The Singapore government has just published an Issues Paper “Our Population, Our Future” (http://www.population.sg/), which explains the country’s demographic challenges and what the government aims to do about them. The paper lays out Singapore’s demographic challenges in the face of declining birth rates, a shrinking workforce, and an ageing population. As at December 2011, Singapore had 3.27 million Singapore citizens (SCs), and 0.54 million Permanent Residents (PRs). Together, they made up the resident population of 3.81 million. The paper spells out the future implications of a shrinking and ageing workforce – fewer working people to support every elderly person; a less vibrant, less innovative economy; and eventually, a hollowing out of the population as young people leave for more exciting cities.
This piece of news is mainly about population issues, but what struck me most was its political significance. The Singapore government has launched one public consultation after another in recent years, on everything from how to build a sporting nation to ministers’ salaries to population issues. This is a highly significant shift in the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) style of governance and a major step in Singapore’s political evolution.
Whatever our critics in the West might say, we are a democracy, albeit a conservative democracy which strikes its own careful balance between the authority of government and the freedom of the people. It’s very important for GP students to understand that “democracy “is a very subjective term. Different countries and cultures have different definitions of it. And even when people agree on a definition, their interpretation of it can differ. Take the widely accepted definition “a political system in which all citizens have a say in how they are governed”. In what way can people exercise their “say”? Through elections? Through a free press? Through demonstrations, which sometimes turn into riots?
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Even when you give people lots of “say” in the form of free speech, a free press and the freedom to stage protests, the will of the people can still be undermined by corruption. What power is there in your vote if after you elect a leader, his policies are shaped by bribes from big corporations? That is why one commentator used the deeply disturbing term “state capture by corporations” to describe what is happening in many parts of the world.
Most people would agree that democracy is power to the people. When there is corruption, the people are robbed of their power. Therefore where corruption is allowed to fester, there is no democracy.
Democracy may not be a word one associates with Singapore, but if you are Singaporean, it behoves you to reflect on Singaporean democracy – and try to appreciate its strengths. “Power to the people” may not be a slogan one associates with Singapore, but ask yourself this, Singaporeans: Are you empowered in your life? Does your country give you good opportunities to get a decent education and a decent job? Do you have a roof over your head and some assets on your balance sheet? Does it allow you to make your grievances and delights known to the government, and bring them to bear upon government policy, at the ballot box, in Parliament and in the media new and old? Does your country empower you to pursue your hopes and dreams?
The increasing public consultation is a tacit admission by the PAP government that it does not have all the answers. Gone are the days when sagacious scholars in the government simply imposed their superior wisdom on the people once the elections were over. It is a quiet, yet highly significant shift in Singaporean democracy. Ours may not be the most thrilling democracy in the world. But democracy doesn’t have to be exciting. It just has to work. And then there will be real power to the people.
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