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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.



1. Max - August 19, 2009

Hi Ned, I take your own point on the purpose of democracy.

But just a quick question, what are these democratic countries that are successful that you speak of?

2. The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Daily SG: 20 Aug 2009 - August 20, 2009

[…] he just shake the foundations of the PAP facade to the very core? (Part One) – Winter Is Coming: Democracy: What it can or cannot do – The Temasek Review: NMP calls for “repoliticizing” of universities – running legs: Something […]

3. Overseas Singaporean - August 20, 2009

Max, let me try to answer. The Scandinavian trio of Finland Sweden and Norway spring to mind. Add Denmark, Austria and Switzerland. There are of course more, but the 6 mentioned are the best examples, IMO.

4. Undemocratic Foreign Talent - August 20, 2009

Democracy works relatively well in a homogeneous country, like the Scandanivians, and Japan, and even Korea and Taiwan – the latter despite the comic circus in their fist fights and chair throwing in parliament. But it also works – in a rather messy way – for countries less homogeneous, with India, coming to mind immediately. India is full of ethnic and religious divide, yet, it is the most successful democracy in a new country.

It is inefficient, doubtlessly, but then the purpose of government is not efficiency, but to protect and safeguard the liberties and freedom of the people, balance out social inequalities and injustices in all aspects, harness the selfish man for the communal good, amongst other things. Of course a deeper analysis is required to determine whether in these terms, India is really a “successful” democracy.

In relation to Singapore, I suppose this also ought to be a serious, and very fruitful, research for its supposedly world class varsities to do, namely to answer the question, to what extent the “ideals of democracy” are being attained in Singapore in all aspects – and what these ‘ideals” ought to be firstly – and not just see and measure everything in terms of money, which seems to be the only and only measure the Singapore government knows about.

5. Max - August 20, 2009

Winter might be coming but with the few of us huddled around here, there might not be a need for a fireplace after all

6. The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Weekly Roundup: Week 34 - August 22, 2009

[…] he just shake the foundations of the PAP facade to the very core? (Part One) – Winter Is Coming: Democracy: What it can or cannot do [Recommended] – The Temasek Review: NMP calls for “repoliticizing” of universities – running […]

7. Fran - January 29, 2010

Dear Eddard,

Thanks very much for your interesting blog. It’s always nice to see how people on the other side of the globe live, how they share the same joys and sorrows, what they do in their free time, etc.

I actually have a question about your blog. Would you mind helping us with a linguistic research project? We’re compiling data from various Singaporean weblogs. All it requires is checking a few boxes. If you want to take part and/or have more questions, drop me a note ( hack2301@uni-trier.de RE: Question ) so that I can then send you the ‘official’ project eMail. We’d really appreciate your help.

Thanks very much in advance!
Best regards,
– Fran

8. Fran - March 10, 2010

Dear Eddard,

Some time ago, I left a comment on your blog regarding a linguistic research project (see above) but I think I didn’t get an answer. Would you be interested? If you want to take part and/or have more questions, please drop me a note ( hack2301@uni-trier.de RE: Question ) so that I can then send you the ‘official’ project eMail. We’d really appreciate your help. (And really, completing our questionnaire takes less than 5 min.)

Thanks very much in advance!
Best regards,
– Fran

9. Jaime Lannister - February 21, 2011

“The things I do for love…”

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