Democracy big and small

There is some amount of angst in Western capitals when they look at how fast China is able to get infrastructure projects off the ground, when in their own countries, the democratic process, in the broadest sense of the term, including things like stakeholder consultations and environmental impact studies, frustrate many aims of elected governments. Recently, a member of the British government asked me for my thoughts on that, seeing as I was from a country that could get things done with equal ease as China.

My reply was to state the obvious: this is not an either/or question; anyone with some intelligence will realise that the optimum is somewhere in between too much and too little consultation. The marginal utility of consulting to the Nth degree and seeking buy-in from the last objector is infinitesimal. But not consulting means a high risk of tunnel vision, unbalanced priorities and poor judgement. The costs may not be obvious early on, only showing up much later. The problem is that the process is not a science but an art, and there’s no way of telling what degree of democratic input is best.

Yup, I told him nothing he didn’t already know. But hey, he was the one who asked.

Big democracy

This issue mirrors the debate currently going on as to whether Singapore is better off with a super-majority for the People’s Action Party, or whether opposition parties ought to have greater representation in Parliament so that they can better scrutinise government policies and decisions.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, at the Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum, 5 April 2011, that “a two party system is not workable is because we do not have enough talent in Singapore”,  and therefore the best response that voters can choose is to “concentrate our resources”, in other words, keep his People’s Action Party as all-powerful.

Singaporeans active in the digital sphere apparently disagree. Yahoo News reported that a huge majority answered Yes to the poll question: Can a two-party system exist in Singapore?

Of the near 90 responses on Yahoo! Answers, however, almost all users felt a two-party system was worth at least a shot, and some were even willing to have one “A team” and one “B team”.

Their main reason: check and balance.

User Viktor said, “It has nothing to do with the competency of ruling party but it’s a simple matter of ‘check & balance’.”

It would “ensure what we have built or achieved today is being protected,” he said.

“I think the current party is doing great, but like any great heroes or great organizations, when left unchecked … just may go off the path and Singapore cannot afford that mistake,” he said.

— Yes to two-party system: Yahoo users. 12 April 2011  Link

This being an online survey, there is no reason to believe the results are representative of all Singaporeans.

* * * * *

It isn’t hard to recall examples in which the absence of checks and balances at the legislative level has left national policy decisions with adverse results unquestioned. Opening the floodgates to immigration might be one. Fabulously high ministerial salaries that have led to widespread cynicism might be another. In fact, as Susan Long wrote in her Straits Times blog, almost every issue is quickly linked by netizens to ministers’ pay packets.

In the long run, political watchers fear this “Six degrees of ministerial pay” cynicism will canker the political discourse in Singapore as people begin to question the motivations and moral authority of office-holders.

As has often been said, the best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table, so that people can focus on the work rather than on the cash.

But instead of taking the issue of money off the table, as raising ministerial pay was intended to do, it has unfortunately become THE issue foremost on the minds of many.

— Susan Long in her Straits Times blog Six degrees of ministerial pay?, 12 April 2011. Link.

Then there’s the Youth Olympics, which I touched on (again) recently.

Small democracy

Consultation and getting buy-in from the people does not have to be confined to national issues. As a process, it is just as valuable at the local level, ensuring accountability by office-holders. Democracy doesn’t only have to be about big things, it can be about small things too.

For several years, the town council in my area was spending lots of money on landscaping contracts. All sorts of ornamental plants sprouted overnight. This was all well and good except that the more useful stuff like adding covered walkways between apartment blocks and down to bus stops were not done. That this would have been higher priority than pretty planters would have been obvious if they asked even a handful of ordinary residents.

Eventually the covered walkways were built, but not before it became clear that ornamental plants were very costly to maintain, they being rather susceptible to weeds.

The member of parliament for my area must have been an avid collector of suggestions from Residents’ Committees, because soon after, and undeterred by the defeat by weeds, a new “bright idea” took form. Gym equipment — stationary exercise bike, treadmill, etc — for old folks’ corners were installed in void decks. However, I don’t think many senior citizens were consulted, because no one was ever seen using them after the day of the opening ceremony. Within six months rust and dust had vanquished these shiny hopes.

By far, the biggest monument to folly, however, was the hard court. In an excellent article by reporter Cheow Xin Yi, Today newspaper wrote about a 3,000 square-metre open space that was once a grassy field on which neighbourhood boys could kick a ball around, now paved over and turned into a sizzling frying pan on sunny days. The reason the Town Council did that was to allow temple groups to put up street operas virtually all year round. Big money could be made through auctions conducted on high-decibel speakers.

The hard court, near the Yuhua Village and Food Centre, is a popular spot for celebrations organised by various temple groups. Some residents living nearby, however, are fed up with the noise.

Several frustrated residents have written to Member of Parliament Grace Fu. For example, one resident wrote: “There is almost an activity every weekend. Most of them are karaoke sessions or getai at night. The noise level is so loud that even in my house, it is as if I’m standing at the parade square.”

