Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What makes a democracy

Sep 22, 2010

MS MARGO McCutcheon surprised me last Friday ('No say? It's simply not true, she says') when she wrote that Singaporeans have far more say in what their government does than Canadians.

She offered as an example that Singaporeans were consulted before the goods and services tax (GST) was introduced, while Canadians like her were not for a 'harmony tax' imposed by Ottawa.

There is more to democracy than government-led consultation exercises. A democracy not only ensures that citizens are consulted on policies, but gives citizens real bargaining power to affect government decisions.

[True, there is more to democracy than just consultation. BUT, her point was that we have that, while Canada, supposedly a more mature democracy than Singapore, didn't. And that the practice of democracy as it applies to the citizen being consulted, is more obvious here, than in Canada. Implicitly, she is also saying that there was no bargaining power there. After all, if you're not even consulted, how can you bargain?]

Ms McCutcheon's American husband also described democracy as a fancy word for partisan bickering and gridlocked government. Rejecting democracy that way is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

[Perhaps. Or perhaps democracy as practiced that way is inevitable, and all democracies end in bickering and gridlock at best, and murders, shootings, and assassinations at worst. Can it be argued, that the competitive, confrontational, adversarial nature of democratic politics invariably leads to partisan bickering, and demagogic posturing? Can we look at the United States, which presents herself as the bastion of democracy, as an enviable paragon of democratic governance? Or can we read in the frustration of Ms McCutcheon's husband's statement an indictment of the Democratic process as practiced in the US?]

While we shouldn't adopt democracy's negative aspects, we should not cling blindly to the status quo simply because it may have worked in the past.

The form of democracy which works is one in which all political parties compete vigorously; and present better proposals for voters to choose.

[I agree. We should not cling blindly. If we cling, we should cling with our eyes open and be sure that it is what we want to cling to. Not because we do not know better. So we should look at other options. For reference, the CIA World Factbook list Singapore as a Parliamentary Republic, and the US as a Federal Republic. In either case a "republic" can be defined (and is commonly defined) as a representative democracy, as opposed to a direct democracy (the fact that we elect MPs to represent us means that we have a representative democracy). There are practically no direct democracies as it would be very difficult to manage. Maybe a very small country with only a few thousand citizens.

Theoretically, the competition of ideas as presented by different political parties should result in the best ideas being adopted. However, this is idealistic at best. The reality is that while some issues are clear as to what is best, on many issues, what is good for one segment of the electorate may not be so beneficial to another. Pro-family policies (not so good for Singles), policies for the lower income (doesn't help the middle income and above), benefits for mothers (what about fathers), etc. Inherent in democratic assumption is that people will vote for the greater good, BUT there is danger that people will vote out of self-interest, out of fear, out of greed, or even out of ignorance and misunderstanding.

Freedom of speech and freedom of information is supposed to educate and inform, but as Fox News in the US has shown, it can also be misused to incite fear and hate, and spread misinformation and confusion, and propel the agenda of an influential interest group.]

It should include an open and transparent government, strong and independent institutions not easily manipulated by partisan interests, and capable, upright politicians.

[Again, I think that was the point Ms McCutcheon was making explicitly and implicitly. Explicitly, she was saying that in having consultation and feedback, the Singapore Govt is practising openness and transparency. Implicit in this is that an effective government, a competent government is what a country needs. The means (democracy) is just a means. When the means becomes the end and we serve the means rather than pursue and appreciate the ends that we have achieved, we are getting the cart before the horse. What got her goat, so to speak, was the middle-aged couple "braying about democracy". From her perspective, all the democratic process in her country and her husband's have done little in terms of real progress and real improvement in lives. What we have here, she is saying, is inherently more tangible and more real. And we should appreciate it. Instead of chasing idealistic constructs that promises more than they deliver.]

Democracy should afford citizens the freedom to express their opinions without fear of unjust repercussions. The mass media should report objectively and fairly, and be willing to criticise the government when necessary.

[And one is free to express one's opinion here. Libel and slander laws apply, except for parliamentary privileges. As MM Lee has noted, the opposition in parliament have not abused their privileges in parliament. The fact that politicians in the US are regularly slandered, parodied, and ridiculed is no reason to expect the same in Singapore. Certainly, one can make the case that allowing untrue accusations that Obama is a a Kenyan Muslim taking orders from his Tribal puppet master to turn the US into a communist state is beyond the protection of freedom of speech. Or that it is so ludicrous that no one will take it seriously. EXCEPT people do believe it!]

Building such a democracy requires the effort and participation of all citizens. We need an informed citizenry that is able to elect leaders based on merit, rather than out of fear or ignorance, and hold them to account for their actions in office.

