Go with a smile!

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Democracy in Singapore (and elsewhere)

One of the central tenets of the enlightenment is that of a government of the people, by the people and for the people. Ostensibly, when you vote for representatives, you will get a government who has your best interests at heart. But does that make the government the best sort of government in all possible circumstances?

Of the people.
Traditionally, the society was divided between the peasants and the nobility. The idea behind democracy was that anybody and everybody could stand for elections, and therefore the elected representatives were of the people.

The reason why this theory is not true is that elected representatives, once they got into power, possess a greater amount of clout and power, and they will have access to a great amount more of economic opportunities than the average person. In effect, they become the nobility. The nobility does not come into being simply because of inheritance, or titles or institutions. It comes into being because of the dynamics of society and power: since power tends to beget power and beget wealth, it is the natural order of things that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, or that when nature is left to run its course, there will be a small group of people who are much richer than, and rule over most of everybody else.

By the people
The problem with the idea that democracy is “by the people” is that people really only have a say in the governing process by electing office holders into power. Once these guys are in power, in the middle of the term, unless you impeach them or fire them, you don’t have a say in the running of the country.

Direct democracies are very rare. In fact, as societies evolve to become more and more complex, it is harder and harder for anybody who isn’t in the driver’s seat to have a say in the governing process. If you’re engaged in a complex task, say driving a car, only one person has his hands on the steering wheel. You can always have a chat with the driver, but ultimately only one person is doing the driving.

For the people
Now, given that your elected representatives are almost certainly (and almost disproportionately) going to be from the ruling glass, and given that you do not have a direct say in the day to day running of government, what makes you think that a democratically elected government will be acting for the people?

So, while democracy is an attempt to create a society that’s free, there is no guarantee that a democratic society will be free. The fact is that many Asian economies have been built upon benevolent or at least harmless autocracies. South Korea, Taiwan, China, Japan have all started on their path to modernization with autocratic leaders, who then transitioned to democracy (with the exception of China, who’s barely getting started.) The people have demanded democracy, and they have gotten it. People have thrown out autocratic governments who have failed to improve the lives of the people – quite spectacularly in the Philippines and Indonesia.

With Singapore, the question is less clear. The ability of the ruling party to run Singapore, and the ability of the opposition to run Singapore, are quite different.

I have usually mooted voting for the opposition, but in the name of intellectual honesty, I have to mention here the benefits of continuity in the government.

1. The civil service career is rooted around longevity. If the civil servants of the PAP and the civil servants of the WP have to work in the same office, will it have the effect of being scorpions in a bottle? It’s not going to improve the working environment, that’s for sure.

2. Change is disruptive. The more complex it is to run an organization, the more difficult it is to change the guy running it. If a new political party were to come in, are you going to fire all the senior civil servants and make them work for you? That’s the reason why companies absolutely hate it when software engineers quit their jobs, because the next guy who comes in will spend half the time learning how to do his predecessor’s job and only half the time actually doing the job.

3. Governments of cities usually change hands less often than other forms of governments. Chicago has not only been Democrat for a long time, but it has been part of a system where the ruling party is entrenched very deeply in the political system. In fact, when you read about it, you should find some of the things the Daleys did quite familiar. Running a big city is all about creating big plans, and big projects, and following through on them. Not very suitable for an organization who gets disrupted every few years.

Now, here’s a question that you got to ask yourself. How much opposition is desirable? Right now, the worker’s party is not ready to form a government. The system in Singapore was designed to make it such that a transition of power would be extremely unlikely. The worker’s party is honest enough to admit that it’s not able to form a government to run Singapore. The question is, will it run Singapore one day? My take on things is that when the Worker’s Party proves that it has the ability to run 5 or 6 GRCs, and when it has survived every legal challenge the PAP has thrown at it in order that it doesn’t get to that point, it will probably be ready.

Another question is: what sorts of governments are we looking at with varying amounts of opposition in parliament? When you have 2 opposition people in parliament, like we had from 1996 to 2011, you’re going to get a government who rides roughshod over peoples’ interests. When you have 7 people in the opposition, coupled with the “new normal” and the fairly vociferous level of political dialogue, the government starts to reflect and pay attention. The opposition is not able to run its town council unimpeded, without the machinations coming into play. They had all the services ripped out from the old town council and had to build that organization almost from stretch. Sylvia Lim’s assertion that nobody came forward to bid for the job is a symptom of what’s broken about the current system: nobody’s going to take on the job because of how easily you could go out of business based on the outcome of one election. So the next step would be for the opposition to get to a level of stability where this was no longer an issue.

What would happen when the WP were to get into policy issues? What would happen when the WP were in a position to deny the PAP a supermajority on certain votes? What would happen when Singapore had to change its mode of doing things, from being super-secretive about a lot of things, to being very above the board and transparent about anything and everything?

Anyway, the people who think that it’s funny that the PAP had to fight an opponent who’s already told you that he’s not ready to win an election, it’s such a wrong thing to say, not least because it’s totally contemptuous of the democratic process. The WP will be saying it’s not intending to win this elections. It’s not saying it’s not intending to ever win an elections. The WP is not going anywhere, in spite of the great gains it’s made over the last 10 years, unless there’s at least another two or three election cycles of steady gains. But here’s the paradox: the most comfortable situation for WP would be that it holds the gains of the previous elections. If it ends up gaining in this elections, it will have bitten more than it can chew. There will be a few screw ups like in the first term of the AHPETC. And after that we just have to hope that they go from strength to strength.

If you study the politics of the western countries, the most extreme example is the president of the USA. It is one of the biggest administrative jobs in the world, and nobody is prepared for the job when they come in. A new president will always screw up. He will make major foreign policy blunders, unless he’s been a secretary of defence before. Then we’ll have to hope that he learns quickly enough. That is the reality of public office in democratic countries. And somehow they will still find a way to perform better than many dictatorships.

And what happens? Sea changes in political institutions are rare. The last major one in the US took place with the civil rights movement. Before that seminal event, the Democratic Party was sorda a left wing party, and the Republican Party was sorda a right wing party. But there were the “dixiecrats”, a whole slew of Democratic party supporters in the South who supported segregation. When Lyndon Johnson signed in the Civil Rights act, many of them defected to the Republicans.

Or think about what’s gone on in the UK recently. Between Margaret Thatcher winning the elections of 1979 and 1997, for 18 years, the UK was ruled by the Conservatives, and Labour looked like a spent force. Then Labour had a big revamp under Tony Blair (who, in truth, made them more conservative). They were in power until 2010, when there was a hung parliament. After that the Liberal Democrats, the third largest party in UK in 2010, sided with the Conservatives, and formed a coalition government. For the longest time, since 1945, it has been a case that the two major parties were Conservative and Labour. Maybe this was the case even before 1945. But now, the landscape has become much more interesting, with Scottish National and UK Independence Party on the rise, and Lib Dems and Labour on the decline.

It would not be enough for the Worker’s Party or an opposition party to win an election, in order for Singapore to be a two party system. There has to be a sustained period where parties win year after year, and the government changes hands. And even then, you have to ask yourself, how healthy is it for the government to keep on changing hands.


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