What makes a democracy

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.

My letter to the Straits Times as it appeared in today’s Forum section.


What makes a democracy

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

Gerald Giam

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

11 thoughts on “What makes a democracy”

  1. Fr what I read what this Canadian teacher wrote,I am just unable to associate her with righteousness,fair,objective which I normally expect of an average teacher,probably even one fr Communist China or Chairman Kim’s North Korea.
    Ya,her rightful place is not even Spore,but N.Korea,may her wish be granted

    ‘Robbed on our 3rd night’

    LIFE behind bars wasn’t what my husband, Paul, and I had in mind when we left Singapore after 17 years and moved to Kuala Lumpur in July.

    Both over 45 and teachers in an international school, we were forced out by Singapore’s high cost of living and rocketing housing rentals. However, we weren’t done with Asia yet and KL seemed handy. But we had no idea how tough relocating would be.

    For starters, the ugly black grilles blighting KL’s streets made us wish we’d returned home to Canada instead of joining another international school here.

    ‘Why do the houses have jail gates on them?’ asked our nine-year-old son and only child, Cameron, as we searched for a home.

    ‘Many robbers, lah!’ said the estate agent showing us around. ‘Must keep out!’

    But I disagreed. Incarceration seemed no way to live.

    So when we found a place, off came the oppressive bars.

    ‘What about security?’ warned our landlady. ‘You’d better get a dog to guard the place.’

    ‘We’ll take our chances,’ I said, reminding her that we’re in a ‘gated community’ with 24-hour security guard protection. ‘That’ll keep trespassers out,’ I added.

    Little did I know what was to come.

    Incredibly, it happened right after we moved in, with unpacked boxes still everywhere. We had only one bed and camped in the master bedroom where Cameron had pitched his tent.

    The first two nights passed without incident. But around 3am on our third night, the sound of Cameron’s tent unzipping wakened me.

    I saw a figure walking from the tent towards the door and assumed it was Cameron visiting the loo. But why was he leaving the room with a bathroom right there?

    Must be sleepwalking again, I thought, so I called out to him.

    ‘What?’ he answered grumpily from inside the tent.

    I watched helplessly as the burglar fled. So much for the security guards. ‘There’s somebody in here!’ I shouted. Paul, who was starkers, lept out of bed to give chase but the robber had gone. And a pity too, as the sight of a frantic white man in the buff wielding a spear (a Filipino souvenir he yanked from a box) would’ve stopped that burglar in his tracks.

    He got away with my favourite handbag (and cash inside). What’s more, he’d snatched it right off the table next to me before I’d wakened.

    An interloper hovering over me as I slept didn’t bear thinking about. What if I’d wakened at that moment? And what was he doing in Cameron’s tent?

    We called the police and had burglar alarms and grilles installed. But the emotional impact of the incident still lingers. Cameron doesn’t like sleeping alone now, and in our darker moments, KL feels like a predatory place. And living behind bars is an adjustment.

    Crime here is no joke. Public safety and the rising cost of living will be the two biggest issues facing the government in the next election, expected early next year. House break-ins and snatch thieves on motorbikes are plaguing the country’s towns and cities, and schools routinely conduct lock-down drills so kids know what to do during terrorist attacks.

    ‘Should I get a gun?’ Cameron asked recently.

    Difficult things always come in numbers and the burglary wasn’t the last of our troubles.

    One evening, while I was having a tipple alone, three guys in long white robes marched up to our gate. Their manner of leaning on the gate said they weren’t budging until I responded. So I put down my glass of Merlot and called for Paul. Together we opened the door to see what they wanted.

    ‘Is this a Muslim house?’ asked one, grinning. He appeared to be the leader.

    ‘Well, sort of,’ stammered Paul, who was feeling a tad intimidated. ‘Our landlady’s Muslim,’ he added.

    ‘We’re just going door to door to chat with our Muslim brothers,’ the grinning guy responded. And with that, they moved on.

    The question is, why were they looking for their Muslim buddies in a neighbourhood that’s mostly expats and Chinese? The next day I called the United States Embassy to find out.

    We’d just been paid a visit by the Syariah police – people who enforce a strict code of Islamic law based on the Quran.

    They search for Muslim women living out of wedlock with foreigners – a breach of Syariah law – and ask to see marriage certificates. They’d obviously got wind of the nice married couple (he’s British; she’s Malay), who live next door with their baby. The Syariah police asked to see their marriage licence.

    Such door-to-door activity is against the law in Malaysia; so the US Embassy advised that should the Syariah brigade ever call again, we should just call the police.

    Their trespassing on our private property and demands to know our religious orientation left me feeling bullied.

    Twice in a single week I’d been violated: first by the burglary and then by religious crusaders. I wanted to pack my bags and leave.

