Whither democracy?

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At WP Youth Wing’s Youth Hangouts yesterday, we discussed the topic of democracy. We had a very encouraging turnout from mostly polytechnic and university students. Diverse views were shared but we all agreed that the objective of democracy, or any political system, must be to improve the welfare and happiness of citizens, not to pursue some esoteric ideological objective. I observed that increased political competition, with more opposition MPs in Parliament, gives citizens greater “bargaining power” over the government. This was clearly evident after 2011 when the number of WP MPs increased more than four-fold: the PAP government introduced an unprecedented raft of social welfare policies to win back the support of the people.

We discussed recent statements coming from government affiliates that Singapore may be more efficient as a one-party dominant state, that internal contestation within the ruling party suffices and that Singapore’s “unique” circumstances necessitate practices that deviate from democratic norms.

I shared my views about the oft-raised spectre of “gridlock” should there be too much political competition. Gridlock, whereby legislation cannot get passed, can only happen if (1) neither party has a majority in parliament and (2) the parties are working solely in pursuit of partisan interests rather than the good of the country. Singapore’s parliament currently has a super majority of government MPs: 83 PAP vs 9 WP, with 9 NMPs (who are technically “politically-neutral” but almost always vote with the PAP). Most laws require only a simple majority (i.e., currently 51 MPs) to pass. Even if WP were to win one or two more GRCs in the next elections, we would have only 14 MPs — hardly enough to even block constitutional amendments (which require a two-thirds majority).

On the second point, one participant asked me: If one day the opposition were to make significant gains in numbers, would we cause gridlock? I could not say with absolute certainly that there won’t be gridlock but WP’s track record as a parliamentary opposition is that we have supported all legislation that improves the welfare of the people, and only opposed bills that were, in our opinion, designed to give the incumbent regime a partisan advantage. In any case, not all obstruction of legislation is necessarily bad. If there is a sinister piece of legislation that hurts Singaporeans, wouldn’t you want your MP to oppose it?

Nevertheless, I emphasised that it is important that voters choose only high-quality MPs at elections, and do not simply cast protest votes.

I also shared about the importance of having strong and independent institutions, a diverse and independent media and a valid system of checks and balances on the government. In good times, it’s easy to overlook their importance. However, should the governing elites turn rogue, can we confidently say that our current institutions will be able to stand up to power and say “no”, like they do in more developed democracies?

Another question from a participant that stood out to me was: If things are going well now, why should I care about the composition of parliament and the state of our democracy? My answer was that political institutions and political parties cannot be built overnight. We will rue the day if the current governing party were to lose the confidence of the people and a group of political greenhorns or a populist demagogue were to top the polls and take over the reins of government. Much better to start building up the capacity and capability of a credible opposition party now, than to scramble when it’s too late.

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Yearning for “Western-style democracy”?

I am all for adapting democracy to suit our circumstances. However, the PAP’s interpretation of “adapting democracy” is in fact more about justifying their authoritarian ways, than our cultural uniqueness

In his speech to the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Students’ Union Ministerial Forum on 22 October, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said that some people—probably referring to young Singaporeans—“may not fully appreciate the purpose and importance of general elections”.

According to the Straits Times, he said that these people “simply yearn for liberal Western-style democracies without considering whether these will produce a good and effective government”.

Mr Goh cited an exchange of letters in the ST Forum last month on the topic of democracy. This led him to ask his audience: “Is a democratic system an end to be pursued in its own right, or is it a means to select a government to look after our lives like a guardian or a trustee?”

I am not sure where Mr Goh got the idea that Singaporeans are yearning for Western-style democracy and that they think democracy is an end in itself. If was because of the “exchange of letters” in the ST Forum, then I’m afraid Mr Goh is mistaken.

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Was our phenomenal GDP growth worth selling our soul for?

When I listen to the painful experiences of ex-political detainees like Dr Lim Hock Siew, I question whether our phenomenal GDP growth over the past 40 years was worth selling our soul for (if indeed the two were interchangeable). Would I settle for a less developed country that did not have such a shameful past? It’s a hard question to answer, even though the morally correct answer should be obvious.

Watch Martyn See’s recording of a speech by Dr Lim Hock Siew, Singapore’s second-longest detained political prisoner, who was imprisoned without trial from 1963 to 1982. This is the kind of stuff that needs to go into our national education curriculum and screened in Singapore Discovery Centre. Our young people need to know the sacrifices these opposition politicians made for the sake of their beliefs and their convictions on how to forge a better Singapore for all of us.

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Victory for SBY, Indonesia…and ASEAN too?

Photo from Reuters

I am cheered that Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, better known as SBY, has won his second term in as president of Indonesia, with a very comfortable margin which pollsters estimate at over 60%. Although the official results are not due till later this month, SBY has already declared victory and world leaders like Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong have already called him offering their congratulations.

This is a victory not only for him and his running mate, Boediono, the former central bank governor, but the great nation of Indonesia as well. The peaceful and fair election — contestations by SBY’s challenger Megawati notwithstanding — seals Indonesia’s transition from a military dictatorship under Suharto just over 10 years ago, to a thriving democracy with a free press and a steadily growing economy.

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Don’t turn my country into an administrative state

I strongly reject PAP MP Hri Kumar’s suggestion in Parliament that the Prime Minister should be given the option to appoint individuals from outside the rank of elected MPs to his cabinet. He had argued that the pool of talent available to the PM will “increase substantially” and he can draw on the experience of many “capable individuals”.

This is a dangerous line of thinking which is not just undemocratic, but foolish as well.

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In opposition to the Nominated MP scheme

I oppose the Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) scheme.

It’s name — Nominated MP — already condemns it as undemocratic in nature. An MP is supposed to be a representative of his or her constituency — the candidate who has been given the most votes by his constituents.

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