Drawing the Trump Card

Very little work was done in the office, on 10 November 2016 in Singapore (9 November in the U.S.).

As we watched the levels of red and blue creep towards the target of 270, the red faster than the blue, American colleagues started to ask about taking up Singapore citizenship. Others were trying not to choke while attempting to call Cheeto-face “my President”, or were fingering him as the beast from Revelation.

Magnum photos of the day:

Some data about the voters:

And loads of memes whose copyright owners are unknown.
memes on the U.S. Presidential Elections 2016

Struggling with disbelief, there were many theories about how this all came to be:

Analysing Why the Democrats/Hillary Clinton Lost

Clinton ignoring the economic anxieties of the white working class

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Ftheguardian%2Fvideos%2F1491239407569788%2F&show_text=0&width=560
The contempt of the (liberal) political elite for the common man

Disagreement with Obama/Clinton’s policies

Facebook as Echo Chamber and Vehicle for Fake News

Fake News About Clinton from Enterprising Teens in the Balkans

WikiLeaks’ leaks

Because Hillary Clinton was Hillary Clinton

Ignorance of Trump voters

And because not enough credit was given to the merits of the Trump team, Jared Kushner’s evil genius:

Analysing Why the Donald Trump Victory Was a Shock

Then, the stage known as Denial, in grief counselling – residual hope that Clinton might still make it to the White House:

memes on the U.S. Presidential Elections 2016
And then, there is also looking onwards to Trump as President:

Predictions about the Future

You can’t really make any decent predictions if: (i) the Prez-elect seems to just to have treated his campaigning as a publicity stunt and hasn’t really any coherent vision for leading the country; and (ii) he isn’t quite known as a man of his word anyway.

Predictions of a bleak future for some/all people

Worries that immediate incidents of racism are indicative of next 4 years

Stirrings of hope

(because, somewhat ironically, Trump isn’t a man of his word and may not make good many of his anti-immigration, anti-welfare, etc. promises)

Predictions about the rise of China

memes on the U.S. Presidential Elections 2016

Analysing Other Responses

Acts of resistance

Demanding better of Trump

Poetry

Ultimately, trying to pin the Trump victory on one factor is impossible. Just as claiming to write an objective history is too naively reductionistic.

What is clear though is that the sovereign God has put him there, for there is no authority (whether good or bad) that exists, except what God has instituted.

Haig Road Market Putu Piring and Letter from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to PAP MPs on Rules of Prudence

This made me forget I was eating very tasty Haig Road Market putu piring. (Oh, but how tasty. Not chewy in texture like Tan’s Kueh Tu Tu, but slightly delicately crumbly like idli. With melty coconut sugar in the middle. Festooned with sweet-salty shredded coconut. 5 for S$2.)

Haig Road Market Putu PiringNow Christian leaders are no strangers to the concept of servant leadership, and the idea that one must not just be godly but also must be seen to be godly so as not to stumble the flock. It was a pleasant surprise to see these things reflected in PM Lee Hsien Loong’s letter to the PAP MPs.

Surely common grace means that the sort of biblical wisdom found in the Old Testament isn’t just advantageous to Christians, but because God made all things, it is also the best way to live in this world.

Also, Isaac Watts!

PM Lee’s letter reproduced from here:

Letter from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to PAP MPs on Rules of Prudence

All PAP MPs

RULES OF PRUDENCE

BEYOND SG50

It is a tradition for the Prime Minister to send a letter on “Rules of Prudence” to all the PAP MPs after an election.  The context each time may be different but the subject remains constant, because integrity, honesty and incorruptibility are fundamental to our Party.  We must never tire of reminding ourselves of their importance.

2.        Our Party has won 83 out of 89 seats in the just concluded General Election, with all seats contested. Overall, the PAP won 69.9% of the votes.

3.        The people have endorsed what we have done in the previous term, and given us a clear mandate to take Singapore forward beyond SG50.  Now we must fulfil what we have promised to do in our manifesto. We must never break faith with the people, but must always carry out our duties to them responsibly, address their worries and advance their interests.

4.        Be humble in victory. As MPs, always remember we are servants of the people, not masters. Do not mistake the strong election result to mean that our efforts have succeeded, and that we can afford to slacken. Much work remains to be done tackling issues which concern Singaporeans, and finding new ways to improve people’s lives. Listen hard to voter concerns, help them to tackle pressing needs, and convey their worries and aspirations to the Government. Persuade them to support policies which are in their own long term benefit, while helping the Government to formulate good policies and stay in close touch with the people.

UPHOLDING OUR REPUTATION AND INTEGRITY

5.        One vital factor that has enabled the PAP to retain the trust of Singaporeans all these years is honesty and integrity. The PAP’s reputation for clean, incorruptible government is one of our most precious assets. As PAP MPs, your personal standing reflects this high standing of the Party as a whole. I cannot stress strongly enough that every MP must uphold the rigorous standards that we have set for ourselves, and do nothing to compromise them. Never give cause for allegations that you are misusing your position, especially your access to Ministers.  That would discredit both you and the Party.