“I urge tighter control on the types of activities, their frequency as well as the noise level. The noise leaves families with babies, elderly and the sick especially distraught,” the resident lamented.

On the flip side, a dozen or so devotees and temple leaders, among the 50 residents whom MediaCorp spoke to in the SMC, said that it has become more difficult to secure permits to use the hard court.

What they did not say was that, unlike temples with a physical compound, these temple groups usually have their altars or shrines housed within HDB flats – thus the need for them to apply to use open spaces, like the hard court, to hold religious festivals.

However, a check later by MediaCorp confirmed that it is not permitted to use HDB flats for public worshipping so these groups are technically illegal.

— Today newspaper, 4 April 2011, Hard choices over hard court at Yuhua

Even when it was a field, temple groups used to set up large tents for their festivals. However, because the tents killed the grass, they were obliged by contract to re-turf the field each time. It was costly. To help them, the Town Council paid to pave the field over so that the temple groups could save money. The cost now lessened, the groups could hold their festivals and auctions more frequently, thus raising more money for their illegal selves.

Nobody bothered to ask the thousands of residents in the area, many of whom were not Taoists. These residents have suffered for years.

A little bit of democratic process before taking the decision to pave the space would have spared people the pain, and saved the Town Council money too.

* * * * *

The Singapore Democratic Party is contesting Yuhua this coming election. Among the ten pledges contained in The SDP Promise, is one to hold quarterly town hall meetings “to obtain your views on policies that affect you and take them to parliament.” This is a good step forward. A dose of local democracy gives people more control over their lives.

The Workers’ Party has promised to disband Residents’ Committees. It will probably save money, not least on fancy exercise bikes and treadmills which the chairperson and the treasurer swear the old folks of the precinct will take to like fish to water.

13 Responses to “Democracy big and small”


  1. 1 anony 14 April 2011 at 08:29

    You forgot to mention the absurdly expensive signages in many refurbished HDB estates that comes with large concrete & marble slabs with fancy lettering giving a whiff of private condo names to certain precints that have no bearing to the official residents addresses shown on ICs. Ludicrous I would say!

  2. 2 newhik 14 April 2011 at 09:42

    Just to be fair from Resident’s committee, it is being chaired and attended by only a handful of Grassroots members.

    The real problem of the RCs or NCs for condos is that whether these Grassroots members have their own personal agenda to achieve.

    I guess the general public are aware of the perks that being Grassroots can offer, like special Season parking tickets, priority in School queues and BTOs in their precinct and or districts, but their more that some are not aware of.

    Being a select few, these members to not voice out the concerns of the residents in their committees. No longer are the kampong days where everybody will sit around in the open spaces to share their opinions and issues. I doubt some of these so called grass roots members do not even actively talk to their residents

  3. 3 liew kai khiun 14 April 2011 at 12:06

    The Yuhua Village story will reinforce the ruling party’s form of governmentality. When the temples are involved, it becomes a religious issue. I may be a nominal/agnostic beliver in Chinese religion, but to have incense paper burned indiscriminately and chants and music blaring from soundwoofers can be rather unbearble particularly in my estate in Potong Pasir. I have written on such issues to the Town Council and even the Straits Times, but these concerns will never be addressed.

    In PAP/ISD groupthink,YB’s suggestion of asking that thousands of residents to vote would be a nightmare scenario when the taoist groups will see this move as yet another hostile sign of the systematic marginalisation of their religious practices by the Anglicised (Christian) elite. Hence, with the spectre of religious conflict in sight, of course the plebians with such nasty legacies of riots from the Maria Hertogh incident to Prophet Muhammud’s birthday as well as the inflammatory talks by pastors recently, could not be trusted to discuss such issues democratically and openly. But, the question is when can we do it?

  4. 4 jeremy 15 April 2011 at 03:53

    Even 2000 years ago, Greek philosophers like Thales observed that new tyrannies often have the ability to mobilize resources faster and grow quicker than the democratic city states. Fear and coercion helped provide a powerful additional stimulus.

    The problem with tyrannies, however, is that they are inherently unstable. According to the ancient Greek observers, city states ruled by a tyranny of one individual typically fell apart within several decades, while those ruled by the tyranny of a grouping may last a century or two.

    After that, comes the inevitable bloody ‘regime change’

  5. 5 hahaha 15 April 2011 at 15:18

    take simple things like repainting the flats every 5 years. Now there is a choice of 3 designs, all of which were terrible. RC puts in on notice board and asked for residents to select. Then one design was finally selected. However, there was no breakdown on no. of votes on the eventual selected design, no. of residents who actually voted, etc..
    So, there was a lot of top down execution. One would just imagine that RC made their own decision and go ahead w/o much explaining.
    Maybe, it is time to make RC a full time thing, and with proper estate management capabilities.
    I’m sure any estate will look and feel much better.

