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Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Obama's Audacity of Hope: Republicans, Democrats, PAP, ...?

Barack Obama: The Audacity of Hope
I honestly didn't know what to expect from Barack Obama's book, "The Audacity of Hope". I know that it was inspired from his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, but that was pretty much it. So I'm slowly reading through its nine chapters and reflecting on his viewpoints.

Obama starts off with a discussion on the two main political parties in the United States of America, the Republican and Democratic Party. Instead of a history lesson, he describes how both parties have changed since World War Two into bastions of extreme political thought. Where members of both parties used to debate healthily about issues and policies, today, he thinks that they are more interested in toeing the party line than representing their constituents' needs.

Obama notes optimistically that party politics does not have to end this way. He recognises the necessity of having senior party members who have memories and experience of how political debates were carried out. Through them, he believes that the younger party members can improve themselves and the level of discussion. His main message here is to implore members from both parties not to lose sight of what is most important in a democracy: the needs of the people.

In contrast, Singapore has always experienced one-party rule since independence. It is safe to say that the electorate has no inkling of what multiparty democracy is like. Elections have always been dominated by clean sweeps by the ruling party, the People's Action Party (PAP). Yes, we experience pork-barrel politics here too, but we have no alternative pork to compare against.

On one hand, it is nice to wish wistfully for multiparty democracy in Singapore. On the other hand, I wonder if such a system could function effectively here in the first place, as it has -- somewhat -- in the U.S. It is necessary to think beyond the confines of political niceties and look at the physical and societal realities.

Significantly, there is the issue of land size. Singapore is, admittedly, a small nation. You could travel from east to west in half a day. On the other hand, you would need to fly across the United States to match that duration. Therefore, unlike how there is a political divide between north-and-south and coastal-and-central regions in the U.S., Singapore has a largely homogenous political ground. One would be hard-pressed to find stark ideological differences between a resident in Boon Lay versus one in Pasir Ris or Woodlands.

As a result of this homogeneity, it is generally difficult for multiple political parties to arise to reflect any differences in opinions. In contrast, the Republicans are generally viewed as conservatives who champion "every man for himself", while Democrats take the more socialist, "government should look after the people" path. There is little chance for such differences to arise in Singapore.

Then, there is the issue of history. Singapore, a former British colony, adopted the parliamentary system of its colonial leaders upon independence. There is, however, one thing that differentiates this Westminster style of democracy from the U.S.' system:

The executive branch of government resides entirely within the legislative branch.

This is an extremely important point of differentiation. In the U.S., the executive branch led by the President is responsible for conducting the day-to-day business of running the country. The legislative branch, within the House of Representatives and the Senate, crafts the laws that set the framework for running the country. And never the twain shall meet, or rather, mix!

This separation of power creates another forum for nurturing multiparty democracy. I would argue that a parliamentary system, on the other hand, promotes single-party rule. And why not? By keeping the legislative and executive branches within the same forum, a parliament concentrates power within itself. It is therefore in the interest of the ruling party to stay in power so that it not only controls the legislative, but also the executive. In other words, it not only makes the laws, it also implements them.

Fortunately, history has shown that multiple political parties can still thrive in a parliamentary democracy. The United Kingdom has seen parliamentary control switch between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. A grossly simplified reason for the switches is because one party has lost the confidence of the electorate, whereupon the other party seizes upon the situation to its political advantage.

I suppose that the same situation could occur in Singapore. What is to prevent the PAP from succumbing to its success and hubris from years and years of unimpeded rule? As it is, at every election, there is always the rumble that some constituency will "fall" to the opposition. Indeed, there have been times when this nearly came true, like Cheng San in 1997 and Aljunied in 2006.

But as long as the PAP continues to do a good job at running the country and the electorate continues to believe that the PAP is doing that good a job, then there is no reason for dissent to arise. Then, one-party rule will continue to exist in Singapore, reinforced through homogeneity and parliamentary democracy.

The fear of one-party rule could be similar to what Obama fears in the U.S. -- that political debates will degrade into party members keeping in step with the party and neglecting the people's needs and wants. The PAP must not fall into the trap of achieving success so that it can trumpet its own glory. It must remember that its first responsibility to effective governance is to ensure that it listens to, understands and meets the needs of the people who have put their trust -- and lives -- in its hands.

This is the first of what I plan to be an ongoing review of Obama's book, "The Audacity of Hope". I will try to see if and how his opinions can be applied to Singapore.

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Saturday, 22 November 2008

Durian seller explains why only one seller needed

It had been a while since I'd last eaten some durian, so I headed down to my usual durian seller to get some. As I approached his stall, I found myself walking past stalls that sold a variety of products, like fresh food, stationery, electrical appliances and household items.

My durian seller saw me and called out to me. I was glad that he still remembered me, even though I had not patronised his stall for some time. He wrapped his broad arm around my shoulders and ushered me to a basket full of durians. As he picked at the durians, I enquired about his business. He roared with laughter, saying that business was always getting better.

"I suppose it helps that there are no other durian sellers around here," I noted.

"Why need so many durian sellers?" he asked. "My durians are best! No one else can sell durians as good as mine."

I nodded in agreement. It was true, his durians were always fleshy and sweet. "But still, I think it would be nice to sample other kinds of durians."

Immediately, he froze. Then he rose up, towering over me. For the first time, I realised just how much taller and bigger he was than me. His stern eyes froze me in my spot.

"What do you mean you want to try other durians?!" he demanded.

"Well..." I stammered, "it's just that I might like to, you know, broaden my tastes."

He plucked a durian out of the bunch in his basket and thrust it in my face. "I always give you good durians! I never compromise on my quality. You tell me, you ever taste a more delicious durian?"

The truth was, I'd never tasted any other durian. But I thought it wise not to provoke him further. Cautiously, I took the durian from him.

He grunted with approval. "You listen to me. If you can get the best durians from me, why do you want someone else's durians? If my durians always make you feel happy, why you want to risk feeling depressed with lower quality durians?"

I interjected. "Other durian sellers don't necessarily sell lower quality..."

But he cut me off. "All other durians are bad. You know why? Because only I have the best durians. You don't even need to ask, just take my word for it. I know people in other neighbourhoods got more than one durian seller. In the end, what happen? They become confused. Don't know whether this durian better or that one. They run around in circles. They argue with one another. Who wins? Nobody. Instead, everyone gets more frustrated."

He took another durian and tossed it at me. I caught it just before its thorny hide hit my face.

"You don't need any other durian sellers. You only need me. Understand?"

I nodded, clutching my two precious durians. I paid him for them, then slowly made my way out of his stall. As I walked, the aroma from the durians filled my nostrils. It was truly a sweet, sweet smell that left me intoxicated.

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