Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Apr 19, 2011

Democratic model: Don't copy it blindly

By Sanjay Perera

SINGAPORE is not a run-of-the-mill state. It has come of age, with citizens asking how we can make this country better and keep democratic practices functional. We also ask whether we can have a First World political system.

Reading some of the discussions so far, I wonder if some Singaporeans believe that a First World political system is one benchmarked by the United States.

In fact, the US is no paragon of democracy. But to understand that, we need to know what we mean by democracy. Here, it should be stated upfront that there is no common definition of democracy. Democracy is just an ideology.

No one knows exactly what it is, but most can point to aspects of it as practised worldwide. At most, we can identify some characteristics normally associated with states considered democratic.

This includes having regular elections for voters to select representatives, and in a fair, transparent manner.

Democracies also adhere to laws, respect human rights in law and in practice, and have checks and balances among different arms of government.

Let's evaluate the US - so highly regarded as a democratic country - by the above criteria.

Indeed it has many laws passed based on democratic principles, but some of the laws have not been enacted consistently.

In World War II, the government interned Japanese-Americans in concentration camps, fearing their split loyalties as the US fought Japan.

Do democracies host concentration camps? If so, what is the difference between them and a fascist state?

Despite its much-vaunted system of checks and balances, America was unable to stop such gross injustices against its own citizens. In fact, appeals to patriotic duty were used to justify the internment. It is true that subsequent governments apologised for the internment and offered reparation. But this does not erase the blot on its record.

There was massive unrest and deaths before America passed its civil rights Bills in the early 1960s. So was it not a democracy before those Bills were passed?

Is there a checklist that determines if a state is a democracy? What are the criteria and who determines them?

Some may argue that America has become more democratic since World War II. But how effective have the checks and balances been in stopping America from unilateral military engagement against other states since then?

America indeed has a First World political system - one rife with First World levels of divisiveness abetted by bipartisan resentment, with its intelligentsia agonising over the breakdown of civil trust amid bitter bipartisan battles.

Singaporeans should not have rosy notions of democracy; nor should they believe the illusion that democracy will cure Singapore's problems.

We should not be seduced by the rhetoric about a First World Parliament, and believe that the country should strive for a political system that emulates those of First World countries.

America and Western European states may be First World in terms of their economic output, though even that position is under threat by other rising states. But their political systems are certainly not in the 'First League'.

Rather than get stuck over labels about 'First World' this or that, Singapore must evolve a political system consistent with its own culture and practice, and true to its history.

Let's say we have a hung Parliament after the coming elections. Would we only then be qualified to tell the world with pride: 'Look, we finally have a democracy.'

The more relevant question is what system the country needs, in order to promote as much freedom as we want to allow ourselves, and what system of government gives fair and equal opportunities to all, while looking after the least advantaged in society.

It is unimaginative to hanker after a so-called First World political system, or worse, to seek to model Singapore's political system on that of the US.

Above all there is one democratic practice we should all strive for: to cast our votes to good purpose, and unite in common purpose for the good of all.

The writer is a former journalist.

Clarifying the terms behind the debate

By Elvin Ong Jiayun

MUCH ink has been spilt recently on analysing the coming general election in Singapore in the mainstream media and on online platforms. A debate has emerged on the relative merits of a single-party system versus a multi-party system, with many writers presenting strong cases for one or the other.

One potential pitfall in any debate is that concepts used may become ambiguous and confusing. This results in proponents of opposing sides arguing past each other. There is a need to clarify important ideas and distinguish between different terms, so that parties debating the topic are in agreement on what is being discussed. Then there is a need to pay close attention to the examples and evidence used to support one's arguments.

In the ongoing debate between proponents of a single-party or multi-party system, it is not clear what many authors intend to convey by using the word 'systems'. They could refer either to the number of parties in Parliament, or the number of parties in government (as in a coalition), or even the number of parties contesting for election. Arguably, 'systems' may even include other forms of government such as the civil service and the judiciary.

