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Redefining democracy and practices for the future of Singapore

by Brad Bowyer

Democracy is not just about having a vote it is more about how we operate between the votes and support a healthy Democratic culture.

There are two distinct flavours of Democracy, the Western approach that is more individually focused and the Asian approach that emphasises collective harmony over individualism. In either case, the core most tenets of free and fair elections, the right of free speech and association and the rule of law equally applied to all are the same and respecting these fully goes without saying.

Although, as a modern city-state, Singapore has many Western trappings we are still an Asian country and we generally put the good of the community first, or at least we did when the Kampong spirit was more alive (a topic for another post), so alongside the 3 core tenets the Asian flavour of collective harmony should be at the centre of our form of Democracy.

Having been a multiracial, multireligious and multicultural society for most of our history we have a special sensitivity to those issues, and we should keep that in mind as we look to how we can move forward in the best possible way. That said I feel there are several things we can do to improve.

The first is to remove race from our IC’s and stop defining and managing ourselves with race in mind. We are first and foremost Singaporeans and have been in one way or another for nearly 700 years. By its very definition using race as we currently do is racist and should not be part of our modern world. The more we identify by our nationality the less important race will become and the focus will move to the quality of those we elect above all else. I believe this is already happening on the ground as I heard recently of a private survey that showed around 80% would choose ex-Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Tharman as Prime Minister (PM) if given a choice so it is not the people who are not ready for a change.

This action can be supported with a better Civics education program in schools, so we properly understand and respect each other from a young age with true acceptance and not the often espoused but flawed concept of tolerance. In addition, learning our full history as first various Malay settlements, then a multiracial colony and then a city-state should be included to strengthen our self-identity and understand our longevity independent of any governing authority, be it Sultan, British Administrator or the People’s Action Party (PAP). We must place our country and identity above politics.

This will, I hope, also repair the damage I saw very evident at the last National Day where so few flew the flag out of anger at the government over the Presidential Election amongst others. We fly the Singapore flag and not the PAP flag on National Day but have been so conditioned to identify one political party with the nation that we forget that.

To that end, we should also not allow political logos and indoctrination in our schools just as we don’t in the PA. The PCF logo is very similar to the PAP one and flown side by side the party logo in the PAP marching contingent (which also should be disbanded or have a political contingent of ALL parties’ flags if that symbology is still relevant). A political party should not be allowed to influence us in this way, and we should be proud of our country whoever is the government of the day.

With the removal of the race from the IC in mind I believe we would be better served to go back to all Single seat wards. The concept of GRC’s although created to allow “minority” inclusion has had two major detrimental effects. First it has created a barrier to alternative voices competing for seats and entering parliament and second, it has provided a shield where candidates who may not have succeeded individually gain a protected route into the building. Every seat should be important, and we should ensure we have only the best 89 men and women representing us and I don’t feel the current system really does that.

On the note of Single seat wards, we should also properly delineate the country and then endeavour to make minimal changes to the boundaries thereafter. Our housing locations are not so fluid and dramatically changing that boundaries need revising every 5 years. Much of our island is already developed and our population centres are fairly static, so I don’t see the need for the constant adjustment. Uncertainty of boundaries, especially the unusually irregular ones that reach in and out of other wards and whether GRC/SMCs will even exist or not certainly does not help the democratic process.

This then leads to the very anti-democratic practice of sabotaging alternative wards if the incumbent government loses a seat. When services and systems are denied or removed, budgets are cut, upgrades are moved to the back of the line among the various collective punitive actions or threats we have seen over the years we have to say this is ethically and morally wrong. The government of the day is equally responsible for all the citizens regardless of how they voted and alternative politicians should be respected as the duly elected representatives of the people that they are and should not be “fixed” at every turn. To do any less should be made illegal to prevent the current and any future governments engaging further in such underhanded and undemocratic actions.

As far as possible our government should also disengage from the private business world. Surely, they are elected to arbitrate the balance between the socialist and capitalist elements of our society and find that sweet spot where both thrive and not be the capitalists themselves which often pushes the needs of the people to a lower priority. This also limits their direct impact on our livelihoods as a means of influencing our political choices which is also an anti-democratic practice that should stop.

Next, we should look at term limits for political roles to maintain a healthy renewal. The long-term stability should sit with the permanent secretaries in the civil service as it once was so that we have a baseline continuity of experience and domain expertise to support the administration of the day. This also includes removing unnecessary roles such as minister mentor as any “mentoring” can be provided in a private capacity and not paid for by the public who should only support the roles necessary for the proper functioning of the country.

Of course we should also revise the political salary scales to international norms so that only those focused on service and not remuneration step forward and when it comes to candidates (and appointees) members of the same family should be excluded unless a very clear reason of why they are better than all the alternatives can be shown to avoid the appearance of and actual conflicts of interest.

Finally, we should relook at our constitution and laws and pare back all those that impede a properly functioning Democracy. There certainly should be no clauses that the government itself are exempt from and we should have clear checks and balances outside parliament so no rogue administration now or in the future can abuse them and thus the people.

No system is perfect and at the end of the day the quality of any system comes down to the quality of the people involved in it, their ethics, their morality and their commitment to Democratic practices coupled with a willingness to accede to others when the time is right. That said the more robust the system the less room for abuse there is and the harder it is for a flawed government to emerge.

This list is by no means exhaustive and I certainly welcome all your thoughts and inputs on how we can improve and best run our unique Singapore version of Democracy but it is clear the current way has strayed and is failing far too many of us even though we have a vote and a Democracy by name.

We all want what is best for Singapore and the people as a whole above all else. If we can keep that and a spirit of service in mind and we can correct those areas that are not serving us Democratically then who knows, maybe one day we can even become a model for others to follow as well, and look on that with pride?

This was first published on Brad Bowyer’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission.