US was moving from a "totally open" society to a more closed one, while Singapore was moving in the opposite direction, so he should say "Well done. Continue making progress."

Soros admitted that other societies existed which were worse off, and that this was a relative thing, depending on the direction in which a society was moving, and was hopeful for an opening of society. As for lost causes, he related what he'd been told by Kovaliov, who was the human rights commissioner of the Russian parliament and had helped bring the Chechen war to an end: "All my life I've been fighting lost causes", and that if you don't fight for a lost cause, you won't get freedom so one should do it regardless of the chances of success. It sounded a touch vainglorious to me, even if the sentiment was admirable.

At 4:20 sharp, the moderator, exercising a great deal of discipline, cut the session short. Prof Howard Hunter, making the closing remarks, related how when Soros spoke at the Stock Exchange of Singapore on monday, there was a whole row of investment bankers, and that he'd never seen so many SMSes and notes being scribbled except among a row of 13 year olds on the MRT. He also remarked how it's easy to make a lot of money, but you will be forgotten by history if making money is all you care about. He thanked the audience for their sharp, provocative and pithy questions - evidence of critical thinking in Raffles City, and the session was at an end.

The only thing I have left to note is that as I was entering the MRT, JBJ was setting up his stall and hawking is books, with the sign: "Singapore - a country with no rule of law". Somehow, I doubt it was a coincidence that he was there at that time.

Professor Tommy Koh is a very amusing speaker: "As you can tell, Mr Soros, Mr Kesavapany and I beong to the Mutual Admiration Society, which has many members."

"I have the pleasure of introducing Mr George Soros... I will begin by saying I do not share Dr Mahathir's view of him... he might have slightly exaggerated his power, even though he brought down the British Pound a little."


Clarifications in response to queries by HUICHIEH:

I must confess to not understanding Agagooga's point about "definitions can be hijacked in pursuit of political agendas"--how does one do such a thing? Perhaps along these lines--a manifestly unjust regime applies a novel definition of a normally positive term, say, "democracy", and under that novel definition, the regime turns out to be "democratic". But this is no argument against the usefulness of definitions--when such things happen, all the more do we become aware of the defectiveness of the unjust regime's novel definition.

North Korea is proclaimed by its government to be a Workers' Paradise, many Communist countries were "Democratic" or "People's Republics" and Singapore has a press model which is defined as suiting our unique circumstances. As such, I was arguing for Soros to provide rough definitions, rather than for the meaninglessness of definitions (they are only meaningless if defined by repressive governments such that their regimes qualify).

And obviously, one would have "much more faith in the noble intentions of NGOs without vested interests trying to improve the lot of a country's citizens than the motives of repressive governments trying to stifle and control their citizens" (emphasis mine). But it doesn't say very much, does it? The question is not whether one ought to have more faith in the good guys as opposed to the bad guys, whoever they are, but just who are the good and who are the bad guys. Personally, neither NGOs nor governments should get a free pass. The noblest intentions can be the direct cause of the worst evils, while the basest motives may yet be the engine that actually make the world work.

Repressive governments like to rail against the nefarious influences of foreign agents, or claim that they should and can not have any say in the internal affairs of a country (sometimes allegedly because they do not have any vested interests in the future of it). Yet, this argument against external interference does not hold any water - we should evaluate what they do, rather than where they come from (from within or without).
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