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Democracy: What it can or cannot do August 19, 2009

Posted by Ned Stark in Uncategorized.

Recently, a Nominated Member of Parliament, Mr Viswa Sadisvan, called on the government to stay true to the ideals of the pledge.  Such a task would entail “building a democratic society, based on justice and equality”. As expected, Mr Sadisvan was criticised by Minister Ng Eng Hen. The criticisms raised by Mr Ng are not new; in fact they are the same criticisms raised in response to demands for democratisation of society. Besides using the usual methods of dissing the idea of democracy (namely, by ignoring democratic countries who are successful and instead placing an undue emphasis on countries which suffer from political instability), Mr Ng also defended PAP’s practice of democracy by asking the rhetorical question:

He questioned Mr Viswa’s view that these were ‘conventional practices of democracy’, and asked:

‘Is it so blindingly self-evident that they will work magic for us?

Actually, if Mr Ng means to say that democracy cannot bring about economic development and bring good leaders to office, he is correct. Nevertheless, democracy does serve a purpose, albeit not the one that its critics claim.

The Purpose of Democracy

The idea of democracy includes principles such as popular sovereign, and that government can only govern with the consent of the governed. For democracy to function, civil liberties such as right to free speech, right to religious freedom and right to personal life and liberty are necessary and these rights are enforced by a judiciary which is independent. These rights flow from the need to ensure that the people are able to give valid consent to their government; this is done through free and fair elections. Underlying all this is the concept of limited government, through judicial review by the courts and the ballot box, the government is checked from abusing its powers. The concept of limited government seeks to establish a just order whereby the people can live their lives and achieve their maximum potential. Essentially, democracy seeks to build a society whereby people can develop and also resort to legal means of resolving disputes; thus obviating the need for a revolution and chaos.

The Worst Form of Government, Except all others

As seen above, democracy does not, by itself lead to high GDP. It does not lead to exceptional leaders who can develop a GDP. In fact, it could lead to leaders who may know nothing about economics.

Nevertheless, that is not the purpose of democracy; instead, the aims of democracy are more modest; namely, to ensure that bad people do not take the reigns of government, and if they should ever take the reigns of power; the checks and balances of a democratic society (independent judiciary, civil society, opposition parties) would kick in to ensure that they would not be able to abuse their powers. In essence, democracy seeks to prevent the incidence of bad government. The safeguards in a democratic system would, ideally, prevent the incidence of conflict arising between people and their government; rather than armed revolution, the people can seek the courts’ assistance in vindicating their rights (and in turn checking the government’s abuse of said rights) and exercise their right to vote out their government. History has shown us that power tends to corrupt and the adverse consequences of a corrupt government, with untrammelled power, could lead to misery. Dealing with the idea of a benevolent dictatorship, one cannot help but observe that such a political arrangement is premised on the goodwill of the person or group wearing the mantle of a “benevolent dictator”; should the benevolent dictator end up like the Myanmar Junta, then the people would be placed under the yoke of oppression. Furthermore, such political systems are based on the persona of the ruler; should the ruler be replaced by someone incompetent or powerless, then the chances of revolts and chaos would increase; this is what happened after the death of Qin Shi Huang. A political order should seek to prevent revolution as revolutions are a mark of failure. As it stands now, only a democratic system could prevent such a situation from occuring. Indeed, the democracy may be the only way one can hold together society; the benefits of so doing would outweigh the short term disadvantages of a government which may be less efficient.

Moral of the Story

Therefore, the responses made by proponents of the government and by the minsters tend to miss the point. Democracy alone, cannot be the panacea to all the problems, social and economic, faced by society. Nevertheless, democracy can protect society from the excesses of a bad government and bring about a peaceful transition in society without the collapse of society itself (which would happen in the event of a revolution). The ability to achieve such a purpose thus makes democracy the worst form of all government, except for all others.