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The seduction of the simple

In democracies, the old saying goes, "you get the government you deserve".

In the US Presidential Election, the rise of Mr Donald Trump to dominance in the Republican primary is putting that saying to an extreme test. However, the groundwork for Mr Trump was laid 15 years ago by Mr George W. Bush.

To any reasonable mind, both men are unqualified for the office of President. Neither was or is knowledgeable about world affairs, interested in the complexity of policy challenges, or has demonstrable moral character, and both operate from the simple premise that only one country matters in this world - America.

The appeal of both men is the seduction of the simple.

Simple understanding, simple explanations, simple solutions, simple assurances simply made. This holds tremendous appeal to those who have a fear of uncertainty, are themselves ignorant, are prone to believe that someone other than they are to blame for their lack of achievement and who indulge in fantasies in which simplistic divides between right and wrong and good and bad actors define the world.

Democracy is an amoral political system. It sways in whichever direction the majority - variously interpreted depending on the actual democratic mechanism - wills. So while we commonly focus attention on political leaders, it is arguably more pertinent to focus on common folk who vote them into power. Citizenship under democracies must be personally invested. There is a responsibility to be interested, informed and involved.

Civic action, contribution of meaningful ideas and stepping forward to be seen and heard is what I mean by involvement. Stand up and be counted, and do so not anonymously but with your name. Citizens should have the courage of their convictions.

Singapore is also seeing the rising risk of the seduction of the simple as its politics becomes more populist - even if on a comparative basis we are still much less so than the United States. To an extent, this "populism" is a desirable adjustment from a tone-deaf approach adopted by the old ruling People's Action Party (PAP) to a new PAP with bigger and more sensitive antennae, actively scanning for sentiment and concerns of the electorate. But there are insidious risks if care is not taken to hold citizens to a high standard of restraint when it comes to their interests, wants and biases.

First, if Singaporeans are not interested in the world around them, or too interested only in their own view of matters, then democratic action can easily give way to partisanship and demagoguery. The world is a very complex and interconnected place. Even the domestic social and economic challenges of this small nation are impacted by what happens elsewhere.

So operating as if Singapore is in a vacuum or becoming too fixated on absolute views and philosophies creates an asymmetry between the complex interconnected reality and a simpler rendition in which this country can isolate itself from broader influences.

Second, Singapore's response to complex challenges is constrained by resources and realities - some hard such as land, and some soft such as social norms. Singaporeans must be informed of this interplay between challenges and constraints because it requires trade-offs to be made.

In other words, not everyone can be satisfied nor stay satisfied all the time on everything. The ongoing debate on the Cross Island Line is a contemporary example of the trade-off between transport efficiency (time), the need to protect nature (feelings) and fiscal imperatives (costs).

There are many other less tangible but more powerful trade-offs, such as those made on citizen rights, on obligations of national service, on shared spaces, on accepting all religions and cultures as equal and on sharing the nation with visitors and more controversially, with newcomers.

Citizens need to be informed and by that, I do not mean that everyone should always agree. I am saying that agreements or disagreements must be fact-based, reasoned, premised on mutual respect and a recognition that an opposite position may also have claim to legitimacy.

Third, Singaporeans have to be involved. They cannot abdicate the responsibility to third parties - civil servants, grassroots, corporates - to adjudicate their democracy and then complain about how others do so. Complaining is a low standard of democratic involvement. But hiding anonymously behind a keyboard and banging out opinions, slander, expletives, invective and accusations is no standard at all.

The response by some on social media to the tragic case of the student, Benjamin Lim, is an example in point. We should avoid jumping to conclusions, playing to biases and seeding distrust with rumour and innuendo.

Civic action, contribution of meaningful ideas and stepping forward to be seen and heard is what I mean by involvement. Stand up and be counted, and do so not anonymously but with your name. Citizens should have the courage of their convictions.

The seduction of the simple will be much less a risk if Singaporeans are interested, informed and involved. That is what is required to have a democracy which delivers, throws up the most equipped leaders available and creates the most capable institutions to serve the people's needs.


•The writer is the chief executive officer of Future-Moves Group, a management consulting firm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 04, 2016, with the headline 'The seduction of the simple'. Print Edition | Subscribe