    How we miss Singapore’s greener, safer pastures – which should never be taken for granted. Our homesickness had us in front of the TV on Aug 9 for the National Day celebrations.

    Relocating is indeed harder than we realised. But to be fair, it’s not all bad.

    What’s wonderful about less Westernised places is how life unfolds in the streets.

    Shopping, cooking, eating, socialising – it all happens outdoors. With Ramadan upon us, KL resembles a country fair, its streets plugged with tables offering curries and other fare.

    And unlike Singapore, where Ramadan festivities are confined to Geylang, here the carnival snakes throughout the city’s kampungs where the extended family way of life still thrives.

    Watching kids and adults at play in the back alleys one day, Cameron asked: ‘Why do people have more fun here than in Singapore or Canada?’

    Already, our boy is seeing the pros and cons of different ways of life.

    So there are good things about living here. People smile more. And cars are cheap, thanks to the booming trade in old but roadworthy heaps. We picked up a 20-year-old Volvo for about S$2,000.

    Inexpensive, quality housing is also easy to find. Our brand new 2,500 sq ft bungalow on a corner lot rents for S$1,500 a month when the same thing in Singapore would fetch S$10,000 or more monthly.

    Moreover, there’s fine hiking on the cliffs above our place and just up the road is Skyline Park overlooking the Petronas Towers and the messy cityscape.

    The park’s sunrises bring tai chi enthusiasts out in force, while sunset brings prayers from distant mosques wafting through the window as I make dinner.

    I guess KL deserves more time. It’s too soon to bail, so we’re stuck with this city and its chaotic roads which reduce car conversations to a string of expletives. And we’re stuck with ATMs that always run out of money (all 10 machines at my bank branch were out one day).

    But Hari Raya’s approaching and we’ve already booked a hotel in Singapore. After all, home is where the heart is.

    Margo McCutcheon is a Canadian teacher and writer. She has lived in Asia since 1984.


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    Mar 11 2007, 12:30 PM Post 1


    March 10, 2007
    A great place to live
    They are Western expatriates who made trails for Singapore for professional or personal reasons. Somewhere along the way, they fell under the spell of the little red dot and made it home. Margo McCutcheon finds out why

    GO WEST, that’s the refrain of some Singaporeans who think the pasture is greener in countries like Australia, Canada and the United States.

    But each year, as they pack up and ship out to these places in search of work or better lives, thousands of Westerners are doing the reverse.

    Figures from the Department of Statistics figures bear this out.

    By the end of last year, there were 875,000 non-resident foreigners based here, representing a 9.7 per cent jump over 2005 and the highest increase since 2001.

    Non-residents include students, work permit and employment pass holders as well as their families.

    Although foreigner numbers by country of origin are not available, figures do show that the non-resident sector expanded from 10 per cent of Singapore’s total 1990 population of three million to a whopping 19 per cent when the island’s population hit four million in June 2000.

    This means that the non-resident population in Singapore increased by about 500,000 between 1990 and 2000, proving that the Government’s drive to attract foreign talent is paying off.

    With falling birth rates and a growing greying population, the number of expatriates who will be packing their bags to come East to Singapore is set to increase.

    Westerners – comprising Americans, Britons, Europeans and other Occidentals – collectively make up one of the biggest expatriate population here. Although no new figures are available, a report by The Straits Times estimated there were 32,000 of them here in 1997.

    Many of them are drawn to Singapore and Asia by robust growth in the region, employment opportunities and a comfortable lifestyle.

    According to a 2005 survey of high-earning investors, 65 per cent of expatriates living in Hong Kong and Singapore said they were ‘very content’ with their lifestyles, compared with 55 per cent in continental Europe and 43 per cent in Britain.

    The survey was conducted by Internaxx, an online brokerage company servicing mainly expatriates.

    Born in Britain, Mrs Lorna Whiston is the founder of the well-known language and communications study centres bearing her name.

    She moved here from Britain in 1958 with her husband, Michael, an engineering consultant, to teach in a British armed forces primary school.

    She thought she would be here only for a short term. However, Singapore’s comfortable environment and the Government’s ‘excellent support’ of entrepreneurs have kept her here for nearly half a century.

    Declaring that she’s more Singaporean than expatriate now, the permanent resident (PR), who returns with her husband to Britain every year to visit their children and grandchildren, says: ‘I love everything about this place. Singapore has built an egalitarian society where anyone can succeed and I’m proud to call it home.’

    Americans Jim and Junia Baker, both PRs, who have lived here since 1971, also consider Singapore home.

    Mr Baker, 59, is a history and economics teacher at the Singapore American School (SAS) and author of The Eagle In The Lion City and several other books on the history of Singapore and Malaysia.

    He was just two years old when his missionary parents boarded a ship from San Francisco to Singapore in 1950. Shortly after arriving, the family moved into a stilt house in Bintan and acquired a 40-foot boat called the Messenger to rove around the Riau Archipelago so that Mr Baker’s father could preach.

