Lawrence Wong For The Straits Times

Towards a 'problem-solving democracy'

A founding father of Singapore, the late Mr S. Rajaratnam was realistic about what democracy could or could not deliver for the Republic.
A founding father of Singapore, the late Mr S. Rajaratnam was realistic about what democracy could or could not deliver for the Republic.ST FILE PHOTO

The issue of "constructive politics" was the focus of the debate on the President's Address in Parliament last week, and rightly so. Politics is not just about campaigns, elections and votes.

As President Tony Tan Keng Yam said, politics is fundamentally about enabling us to move ahead as one united people and improve the lives of all citizens.

How can Singapore keep its politics constructive? Some people have suggested we should simply follow the way of mature First World democracies.

This is not a new idea. Indeed, after the Cold War ended, several predicted a new era of global convergence: In the battle of ideas and political systems, they thought that Western liberal democracy had triumphed, and history had come to an end.

But Western liberal democracy has not turned out to be a magic formula for success.

In many countries, it has failed to deliver stable, legitimate and effective government. Even voters in the West are losing faith in their democratic systems.

I received a visitor recently who used to serve in the United States administration. Ten years ago, he would not have hesitated to preach the virtues of Western liberal democracy.

But with the ongoing gridlock and policy paralysis in Washington, he has become more circumspect. He acknowledged that the American system was far from perfect, and that political reform was necessary.

He is not the only one. Two editors of The Economist magazine recently wrote a book calling not just for political reform, but a fundamental "Fourth Revolution" in Western democracies.

They note that "in America (today), the federal government has less support than George III did at the time of the American Revolution". As they put it, "interest groups have proved remarkably successful at hijacking government" and "the practice of democracy in the West is diverging ever more from the ideal… with the… general public increasingly disgruntled".

In short, dysfunctional government has become a major problem in many mature democracies.

Politics is increasingly acrimonious, divisive and polarised. Young people have grown disillusioned and disengaged from public life. In America and many European countries, voter turnouts have been falling and surveys show declining trust in governments.

None of this should come as a surprise. There is a long tradition of concern over the limitations of liberal democracy as a system of government.

Public choice theorists like the late James M. Buchanan, a 1986 Nobel laureate, worried that democratic politicians would pander to their electorate, spend more than they collect in taxes, and run up unfunded obligations and debt - a worry that has been proven prescient.

I highlight the problems of mature democracies not to run down their systems, or to suggest that we have the answers. We don't. We, too, have to discover a workable way forward.

Political systems in all countries have to evolve and adapt to the changing, globalised environment. As new generations come of age, better connected with one another and more exposed to the world, they will have different life experiences, aspirations and expectations.

Political leaders must respond to this new situation, and political systems must evolve to remain effective.

Every country will have to change in its own way, and strike its own balance between individual rights and the common good.

Singapore is a city-state with a very young history and an ethnically diverse society.

So we must evolve our own system of democracy to suit our needs and our conditions. Unthinkingly importing institutions from other countries can do more harm than good.

One of our founding fathers, the late Mr S. Rajaratnam, was a fervent democrat.

He set out the goal of building a "democratic society based on justice and equality", which we recite in the Pledge.

But Mr Rajaratnam was also realistic about what democracy could or could not deliver for Singapore.

Forty years ago, he had anticipated that Western norms of liberal democracy, like a confrontational opposition and adversarial politics, would not bring about effective long-term governance.

So he called for a different kind of democracy for Singapore - one which involved citizenship participation at all levels, to "get people away from adversarial democracy" and to "solve practical problems in a practical way".

Mr Rajaratnam's vision was for Singapore to be a "democracy of deeds, and not words". It is a high goal worth striving for, which gets to the heart of what makes for a healthy democracy - an active citizenry, engaged in the community, working together for the public good.

This is why we must continue to encourage all Singaporeans, and our youths in particular, to get involved in causes and projects that help build a better society. For while the Government can and will do more, it is ultimately the spirit of our people that will shape our nation's future.

Singaporeans already undertake many ground-up initiatives and community projects. These form an important part of constructive politics.

It is because we believe in that collective "democracy of deeds" of active citizens that we launched "Our Singapore Conversation".

Through the OSC, 46,000 people shared their views on issues that mattered to them and their future.

They helped to shape the new strategic directions of this Government. Importantly, the conversations are continuing in various policy domains, like the MediShield Life review, and the National Masterplan for Ageing.

There has also been positive response to new platforms for contribution like the Youth Corps and the SAF (Singapore Armed Forces) Volunteer Corps.

And many Singaporeans have come up with ideas and projects of their own to commemorate our 50th anniversary of independence next year.

It's easy to be cynical and brush aside such participation as "talk-shops" or "going through the motions". Such cynicism will lead to apathy and reluctance to get involved. It is a corrosive attitude which has no place in our public life.

On the contrary, these acts of participation and involvement from ordinary Singaporeans should give us hope, and inspire us all to do better and do more. They show that Singaporeans care deeply about one another and about our nation.

They show that we are truly making progress towards becoming a problem-solving democracy, a democracy of deeds.

That ultimately is what "constructive politics" means.

The writer is the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Second Minister for Communications and Information.