Monday, 6 April 2015

Future of Democracy in Singapore

Singapore and Democracy: A Love-Hate Partnership?  
Perspectives on Donald Low’s Rebuttal of Calvin Cheng

Democracy is a slippery political concept. Many definitions abound, none particularly helpful in furthering our understanding. Many advocates of democracy attempt to define democracy in real life; dressing it up with civil liberties, popular elections, free press, free speech, right to bear arms … etc.  It seems natural that Donald and Calvin, together with many others, have difficulty grasping the nature of democracy in Singapore.       

First, Calvin is right: for Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), there is no “trade-offs” between freedom, development and democracy. Donald’s rebuttal misunderstood his own 1986 quote of LKY: “What are our priorities? First, the welfare, the survival of the people. Then, democratic norms and processes which from time to time we have to suspend.” LKY was not referring to trade-offs between democracy and development; for him, it is about prioritization or program sequencing of his government action agenda. For LKY, Democracy and democratic processes must and should facilitate development or face irrelevance, even oblivion.  Governments should promote the welfare and well-being of its people, and not the development of political concepts.  

Always mindful of the electorate as his primary and only political accountability, LKY chose to “trade-up” the survival and welfare of the people who elected him and his PAP government repeatedly in every general election. He did not “trade-away” democratic norms and procedures; otherwise the PAP would not have held regular general elections as often and whenever constitutionally mandated to do so, unless LKY is also a strong believer in the value of democratic accountability.

Second, Donald’s argument that the reason “… many countries aren’t able to provide (these) public goods is not because they are democracies, but because they lack strong, competent and effective states” is a corporatist argument, not a democratic one.  Many have argued with some merits that corporatism – advocating a strong central state - is incompatible with democracy.

Donald failed in fact to recognize the implications of his own argument; that the co-existence of democracy and a strong state could very well be mutually exclusive and fundamentally impossible.

In a pluralistic democracy, the state is merely one of several interest groups, rather than one enjoying pre-eminence in the exercise of its democratically-earned political powers obtained at the ballot box.  In most of the democratic Western pluralist societies, the state functions as a moderator of diverse and often conflicting interests as represented by political parties, community groups and political action organisations.  The President or the Prime Minister of the ruling political party acts to distribute favours and benefits to these usually well-funded and politically connected groups, often at the tremendous expense of the less powerful, weak, disadvantaged and vulnerable who form the core of their respective electorate.

Rather, Donald preferred to explain that “democratically elected governments may not be able to deliver high quality public goods for a variety of reasons” which he attributed again to the absence of strong state control and regulatory mechanisms, instead of the obvious limitation of democracy in the social production of the greatest good for the largest number. 

The truth is that democracy does not and has never promise the delivery of development and high quality public goods.  There is no basis to assume or presume that democratically-elected government and high-quality public goods are in fact synonymous.  History is on the side of the benevolent dictator, the paternalistic autocrat, the corporatist, but not the democrat.

Third, in using the Francis Fukuyama’s model describing the problem of having all three institutions - a strong state, rule of law, and democratic accountability - that comprise Francis’ political development, Donald inadvertently also subscribed into its flawed logic and argument.

Fukuyama is wrong to consider the 3 institutions capable of independent existence. They are not. A strong state is not sustainable without popular voluntary consent (meaning democratic accountability through general elections) and the rule of law.  The rule of law is a necessary organ to the effective function of government who enact the laws to do so.  Repressive and unjust laws will fuel civil disobedience to bring about their changes, and the downfall of despotic and intolerable governments.  To the corporatist, a strong state enjoys primacy and pre-eminance (eg. Singapore); and a democrat objects ideologically to a strong state (eg. in USA).  For both, the rule of law is just a flexible political tool to regulate and produce the desirable level of popular voluntary consent.  

Fourth, quite contrary to Donald’s thesis, no evidence from history supports “a natural link between economic development and the rise of democratic demands”.  From the British Magna Carta of 1217 to the French Revolution of 1789-1799, the 1775-1783 American War for Independence and the American Civil War of 1861-1865, popular demands for democracy and civil liberties often precede economic development.  Even Donald admitted that democracy and economic development are not pre-requisite of one another, as attested by history even today from China, Russia and Vietnam, among other countries.

Fifth, Donald’s prescription of “greater democratic accountability” for Singapore from here forward in the post-LKY era is inconsistent with his emphasis on state-building and on enhancing state capacity since a strong state is incompatible with stronger democracy.

He claimed that “Singaporeans today also raise more questions about government accountability; they care as much about procedural accountability and fairness as they do about governmental performance.” There is in fact no evidence for this.  Not even in the manifesto of opposition parties; not because that they do not care about procedural accountability and fairness, but because to the vast number of the informed and educated electorate, only governmental performance matters. To the electorate who consistently returned the PAP to legitimate power, “procedural accountability and fairness” are non issues in the presence of tremendous public trust in a government known for its transparency and anti-corruption values.

Furthermore, unrestricted public access to open parliamentary proceedings, verbatim Hansard records of Parliament debates, mandated regular elections, open governmental contracting practices, detailed reports of oversight committees as well as frequent regular conversations with political leaders and elected officials all point beyond conclusive evidence of accountability, transparency and fairness. 

