Saturday, May 21, 2011

On the road to good democracy

May 18, 2011
By Zheng Yongnian

THOUGH the People's Action Party (PAP) will remain in power, the opposition has also achieved a historic breakthrough in the recent General Election.

To a large extent, it is a win-win situation. The Workers' Party's unprecedented victory in one Group Representation Constituency (GRC) is a 'win' for the opposition.

And though the PAP lost a GRC, in the long term it is also a 'win' for the ruling party. This is because the valuable information it gained during the elections will help it chart its future development.

Any ruling party that wishes to remain in power for the long haul needs to adjust its direction, style and methods of governing in line with changing social realities.

However, the significance of the development of democratic politics in Singapore goes beyond the country.

If one places Singapore within the context of the development and progress of democracy in Asia, what is of equal significance is the fact that the results of the recent elections signal the development of another good system of democratic politics in Asia, following Japan's lead in the early years.

The history of the world teaches us that the development of democracy in itself is not a difficult thing. What is difficult is bringing about good democracy.

Soon after democratic elections were introduced in Singapore, the PAP took power and continued governing for a long time. There wasn't any change of government at all, quite unlike in Western democracies.

As a result, Singapore was often severely criticised by the West, with some calling it a 'phoney democracy' or a 'pseudo-democracy'. Some claimed that there was 'rule of law but no democracy' in Singapore, while others simply described its government as 'authoritarian'.

The late Harvard professor Samuel Huntington once wrote a piece comparing the political systems of Taiwan and Singapore. In it, he said that Taiwan's political system would survive because it was democratic but Singapore's political system will find it hard to survive after Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew passes away.

Yet the results of the recent elections tell us that not only is Singapore's political system getting more and more democratic, it is also full of vitality. No matter how one interprets the results, from a practical point of view, Singapore has begun laying a strong institutional structure for good democracy in the country.

Democratic politics has its roots in the West. But for a long period of time, Western democracy remained in the hands of the elite and only a small number of people could participate in it. The popular democracy that we have today doesn't have a long history. It is very difficult for developing countries to enjoy the sort of good democracy that is found in Western Europe or North America.

In Asia, Japan was the first country to become a good democracy. Beyond Japan, the development of democracy in Asia had not been smooth. Some borrowed excessively from the West, but the working of democracy in these countries experienced many problems.

Singapore's progress towards a good democracy exhibits many similarities to the path taken by West, except that the time taken by Singapore is much shorter. We can look at it from various angles.

First, socio-economic development: Singapore took just a few decades to develop from 'Third World' to 'First World'. A highly developed social economy is the material basis for democratic politics. By contrast, when Western-style democracy spread to developing nations, it failed to bring about the development of their social economy.

In many developing nations, the focus of democracy was not on developing and growing their economies, but on how to carve out and share their economic pie. When a country's economy fails to develop, democracy becomes closely linked to violence, with the various political forces competing with each other for a share of the economic pie.

Singapore is different. For a long period of time, the focus of its democracy was on how to build an effective and yet legitimate government. Singapore has what academics would call a 'developmental-type' government, one which gains the people's trust through economic development and letting them have an equitable share of the economic pie.

The development of the economy and society is the key to good democracy. Although democracy is portrayed as the simple act of casting a vote, behind that act lies the culture of democracy. For example, the act of voting is, in actual fact, an embodiment of economic rationality. When a country's social economy reaches a certain level of development and a middle class emerges, voters will no longer sell their votes for some paltry economic benefits.

Further, the development of economy and society also gives rise to higher educational standards. As a result, the standards of political reasoning among the populace will become higher. The rational interaction between rational politicians and rational voters is the embodiment of good democratic culture.

Next is the establishment of rule of law. Good democracy in Singapore is based on an effective political order that is built on the basis of the rule of law. This political order ensures the stable development of the social economy. Huntington once said that for developing nations, the most important thing is how to establish an effective political order. Without this order, there won't be any safeguards for social stability and economic development.