6.        As MPs, you will come across many different sorts of people. Many altruistic, public spirited individuals will help you without wanting anything in return, spending time and money to get community projects going and to serve residents. But a few will cultivate you to obtain benefits for them-selves or their companies, to gain respectability by association with you, or to get you to influence ministries and statutory boards to make decisions in their favour. Gift hampers on festive occasions, entertainment, and personal favours big and small are just a few of countless social lubricants which such people use to ingratiate themselves to MPs and make you obligated to them.

7.        You must distinguish between these two groups of people, and be shrewd in assessing the motives of those who seek to get close to you. At all times be seen to be beyond the influence of gifts or favours.

8.        Be scrupulously proper in your contacts with government departments or public officers.  Do not lobby any ministry or statutory board on behalf of anyone who is not your constituent or grassroots activist.  Do not raise matters with public officers on behalf of friends, clients, contractors, employers, or financiers to advance their business interests.  Conduct business with government agencies in writing and avoid making telephone requests.  If you have to speak, follow up in writing to put your requests on record.

9.        MPs are often approached by friends, grassroots leaders or proprietors and businessmen to officiate at the openings of their new shops or other business events. They usually offer a gesture, such as a donation to a charity or constituency welfare fund. Though it may be awkward to refuse such requests, once you accept one, you will be hard-pressed to draw a line. As a rule, you should decline invitations to such business events. If you feel you should attend, please obtain prior approval from the Whip.

SEPARATING BUSINESS AND POLITICS

10.      Separate your public political position from your private, professional or business interests.  MPs who are in business, who occupy senior management positions in companies, or who sit on company boards should be especially vigilant.  You must not exploit your public position as Government MPs, your close contacts with the Ministers, or your access to government departments and civil servants, for your personal interest or the benefit of your employers.  Your conduct must always be above board.

11.      MPs who are employed by companies or industry associations may at times have to make public statements on behalf of their company or industry association.  If you have to do so, make it clear that you are not speaking as an MP, but in your private, professional or business capacity.

12.      Do not use Parliamentary questions as a means to lobby the Government on behalf of your businesses or clients. When you raise questions in Parliament related to your own businesses or your clients, be careful to first declare your pecuniary interest in the issue.

13.      You may, however, speak freely to Cabinet Ministers, who are your Parliamentary colleagues.  Ministers will listen carefully to arguments on principles, especially when they relate to the general policy of their Ministries.  But Ministers will not exercise their discretion to change individual decisions without very good reasons which they can justify publicly.  Parliamentary Secretaries and Ministers of State who intervene in their Ministries to reverse or alter decisions should promptly report the matter to their Ministers to protect themselves against possible accusations of misconduct.  The Government must always base decisions on the merits of the issues, and cannot yield to pressure from interested parties.

DIRECTORSHIPS

14.      MPs are often invited to serve on the Boards of private and publicly listed companies.  This is a sign that the private sector values PAP MPs’ integrity and experience, and reflects the high standing of the Party and of PAP MPs in general.  The Party permits MPs to serve as directors, provided you keep your private and public responsibilities rigorously separate, and your private appointments do not compromise your duties and performance as an MP.

15.      The public will closely scrutinise your involvement in companies, because you are a PAP MP.  Conduct your business activities so as to bring credit to yourself and to the Party.  Adverse publicity on your performance as a director, or lapses in the companies you are associated with, will tarnish your reputation as an MP and lower the public’s regard for the Party.

16.      You should not solicit for Directorships in any companies, lest you appear to be exploiting your political position to benefit yourself.

17.      You should not accept directorships where your role is just to dress up the board with a PAP MP or two, in order to make the company look more respectable.

18.      Some grassroots leaders are businessmen who own or manage companies.  You should not sit on any boards of companies owned or chaired by grassroots leaders appointed by you, so as to avoid the perception that you are obligated to them or advancing their business interests.

19.      If you are offered a Directorship, you have to decide for yourself whether to accept.  The Party is not in a position to vet or approve such decisions.

20.      Before accepting, consider the possible impact of the Directorship on your political life.  Ensure that the company understands that you are doing so strictly in your private capacity, and will not use your public position to champion the interests of the company, or lobby the government on its behalf.

21.      Make every effort to familiarise yourself with the business, track record and background of the key promoters of the company.  Satisfy yourself that the company is reputable, and that you are able to make a meaningful contribution.  Specifically, just like anyone else contemplating a Directorship, you should ask yourself:

a.         How well do you know the company, its business strategy, financial status, shareholding structure and the underlying industry?

b.        Do you know your fellow directors, the way the Board and its committees fulfil their responsibilities, the reporting structure between Board and Management and the relationship between shareholders and the company?

c.         Do you have sufficient industry, financial or professional expertise to fulfil your expected role and responsibilities as a Director?  Do you understand your obligations under the law and the Code of Corporate Governance?  Will you be able to discharge your fiduciary duties properly and without fear or favour?

d.        Will you face any conflicts of interest, and if so can you manage them? If in any doubt, you should decline.