    Eventually, the family relocated to Paya Lebar where Chinese street operas, festivals and funeral processions were common.

    ‘In those days, life unfolded in the streets,’ he says. ‘But with the advent of the Housing Board in the 60s and its policy of breaking up racially delineated districts – a wise move that’s resulted in the harmonious blending of cultures – most of the old, colourful neighbourhoods disappeared and customs were watered down somewhat.’

    Mr Baker, who joined SAS when it opened with just 106 students in 1956 near Tanglin Road, says: ‘Singapore’s progress has been remarkable. And I’m glad we’ve been here to watch it.’

    He launches into a tale about the days when long hair on males was frowned upon. ‘Back in 1973, immigration officers at Changi Airport confiscated the passports of the SAS boys’ basketball team, who were returning from a tournament in Hong Kong and everybody was told to get haircuts and collect their passports at immigration downtown.’

    After completing high school, Mr Baker went to the American University in Washington, where he met Junia. The couple married in 1971 and moved here the same year, where their son, Randy, was born in 1974.

    Says Mr Baker: ‘In Washington, I realised that I never wanted to live in the US and Singapore gave me a place to settle down when many other countries would not have allowed it.’

    The daughter of a lawyer, Mrs Baker says she was raised in a ‘white-bread way’ and found adapting to life in Asia challenging at first.

    But the resourceful career woman, whose accomplishments include operating two preschools here from 1982 to 1999, has always been active in the American Association, where she is managing editor of the Singapore American newspaper.

    Other things have conspired to keep the couple here. For one, there is Camp Castaway, a camp for kids which they founded 25 years ago on Malaysia’s Pulau Besar, where they now own a holiday home.

    ‘America is my country but this is my home,’ adds Mr Baker, who is fluent in Malay.

    Ms Joy Stevenson, director of communications at the United World College (UWC) of South East Asia, recalls moving here from San Francisco with her husband, Mr David Burks, a telecommunications software executive, in 1991.

    ‘We arrived with just two boxes and one cat. Now, after almost 16 years, we have two kids, a dog, three cats and a houseful of furniture.’

    The couple who worked in Silicon Valley’s technology industry prior to coming here, tell The Straits Times that their time here just whizzed by. She says: ‘It was around the seven-year mark that we realised Singapore had become home. At that point, we knew there would be no going back to the US to live.’

    Both PRs, the couple recently bought a corner terrace in the Pasir Panjang area and have clearly settled in for the long haul.

    Their two children, Austin, 13, and Eleanor, 10, were born here. Both students of UWC, they hold long-term student passes and know Singapore far better than America.

    Ms Stevenson says one of the little red dot’s greatest attractions is ‘living in a place where there aren’t guns and violence to worry about’.

    She feels welcome in the community and appreciates the way Singaporeans seem proud to have foreigners here. ‘From the wet market to our favourite wonton noodle stall, we are treated like family.’

    Other than kiasu people, reckless drivers and those who persist in mispronouncing her name as Joyce, not much annoys her. She recalls: ‘Once, when I was giving my name to someone on the phone, I made the mistake of telling them: It’s Joy, as in Joy To The World, like the song. The response was: ‘Your last name is To The World?”

    She does not miss her family back in the US as she sees them almost as much as she would if she lived there. ‘Besides, I found my real family years ago at a pre-natal class where I bonded with seven other mums who come from all over the world.

    ‘Four of them and their families are still here and we have been getting together every week for 14 years. Our kids and spouses are close and we have seen each other through divorces, tragedies…so my home is where they are and that’s here.’

    Australians Karen and Michael Gosling are founders of Gosling International, a counselling practice here. They moved here nearly 10 years ago when Mr Gosling, who holds a PhD in emotional intelligence, took a job as lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

    The couple, who originally planned to stay for one contract, recall that adjusting to apartment living after Australia’s wide open spaces was a challenge at first.

    By the time her husband’s two-year contract at the polytechnic ended, she had set up a counselling practice and the two of them decided to stay on and grow it together.

    Counselling services were in relatively short supply in the 1990s and there was a definite need for expatriate counsellors, say the pair, who have two sons aged 13 and 16.

    Today, about 85 per cent of their clients are expatriates with Singaporeans making up the balance.

    The couple also praise the Government’s efforts to make it easy to do business here. ‘Everything you need is online and technology is first-rate,’ says Mr Gosling.

    Adds Mrs Gosling: ‘I feel safe here because the Government handles crises like the severe acute respiratory syndrome so well. I wouldn’t feel as secure anywhere else, so this is home for the time being.

    ‘Our 16-year-old is now at boarding school in Australia. But he misses Singapore so much that he recently asked for a copy of the film Army Daze so that he could hear some Singlish again,’ she adds, referring to the comedy about army life.

