Singapore, Dubai and the limits of Freedom?

ON March 23rd, the founder of modern day Singapore – Lee Kuan Yew died – and with him, an era of change and reform in Singapore passed. While the man is remembered for ‘building’ Singapore, he is also known as the man who brought into sharp focus the idea of ‘tradition’ and ‘Asian values’. The discourse of Liberal Democracy got its strongest challenge from him, in South East Asia. Even his arch enemies acknowledge that he did well, both for himself and for his country. By imposing order, discipline and a level of authoritarianism; he brought the country prosperity and recognition. But the question really, in my mind is, what does LKY represent. Does he represent the possibilities of a repressive regime, or the

limits of democracy?LKY

Most people who live in democracies take them for granted. I grew up in the world’s largest democracy, India, and not until I moved to live in Dubai, UAE in 2008 did I begin to appreciate the value of what it is to live in one. For the first few months, all I could see was the dazzle and glitter of Dubai. Remember, it was 2008, Dubai at its best. The real estate market was still booming – though there were signs of slowdown in the U.S.- this had not hit the Middle East market yet. Life was good. People talked about buying apartments, moving to new jobs, taking vacations in Bali. In casual conversations with taxi drivers, they would tell me things like ‘The King cares about the country. What if he rules forever? The corrupt politicians back home (India, Pakistan or Bangladesh) care about their own good and not the country’. This was repeated time and again.

While media and intellectuals in the West talk about the greatness of liberal democracies, they also often do not mention that in most countries, including the U.S. – considered the oldest democracy in the world – it is still an experiment of sorts. In many cases, it works, but there are also egregious cases of violations of the very spirit of democracy. Consider the idea that powerful groups of people or institutions controlling all the decisions being made in a country, as in the case of interest groups lobbying for their interests and the notion of ‘common good’ being relegated to the backburners. What sort of a democracy would that be? We see this exact phenomenon occurring in the U.S. and other advanced democracies. While in the developing and emerging democracies, corruption is an issue; the same problem manifests itself when we speak of interest groups and oligarchies. Concentration of power, nepotism and lack of transparency are endemic issues that every society has to deal with. Just having a form of government that promises it is not sufficient. Anyone who has worked in or with a bureaucracy closely will testify to this phenomenon.

Do Singapore and Dubai offer a high standard of living? Yes, for many of those who choose live there. If you are educated, middle-class and of a certain disposition. But if one is not so educated, is a laborer or a low-income earner, then Dubai and the Gulf can be living hell. The visa sponsorship system, combined with the potential to abuse power is rather high in such societies that place ethnic loyalty over other norms. These societies are in that sense ‘illiberal democracies’ as Fareed Zakaria called them. There are local elections to the Federal National Council in the UAE, but who gets to run and who decides that is extremely restricted. Zakaria argues that countries that have elections, yet have a lot of restrictions, that go against the spirit of democracy are not helpful in maintaining ‘order’, as eventually they give rise to dissent and chaos. They offer us the illusion of freedom, but in a restricted way. Saying the wrong thing, acting in the wrong way and expressing oneself in a certain way or going against the ruling elite can cause one to lose one’s job or even worse. This is the price one pays for the comfort of living in these societies.

This brings us back to the point: Do societies such as Singapore and Dubai (which is modelled after Singapore, as a city-state) offer ‘freedom’?. Is choice defined in terms of economic liberty and freedom; in terms of being able to live lavishly and in comfort. What about those who cannot afford this? Or is a society about the greater common good – if one even believes in such a thing- these are questions that one has to grapple with, when analyzing the role of society and form of government, that one seeks to build.

Do we really need nonprofits in America? : Five arguments for the sector’s existence


Are nonprofit organizations redundant? Can the for-profit sector solve all our problems and usher in a world where poverty, disease and deprivation are things of the past? I read an article on the Forbes website yesterday that argued for dismantling of the nonprofit sector. This piece by Mr. Freedman sought to show, using two elite universities as examples, of how the entire sector is not really contributing to our lives and at best, it is a benefit that the sector does not deserve. I believe that in the U.S. (and many parts of the world) the nonprofit sector plays a key role in society and holds together social bonds, provides opportunities to those who cannot be part of the for-profit sector and finally, offers an opportunity in democratic participation.

Photo courtesy :
Photo courtesy :

Let us look at some of the arguments that are made in the Forbes piece, before we move on to analyze why I think the nonprofit sector is so important to America. While pointing out that most students at Harvard and Stanford, two institutions Mr.Freedman picks for analysis – are rich, isn’t it a total waste of tax payers dollars to subsidize them? He says: “But Harvard’s philanthropy is clearly questionable. Most of Harvard’s students are rich. (For that matter,all on average four year nonprofit schools skew upward in the wealth distribution, although not as much as many of the most elite).” But it would help to remind Mr.Freedman that most students in America don’t go to Harvard and Stanford. They actually go to community colleges, for a start. As this recent U.S. News article points out, there are over eight million students enrolled in community colleges. And from a recent lecture at Virginia Tech, I learnt that as many as 40% of graduate students have spent some time at a community college, before moving onto graduate level study.