Singapore has established a highly effective political order, one that can grow hand in hand with democratic politics. This makes it different from other developing nations.

In some countries, there is democracy but no order and no development. In others, there is political order built upon authoritarianism as well as development but no democracy. Of course there are even states that are authoritarian and have no democracy and no development at all.

The practice of politics in Singapore since its independence tells us that democratic institutions need not be copied wholesale from the West. Not only is innovation extremely important, it is also doable. The GRC system is one example.

In many countries, democratic elections often give rise to racial and religious conflict and violence. Singapore achieved nationhood amid serious racial conflicts between its people.

After achieving independence, the country's leaders designed many schemes to prevent these conflicts from occurring. The GRC system is one of them. As a Chinese-majority country, Parliament could be 100 per cent Chinese if the GRC system was not in place.

Another area is the Singapore government's cultivation of the democratic sophistication of its citizens. Unlike many Western democracies, voting in Singapore is compulsory. Based on Western democratic theory, compulsory voting is in itself anti-democratic. Yet in practical logic, it is a different matter altogether.

In Western nations, many a time the voting rate would fall below 50 per cent. If it is only a small percentage vote, democracy itself would lose its meaning.

Virtually all democratic theories would agree that a civic spirit is the cultural pre-condition for the survival of democratic politics. Yet civic-spiritedness is not something that is inborn; it is something that has to be cultivated through the practice of politics. Compulsory voting in Singapore has played a crucial role in achieving this goal.

Of equal importance is the setting of the agenda within the democratic political process. In all democracies, the key is organisation first, followed by agenda next. This issue is further connected to the question of freedom of speech.

In the West, freedom of speech is the crux of democracy. However, the West has also failed to resolve the extremely negative social consequences that could be brought about as a result of freedom of speech. Issues relating to race and religion can be raised repeatedly during the election campaigning, and candidates can use these sensitive issues to appeal for votes.

In Singapore, sensitive issues like religion, race and language cannot be raised during the elections. It is clear that sensitive issues like these cannot be resolved through arguments. Singapore's way of resolving these issues is through consultation and consensus. This has become a conscious political culture here.

Elections in Singapore have become a mechanism for social integration rather than division. Many countries often suffer a huge split after every election. On the contrary, we see democracy helping to achieve social integration in Singapore.

For the opposition parties, the pre-condition for good democracy is how these parties play the role of a 'loyal opposition'. Which is to say, like the ruling party, these opposition parties identify with the nation and its political system and structure. Political debate is carried out without opposing for the sake of opposing, but for the goal of making the country a better place. Opposition parties in Singapore generally exhibit this trait.

No party in the world is immune to challenge. In democratic countries, governments have been replaced for various reasons, including failures in governance.

The situation in Singapore is rather different. It is not a case of the government failing, but rather of Singaporeans wanting the government to do better under the new environment.

Over the years, Singapore has faced many external challenges. Rapid globalisation has increased the income gap among Singaporeans. The increasing number of immigrants has also placed huge stress on the transport system and other public infrastructure. Housing prices have also been affected.

The recent elections reflect the people's desire for the government to pay greater heed to grassroots voices. Generational changes among the voters have also increased Singaporeans' involvement in politics.

The new generation of voters has views that are different from that of the older generation. The latter group, who had lived through the tough times, is better able to bear with pressures. The younger voters, however, hope to make Singapore a better place. At the same time, they hope to exert political pressure and prevent those in power from becoming too arrogant.

Democracy in Singapore is undergoing self-upgrading. With people's involvement in politics growing, political competition is set to increase.

By not importing Western democratic institutions wholesale but rather, stressing innovation within the system, Singapore has the potential to surpass the West and become a model of democracy in Asia.

The writer is the director of the East Asian Institute, NUS. This article first appeared in Lianhe Zaobao on May 10. Translated by Terence Tan.

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