22.      Once you have decided to take up a Directorship, please inform the Whip. Detailed reporting requirements are listed in the Annex.

PARLIAMENT

23.      MPs are expected to attend all sittings of Parliament.  If you have to be absent from any sitting, seek permission from the Government Whip.  Please inform the Whip if you have to leave the Parliament premises while a sitting is on.

24.      If you travel abroad, or need to be absent from Parliament for any reason, you must apply to the Speaker for leave, with copies to the Leader of the House and the Government Whip.  You should also inform the Whip where you can be reached while abroad.

25.      I have asked the Speaker to give all MPs, particularly new MPs, ample opportunity and latitude to speak in Parliament.  Your first opportunity will be during the debate on the President’s Address at the opening of Parliament in January 2016.  Following that, at the Budget Debate, all MPs should speak up.  Script your speeches or put your key points in note form to structure your presentation and help the media.

26.      The public expects PAP MPs to express their views frankly, whether for or against Government policies. During debates, speak freely and with conviction.  Press your points vigorously, and do not shy away from robust debate.  However, please exercise judgement when putting your points across, and do not get carried away playing to the gallery.

27.      Bring out questions and issues that Singaporeans and your constituents have concerns about, and grapevine talk for the Government to rebut, but avoid unwittingly lending credence to baseless gossip. This will show that you and the Party are in touch with the ground, and speaking up for Singaporeans. Bringing up pertinent issues and questions in a timely manner helps ministers to put across the facts, explain the reasons for policies and decisions, and maintain public confidence in the openness and integrity of our actions.

28.      Your honest, informed views are an important political input to Ministers when they formulate and review policies. Ministers will accept valid, constructive suggestions, but they have to challenge inaccurate or mistaken views. Over time, the public will see that PAP backbenchers are as effective as opposition MPs, if not better, at holding ministers to account, getting issues fully debated, and influencing policies for the better.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC OCCASIONS

29.      On certain occasions, like the National Day Parade and the Investiture Ceremony for National Day Awards, the whole Establishment, i.e. the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary, will be there.  Those who cannot attend must have very good reasons.  Those who have accepted the invitation must attend, otherwise they leave empty seats, which does no credit to them or to the Party.

30.      At all public functions and constituency events, punctuality is of paramount importance.

GIFTS

31.      You should not accept gifts which might place you under obligations which conflict with your public duties. If you receive any gifts other than from close personal friends or relatives, you must declare them to the Clerk of Parliament who will have the gifts valued.  If you wish to keep the gifts, you must pay the Government for them at the valuation price.

FUND-RAISING

32.      Party Branches should not raise funds on their own without permission, for example by soliciting advertisements for a souvenir magazine or a carnival.  If you intend to raise funds, please clear it beforehand with the Organising Secretary.  When your branch embarks on a collective fund-raising activity, e.g. a Family Day or Walk-A-Jog, you must follow the rules strictly.

FINANCIAL PRUDENCE

33.      As MPs, you should manage your personal financial affairs prudently. Do not over-extend yourself or become financially embarrassed. This would be not only a potential source of personal embarrassment, but also a weakness which may expose you to pressure or blackmail.

34.      In particular, be careful about making major financial commitments assuming that you will continue to receive your MP’s allowance.  While MPs typically serve several terms, you cannot assume that you will automatically be fielded in future General Elections, or that if fielded you will definitely be re-elected.  There is neither tenure nor job security in politics.

DECLARATION OF INCOME

35.      For your own protection, every MP should disclose to me, in confidence, your business and professional interests, your present employment and monthly pay, all retainers and fees that you are receiving, and whether your job requires you to get in touch with officers of Government Ministries or statutory boards on behalf of employers or clients.  Office holders need not do so because you will be subject to the reporting requirements of the Code of Conduct for ministers. This should be done by 31 October 2015.

GENERAL BEHAVIOUR

36.      The PAP has held our position in successive elections because our integrity has never been in doubt, and because we are sensitive to the views and attitudes of the people we represent.  MPs must always uphold the high standards of the Party and not have lifestyles or personal conduct which will embarrass themselves and the Party.  Any slackening of standards, or show of arrogance or indifference by any MP, will erode confidence in him, and ultimately in the Party and Government.  New MPs can pick up the dos and don’ts from older MPs.  You should conduct yourselves always with modesty, decorum and dignity, particularly in the media. You must win respect, not popularity, to stay the course.

MEDIA PUBLICITY

37.      I am releasing a copy of this letter to the media so that the public knows the high standards we demand of our MPs.

