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Saturday, 27 December 2008

Obama's Audacity of Hope: the Constitution's role

Barack Obama: The Audacity of Hope
Almost any country, even those which political system has been usurped through underhanded means, has a Constitution. It is regarded as the supreme law of the land, the foundation upon which all other laws are developed, the guideline by which the country and society are governed.

One would then most likely regard the Constitution as a static document that cannot be altered once it has been composed. And yet, it is common to hear of countries rewriting or suspending their Constitutions, usually after new leaders come to power. In recent times around Southeast Asia, both Indonesia and Thailand have seen new governments rewrite their respective Constitutions in the name of equality and justice.

The United States, in my understanding of that country's history, also had a dynamic Constitution, particularly after its founding. Following the original document, the founding fathers introduced the Constitutional Amendments, which included the Bill of Rights. Amendments have continued to be introduced, up to as recently as 1992, more than 200 years after the original Constitution was drafted!

With such dynamism even from the champion of democracy, can a Constitution still be regarded as the supreme law of the land? Barack Obama thinks so, but for an entirely different reason. Firstly, he argues that the United States' style of democracy is "not as a house to be built, but as a conversation to be had" (emphasis is mine). With this metaphor, he then regards the Constitution as "a road map by which we marry passion to reason, the ideal of individual freedom to the demands of the community."

In that case, a Constitution would be expected to change as the situation dictates. Using the metaphor of the map, once the road network has changed, the map will need to be updated to reflect those changes, otherwise drivers will be lost. Therefore, as we discard old ideas and embrace new ones, a country's Constitution needs to be revised to match the prevailing sentiment.

Of course, this would understandably raise the ire of government opponents. Amendments could be regarded as being done according to the whims and fancies of the incumbent. Indeed, such accusations were hurled -- and continue to be thrown around every five years or so -- after the Constitution was amended to introduce the Group Representative Constituency and the Elected Presidency. Opponents argued that the rules were being rewritten to favour the ruling People's Action Party at elections.

I take a more cautious approach to such accusations. The Constitution has built-in safeguards to prevent random or rampant amendments, for instance, requiring two-thirds of sitting Members of Parliament to approve the changes at the Second and Third Readings. On the other hand, with the PAP's dominance in Parliament, Constitutional Amendments can pass these safeguards quite smoothly.

What then can the citizen do? Obama, following his meeting with a senior Senator, advises that we should read our Constitution. (The Constitution of the Republic of Singapore is available online, so that's one less reason not to read it.) Know it back and forth, upside and down, and in between the lines. Also, appreciate the context and precedents by which it and its amendments were written, to better understand why they were done so in that manner.

By understanding the Constitution, you'll be better able to navigate the political and societal landscape of the nation.

This is the third 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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Sunday, 7 December 2008

Obama's Audacity of Hope: the importance and difficulty of values

Barack Obama: The Audacity of Hope
Some time back, there was a resumption of the debate over ministerial pay. Singaporean ministers are some of the best paid government leaders in the world. Much has been said about how our prime minister earns much, much more than the president of the United States. A lot of people simply cannot understand how our leaders can justify that salary scale for themselves.

It's a question of "fair pay for fair work". Everyone understands that concept. If you perform well at a job, you should be compensated with an equitable salary. So it's coincidental (to me, anyway) that this discussion arose just as I was reading a chapter on "values" from the man who would soon be receiving a lower salary than my prime minister.

At the start of the chapter, Obama gave an elaborate introduction that served to point out that he shared many of the same values as President George W. Bush. He explained that no one should be surprised by this. In his work as a Senator, he had discovered that, by and large, the American people shared the same values across the country: freedom of speech, being a productive worker, importance of family, etc.

However, any discussion of values ultimately became a squabble between opposite sides. Conservatives and liberals can't see eye to eye. Politicians debate over details. And the media play along by amplifying the differences.

In Singapore, we have at least been spared the ugly side of the values debate. Instead, the ruling People's Action Party, through its unbroken control of the government since the country's independence, has dictated the values that all Singaporeans should care about. Some of these values have been crystallised as the so-called "shared values".

But really, what do Singaporeans value? If there were any "universal Singaporean values", I think they would contain the following:
  • educating our youths,
  • accessible health care,
  • being a productive member of the labour force,
  • support for the underprivileged,
  • freedom to worship,
  • freedom to play and enjoy life.
(A few might even add "delicious food" and "24-hour shopping"!)

Unfortunately, there will always be differences in how these values are put into practice. Like "fair pay for fair work". Maybe the PAP is right: astronomical salaries that are benchmarked to the private sector ensure that the right people enter government. Or maybe the U.S. system is right; being president of a First World country doesn't mean you have access to unparalleled wealth. The debate could go on and on even though we agree on the same value: "fair pay for fair work".

But Obama observed one thing keenly:
"Values are faithfully applied to the facts before us, while ideology overrides whatever facts call theory into question."
Thus, Obama observed that, in the U.S., though the people, politicians and pundits shared the same values, there was a lack of finding common ground to enable the debate -- and country -- to move forward healthily.

The hard reality is that it can take an excruciatingly long time to find that common ground. There is no easy solution to this predicament, where a solution may be unattainable in the short term. The debate over how much a Singapore minister should be paid has gone on for years and is unlikely to end within my lifetime.

But we must tread carefully to ensure that we don't mistake "ideology" for "value". Values are universal, but ideologies apply only to certain groups. If high pay does indeed lure the altruists and talented into government, who are then able to further improve Singapore, then naysayers cannot keep saying that the salary scale allows the leaders to become wealthier to the country's detriment.

This is the second 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:--