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.

Advertisements

“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 Sharing Economy, Collaborative Economy, “Gig” Employment

Paddy Hills, 38 South Buona Vista Road
Cafe-hopping, I was told, by various people and oft, when I arrived in Singapore, was totally the thing right now. It leveraged on synergies:

  • people wanting some content for Instagram
  • cafes ensuring their food was instagrammable, but at a cost
  • people banding together and pooling resources to ensure a much lower overhead cost for each enviable instagram-shot

The sharing economy or collaborative economy goes further than the mere cobbling together of resources. And the companies that have made the greatest gains don’t even start with much:

Uber – the world’s largest taxi company, yet owns no vehicles

Airbnb – the world’s largest accommodation-provider, yet owns no property

Alibaba – the world’s most valuable retailer, yet owns no inventory

Facebook – the world’s most popular media owner, yet creates no content

These sharing platforms have been hailed by many as representative of the new dawn of socialism. The idea isn’t new of course – Napster was nabbed for that a few years ago. And before that, the people in Acts “held everything in common”.

So this is libraries and hitchhikers, on steroids, built on the necessary foundation of “the internets”.

flat white coffee, Paddy Hills, 38 South Buona Vista RoadWhat are the benefits of such peer-to-peer transactions?

  • transparent utility
  • transparent allocation of benefits
  • lowers inefficiencies in the market – through capital-sharing (Airbnb, Relayrides, Zilok), labour-matchmaking (Uber, Lyft, DogVacay, Taskrabbit,) person-to-person marketplace platforms (Alibaba)
  • better for community? more emphasis on social capital – the return to pre-industrial relationship (albeit in a very artificial superficial way) and the creation of trust relationships
  • more personal interest in behaving well, providing good service?
  • participation x choice x social justice? because the cost of use falls
  • if “sharing is the new buying“, there will be less demand for new products, and less strain on the world’s resources (as the environmentalist spiel goes)

Paddy Hills, 38 South Buona Vista Road
What are some concerns?

  • easy for these large corporates to flout laws much like the traditional big companies of old, except this time, they bypass the usual democratic process by appealing to their consumer-following to pressurise regulators into capitulating on laws, effectively nullifying the electoral/legislative process.
  • making business out of not being responsible – the companies running these platforms don’t bother with legislation meant to protect employees (from overwork, from discrimination, from exploitation, to ensure they are properly insured, etc); they don’t bother with consumer rights;
  • while marketing solidarity and saving liberal consumers a few pennies, what allegedly happens is that the rich get richer by shirking taxes (that are a mechanism, amongst other things, for the re-distribution of wealth).

Paddy Hills, 38 South Buona Vista RoadIt is with some amusement that one realises how similar the dangers of a (neo)liberals’ dream economy is to criticisms of liberalism in the political arena. This fetishised dream of freedom from “burdensome” laws! and “oppressive” authorities! and “overbearing” commitments! forgets that laws and authorities are meant to protect the weak, and commitments ensure job security (hence the protests against zero-hours contracts).

And if so for human laws and authorities which are inevitably flawed on many levels, what about God’s laws and the lordship of Christ?

Paddy Hills, 38 South Buona Vista RoadBut…I myself work for a gig employment type company that enables me to earn some bread to feed myself, while also part-time unpaid full-time ministry. It distinguishes itself by actually employing people and then seconding them, and it accords them with the usual benefits of healthcare and insurance.

This is a mere thought-in-gestation…I wonder about the efficacy of a collaborative economy or gig employment for Bible teachers. In a city where there are many churches and few good teachers of the Word, would it be possible to have some sort of platform for desperate churches or parachurch organisations to get the services of (be served by) someone well-trained but, as is usual in any monopoly, hasn’t been given the opportunity to make use of that training (because, eg. the pastors-in-power are wary of their better skills in bible-handling, because they don’t show enough loyalty to the pastor to be given a higher profile)? Most preaching/teaching gigs happen now along the lines of old boys’ networks, strengthening existing monopolies, widening inefficiencies that could be used better for the kingdom.

Of course, sovereignty of God…to which one says, ah but human responsibility.

Still, this might be useful in a limited sense: one-off talks or a short training season; it can’t quite replace a long-term pastor/teacher who is committed to loving and caring for his flock, and who is responsible under God for them.

Paddy Hills, 38 South Buona Vista Road

*the cafe in this post is Paddy Hills (38 South Buona Vista Road). They use Tiong Hoe coffee. This flat white was very dark – it tasted like ash on the roof of my mouth. Perhaps an off-day? The berry hotcakes idea was decent (crispy on the edges, fluffy inside), though the original Kettle Black one in Melbourne had the advantage of cream, which, everyone knows, makes everything better.

**update: see also Robert J. Shiller’s article, Faith in an Unregulated Free Market? Don’t Fall For It.

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?