LEE HSIEN LOONG

cc: Government Whip

“Democracy Kills: What’s So Good About Having the Vote?”

Sinar Pagi Nasi Padang, 13 Circular Road, SingaporeLunch at Sinar Pagi Nasi Padang (13 Circular Road) and we were talking politics loudly enough that neighbouring tables, who were discussing swaps and bonds when we sat down, had started to listen in.

Somewhere along the line I mentioned that I’d been reading Humphrey Hawksley‘s Democracy Kills: what’s so good about having the vote?

Rather than a tightly-woven argument with stats, Hawksley had chosen a more emotive approach with stacks of personal narratives. As one might surmise from its title, the leitmotif of book, as we travel from Africa to the Middle East and the Islamic world, to South Asia, to Latin America, to South East Asia, to Europe, is skepticism about the benefits of democracy.

We read about West-imposed elections in Africa ending with catastrophic consequences when would-be dictators took advantage of the weakness of fledgling political institutions to sweep into power.

We are brought to the Middle East where the relevance of elections is questioned in a society where power is commonly shared according to birthright and candidates are manifestations of societal (tribal) faultlines. And we are shown how wrong Condoleezza Rice is in alleging that dictatorships caused terror, so democracy would end it. Violence erupted whenever a Western power came along to overthrow a dictator, leaving a vacuum of power for various factions to fight over.

etc.

tauhu telor, Sinar Pagi Nasi Padang, 13 Circular Road, SingaporeDemocracy is not the panacea that the West (mostly, America) touts it is. Hawksley repeatedly suggests that American involvement in various countries is a fig leaf – it is about protecting U.S. interests and installing leaders they think will be friendly to them, rather than the welfare of the locals. Hence, the inconsistency in their labelling the democratically-elected Hamas as terrorists. Hawksley then contrasts the poverty and instability of suddenly-manufactured democracies with the prosperity and stability of monarch-ruled Dubai or authoritarian Singapore.

The oft-quoted dictum of Winston Churchill (from his speech in the House of Commons, 11 November 1947):

Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…

has just as often been forgotten. But, in any case, says Hawksley, it’s not enough just to observe this fact. More needs to be done:

  • educate the electorate: create a generation of people who can think calmly and critically, and reason well – something greatly hampered by sanctions on books
  • allow time for electoral candidates to make themselves known to the locals and not just be handpicked by eg. the Americans in Iraq, mentor them so they understand what the democratic system entails and know how not to be a bad loser
  • ensure proper planning for the future – it’s not just enough to plot to get rid of a dictator without a plan for how to run the country thereafter

a diet of yoghurt and muesli and political theory for breakfastWell, said AH, other than the absolute perfect rule of Christ over all (see, eg. Ephesians 1), perhaps the best form of government is the benevolent dictator. I suppose that’s just as feasible in this fallen world as a completely unselfish community-centred rational electorate.

The Day After Polling Day for the Singapore General Elections 2015

If we hadn’t stayed up to hear the results of the Singapore General Elections 2015, we’d have awoken this morning to the news that the People’s Action Party carried 83 of the 89 parliamentary seats. For the first time since Singapore’s independence in 1965, all parliamentary seats had been contested.

(I write this as someone how hasn’t paid much attention to politics until very recently, and am certainly not a supporter of any particular political party.)

SingFirst's Tan Jee Say on Channel NewsAsia SingaporeThere’s been much shock, anger, and bitterness at the results from those who were sure that the opposition parties would win big, based on the strength and volume of anti-PAP views online on social media, the massive crowds at Workers’ Party rallies, the complaints of their golfing buddies, etc. Some are in mourning:

wkNow there could be several reasons why sentiment was not an accurate predictor of the final outcome:

  • sample size issues: confirmation bias, echo-chamber effect of social media and search engine algorithms
  • disparity between speech and actions: perhaps it’s not so much the “silent majority”; they could in fact have been very vocal. But there is a difference between looking at the roadshows and experiencing the atmosphere at rallies, and agreeing with their disgruntled chums at coffeeshops…and making a secret private choice after Cooling-Off Day.
    This should not be too much of a surprise. In a sense, human decision-making is similar whether in relation to purchasing something or casting a vote. Alexander Osterwalder had this advice for entrepreneurs:
    “Once you have an idea of those customer jobs, pains, and gains you don’t want to rest until you’ve tested if what you’ve learned from talking to customers is actually real. Actions speak louder than words. There is a big difference between what people say and what they do. People might tell you they are excited about your new product, but when they are in a buying situation their behaviour might be totally different.”

Singapore General Elections: Polling Station tape in void deckWhat is quite disrespectful of both nation and one’s fellow countrymen are the following accusations:

alleging that the elections are invalid for not being free and fair:

    • that the polls were rigged

      Really highly unlikely since the fortunes of the PAP have gone up and precariously down since independence.

