What does ‘freedom’ actually mean?

Today, 19 September 2015 marks the start of my mid-semester freedom. Yes, I’ve survived one-quarter of Freshman year. These 6+2 weeks just flew past. Now, I’m free. Free from the stress of trying to talk in class, free from the piles of assignments and free from the stacks of readings. I’m free to do what I want to do, at least for the next two weeks.

But this is such a shallow and superficial form of freedom.

Freedom can mean a totally different thing to someone else. Freedom can be the difference between life and death for someone else.

Yesterday, my last class was Comparative Social Institutions (CSI). The unit was about Economics, about the failures of free market and about how our self-interest and utilitarian mindset may actually be at the expense of other less tangible things. In this case, it was someone’s freedom. The case study was on prawns&shrimps supply in Thailand, where people are transacted and sold as slaves from boat to boat. They fish 22 hours a day, they don’t get sufficient rest and they get beaten when they don’t perform. You think that slavery is a thing of the past? Think again. (I would rather write the word ‘work’, but I don’t think what they do actually counts as ‘work’, since the word ‘work’ implies that one gets things in return for what they do.)

Anyway, all of us love buying things at low prices. We get happy when things are cheap and when we see the word ‘SALE’. But we don’t think about what went on behind the scenes. What is happening in the world right now, just so we can get all our things at such low cost? What is the cost to them? It’s strange, isn’t it? How we derive our happiness at the expense of someone else’s happiness, at the expense of someone else’s life?

The video that Prof Chin showed us ended with a slave saying that everyone has seen someone commit suicide at least once. They all knew and saw someone who chose to escape the cycle of slavery by ending his own life, while they just watched him sink below the water’s surface. A slave also said that when someone tried to rebel by attacking the captains, other captains caught him, tied each of his four limbs to a boat each and tore him apart. (I know, what was that? Honestly, are these ‘captains’ even human? How could anyone do that to another being who looks just like himself? What happened to one’s moral conscience? How could four people actually get past their own moral conscience and agree to do that sort of thing to someone else?) While that really disgusted me, it was the last sentence of the video that struck me – the slave said that they are not seen as humans. Their life was valued less than that of a fish.

That was the last few minutes of the video, but it was easily the most depressing thing that I had watched in months.

And you know what? This sort of things do not just exist in the fishing industry. In GP/ LA, how many times have we talked about Fair Trade and about chocolates and cocoas? Things that were meant to bring happiness to someone else’s life (think of Valentines’ Day, birthdays, special occasions) etc. actually bring so much pain and grief to another person. Not just food, though. What about clothes? Cotton On, New Look, Factorie, H&M, F21 – all our favourite affordable fashion giants. We rejoice when we see the big red ‘SALE’. But that should have sent us a big red warning. THINK. Think about the supply chain.

Think about the lovely shirt you bought from Cotton On for $10. How was it produced? Where was it produced? Who pieced the pieces of cloth together? Where did the thread of the cloth come from? How was it procured? From where? I know it has become terribly hard to determine where something is from – it wouldn’t be incorrect to have a label that said ‘Made in The World’, because things nowadays are indeed made all over the world! Everything that you have, everything that you eat, everything that you use all came from countries that we have never, ever been to physically. But what went on in those countries? We have a hunch, but we do not know for sure. And when we see the glorious price tag, we do not even care. We do not even think about it. We do not think about that poor man who just got beaten for taking a breather from producing more of that ‘lovely $10 shirt’. We think about how many we can buy, and how much money we can afford to spare for that piece of cloth or for that piece of meat. (And it’s not like any fraction of that $10 actually goes to the poor man. How many other middle men are involved?)

The cheaper things are, the more we will want to buy. That is the basic of Economics. Supply and Demand, Price and Quantity. The low price causes us to increase our quantity demanded at each and every price level (i.e. increase demand), and this creates an incentive for the producers to produce more. How do they produce more? Increase factors of production, which include human labour. But increasing human labour would increase their cost of production, which would be counterintuitive to producers’ goal of maximising profit. And an increase in COP would not translate into low prices for us consumers anyway. So how do they ensure that they can get more factors of production at a lower cost? That’s right – illegal workers, i.e. slaves.

It’s terrible, isn’t it? The world is terrible. I hate how our first instinct to maximise happiness by saving money is at the expense of someone else’s happiness, at the expense of someone else’s life. And it’s worse, how that $10 difference in price (between something that’s ethically produced and something that isn’t) could mean the whole world to another person hundreds of miles away. And when someone’s freedom is robbed away from him, you know that he isn’t the only person affected. What about his family? He probably got tricked into the situation because he was desperate to provide for his family. What if his frail old parents depend on him for medicine? What if his newborn baby girl and his wife are waiting for him to go home, so that they can survive and have someone to call ‘dad’/ ‘dear’?

It’s not fair. The world is not fair. My heart aches for these people and my tears fall even as I type this.

But what can we do?

It’s really easy to say “oh, the government should step in. The police should work harder to stop them. A, B, C should do X, Y, Z.”

Indeed, authorities can step in. But do they want to? Does the environment allow that to happen? Corruption. As long as there is ONE ‘authority figure’ who is corrupt, the whole ‘solution’ fails. And more often than not, there is more than one such person. (Now I understand why so many people who applied to LKYSPP wrote about solving Corruption in their home countries.)

We can easily go on to say “just tackle corruption, then. They just have to tackle it at all costs. Once you address that, it will all be fine.”

But really, it won’t. Deep down, we all know that that will not happen. Because that does not even address the root cause OF HUMAN DESIRES where we just want to maximise our utility and minimise our cost. WE are the ROOT CAUSE of the slavery issue. As Prof Chin said, if you have 2 identical products, one sold for $10 (through illegal means) and another sold for $30 (but ethically), consumers would still purchase the cheaper one because we think that the $30 one is cheating our money!

And it’s perfectly understandable that we would do so, because some shop-owners indeed marked up their prices to earn more – and we are unable to ensure that the additional $20 was a result of an ethical production method instead of someone else’s shady tactics. Imperfect information, in other words.

I must have digressed from my main point about someone’s freedom to a point about how screwed up the world is. But I pull us back. FREEDOM is a big word that is often taken lightly by us privileged kids in a capitalist world (like many other words). ‘Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of ___, ___ and ___’ – it’s so easy to throw out these terms in our essays and our academic arguments BUT it seems like we are too distant from the people who are directly involved to be able to empathise with them. We know how to talk and write, but we don’t know what this FREEDOM actually means to them.

to sg w love

This reminds me of Tan Pin Pin’s famous 2013 film ‘To Singapore, with Love’, which was basically about political figures who went into exile and are thus banned from Singapore. They wanted freedom, but what did they get in return? It’s not difficult to discuss about them from a third person’s perspective, but have we ever stepped into their shoes and think about their situation from their own point of view?

And, speaking of politics, isn’t it ironic how politicians get into such pointless controversies when ultimately, what most of them want is just to benefit their countrymen and to have the best for their countries? Isn’t it ironic how the people who were sent into exile and banned from Singapore are those who (truly) cared about the country and wanted to see her progress? These were possibly some of the most patriotic people who would be willing to sacrifice things for the benefit of their country – brave people who were barred from entering the country that they call home. Mankind is so weird, isn’t it?

Of course absolute freedom would create lots of trouble, but let me just indulge my naive and immature self: if only everyone could be FREE.

free elf

At least Dobby died a Free Elf. I am starting to appreciate Harry Potter in a new light – reading the stories and associating them with social issues (e.g. class system, slavery, AIDS, stereotypes, prejudice, love…)


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