I suggest the following three clarifications to demystify the debate:

First, one needs to understand the distinction between parties being part of Parliament and parties forming the government. A party can form the government and successfully pass legislation as long as it controls over half the seats in Parliament. This is regardless of how many other parties there are in Parliament.

In this case, there is a single-party government, and a multi-party Parliament. Britain has experienced such a type of democracy throughout most of its history.

Alternatively, if no party controls more than half of the seats in Parliament, then different parties will have to come together to form a coalition government. The present British government is a coalition between the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democratic Party. In a coalition that controls more than half the seats in Parliament, parties typically work with one another to propose and pass legislation.

Second, there is a need to distinguish between the executive power to run a government, and the legislative power of Parliament to make laws.

In Singapore, the ministries have the power to create, develop and implement various public policies to benefit Singaporeans. The ministries' power comes from laws that Parliament had passed. But the day-to-day work of making decisions for the country is carried on within the ministries, without having to go back to Parliament all the time. It is only when there is a need to create new laws or change existing laws that parliamentary approval is needed.

For example, the Electronic Road Pricing system was instituted by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to manage traffic congestion. New legislation was needed to empower the LTA to introduce this new policy. Parliament had to debate the policy, and then approve the laws to allow it to be carried out.

Third, there is a need to distinguish between a theoretical claim and the empirical evidence used to support that claim.

In a robust debate, theoretical claims should be backed by empirical or statistical evidence. Debate should be based on real data, not just hypothetical scenarios.

This makes one's argument more coherent and convincing to others.

In fact, research exists on the difference between a single-party and multi-party system. The political scientist Arend Lijphart's landmark study in 1999 investigated the policy performance difference between 36 majoritarian and consensus democratic governments over 20 years.

Majoritarian democracies are those whose governments have a clear majority (above 50 per cent) of seats in Parliament. Consensual democracies typically have coalition governments.

He found that majoritarian democracies did not outperform consensus democracies on macroeconomic management of inflation, for example. Consensus democracies did better in the quality of democracy, democratic representation, and the 'kindness and gentleness of their public policy orientation' - such as being more environmentally conscious. He also found no trade-off between the effectiveness of government and the development of democratic consensus.

[This is a pretty good article in terms of defining the terms clearly. However, at this point, instead of comparing apples with oranges, he's comparing rotten apples with rotten oranges.

The debate isn't between "majoritarian" and "coalition" or "consensus" government. It's between one-party dominant democracy, and a two-party (or even multi-party) democracy where two or more parties take turns to win a majority to run the govt. 

In this dichotomy, "majoritarian" and "consensus/coalition" govt are on the same end of the spectrum as far as I am concerned. The advantage of a two-party binary oscillating govt is not much better than a coalition of parties forming a govt. In either case, short-term political consideration trumps long-term objectives. 

In fact, I would argue that a binary oscillating democracy is locked in a thesis-antithesis infinite loop that never breaks through to synthesis. The reason is simple, the people have not found a party that promises and delivers.

Similarly, in a democracy where the votes are split between so many equally pathetic, partisan, narrowly focused political parties that could never hope to represent even half of the voters to win a convincing majority, the voters have not found a party that represents their common ground and common interest enough to win their support and mandate. 

In either case, the party or parties in power are only on probation and most never get confirmed.

In contrast the PAP has been confirmed over many elections.]

As the political scene in Singapore matures over the years, there inevitably will be more debates about our political system and various public policies.

[What may be certain is that common ground will shrink, interests may become narrower, and the PAP may find it harder to pull the voters together.]

The key challenge in maintaining the high quality of debates in the public realm is not necessarily to focus on the content of the debate itself. Rather, we need to pay careful attention to the concepts and terms used, and the rigour of the evidence raised to support the arguments.

The writer is doing his master's programme in politics at St Antony's College, Oxford University.


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