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.