A Simple Democracy

Democracy, in its very essence, is a representative form of government. Whereby the wishes of the people are represented. It has been heavily discussed, widely debated and much talked about. Voting is merely one aspect of democracy. Having the right to vote is very different from being able to do so. For example, you may have the right to vote. But if your precinct is a “walkover,” then essentially you do not really have the ability to do so. Looking at many of the countries in the world, how many countries can truly call themselves democratic? Where citizens can actively chose their national future at the ballot box. Not many indeed. We have the very successful democracies of western europe, the scandinavian countries, of course, the United States and Canada and Japan and maybe that’s about it.

Democracy is more than just a theoretical possibility of voting. It is the free, unfettered access of people to the ballot box. It is also the free, unfettered access of political parties to the elections. This would entail the ability to seek public funding, the ability to campaign in public and raise awareness on political issues and the ability to stand for elections where the voting populace has the ability to vote for any party free from coercion or any kind. Sadly, it is not the case in Singapore. While it prides itself as a republic, a democracy, an elected westminster form of government. Opposition parties do face difficulties in fundraising, in campaigning, in standing for elections, in raising awareness of political issues and in general, are fractured into many tiny separate groups.

Basic political theory of the “winner takes all” and the “first past the post” explains that in such systems of government – what tends to eventually build up will be two major parties that attempt to cater to the majority. Majority meaning 50% of all the votes cast on polling day. Plus one. That’s it. That is what the electoral system in Singapore really is at its simplest. For say, a single member constituency. Fifty percent of the votes. Plus one. The irony being that one vote can be so important, and yet so meaningless at the same time. In a system of proportional government, however, the party that wins a particular percentage of the votes, sometimes subject to a minimum percentage, may claim a proportional representation in the body of government. Very nice. Very idealistic. Under such conditions, we would expect to see a 10-25% representation of opposition members in Singapore.

What complicates issues would be the Group Representative Constituency. Whereby race or ethnicity and perhaps gender plays a part in a contesting team. Once again, winner takes all. Once again, 50% plus one. It is indeed difficult for a fractured opposition to recruit members, much less willing members who are willing to go against a juggernaut of the PAP. Add racial or ethnic requirements, and it probably gets much more difficult. Additionally, it does not take much of a historical purview to realize that opposition parties have traditionally faced tremendous difficulties in access to the elections process. A good example would be J.B Jeyaretnam. Brilliant politician, highly eloquent, well trained lawyer and former judge. Sharp with his wit and passionate regarding his causes.

Yet it is difficult for him to raise money for his campaigns. Much less the financial bond (approximately $10-12,000) needed in order to contest an election. Opposition political parties also having limits of sorts when it comes to anonymous, private donations. It is hard for him to raise political issues and give an alternative perspective on the matters that Singapore is facing. Surely then, with all these barriers to the ballot box for opposition parties, and also barriers to the ballot box for individuals who would like to vote in the opposition party. It is a wonder then, if Singapore is truly a democracy in the sense that James Madison or Andrew Jackson or Benjamin Franklin intended it to be. Or if the semi-decade process of voting is merely a formality to keep the ruling party in power.

Saddam Hussein often had 99-100% of votes cast in favor of him. Looking at Pakistan, Gen. Musharraf doesn’t find it difficult to get an amazing percentage of votes favoring him, along with a five year extension in power. North Korea calls itself the “Democratic People’s Republic”, and so does The Congo. Inherent instability as seen in many Latin American countries or weak democracy in parts of Africa lie in more than just a justification for dictatorial power alone. As C.S Lewis famously said – “An explanation by means is not a justification by cause.” The true test of a democracy could possibly be summed up in whether or not, the people can change their government. Whether or not the people can change the choices of government. Whether or not individuals with a passion for change in politics can rise up through the system and implement top down changes.

One of the most commonly cited reasons for a more authoritarian measure of government is that with less debate, action can be taken at a quicker pace and there is not need to spend too much time parsing through the legislative process. The decision is made. It is final. It is implemented and no complains are accepted. Feedback is merely read and accepted as a means of fine tuning the policy – if it so proves to be favorable and in the interest of the PAP. At the same time, there also need to be measures of checks and balances in place such that the country does not get led to take unwise steps in political governance. The North Korean government defends itself by saying that it faithfully serves the people – since this is what the people chose. However, if you think about it. They chose it then. It doesn’t mean that they chose it now. If either the democrats or the republicans had hampered measures in response to the terrorist attacks on Sept 11th. It would not be long before a furious american public took them out of office and installed politicians that would get their will done.

Frequent elections, open, free and fair elections are necessary to the development of government that best serves the wishes of the people – even if it may not be in the interest of the government at times. Noting that information asymmetry is something to consider – that governments often see things and factors and predictions that the common people do not see. A truly democratic process of government would bring such “murkier details” into the open for debate and discussion. Where citizens can give open feedback to be critiqued and weighed against other policy formulations. Singapore can go further. It is a country that can succeed. The youth are not as apathetic as they seem to be about politics. People may be ignorant, but that is because the political environment currently encourages them to be apathetic to it.

Ultimately, as James Madison wrote in his great wisdom more than 300 year ago. Large groups of people, majorities with different competing interests is one of the best ways for which the tyranny of the majority is avoided, whereby no one group can unduely oppress members of another group. I would say that in Singapore’s case, very often, the superior political position that the PAP is entrenched in affords them plenty of opportunity to penalize and hurt opposition parties, as well as plug loopholes or place barriers into possible opportunities for an erosion and a lost of political power. With regards to the myriad of changes facing Singaporeans on an increasing basis, in a globalized world. Issues of sexuality, immigration, nationalism, economic development and security should not be merely shoved down the people’s throats. The people should have an active voice in the formulation of policy and its acceptance or not.

Singapore also needs to learn that while it may have a good large huge sum in reserves, as well as nice skyscraper buildings and some expensively constructed wonders of architecture that showcase its stunning economic progress. Not everything in life can merely be summed up in terms of money. While we are an example of economic progress to our neighbors. Let us set the standard and the bar higher by showcasing possible advances in the system of democracy of our nation. With an increasingly political liberal generation growing up into working and voting capacity, hopefully every Singaporean can someday actually take pride in their nation and know that their voice is not lost among the millions – that social change is possible, that peaceful civil society actions are an option and there is free debate and discourse about the difficult issues facing our nationhood.

While certainly there are many obstacles in the way of collective action. I hope that with a better educated populace that desires to increasingly distinguish itself in an increasingly globalized world. We need to take stock of our future and ask ourselves honestly which system is going to serve us better – one that which brilliantly educated scholars plan public policy and fine tune it without too much regard of public sentiment. Or one in which public opinion and sentiment become powerful deciding factors. I believe that the second option in a more mature civil society that grants respect to dissenting opinions will suit our country in the future. Certainly American would not want to be ruled by Republicans in a non-stop fashion through good and bad times. Nor by Democrats in similar circumstances. With each party in balancing each other out – therein lies the incentive to constantly come out with the most innovative policies that benefit the majority of the nation and with citizens knowing that they have the power and ability within them to change disliked policies.