By Raphael Wong
“Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried from time to time”
– Winston Churchill, 1930s
When Sir Winston Churchill made this statement, he probably had no idea it would become one of the most quoted statements in the postwar period. Indeed, over my years browsing TOC, I have seen this statement repeated more than twenty times. Writers at TOC, tending to fall on the liberal side of the sociopolitical spectrum, tend to look at the second part of the sentence as proof that democracy is the best form of government there is.
However, the second part of the sentence ends with “that have been tried”. We should bear that in mind as we enter the debate that I suspect is about to begin.
The Straits Times just reported, in no uncertain terms, a PAP minister claiming that one-party-rule is the best thing for Singapore. No doubt he felt justified after the recent spate of events where the exercise of democracy led to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump; not to mention Madonna wanting to burn down the White House. (Aside – Dear American Democrat Hillary-Supporters, broadcasting your desire to burn down your political leader’s office is not a good way to promote democracy overseas.)
And indeed, Churchill made his quote following the rise of the infamous dictator Adolf Hitler, who was elected to power democratically.
Representative democracy – as the experience of the United States amply illustrates – always holds a tension between the interests of the representatives’ constituencies and the interest of the national community; which get exploited by various political lobbies, like Planned Parenthood and Stonewall.
Indeed, the second argument is often trotted out by the PAP to justify not giving more space to opposition parties and party critics.
However, people are still inclined toward unity; that’s why democracies tend to coalesce around parties. Even Switzerland, which is acknowledged as a country practicing direct democracy, is still ruled by at least one political party.
In times of perceived crisis, as in Brexit and Trump, people gravitate towards the strongest people in the strongest parties, revealing the inherent tension in politics, that between unity and multiplicity.
Representation Versus Leadership
The gravitation toward unity is due to – despite the modern culture’s zeitgeist – a person’s desire for a leader to galvanize people to do the right thing. That is why, the most fervent Western moral relativists are also the world’s fiercest advocates of human rights; a position they fail to see as self-contradictory.
The gravitation toward diversity or multiplicity is due a person’s desire to be heard and to participate. Every individual person or family is effectively a minority when compared to everyone else. Because the population of a locality is very large, the risk of having your opinion or contribution ignored is very high. Thus, as individuals, we gravitate toward having the widest array of voices possible.
At first glance, it is not obvious why these two goals may conflict, because they don’t appear to intersect at all. Where they intersect is that everybody thinks he or she (or ze or it or they) is right. Thus, the concept that a leader might act in your best interest against your opinion is not readily accepted. Whatever faction you belong to, you tend to agree with that concept when the opinion acted against is your opponent’s, and disagree when the opinion acted against is your own.
The multi-party system attempts to ensure that every leader acts in someone’s interest against someone else’s opinion, so that in the aggregate everybody’s opinion is acted upon. In doing so, however, it promotes gridlock because not every decision is a decision between chocolate ice-cream and durian ice-cream, where multiple points of view can be synthesized harmonically.
One of the staunchest critics of the party system was George Washington, the first president of the United States of America. In his farewell address in 1796, he cautioned America against political parties “ill-founded jealousies and false alarm” and “foreign influence and corruption”.
Does this mean that a one-party system is better than a multi-party system? No, because each party is susceptible to all of these.
But it does mean that we need to consider whether there is a better, non-partisan system that can resolve this conflict.
While there is no readily apparent alternative, there are two steps we could consider to move towards the elusive goal.
First, achieve a clear separation between the executive and legislative. The most important unity to an individual is unity in action, and that is the job of the executive. In contrast, the legislative needs to be capable of absorbing as many opinions as possible. The PAP’s need for efficiency and effectiveness can be achieved by having a single-party executive, whilst the Opposition and Blogosphere’s desire for representation can be achieved by having a multi-party parliament. In practice, this would still involve a bicameral legislature, but one divided horizontally instead of vertically, i.e. a short-term House and a long-term House, instead of an Upper House and a Lower House.
Second, enforce the proper dignity of the Head of State. Singapore’s debate on the Head-of-State has been on how “ceremonial” the position should be. This is the wrong question. The real role of a Head-Of-State is to exercise conscientious oversight over the Government. His or her (or zis or its or their) role is to adjudicate whether a particular civilian opinion or Government Act adheres to the national values, and hence provide a figure of national unity.
The other important role is to temper justice with mercy through the instrument of the Presidential Pardon. Opposition supporters mistake the role of the Pardon as a form of invalidating the Supreme Court. Actually, its role is to do a subjective assessment of the objective verdict of the Court. A Presidential Pardon is the sign of a gracious society, not an anarchic society.
Following these two steps will offer an avenue beyond the party system and its weaknesses.