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Guard against democracy's pitfalls

A key takeaway for Singapore from the United Kingdom's referendum on European Union membership is that democracy is not the panacea for enhancing the strength, stability and sustainability of a nation ("Keep calm and carry on. But what next after Brexit?"; July 3).

While we leverage democracy's upsides, we should also guard against its unintended consequences.

Democracy works best if there is a mature electorate, comprising people who adopt an objective rather than parochial perspective, and who seek to fulfil national rather than self or sectoral interests. They take a pragmatic position rather than pursue proposals that may not be workable. They should make informed decisions rather than be moved by promises and persuasive speeches.

Unfortunately, in an imperfect world, there are many who are ignorant and apathetic.

Even if voters have good intentions and are rational, there are many biases that can influence their decisions.

Even if voters have good intentions and are rational, there are many biases that can influence their decisions.

Owing to time, cognitive or environmental constraints, voters may not deploy adequate resources to find out material information. Political opportunists may also pander to popular desires and emotions.

Owing to time, cognitive or environmental constraints, voters may not deploy adequate resources to find out material information. Political opportunists may also pander to popular desires and emotions.

This is especially so if the electorate is less inclined to take bitter medicine to achieve improvements.

To strengthen the system, political parties need to attract, develop and retain exemplary and proven leaders who will set a high standard of honour, ethos and conduct.

They should be able to connect with the people and galvanise their energy and resources without being swayed by partisan interests and arguments.

Political leaders do not have a monopoly on good ideas, visions and actions. Therefore, the Government should further improve the systems and processes to encourage the growth of more civic-minded citizens.

It needs to educate the people and strengthen their political wisdom and maturity.

There should be more ground-up and peer-to-peer initiatives to help political leaders lead the country, provide healthy checks and balances, and develop value-added propositions to enhance progress for the country.

When we have more comprehensive and deeper involvement from different quarters of society, we can strengthen active citizenry and a collective sense of belonging, loyalty and affection for our nation. We can then build a stronger and better political system that will create a brighter future for our nation.

Patrick Liew Siow Gian (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 17, 2016, with the headline 'Guard against democracy's pitfalls'. Print Edition | Subscribe