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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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