[Yes, it would be good if voters vote on the basis of what is best for the country, rather than what is best for themselves. But ultimately (and perhaps unfortunately), that is the basis of Democracy, that the people choose a person that best represents their interests. So people are going to wonder, does that Indian chap know my interests let alone how best to represent my interests? Does that young man know the concerns of an old retiree like me? Can that woman understand how a man feels when he cannot get a job to feed his family? Does that Christian know enough about my concerns as a Muslim or will he ignore or downplay the needs of my community? Or does that godless heathen understand that we CANNOT have a casino in Singapore? I'm afraid fear and ignorance are often the baseline reasons for voting.]

We can build such a democracy while avoiding the trappings that bog down some other countries.

[Actually, I believe the real issue is about competence and corruptibility. Representative Democracy requires competent representatives to form a competent government. If candidates are equally incompetent or corrupt, you basically have a Hobson's choice. And the problem is not just "some" countries are bogged down by some "democratic trappings". The problem is not that despite the failings of democracy, there is still a lot of progress in democratic countries. The miracle is that there is progress IN SPITE OF so-called democracy.

For large resourceful countries like the US, with able leaders who can nevertheless navigate the obstructions of the opposition parties, they can still bring progress to the country in spite of the worst excesses of the democratic process. But for less developed, less resourceful, less stable countries, "democracy" can cripple or even derail progress. And with a multi-racial society like Singapore, where there is no common language, history, religion or race, unfettered democracy may well rip this country apart. As MM Lee says, this is not a "natural" nation.

This has been a dialogue between a citizen of a "true" democracy realising that ideals not grounded in fundamentals such as competence, transparency are more show than real, and a citizen of a "limited" democracy wanting the full freedom of the ideal without realising that all freedoms must have reasonable limits or be tyrannical in its excesses.

The one true danger of democracy is the tyranny of the majority. And that is never more true than in a multi-racial, multi-religious society like Singapore.]

Gerald Giam

Responses to the forum letter

Sep 25, 2010
What matters is a democracy that works

MR GERALD Giam's version of democracy ('What makes a democracy'; Wednesday) is precisely what I think Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew fears Singaporeans take for granted - an auto-pilot flight to success without recognising what made us successful.

Mr Giam dreams of a paradoxical democracy where all political parties compete vigorously and yet form a strong independent government institution void of partisan interest.

The fact is, there will be a partisan division because political parties cannot agree.

The world's greatest democracy, the United States, is stymied by its democratic structure. The President needs to submit his proposal (Bill) for approval by both the House and the Senate, with the two political parties at odds with each other.

Every Bill is debated vigorously by intelligent men on both sides and is often either amended or abandoned. While they debate and bicker, millions of Americans remain unemployed and jobs are lost to China daily. American wages have fallen since 2001.

Is this the type of democracy we should wish for?

It took an outstanding leader like President Barrack Obama many months to navigate partisan agendas to pass health-care reforms that give American workers basic access to health care.

[Actually, it took decades. The work started as early as the 70's.]

Would we prefer to wait so long should MediShield require fixing one day? I am glad my Government is not only capable but free from being politically shackled.

When we are in a crisis, the Government is free to act swiftly. When manufacturing jobs were lost to China, the Government's response was swift, as was its rapid reaction to the global recession.

Theodore Yeo

Sep 25, 2010

Singapore democracy 
'There is room for improvement.'

DR YIK KENG YEONG: 'The perfect democracy is as mythical as the unicorn (Mr Gerald Giam, 'What makes a democracy'; Sept 22). Elections are rigged, the electorate is apathetic and bribe-able, idealistic politicians commit sins, the administrative branch becomes inefficient, the judiciary operates under fear and the press resorts to gonzo journalism. These happen in democracies. There is, of course, room for improvement in Singapore, such as a more considerate bureaucratic response to public sentiment over bread-and-butter issues. The impression of an impassive leadership bent on pursuing its lofty goals, regardless of feedback on the ground, does prevail - well-considered though the goals may be. Singapore also does not yet have a credible opposition to present an alternate viewpoint, which is why it is important for the Government to be more empathetic towards direct complaints from the ground.'

An American view
'I admire Singapore's democracy. The Government seems to have the people's well-being at heart.'
MR MARK J. TOPOLSKI, North Carolina, United States: 'The democracy practised by America and Singapore, although different, are probably well suited for each county's size and demographic (Ms Margo McCutcheon, 'No say? It's simply not true, she says'; Sept 17). Having observed Singapore's for more than 10 years now, I sometimes wish American politicians would always, or at least sometimes, first ask themselves what is best for the people, rather than what will get them elected another term. I admire Singapore's democracy. The Government seems to really have the people's good and well-being at heart.'
[I think the point is that good governance is possible under democracy or other forms of government, and bad governance can also occur under other forms of government. The one advantage democracy has is a systematic approach and process to choose government, especially if government has gone wrong.]

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