    • 6 yawningbread 18 April 2011 at 01:10

      My area is undergoing repainting at the moment. We were not given the luxury of three terrible designs, but two horrid ones, both with clashing colour schemes. And as you said, no follow-up information like number of votes received were ever revealed. For all one knows, the final decision might have been based on what colour of paint was in stock, with voting numbers “adjusted” accordingly.

  6. 7 Gard 15 April 2011 at 15:43

    1) If the subject is qualitatively non-controversial (e.g., “Let’s build a garden.”), consultation do not necessarily improve the outcomes.

    (i) The public do not know or foresee the trade-offs involved in any particular idea; (missing statistics or information)

    (ii) The public has not computed the trade-offs. (missing knowledge)

    As a result, there could be minor adjustments but seldom a change of direction because the majority would support the ‘good idea’ (or the status quo).

    2) If the subject is qualitatively controversial (e.g., the casino debate, the minimum wage debate, death penalty), in addition to (i) and (ii), the public is

    (iv) not consulted; media-fed with government agenda; framing the outcome to highlight the positives

    (v) not consulted; (pretence of) consultation happens after decision made.

    (vi) engaged in consultation as a means for buy-in

    I would note, without proof, that opposition party candidates have to do a lot more of (vi) compared to incumbent candidates who enjoy the GRC treatment.

    Seldom, the public is consulted absent a party’s position. I can’t think of an example otherwise.

    But to consult means to reveal the position. Imagine WP consulting on 377A without a position. What would we want the candidate to respond if the party has no position? Read from script? Laugh nerviously? Weep?

    Yet, we do want an honest debate.

  7. 8 Gard 15 April 2011 at 15:48

    Oh, my point is, the decision to have consultation is made having thought through the political cost-benefits of the consultation, even though it might be preferrable to have a ‘frank, open’ consultation without whatsoever any political agenda.

  8. 9 suggestion 16 April 2011 at 08:44

    Only in the middle to longer run, will the misallocation of resources be more evident.

    Singapore, has a poor record of allocating resources efficiently.
    For example, it’s easy for a one party government to allocate capital and resources in education, skills, producitivty programmes etc. The government thinks it knows best.

    But what are the results over decades? A low productivity and low innovative Singapore economy.

    Singapore can have legislate many inputs but generate low outputs: LOW efficienty. Singapore is rich in terms of GDP per capita, but it squanders much of such investments on non productive activities.

  9. 10 prettyplace 16 April 2011 at 12:16

    I used to live in Perth, Australia a sleepy town.
    The council would always engage the residents and ask for suggestions and what not.

    I saw the difference, the power to mould your own area into something which all would prefer, even to an extend where the bus-stops should be placed. The inclusiveness in itself gave me a sense of belonging.

    We lack this in Singapore, perhaps because, the then govt did not want to get into nitty gritty stuff and end up delaying their projects, but that was then.
    Furthermore, an old man wanted to train people in Singapore, from the way we talk to walk.

    As I mentioned, it was then. However today, I think people rightfully must be given this space.
    Firstly, for the amount of money one pays, a resident should know whats going on in their estate.
    Secondly, residents will have the power to decide whats good for them.

    The consultation process might take longer,implentation & exceution will certainly prolong.

    However, the benefit will be far greater, we will be creating a sense of belonging, a transfer of power back to the residents, providing them a say in the decision making process.

    An additional factor which compounds my elation, is to make my MP work even greater.

    Way to go SDP.

  10. 11 dolphin81 17 April 2011 at 11:31

    The main issue is not about the theory of 1 party vs 2 party.

    It is the track record of the PAP for the past 14 years.

    This is the real reason why more are keen on the 2 party.

    The Yuhua examples are obvious of how the PAP and its supporters are living in a world of their own.

  11. 12 Kay 20 April 2011 at 14:11

    My estate was recently repainted and we were given two designs, one nice (to me at least) and the other rather horrid (again my opinion). When the results came out, the nice one has 26% votes while the horrid one had 24%! This only amounted to 50% of total votes, and the clearly nicer scheme won only marginally. This only goes to show how interested people really are in their estate. Sure colour schemes boils down to preference but what happened to the half the missing votes? Surely it isn’t so hard to tick a box and slip the paper into the voting box at your lift lobby!

    I also sure very few people are actually interested in being involved in the decisions that goes on in their town council. It is only after things are passed then people complain when they are not happy. I doubt this is a governing issue more than a socially apathetic one. Sure SDP might have quarterly town hall meetings, but how many people would actually make time to attend? Those who do will be those with complains, which will make such discussions very one-sided. Eventually all will just deteriorate to a clique of grassroots leaders pushing their own agenda for hard courts and ornamental plants.

  12. 13 Lord Jim 22 April 2011 at 16:28

    A one dominant party democracy is beginning to look a lot to me like an incestuous relationship – the “genetics defects” are bound to surface after all these years of inbreedings


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s





%d bloggers like this: