Democracy always a work in progress

Lately, there has been much discourse on free speech and the need for checks and balances, which are widely presumed to be hallmarks of democracy.

Nothing comes for free. Free speech comes at a price.

We need to ask ourselves: Is our system so inequitable that we need an Arab Spring to set things right? Do we suffer from an identity crisis of sorts to warrant our own Umbrella Movement?

Singapore is, by and large, pluralistic, and equality is assured with a meritocratic system. Since institutions outlast people or political parties, we need to build strong institutions to keep Singapore equal and just.

We are a level-headed people and know the stakes are high if things go wrong. Free speech, when taken to the extreme, may unravel all that has been built.

We have witnessed how partisan politics has led to filibustering in some legislatures - every issue is bickered upon endlessly, all initiatives to develop the economy and society are blocked, and all decisions are deferred to the courts for judicial review.

Different interest groups take their cue and take turns to make themselves heard in the streets. Free speech turns into loud, if not lout, speech.

Does free speech make for a more civil society?

Ultimately, the ordinary people suffer. Are we prepared to swop efficiency in favour of whose decibels are the highest? This is not the path we want.

Democracy is always a work in progress and no single form of it fits all. We need to tailor it to our unique circumstances.

As a relatively young nation, we are still evolving. As we mature and progress, our needs change. As society becomes more middle-class, we aspire to have more room for expression, which is quite normal.

It is like recognising that your child has grown up, and letting go a little bit. Hence, the social compact needs to be changed, slowly but surely.

Lee Teck Chuan