      Also, the procedure for the counting of votes is meticulous in its eagerness to ensure that there is no ballot-stuffing (by having serial numbers, which many mistake for a device for keeping track of people’s votes), no tampering with ballot papers, no inaccurate counting. See the Counting of Votes section of the Candidate’s Handbook for Parliamentary Election 2015, and the testimonies from people from all persuasions and parties who were involved in the process.

In relation to the secrecy of votes:

alleging that the outcome of democratic elections is not democratic:

  • that it is undemocratic to have a dominant party in parliament

    No it is not if that’s exactly what the people chose. And the converse would be true if a certain amount of seats had to be left to a certain party, regardless of what the electorate wanted.

alleging that the opposition was not able to communicate effectively with the public:

    • that the PAP controls the mainstream media, that the electorate is brain-washed
    • that it is because of all the fear-mongering
    • that the people who voted for the PAP believed falsehoods, didn’t do their due diligence

      Hardly, since the victorious opposition were lauding the “democratic” role of social media as a platform for alternative voices to be heard in 2011. Also, anyone on social media could not have hidden from the fact that the opposition was heard loud and clear on Facebook, on Youtube, in blogposts etc. Plus, the crowds at WP rallies?

      Being affected by fear-mongering, believing in falsehoods, and lack of due diligence, I think, are regrettably accusations that would be true of voters of every political party.

claiming that some fellow citizens should not have an equal voice:

  • that, see this confirms my xenophobia, it is the new citizens’ fault
  • that it is because of all the old people voting

    Erm, the democratic process means at least that every citizen gets an equal vote – including the elderly, and the wet-behind-the-ears-only-know-how-to-Candy-Crush, and the annoying neighbour, and your boss, and your subordinates, and your kopi uncle, and your CEO, and the people who don’t agree with you etc.

    Since our votes are secret, there is no evidence that new citizens do in fact vote for the PAP. But, it would not be an illogical assumption. To uproot from one’s homeland and migrate here must mean that Singapore is far better than wherever they’ve come from. Perhaps that should make us look at our country again with new eyes, new gratitude for our fortunate lot – be it security, opportunity, affordability of living, etc.

    I know that when I returned to Singapore after travelling quite a bit, I was absolutely shocked by the whiney-ness of Singaporeans. MRT trains breakdown for a few minutes, or even a few hours, and everyone is up in arms. If you lived in London for a week, a month, your planned journeys (sometimes to the airport!) would be foiled by the underground not working because of: signal failure (probably every day), person under a train (typically at peak hour), engineering works (almost every weekend), it being too hot in the summer, leaves on the track in autumn, it being too cold in winter.

Singapore General Elections: Polling Station tape in void deckAnd some are just too pessimistic. I don’t see why this is the end of the world.

  1. Assume the best of the people who have been given the “strong mandate” to govern. Until proven otherwise, trust that when they say they are humbled by the people’s choice, they do really want to serve the common good.
  2. If this is so, then raise your concerns in a reasonable manner with the party that will form the government, and work with them. If you are truly concerned about social justice (whatever that means for you), for the poor, the outcast, the elderly, the underprivileged, the disadvantaged, then you should not be concerned about political power, or partisanship, but will work with anyone to help your just cause/these people. Understand of course, that ministers and MPs would already have a lot on their plate and that there will be many voices vying for their attention. So make it easier by being persistent, by not throwing a tantrum if they appear not to have heard you the first few times, by presenting evidence for the problem and some constructive suggestions for solving the problem. These solutions should also assess the impact of carrying them out on the rights, responsibility, wants, needs of other interest groups in society.
  3. If you were merely hoping to vote in someone who would do all this work for you, don’t outsource. Roll up your sleeves and get to work. Start small initiatives. If you are concerned that people coming out of prison might have difficulty getting jobs, use social media for good instead of complaining: gather a group of businesses who would be willing to help them get back on their feet, find places that will allow them to stay for cheap and enjoy the company of others, collect old office clothes so they have something to wear to interviews etc.

Lee Hsien Loong being carried by supporters after victory in the Singapore General Elections 2015If this sounds at all pro-PAP, it isn’t meant to be. Rather, it is the acknowledgement that this is the political party now in power. Since they have been elected by due process (and even if they haven’t been!), we are obliged to give the authorities due respect. And this should be especially so for those who consider themselves God-fearers. For:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honour to whom honour is owed. (Romans 13:1-7)

and

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honour everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13-17)

Before bemoaning the “oppressive authoritarian regime” Singapore is under as a get-out clause, remember that Paul and Peter were writing to Christians under hostile Roman rule. And this requirement to respect the authorities is not because they are any better than or more superior to anyone else, but because it acknowledges the God who has put them in their high position.

Remember what King Nebuchanezzar and King Belshazzar of Babylon had to learn, even while they had God’s people, the Israelites, in exile, and had their temple destroyed:

the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men (Daniel 4:17)

the Most High God rules the kingdom of mankind and sets over it whom he will (Daniel 5:21)

The Myth of the Rational Voter – Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies

Dipping into Facebook this last week has been repulsive. The thinly-veiled vitriol from all sides on so-called hot-potato issues like the AHPETC accounts and CPF.

Most annoying of course, is people button-holing you after church or at lunch to talk politics. But when asked to explain their anger about current policies or hostility towards the incumbent governing party (the People’s Action Party), they repeat rather selfish complaints (eg. I want money and I want it now) without any constructive alternative solution to the stated problem (probable failure to save for housing and retirement).

And just asking for more substantial views then gets you the accusatory finger of “oooohhh, someone’s pro-PAP”.

[In the spirit of “no link lei”, here are some gratuitous photos of food.]

hawker centre, Lorong 8 Toa PayohSo it’s Cooling Off Day. One day to think rationally about the choices we are to make at the ballot boxes for the Singapore General Elections 2015 tomorrow.

Amidst the thick haze, there is a cacophony of noise – and it sounds just like lemmings running at full tilt, blinded by biases:

anti-government, anti-authority bias

  • we are unhappy. Therefore, something, or everything!, about the government is making us unhappy.
  • we don’t have the power the government has. Therefore, they are oppressing us and we are marginalised (or we will find people who look like they are victims – single mothers, singles, self-identified LGBT, minority races, low wage earners). They are arrogant and out-of-touch, we are the people who really know what’s going on.

We find it easy to love those who are worse-off than us; who, conspicuously, have less power or money. For no substantial reason, they seem more authentic.

This is why José Mujica, the last president of Uruguay, acquired some international fame as the “world’s poorest president”. His austerity has been an inspiration to a world so engorged with possessions that “de-cluttering” is one of the newest fads. But governing a country requires more than that. New Republic tried to find out if he actually improved the lives of the Uruguayans, and discovered some disappointment. So Eve Fairbanks reflects, philosophically:

It’s a pattern: We keep creating saviors whom we expect to single- handedly restore lost values. Then we lash out at them when they inevitably fall short…

We’re searching for the one figure who can break the binds. We want someone simply different enough to plot a new direction for a world that often feels full of deadly momentum toward existential decay and harder to steer than the hurtling Titanic.

Because actual experience tends to reveal the limits of candidates’ power, we’re also drawn to heroes with less and less experience, blank slates onto which we can project our fantasies for change.

And what about Aung San Suu Kyi, once the icon for a liberal marketing basket of peaceful demonstrations, democracy, human rights, progressiveness etc? Now that she’s got some political power, the junta smirk as she too has been coming under fire – in the last few years, for her silence about the plight of the Muslim Rohingya in West Burma. Her halo has slipped, tarnished, said some. She’s acting just like a “any other politician: single-mindedly pursuing an agenda, making expedient decisions with one eye on electoral politics, the other on kingmakers in Naypyidaw and the domestic political economy”, say others. Oh and why not just accuse her of bad faith and say she’s “taken advantage of the perception of her as an unerring statesman and humanitarian and chosen to collude with tyranny against the people who need her most”.

Mellben Seafood, Lorong 8 Toa Payoh

In his book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan states four other major biases that affect the electorate’s rationality and critical thinking faculties. Courtesy of The Economist:

  • anti-market bias

People don’t understand that the pursuit of private profits often yields public benefits. There is the tendency to underestimate the benefits of the market economy.

Most people fancy themselves to be victims of the market to be preyed on by corporations (the “greedy monopolists”), rather than as they really are – participants in the market.

When asked why petrol prices have risen, the public mostly blames the greed of oil firms. Yet economists nearly all attribute it to the law of supply and demand. If petrol prices rise because oil firms want higher profits, why would they sometimes fall?

  • anti-foreign bias

People underestimate the benefits of interactions with foreigners. They tend to see foreigners as the enemies.

“Most Americans think the economy is seriously damaged by companies sending jobs overseas. Few economists do. People understand that the local hardware store will sell them a better, cheaper hammer than they can make for themselves. Yet they are squeamish about trade with foreigners, and even more so about foreigners who enter their country to do jobs they spurn. Hence the reluctance of Democratic presidential candidates to defend free trade, even when they know it will make most voters better off, and the reluctance of their Republican counterparts to defend George Bush’s liberal line on immigration.”

black pepper crab, Mellben Seafood, Lorong 8 Toa Payoh

    • make-work bias

People equate prosperity with employment rather than production.

“The make-work bias is best illustrated by a story, perhaps apocryphal, of an economist who visits China under Mao Zedong. He sees hundreds of workers building a dam with shovels. He asks: “Why don’t they use a mechanical digger?” “That would put people out of work,” replies the foreman. “Oh,” says the economist, “I thought you were making a dam. If it’s jobs you want, take away their shovels and give them spoons.” For an individual, the make-work bias makes some sense. He prospers if he has a job, and may lose his health insurance if he is laid off. For the nation as a whole, however, what matters is not whether people have jobs, but how they do them. The more people produce, the greater the general prosperity. It helps, therefore, if people shift from less productive occupations to more productive ones. Economists, recalling that before the industrial revolution 95% of Americans were farmers, worry far less about downsizing than ordinary people do. Politicians, however, follow the lead of ordinary people. Hence, to take a more frivolous example, Oregon’s ban on self-service petrol stations.”

