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.
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.
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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.
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.
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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.