Google Translate

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.

Related entries:--

No comments:

Post a Comment