    • bias towards pessimism

People tend to think economic conditions are worse than they are.

“The public’s pessimism is evident in its belief that most new jobs tend to be low-paying, that our children will be worse off than we are and that society is going to hell in a variety of ways. Economists, despite their dismal reputation, tend to be cheerier. Politicians have to strike a balance. They often find it useful to inflame public fears, but they have to sound confident that things will get better if they are elected.”

hawker centre, Lorong 8 Toa PayohAnd what does this all translate to at the ballot boxes on polling day?

Caplan says:

“Since delusional political beliefs are free [ie. cost them nothing], the voter consumes until he reaches his “satiation point,” believing whatever makes him feel best. When a person puts on his voting hat, he does not have to give up practical efficacy in exchange for self-image, because he has no practical efficacy to give up in the first place.”

“The same people who practice intellectual self-discipline when they figure out how to commute to work, repair a car, buy a house, or land a job “let themselves go” when they contemplate the effects of protectionism, gun control, or pharmaceutical regulation.”

Is a democracy (however defined) better than an authoritarian regime? Is living under an elected government better than being ruled by a sovereign?

At the end of the day, one thing is clear – we are all sinful people (voters, politicians, government types, rebels) who must try to regulate our societies the best we can under the circumstances of this fallen world. But even in the midst of the frustration of it all, we look forward to a day when the whole world will be ruled by Jesus who is God himself, who is perfectly just, perfectly loving, and perfectly wise, and to whom we can submit wholeheartedly.

hawker centre, Lorong 8 Toa Payoh

The Myth of Democracy As Perfection?

So it’s time for the Singapore General Elections 2015. Nomination Day was 1 September 2015 and since then, posters, illegal stickers, billboards, Facebook posts have be sprouting like mould on a wet book in the tropical humidity.

Heading home one day, I came upon a sizeable crowd heading to a Hougang field. A Workers’ Party rally was on:

Singapore General Elections 2015: Workers Party Rally in HougangIt doesn’t take long to observe how the concept of “democracy” is thrown around freely, without any attempt to define what it means.

To my shame, I’ve never really thought much about politics, much less democracy, until returning to Singapore. If someone’d asked what form of government I thought to be the best, I would have unequivocally replied “democractic”. Clumpy thinking on my part – democracy = human rights = freedom = civilised = good.

So thought I’d better have a read around to see what it was all about. Going to very messily dump thoughts here:

(1) definition of democracy

(2) use of democratic over the course of human history (akan datang)

(3) touted benefits of democracy as system of government of a people (akan datang)

(4) what is necessary for a successful democratic process

Singapore General Elections 2015: Workers Party Rally in Hougang Singapore General Elections 2015: Workers Party Rally in Hougang

(1) Definition of Democracy

This actually a hard one! Other than the lowest common denominator of voting in the government, Roger Osborne says in Of the People By the People – A New History of Democracy:

  • “when we try to pin down exactly what democracy is, we find ourselves chasing rainbows. The problem is that everytime we get near to a definition, or compile a list of conditions that any democracy must fulfil, we find examples of fully functioning democracies that do not comply, or of societies that are not regarded as democratic but nevertheless fulfil some of the criteria” [Comment: wait, but then by what criteria is a society defined as “fully functioning democracy” and “not regarded as democratic”?]
  • “Our story shows that democracies exist at different times, but democracy does not necessarily improve over time.”
  • “However imperfectly, democracy attempts to solve the great dilemma of human life: how to flourish as an individual while existing as part of a community?”

Singapore General Elections 2015

(4) what is necessary for a successful democratic process
Mortimer Adler in How to Read a Book mentions the need for (i) minds that can read well, that have their analytical and critical powers developed; (ii) people who can communicate and discuss matters intelligently, who aim to persuade by reason rather than by force:
“One of his motives in starting the Honors course was to revive college life as an intellectual community. If a group of students read the same books and met weekly for two years to discuss them, they might find a new sort of fellowship. The great books would not only initiate them into the world of ideas but would provide the frame of reference for further communication among them. They would know how to talk intelligently and intelligibly to one another, not only about the books, but through the books about all the problems which engage men’s thought and action.

In such a community, Erskine said, democracy would be safe, for democracy requires intelligent communication about and common participation in the solution of human problems. That was before anyone thought that democracy would ever again be threatened. As I remember, we did not pay much attention to Erskine’s insight at the time. But he was right. I am sure of it now. I am sure that a liberal education is democracy’s strongest bulwark.”