Donald went on to advocate the development of “new capabilities to manage a more complex and demanding polity rather than rely on traditional top-down, government-knows-best approaches.” This perspective is however dated. 

The political climate has changed and evolved in the last 25 years during PM Goh Chok Tong’s takeover from LKY.  PM Lee Hsien Loong continues to enlarge public engagement of government thinking and policies. Given the tremendous amount of official and unofficial public feedback mechanisms as well on a few Blogs, the government actually have many people reading and summarizing the public feedback and combined them with that of the grassroots activists to provide a continuous pulse reading of its conduct, policy and performance. 

Six, Donald had a fatally wrong understanding of democracy and democratic elections when he advocated “a more diverse and representative government” instead of one returned by repeated fair and clean general elections in accordance with standard democratic procedures.  There is no one best form or style of democracy.

He questioned the results of hitherto free and fair democratic election in Singapore, and objected to Westminster-style Democracy Rules, when he wrongly concluded that “40% of the electorate today (in Singapore) is represented by only 10% of Parliamentarians”.

Democratic Parliamentarians, even in the UK and the United States Congress, represent 100% of their respective electorate. The PAP government represents 100% of the people of Singapore, not just the 60% who voted for the PAP to form the government. And PAP Members of Parliament (MP) represent 100% of their constituents, including the 30%-40% who did not vote for them. Likewise, Opposition Members of Parliament also represent 100% of their respective constituents, including the less than 40%-49% who voted for the PAP. That the government represents all Singaporeans is clearly understood by the electorate, and protected by the anonymity of the ballots cast.

A democratically-elected government is expected to deliver its public political agenda, platform and ideology as articulated in its election Manifesto, and on which the electorate voted on. The political Manifesto is supposed to represent the responsiveness of the party to the “common-good” interests of the whole society.  The electorate responds to its Manifesto through voting and the governing party is expected to seal and deliver the social contract agreed therein.

Perhaps, Donald’s call for more Opposition MPs, also echoed by some others, points in fact to the lackluster performance and failure of these MPs to articulate their constituents’ interests which are “opposite” from the vast majority of the Singapore electorate.  Again, what are these precisely? 

The effectiveness of Opposition MPs does not lie in their numbers but in the logic, presentation and vigorousness of their alternative solutions proffered as “better” than the government. Given as they do adequate air-time like other MPs, as well as management control over a few Town Councils, they have failed to convince people like Donald and others of their ability to articulate such other “diverse” interests which have not been already considered by PAP MPs or the government.  This is not a failure of democracy in Singapore, just the failure of leadership and imagination on the part of the Opposition.  By the way, democracy is alive and well in Singapore given the fact that we have more than 32 registered political parties, of which 10 are active. 

Donald further called for a freer media environment and checks on state powers through laws he regarded as “repressive” such as the Sedition Act and Internal Security Act, even after conceding that “there might be circumstances in which we suspend (some of) our freedoms and liberties to preserve security”. Donald is probably unaware that these laws were first introduced by a democratic United Kingdom into its colony Singapore (and also later in Northern Ireland); or that the Patriot Act in the United States, that great “bastion” of democracy, enacted after 11 September 2001, also contained similar legal provisions and other even more repressive ones, in order to strengthen rather than weaken already strong democratic states.

Incidentally, the word “US PATRIOT” in the full title of the US Patriot Act is the acronym for "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism”.  Democracy and every nation who subscribe to its ideals, has the inherent right to defend themselves.

Finally, unless he had already confronted the limits of democracy, Donald’s call for “greater transparency and disclosure, and various other expressions of a substantive (as opposed to an electoral) democracy” as a check against the emergence of a “bad emperor” (or “bad leader”) in a “strong state” like Singapore is both baffling and strange.

The problem in their understanding of democracy and government in people like Calvin and Donald lies in their belief in an over-rated conception of democracy.  Democracy exists in so many forms and styles to suit its respective contextual domains.

At its root, democracy does not promise the election of a “good” leader.  There are far too many supporting examples to this and needs no elaboration here.

Democracy provides a decision-making frame for making choices among who shall govern.  Democracy is not a quality management standard with a checklist of best practices and good conduct procedures.

Donald concluded: “Unless human beings find a way of eliminating the risks of bad leaders ever coming to power, we may be better off accepting some of the inefficiency and slack of a democracy in return for greater political resilience (which comes ultimately from diversity)”.

Is a bad democracy (which is inefficient and slacken) therefore better than a benevolent dictatorship? Indeed, isn’t democracy, described as the “worst form of government except for all the others” by Winston Churchill, designed to provide the political resilience for a political diversity to thrive? No, it would again be expecting too much from democracy.  Ultimately, the test of the pudding lies in the palate and stomach of the electorate.

Singapore is better off managing democracy as a governance tool in the manner that we did in the past, with regular free and fair elections and in a political climate characterized by freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of religious beliefs and the freedom of choice.  If these were what democracy could facilitate, it would be great!  If not, democracy should get out of our way as we journey toward a better, more prosperous, fairer and equal society of one Singapore and one nation.

Rebutting Calvin Cheng’s article @ TREmeritus, 5 April 2015.

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