Here are a few arguments, spanning various sectors for why we need the nonprofit sector and how it enriches our lives, in concrete ways.

  1. Incentivizing community action – As Alexis De Tocqueville, the French Aristocrat keenly observed in Democracy in America, the form of association is key to progress in America. “ In democratic countries, the science of association is the mother of science. The progress of all the rest depends on the progress it has made.” Tocqueville, 1845 [1945]:1. Lester Salamon of Johns Hopkins University contextualizes this development in the ideology of voluntary action that existed since the founding of the country. Voluntary action in the 19th century was seen as a middle way between rampant individualism and monarchial tyranny. The arrival of immigrants around this time also led to the development of self-help societies and voluntary groups, that provided crucial services to the newly arrived immigrants, he points out. This continues, to this day and one sees that the nonprofit sector benefits people from across all segments of society – the very poor, the middle class to the rich ( The National Football League (NFL) is an egregious example of a nonprofit that ‘serves’ some very wealthy interests).

At the heart of this associationalism was a distrust of state authority and a belief that people are able to take care of their own needs, if left to their own devises. The legal status that nonprofits enjoy and the tax exemptions that they get is in part incentivization for this sort of associationalism.

2.Community Colleges – The surprisingly large number of students who attend community colleges is not well known. Their crucial role in preparing students for future education or work should not be discounted, nor is their funding mechanism, much of it modelled so that the fees don’t leave a big debt on those attending these institutions. As I have pointed out above, the sheer number of students who attend them is testimony to their continued relevance.

3. Employment in the nonprofit sector – As this recent article points out, millions of people are employed in the nonprofit sector and it contributes roughly five percent of the American GDP, every year. A recent report from the John Hopkins University’s Center on Nonprofits points out that about 10.1% of total America’s workforce is employed in the nonprofit sector. This is third in line, behind retail and manufacturing.

4. Democracy and philanthropy – Anyone familiar with American history will acknowledge the key role that civil society institutions have played in forming American democracy and sustaining it. Payton and Moody further argue that Philanthropy is crucial for Democracy. “The future of a free, vibrant society is linked to vitality of the philanthropic tradition,” they point out. (Payton and Moody, 2008. Pg.88). The advocacy and civic role of philanthropy are clearly essential in democracies, but other activities – helping to meet public needs and responding to human problems, shaping the moral agenda, and expressing cultural values are all part of building a stable democracy, they say. The notion that culturally, Philanthropy fosters democracy is an idea that has persisted since Alexis de Tocqueville pointed this out in his classic work Democracy in America. Payton and Moody build on Tocqueville’s argument in that Democracy needs philanthropy as it is also a cultural value, fostered by civic institutions


5.Cultural argument – One must also remember that individualism and freedom are at the heart of the American character, as Robert Bellah et al have argued in their book Habits of the Heart. In this book, they start off with case studies of four distinct individuals, leading very different lives. But what ties them together is how they make sense of their lives. As they say: “Brian Palmer finds meaning in marriage and family; Margaret in therapy. Thus both of them are primarily concerned with family life. Joe gives his life coherence his active concern for the life of his town; Wayne Bauer finds similar coherence in his involvement in political activism. Whether chiefly concerned with private or public life, all four are involved in caring for others. They are responsible and, in many ways, admirable adults. Yet when each of them uses the moral discourse they share, what we call the first language of individualism, they have difficulty articulating the richness of their commitments. In the language they use, their lives sound more isolated and arbitrary than as we have observed them, they actually are.”

As many keen observers of American society, from Alexis De Tocqueville to Robert Bellah and more currently Robert Wuthnow, have pointed out, civil society and its functioning is crucial for American democracy. The way in which individual agency has shaped American ethos is quite unique and offers all of us – should we choose to, to participate in making our ‘own world’ in our communities, both locally and at the national level; with limited interference from the state apparatus.


The libertarian argument against nonprofits in general is predicated on cutting back on any subsidies to those who ‘do not produce’. This is fallacious, as it defines productivity in a very narrow sense. Are the services of an NGO engaged in employment generation not valuable? What of the local community college or research institution? And I am not even bringing up the soup kitchens and other self-help groups that save lives, provide shelter and provide social services that many welfare states do. How does one quantify the results of some of the intangibles such as community action and mobilization, that several NGOs’ work towards?

Taking a cue from this, the discourse of ‘fixing the world’ through for-profits alone misses out on this sense of commitment, social bonding and cohesion that seems to exist in American society; and much of this exists in the nonprofit sector, where the motive to serve exists, even if in a flawed way. This social capital is the basis of how civil society has evolved in the U.S. Taking this away would mean taking away something at the heart of the American ethos. And unfortunately, much of this social capital is not “for-profit”.

Is American Philanthropy exceptional?

Is American philanthropy exceptional? As the most generous country in the world (by some counts) is the U.S. unique in the way that it advocates and practices charity? While the U.S. remains one of the most creative, dynamic and trend-setting countries when it comes to charitable giving, is it truly that unique? On the surface, this seems to be true, but I will argue that this is not the case and perhaps while it seems to be the case the American philanthropy is exceptional, it is one of the ways in which philanthropy is conceptualized and perhaps its framing is exceptional, not its practice. Philanthropy in the U.S. is as much a ‘social relation’ and an act of fulfilling one’s obligation to one’s society as it in other cultures and societies, though neoliberalism and market-led forces may be individualizing and customizing philanthropy in ways that is somewhat conflicting with its intended purposes.



