by Simone Galimberti
Yes, the city-state of Singapore, though not a paragon in terms of personal and political freedoms, is experimenting with consultative forms of governance. And it is doing well!
Let’s be clear: we are not discussing how the political establishment there is loosening up the tight rules affecting people’s enjoyment of their basic freedoms.
Rather, it is a strategy of the governing People’s Action Party (PAP) to co-opt opposing views and keep maintaining the legitimacy it has gained in the eyes of the people so far.
Yet what is happening is a serious attempt at consulting people.
I am following this experimentation going on there with a lot of curiosity, and many experts in this field of political science called deliberative democracy are doing the same.
In Singapore, this process of consultations is enabling the creation of one of the most important and consequential developments there: the formulation of a new social compact.
Recently, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, who is slated to become the next Prime Minister, highlighted some of the key underpinnings of this new social contract.
At a recent conference organized to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Institute of Policy Studies, one of the most respected think tanks in the island state and, in many ways, aligned with the governing party, DPM Wong focused on very key issues.
Unfortunately, as of now, there is nothing entailing a political opening that the country is desperately in need of, at least if you dare to think differently from the PAP.
His priorities concern three major areas that he defined during his speech at IPS as:
a) A new approach to Success and Skills b) A revamped system of Social Support c) A renewed Sense of Solidarity
If these goals are achieved, Singapore could emerge as a stronger, fairer, and more cohesive society.
Their scopes are so ambitious that the Lion City could really establish a better system governing the relationships, and with them, the expectations, duties, and responsibilities between the state and its citizens.
A system that could cope with current challenges through enhanced resilience and a stronger set of safety nets.
Importantly, the ruling PAP is also shaping a better definition of what success means and implies.
In a hypercompetitive capitalist society like Singapore, this new awareness can offer a new template to the entire world.
In short, the foundations are being laid for a Singapore that could truly thrive without leaving anyone behind.
Yet we should not forget that the relationships between a government and its citizens should be seen, respectively, from the perspective of a duty bearer and right holders.
The social contract worked out pretty well, at least from the perspective of the PAP, the upper class, and those multinationals setting up business in the city-state.
At the same time, there has been an increasing pattern of discontent and because the challenges are increasing and, consequently, the dissatisfaction is exponentially growing as well, the ruling party wants to put some new “cements” on its foundations.
The PAP believes that only a new social contract can tackle the mounting inequalities, and unaffordable cost of living, to address people’s unhappiness.
Now let’s not forget that the political system in Singapore does not allow such frustration to emerge through visible forms of contestation or strong criticism.
That’s why the idea of consulting people at the grassroots level works perfectly fine for the PAP.
Yet considering the challenges ahead, would it be really enough to have a stronger social economy, a more human capitalism, a virtuous web of volunteering opportunities, a more generous welfare support, and a more “benign” government?
Would it be better if the safety nets that the government is hammering out, a work already in progress for several years, also entailed a new type of openness in Singapore?
You bet I am not talking about economic openness nor about essential tools like pensions, monthly cash support, or a free public health system.
I am talking about a revamped political space where people feel free to truly participate and, whenever they feel like it, also disagree with the government.
More freedoms would represent, after all, the best safety nets people can enjoy.
It is not that the PAP is akin to one of the several communist parties in the region where dissent is so outrageously fought and banned.
Yet, at the same time, the city-state does not certainly shine in terms of freedom of the press. The political system is still not mature and, as admitted by PM Lee recently, the level of democracy could evolve as per needs.
So why not seize the opportunity of redesigning the social contract between the state and the citizens and grab a chance to inject some more personal and political freedoms into the system?
Here’s my proposal.
Why not include a fourth priority in the top areas of actions listed by DPM Wong?
“Enhance citizen’s agency and empowerment through a better form of democracy”.
The fact that, for years, the PAP is resorting to public consultations, means that Singapore has developed unique expertise in this area.
This is also recognized by Garry Rodan, an Emeritus Professor in politics and international relations at Murdoch University in Australia, who studied Singapore’s experience in deliberative democracy.
His work is part of a new groundbreaking book on the topics entitled Deliberative Democracy in Asia, co-edited by Prof. Baogang He of Deakin University
No better title could have been chosen for the chapter by Prof. Rodan: “Consultation as Non-Democratic Participation: Singapore and its Implications”.
The fact that the new emerging tenets of the new Social Contract that DPM Wong and the PAP are sketching out, represent serious, genuine concerns and fears being expressed by its citizens.
In a way, even if you dislike it, the government in Singapore is doing what it can to be open and responsive.
Yet as explained at the beginning, the system in Singapore puts a lot of “speed bumps” on democracy and consultations are a smart move from the PAP to understand what the major concerns of the people are.
But let’s be clear: real deliberative democracy is much more than consultations.
Though it’s a concept still being studied and interpreted, there is now consensus that a real deliberative setting would go quite a few steps further than what has been, so far, piloted, again successfully, in Singapore, in terms of consultations.
Interestingly, there are many exploring deliberations and the Asia Pacific can boast an incredible array of political scientists and academics like Prof. Rodan and Prof. Baogang He who are leading in the research related to deliberative democracy.
Citizens’ assemblies, in jargon “mini-publics”, could be one way that could represent an evolution of what is already happening in Singapore.
In these exercises of deliberations, groups of citizens, randomly selected, are engaged in a 3-step process.
First, they are enabled to learn about key issues by being exposed, in the process, to different views.
Then, second, they will be in a position to discuss and debate respectfully among themselves. Finally, in the third step, they would come up with decisions that ideally should be binding.
This is a simplification of a complex process that requires preparation and expertise.
The main point is that a new social contract by harnessing the potential of genuine and inclusive deliberations, could propel the City-State towards a major political opening.
Citizens should have a real chance of being part of the whole decision-making process rather than just in its beginning through non-binding consultations as it is happening now.
How to do so is up to the people of Singapore.
Singapore could come up, as always does in matters of policy-making
Simone Galimberti writes on democracy, social inclusion, democracy, youth development, regional integration, SDGs and human rights in the context of Asia Pacific.