Coming back to the heart of democracy: On posture, tenor and conduct of a government towards its people

Over the past few days, I had students, friends, strangers at kopitiams asking me how I would vote in the coming elections and what my thoughts on the current political issues are.  I feel that it is so easy to get caught up in the excitement of the rallies, debates and hustings that we may be in danger of missing the big picture entirely. I do not claim to have the correct big picture also, but I think the current political situation in Singapore boils down to three fundamental aspects: the posture, tenor and conduct of the incumbent government.

Let me start with conduct. I think there is little doubt that the PAP has done much for the country. Its past track record has clearly illustrated that it is able to steer the country in the midst of global uncertainties and maintain commendable economic growth at the same time.  As for the mistakes made in the last few years (such as Mas Selamat’s escape or the over-budgeted YOG) I think that while these should be rightly seen as mistakes, we have to concede that these are genuine miscalculations or oversights that should not take away from the overall achievements of the PAP. What we however should be wary about is that these mistakes divert us from the bigger, underlying issues. We focus much on these types of mistakes because they are visible, tangible and conspicuous. Yet, I believe that the greater problems we face as a nation lie in the realm of the invisible, intangible and inconspicuous.

This brings me to my next point on tenor. Telling us that we have to repent if we do not support the ruling party, or telling us that the betterment of our neighbourhoods is dependent on the level of support an estate gives to the ruling party indicate an overly paternalistic tenor on the part of the government that borders dangerously on self-righteousness, fear-mongering and bullying. This is akin to a parent who tells his child to listen and obey regardless of whether it is right and wrong, and to have to live the dreadful consequences of his ‘disobedience’. But this was never the Social Contract that Rousseau, that great thinker of democracy, envisaged, and nor should it be the approach that we should be made to accept. Rousseau says that a social contract should exist between the government and its people based on popular sovereignty that is indivisible and inalienable. We will need more than just a First World Parliament – we may need a return to the First Principles of what true democracy really should be.

And finally, the posture of a government is key to how it stands in the eyes of the people it purports to serve. The PAP has many things to be proud of and we, as the people, have much to share in that pride. But that pride can also turn into a haughty arrogance, one that is seemingly secured on the grounds of impressive credentials, glowing past track records and the emboldened belief  in the strength of a almost-invincible majority in Parliament. It is the last of these that we should be most concerned about, for no matter how competent a party is, we should never believe that only it can serve the interests of the people, that only its members are indispensable, and that only it can have the foresight to plan for our country’s future. For a government can posses all of the above, and yet still fail to capture the hearts of the people. Quoting from Rousseau, “the strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right and obedience into duty”.

And still one might ask: why is capturing the hearts of the people important? And yet even asking the question belies the sad but true fact that having been conditioned in a society that prizes rationalism and logic, we have learnt to eschew emotions and feelings. We have learnt to view issues through the prism of economic costs and benefits (how many jobs can the casinos generate?). We have learnt to cast aside issues close to our hearts when making decisions (what does the Cooling-Off Day suggest about the way the government sees the people? Have we thought about the rationale behind it?). I believe that a society that is constantly wheeled by the lubricant of economic well-being and material progress is one that will eventually lose its soul.

Ultimately, it is the moral standing of the government (encapsulated in its posture, tenor and conduct towards its people) that matters if winning the hearts is the aim – and it should be. This moral standing of a government can never be measured by the percentage points of the GDP (important though it may be), nor the combined qualifications of its ministers (brilliant though they may be). And I think we have lost a large part of that along the way – that by following the alluring trail of the shiny Yellow Brick Road (with its metaphor of gold and riches), we have lost our hearts like the Tin Man, and even at times our brains like the Scarecrow. But let us never lose our courage like the Lion. For in the end, it will not be shiny silver slippers that will get us home, but the realization that behind the impressive-looking facade of the Wizard stands only an ordinary man, shaking in fear when all the trappings have been stripped away.


~ by irwin on May 3, 2011.

3 Responses to “Coming back to the heart of democracy: On posture, tenor and conduct of a government towards its people”

  1. Bravo my dear brother!! =D Very proud of you..=) Next Election run as a candidate k? 😉 I’m sure there will be many people supporting you!! =D

  2. Well said! My sentiments too. Very poetic at the end. Pray for a compassionate n upright government.

  3. Well said Irwin!

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