“The mind which is trained to read well has its analytical and critical powers developed.”

“The mind which is trained to discuss well has them further sharpened. One acquires a tolerance for arguments through dealing with them patiently and sympathetically. The animal impulse to impose our opinions upon others is thus checked. We learn that the only authority is reason itself—the only arbiters in any dispute are the reasons and evidences. We do not try to gain ascendancy by a show of force or by counting the noses of those who agree with us. Genuine issues cannot be decided by the mere weight of opinion. We must appeal to reason, not depend on pressure groups.”

“We all want to learn to think straight. A great book may help us by the examples it affords of penetrating insight and cogent analysis. A good discussion may give further support by catching us when we are thinking crooked. If our friends do not let us get away with it, we may soon learn that sloppy thinking, like murder, will always out. Embarrassment may reduce us to making an effort we had never supposed was within our power. Unless reading and discussion enforce these demands for straight and clear thinking, most of us go through life with an amazingly false confidence in our perceptions and judgments. We think badly most of the time and, what is worse, we do not know it because we are seldom found out.

Those who can read well, listen and talk well, have disciplined minds. Discipline is indispensable for a free use of our powers. The man who has not the knack of doing something gets tied up in knots when he tries to perform. The discipline which comes from skill is necessary for facility. How far can you go in discussing a book with someone who does not know how to read or talk about it? How far can you get in your own reading without a trained ability?

Discipline, as I have said before, is a source of freedom. Only a trained intelligence can think freely. And where there is no freedom in thinking, there can be no freedom of thought. Without free minds, we cannot long remain free men.”

Singapore General Elections 2015: Workers Party Rally in Hougang“They have experienced the pleasure of talking about serious problems intelligently. They do not exchange opinions as they would the time of day. Discussion has become responsible. A man must support what he says. Ideas have connections with one another and with the world of everyday affairs. They have learned to judge propositions and arguments by their intelligibility and relevance.

Where men lack the arts of communication, intelligent discussion must languish. Where there is no mastery of the medium for exchanging ideas, ideas cease to play a part in human life. When that happens, men are little better than the brutes they dominate by force or cunning, and they will soon try to dominate each other in the same way.

The loss of freedom follows. When men cannot live together as friends, when a whole society is not built on a real community of understanding, freedom cannot flourish. We can live freely only with our friends. With all others, we are constantly oppressed by every sort of dread, and checked in every movement by suspicion.

Preserving freedom, for ourselves and our posterity, is one of our major concerns today. A proper respect for liberty is the heart of sound liberalism. But I cannot help wondering whether our liberalism is sound. We do not seem to know the origins of liberty or its ends. We cry out for all sorts of liberty—freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly—but we do not seem to realize that freedom of thought is the basis for all these others. Without it, freedom of speech is an empty privilege, and a free conscience nothing but a private prejudice. Without it, our civil liberties can be exercised only in a pro forma way, and we are unlikely to retain them long if we do not know how to use them well.”

“…in his recent commentary on American democracy, called Of Human Fredom, Jacques Barzun cautions us not to be misled by the boast that we have the most literate population in the world. “Literacy in this sense is not education; it is not even ‘knowing how to read’ in the sense of taking in quickly and correctly the message of the printed page, to say nothing of exercising a critical judgement upon it.”

Techniques of communication, which make for literacy, are our first obligation, and more so in a democracy than in any other kind of society, because it depends on a literate electorate.

Slighting the three R’s in the beginning, and neglecting the liberal arts almost entirely at the end, our present education is essentially illiberal. It indoctrinates rather than disciplines and educates. Our students are indoctrinated with all sorts of local prejudices and predigested pap. They have been fattened and made flabby for the demagogues to prey upon. Their resistance to specious authority, which is nothing but pressure of opinion, has been lowered. They will even swallow the insidious propaganda in the headlines of some local newspapers.

Even when the doctrines they impose are sound democratic ones, the schools fails to cultivate free judgement because they have forsaken discipline. They leave their students open to opposite indoctrination by more powerful orators or, what is worse, to the sway of their own worst passions.

Ours is a demagogic rather than a democratic education. The student who has not learned to think critically, who has not come to respect reason as they only arbiter of truth in human generalizations, who has not been lifted out of the blind alleys of local jargons and shibboleths, will not be saved by the orator of the classroom from later succumbing to the orator of the platform and the press.

To be saved, we must follow the precept of the Book Common Prayer: “Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.”

The Brits are Back to the Ballot Boxes

Today, the Brits go to the polls.

Friends back there have posted some links to useful material on the relationship between Christians and politics. Just bookmarking them here for future reference:

Faith at the Ballot Box, Johnny Monro and Thomas Creedy

“For the Bible Tells Me So” – Evangelical Faith and the Complexities of Secular Political Engagement, Thomas Creedy

Theos – politics

Democracy – What does the Bible have to say about engaging with politics?