    Mrs Raelene Tan, the Australia-born ‘Ms Manners’ guru who has authored a number of books and magazine columns on etiquette, arrived here by ship from Sydney with her Singaporean architect husband, Mr Tan Soo Ren, on National Day in 1970.

    The couple, who had met in London and married there two years before, were greeted by Mr Tan’s entire extended family.

    Mrs Tan recalls: ‘At least 40 of Soo Ren’s relatives greeted us and that very afternoon held a surprise tea ceremony in belated honour of our marriage. Soo Ren is the son of a rubber merchant and one of 12 siblings, 10 of them of the whiskered gender, so you can imagine the pandemonium he grew up with.’

    Mrs Tan likens Singapore in the 1970s to a big country town. ‘There were few foreigners here, the pace was unhurried and the extended family was the heart and soul of everything.

    ‘Most families lived under one roof and grandparents were your day-care centre, which was handy for us when our daughter, Lauren, arrived in 1972 followed by our son, Darren, in 1978.

    ‘Modernisation has eroded the family spirit somewhat,’ she says. ‘There’s too much emphasis on money and materialism and we don’t seem to have time for each other any more.’

    Foreign women married to local men were a novelty when she arrived here. In 1973, she and Australian friend Pat Chong founded the Cosmopolitan Women’s Club, which catered to women in cross-cultural marriages.

    ‘At its peak, the club had about 200 members plus a newsletter, book club, monthly talks and many other events,’ she recalls. ‘Eurasian children loved it because they could meet other kids like themselves.’

    Meanwhile, her emergence onto the etiquette scene was entirely serendipitous. She says: ‘It was New Year’s Eve 1987 and I was at a party sipping sake from a little wooden square cup when I dribbled on my front. A newspaper editor got wind of this and asked me to write about the correct way to drink sake from a square vessel. The story caught the attention of a well-known publishing house and I was asked to write a series of culture-specific etiquette books…I’ve been busy since.’

    When asked if she misses anything about Australia, she cites the seasons, passers-by nodding in a friendly manner and banter in the shops. Her ideal Singapore is ‘an amalgam of then and now’.

    ‘If Singapore could pair today’s safe and clean environment with yesterday’s charm and soul, we’d have it all.’

    And if she could live her life all over again? ‘I’d marry Soo Ren even earlier,’ she says. ‘He’s my best buddy.’

    With both of their children now based here, Mrs Tan is here to stay. ‘Singapore is where my family is,’ she says. ‘And it’s where my heart is.’

    Margo McCutcheon is a Canadian writer who lived in Hong Kong and Manila before arriving in Singapore in 1990. She says the little red dot feels more like home than anywhere else.

    Straits Times Forum 18 Oct 06
    Get the world’s rich countries to buy Indonesia’s forests and police them
    Letter from Margo McCutcheon (Ms)

    According to the Indonesian authorities, the main culprits involved in burning the country’s forests are traditional small-scale farmers.

    This is not true. It’s the influential plantation industry that’s incinerating Sumatra and Borneo.

    Those who have visited these places, rafted down the rivers and watched orang utans swinging through the trees will appreciate the horrific scale of a tragedy that’s being caused by a few greedy businessmen.

    Why should a tiny but powerful elite in Indonesia be allowed to burn down one of earth’s last green lungs, smother South-east Asia in smog and load the atmosphere with more greenhouse gases?

    Thanks to big businesses everywhere, our children are in danger of inheriting a world that will be unable to support life. So what’s the answer?

    Maybe the world’s rich countries should get together, buy the remaining rainforests and then work out a way to police them, possibly with help from the United Nations.

    If something isn’t done, we are going to find ourselves without a home soon. The scary thing is, we’ve only got one home to lose.

  2. Winston Churchill(whom the late management guru, Peter Drucker, called the ‘greatest leader of the 20th century’) had this to say about democracy.

    “With all their weaknesses and with all their strength, with all their faults, with all their virtues, with all the criticisms that may be made against them, with their many short-comings, with lack of foresight, lack of continuity of purpose or pressure only of superficial purpose, they[democracies]nevertheless assert the right of the common people — the broad masses of the people — to take a conscious and effective share in the government of their country.”(1942, House of Assembly, Hamilton, Bermuda)

    I have limited understanding of politics, both the theoretical and practical aspects.

    But sometimes a historical perspective doesn’t hurt, to see where we are going(or possibly should be heading!).

  3. Thanks for the comments on Winston C. It was on topic which is always a bonus. I am Australian and we obviously live in a democracy….. obviously ? You may have noted some bloke out the back of the Labor Party’s headquarters ejected our Prime Minister to install someone he liked more. Is it really a democracy or an ‘Arbib-ocracy’?

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