As I read Leon Perera’s post on the the “building of a democratic society” in the Singaporean pledge, I cannot help but dwell on the meaning of the word “democratic”.
As a child reciting the pledge in school every weekday, I knew how to say the word before I knew what it actually meant. Even now as an adult. I wonder if it means different things to different people and if democracy has become a tool to batter those with a different view and when we say “fight for democracy”, what are we actually fighting for? Is it a fight for compromise, consensus and common ground for the betterment of all? Or is it a fight to the bitter end to get what you want regardless of what someone else might want?
In recent years, there seems to have been a tendency towards the latter – at least in the western world where Trump’s rhetoric and Brexit looms. As a journalist writing for the Guardian has aptly said – when she was growing up, compromise was a good thing but now, it has become somewhat of a dirty word – somewhat that if you are willing to compromise, you are less than. Instead of democracy for all, we are now headed for an increasingly polarised world where “my way or the high way” is the norm.
The problem however is that we do not then get anyone’s way at all. Rather, we get “NO WAY” and paralysing deadlock. However, is this the fault of democracy as a concept or the fault of unscrupulous politicians who exploit fears and irresponsible media who proritise scintillating headlines over the truth?
Where are we in the Singaporean context?
As a country, we are fairly unique. We have had a single majority party rule over us since post colonial times.
We have had opposition political parties contest with multiple opposition politicians sued for alleged defamation by members of the ruling party. Some have even been made bankrupt and unable to contest as a result.
It has been speculated that such lawsuits were politically motivated and initiated as punishment for daring to challenge the status quo. Some have also speculated that our election rules are weighted heavily in favour of the incumbent.
From the length of time from when an election is announced to when it is actually called, to press time in the mainstream media to the Group Representation Constituency system, whether intended or otherwise, these have limited opposition parties’ ability to contest effectively,
These actions would decidedly be deemed undemocratic. Yet, we have all the trappings of democracy.
We have elections where opposition parties are allowed to contest albeit with limited success (due to a multitude of reasons, some of which are set out above). We also ostensibly have the sacrosanct separation of powers where the legislative, executive and judicial arms of power are distinct. However, with ongoing and persistent speculation of politically motivated law suits, are the powers really distinct in practice?
Therein lies the poisoned chalice of our apparent prosperity. Many people oft quote our lack of “real democracy”as a compromise for the “good life”. But, increasingly, is this true?
On paper, most people have a property to call their own through the Housing Development Board flats. Our city is littered with all the trappings of economic success – skyscrapers, expensive cars and the like.
Yet, look deeper and you see that the property you own is only owned for 99 years, that the car you think is yours is on hire purchase or some other financial scheme and the looming threat of further inflation. Yes, I don’t doubt that we are a developed country and that compared to many, we live well but, and the perennial but is this – Is all what it seems?
In Singapore, we have never really had political unrest or instability or even any real challenge to the existing power base. We don’t even have a media that is seen by many to report the truth when it comes to governmental matters.
Yes, the advent of the Internet has restricted the government’s ability to control the flow of information and news somewhat. But yet, the incumbent remains firmly in charge. That said, the establishment appears to still be trying to consolidate its power even though it still holds majority power.
From the new “Fake News” bill, to the increasing focus on alleged “terrorist” activity, there are signs that the government is trying to send out the strongman message. Somehow that if there are more political challengers, that there will be more threats. Perhaps if we had a more robust democracy, there could be concerns for the byproduct of polarisation but in Singapore, we are nowhere close to that. Could insecurity be nefariously used as a means to consolidate power by the ruling party in our city state? Has the concept of democracy been hijacked by fear?
In the first place, who put in place the idea that there has to be a trade off for prosperity? Secondly, who has formulated that our economic success is as a result of a lack of civil liberties? Who put the ideas in our heads? Do we know what that means or has the idea been planted?
Even if the trade off was true 50 years ago, does it still ring true now? Are our lives so cushy that even mere criticism of the powers be could rock the boat? Have we actually re examined this social contract?
For us to really decide on what’s best for us, we need a system that is transparent, fair, open and accountable. Arguably, the polarising politics in the west are due in large part to the skewing of facts and data and ensuing ignorance. A lack of transparency, openness, fair play and accountability are certainly ingredients to aid data misrepresentation. In other words, openness, transparency fair play and accountability are absolutely required to aid compromise and the greater good.
So really, this isn’t even about liberal or illiberal democracy. Rather, it is a fight for light to be shone in areas where there is murkiness. In Singapore, do we need light shone on our quality of lives and a lack of civil or political freedoms? Isn’t the right to truth a right worth fighting for?