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 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.”