Thursday, August 24, 2006

Dealing with Democratic Legacies

Following is the speech delivered by Workers' Party's Sylvia Lim at the closing dinner of the Academic Conference of the Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations, 21 Aug 2006.

Your Excellencies, President SR Nathan and Ambassador Patricia Herbold, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Recently I spent 3 weeks in the USA on an exchange program. I was joined by 20 colleagues from different countries. As we got to know one another over those weeks, we came to realise that though we were culturally diverse and our countries were at different stages of development, our societies faced issues with common themes.

Many of us came from countries which had been colonized by Britain. During the years of British rule, organs of State and government processes followed British models with some adaptation. Hence, my colleagues and I were able to find similar institutions in our countries and use the same terminology when talking about governance e.g. terms like Parliamentary democracy, Hansard and judicial independence. Though we came from Singapore, Jamaica, Pakistan and Zimbabwe, we understood each other immediately.

The desire for self-determination made our countries seek independence from Britain. However, many of the legacies remain, particularly the public institutions. But the formal institutions tell only half the story. The way these institutions now operate and how the people actually experience them is unique to each country.

Under the British model, Parliamentary democracy installs checks and balances through the separation of powers between the 3 branches of government – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. For the checks to be effective, there are several assumptions made. This evening, I would like to touch on 2 of the assumptions:

First, that the legislature is elected by the people through free and fair elections.
Secondly, that there are rigorous checks on the executive.

Status of Elections

There is a constant battle about how elections can be made more democratic.

At one end of the spectrum, some colleagues of mine had to contend with the very real possibility of being murdered by political opponents and having their homes torched by arsonists. Others lived in dictatorships, where ballots were apparently cast by phantom voters or persons who were already deceased. In some countries, the elections are run by the ruling party. It is not uncommon to see ruling parties use their positions as government to entrench themselves politically. The use of the incumbent’s advantage happens in most countries. It is a question of degree. Nevertheless, these practices are objectionable, as they make voting less free by unfair pressure on voters to resist such inducements.

Even in the First World, the electoral process is not without its problems. During my recent travels in the USA, my colleagues and I detected increasing cynicism among Americans towards the electoral process. It costs a lot these days to run for state or federal office, leading to the common belief that successful candidates are beholden to big sponsors and big business. There is also a real threat of public apathy and disengagement – it seems that there are people would rather go on holiday than vote! If voter turn-out is low, how valid is the winner’s mandate? I wonder what Ambassador Herbold would say if I suggested that voting in the USA be made compulsory.

Checks on the executive

Besides the formal checks by the legislature and the courts, it is clear to most Asians that the prevailing culture of a society greatly impacts how much accountability the executive government gives.

Two key factors of culture come to mind. First, how much information is available in the public domain, and secondly, the role of the mass media in the society.

In many Asian countries, the citizen has access only to information which the executive chooses to disclose. Classifying information is deemed to be the government’s prerogative, with the citizen a passive bystander in the process. There is no equivalent of a Freedom Of Information Act for citizens to compel disclosure, nor is there any automatic time-frame for de-classifying information unlike in the USA. This severely cripples the ability of the citizen to lay his hands on concrete facts to call the government to account.

Besides access to information, the role played by the mass media can be decisive in keeping governments accountable. One need only recall Watergate and the pressures facing the Washington Post editors and journalists as they uncovered the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters in 1972. If such an event were to happen in this region, how far would it be reported? Each Asian country has its own barometer of tolerance of media control. In the case of state-owned media or media which needs to be licensed by the authorities, their latitude to report also depends on how much discretion the authorities have to issue or withhold licences. There are still serious constraints in many Asian countries which lead the mass media to expound the official view disproportionately, leaving their citizens poorer for it.

Thankfully, the advent of new technology has been a driving force for change. The use of the Internet to “leak” information and to disseminate non-official views is now widespread. This serves as a pressure point for the mainstream media to be more balanced to remain credible. The authorities are also responding to Internet criticisms. These are healthy signs.


In conclusion, what I have talked about assumes that building democratic societies are universal goals. Is this true of Asian societies? There have been views expressed by some Asian leaders that Western democracy promotes individualism, which is inconsistent with collectivism and Confucian values. My view is that if democracy embodies citizen participation in public life and in determining the kind of society we have, there is enough scope within it to cater for Asian values. All politicians should face their electorates squarely and seek mandates which are truly democratic. To this extent, democracy has value for all societies.

Thank you.