Let us see some arguments made for why American philanthropy is considered exceptional. I can think of four main ones. A brief examination of each and a short discussion follows: Firstly, Americans are the most generous people in the world –This is certainly true, if giving is measured in aggregate dollar terms and as a percent of giving voluntarily to causes of one’s choosing. Just looking at data from Giving USA 2013 points us to this fact. Americans gave more than $ 300 billion in 2012, to causes ranging from nonprofits, to churches, mosques, synagogues and homeless shelters. By all counts, this is staggering. Secondly, roughly $100 billion dollars were given to religious institutions in 2012. Of the total charitable donations, 1/3rd of the amount was given to churches, synagogues and other religious institutions, according to the Giving USA report. This is a drop from roughly ½ of the total charity to religious institutions, from a few decades. Despite this, the amount of religious giving is quite important and shows that Americans are still deeply religious people. Thirdly, consider tax exemption – The U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) offers tax exemption for donations made to charity. While this is a controversial element of American tax policy, the incentivization has been in place to encourage people to donate to charities and participate in charitable endeavors. As Peter Frumkin points out in his book Strategic Giving, “Tax exemption is an acknowledgement of the independence and freedom of private action. Federal and state governments accept the desirability of having independent actors for the common good and shield them from taxation so they can operate without owing funds to the government.”(Pg.30). This is not without problems and comes up as a controversial topic in both scholarly and public discourses.

Finally, the focus on individual agency – While Americans are known for their group forming behavior, or colloquially known to be ‘joiners’, there is much debate on the decline in civil society and social capital, captured in works by Robert Putnam in Bowling alone, or Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart – two books that are considered classics. Philanthropy is still seen as an individual endeavor or desire by individuals to shape the world around them. In this sense, it is a deeply individualistic act.


 Tensions in American philanthropy: What is not so exceptional about American philanthropy

While the philanthropic sector in the U.S. seems to be growing, despite the recent economic recession, it remains deeply contested. While critics on both the left and right of the political spectrum criticize it for various reasons, it does remain an inevitable part of American social life. Peter Frumkin, Associated Professor at University of Pennsylvania points out that the field of philanthropy is fractured and disorganized, in more ways than one. There is confusion at the level of actors, at the donor and receivers level, as well as at what stage should giving occur – before or after death. The mechanics of giving are under debate too, and there is no consensus on many aspects of giving (pg.27). He further adds that philanthropy as a field of activity exposes, rather than resolves deep-seated differences between individuals in terms of how they believe society should be organized and what public needs should take priority. The introduction of private resources into philanthropy the public domain that is a central feature of giving cannot help but create confusion and contention. (Pg.28).Philanthropy in this sense is problematic and has in the past created several public policy conflicts and continues to be debated, though not the extent of the heydays of the foundations, when they were questioned and interrogated, most famously by the Walsh commission, in 1919.

Consider for instance the notion among many Libertarians that the only responsibility that businesses have is to its share-holders and concepts such as Corporate Social Responsibility are not really relevant in a capitalist society such as the U.S. Coupled with other market-led notions of individual freedom and agency, philanthropic notions are being challenged, all the while undergoing a transformation of sorts. While newer technologies and ways of conceptualizing philanthropy – in the form of Philanthrocapitalism, giving circles are all making ‘giving’ more personal and commodifying it, I believe we are witnessing a new phase of philanthropy that is bringing individualism to the fore, at the expense of communitarianism, or group solidarity; one of the cardinal philosophical tenets of philanthropy.

At this level, I believe we are witnessing tensions that may radically alter how we view philanthropy and its role. These are tensions that exist across various countries and cultures, and not just in the U.S. The state, religion and individual’s conception of charity and philanthropy are at competition in each culture. One can also argue that the focus on efficiency and business-like running of nonprofits across the world is a fact that one needs to contend with, when analyzing the sector’s growth and proliferation. This, I argue is a direct result of neoliberal frameworks, that have spread around the world. Consumerism and branding are two other recent trends in philanthropy that seem to be influencing the growth of the field, in radically new ways. How will competition shape philanthropy, and in particular those benevolent forms of charities? Will UNICEF fight for dollars from Habitat for Humanity and how will this fight end?

These are deep philosophical questions as they are pragmatic ones. Considering how philanthropy is undergoing a shift in focus, from an ethics based norm (charity) to a more businesslike, efficiency driven ‘philanthropy,’ the world over; I believe that philanthropy in the U.S. is not exceptional and is witnessing the similar kinds of tensions that the sector is witnessing in other parts of the developed (and developing) world. The relationship of the individual and state is at stake here, so is the question of the role of wealthy donors and corporations, those who control the purse strings in an economy.


Frumkin Peter. Strategic Giving. University of Chicago Press. Chicago. 2006. Print.