Saturday, October 13, 2007

What is Democracy? - Asian Perspective

I have actually written a Chinese article on the values of Democratic system which I am holding it back here because I have sent to the Chinese newspaper ZaoBao in response to one of their reporter's question on why I choose to put up my views on blog but not the local media. I am just making a subtle point that blog has its advantages, especially in Singapore's context, that it could carry the message in its complete form without any distortions. I will be posting the original article here on Monday.

Incidentally, not so long ago, someone has emailed me to talk about the "compatibility" between "Asian values" vs "Western" Democracy. It just happens that I have some interests in the late Dr. Sun Yat-Sen's historic struggle in the late 19th century and early 20th century after watching the lengthy Chinese TV series, "Towards Republic".

The most common "theory" that PAP comes up to rationalize its legitimacy in monopolizing power in Singapore is that Western Democracy is "not suitable" for Asian countries. This is a flawed assumption. More than 100 years ago, there was already an Asian intellect that has thought about designing a democratic system that is suitable for Asian largest country, China. That is Dr. Sun Yat Sen.

There are quite a number of studies and commentaries we could find on the net about Dr. Sun's theory of "Separating of the FIVE Powers". However, I prefer to look at Dr. Sun's very own speech in Mandarin to form my own opinion.

Dr. Sun has pointed out an interesting observation: In the Western world, Democratic Reform or revolutions were normally aimed at achieving "Freedom" or "Liberation" from the harsh control of the feudal lords. But in Dr. Sun's struggle, it was a revolution against the corruptions of the Qing administration to set up a Republic government that is based on democratic principles of checks and balances. He recognized the need to curb certain liberty or freedom of the people to avoid anarchist result but at the same time, provide an effective control over the government administration to avoid tyrannic rule due to the power that it holds. Most important of all, it is more of a dream of building a government that is totally responsible towards the interests and welfare of the people.

This is very different from the Western "liberalization" movement that aimed at achieving "freedom". The Western Democratic theory involves separation of powers in various ways. The British system is based on Constitutional Monarch which achieves the aim of separation of power from the Monarch to the parliament which is a representation of "people's power". However, it does not have a clear systematic way of separating powers within the system. The British has experimented a different set of system in Hong Kong before it handed it over to China. Instead of a parliamentary system like the British, it has in fact created an executive arm vs the legislative arm, dividing the powers between the two. Apart of having the Judiciary fiercely independent, it also has the very diverse press as one of the public opinion platform to check on the government. The Legislative Council is elected from a proportionate representation election system couple with "functional group representation" which ensures diverse views of the society are adequately represented.

This is actually the trend of the democratic reforms over the the years. The American democratic system is based on the separation of the three powers: Executive, Legislative and Judiciary. The "fourth power" is always referred to the role of press freedom or rights in exposing flaws of the government of the day. However, technically speaking, the power of impeachment is still embedded within the Congress and Senate instead of being separated out.

Dr. Sun has taken the American's model as a case study for his own research instead of the British system basically because he felt that the basic separation of powers in the British system is very lacking. The Executive and the Legislative powers are mixed as the executive Prime Minister is being selected from the majority party in the legislative parliament.

However, he has extended the concept of separation of powers into FIVE instead of Three which are exhibited by the American model. This concept of Five powers, ironically, is derived from the Chinese feudal systems of the past. In Chinese ancient history, its advanced system of governance is something that has been a model for many other empires. Its system of governance includes the executive powers held by the Emperor, the Imperial court of senior ministers that set laws, the Judiciary department to carry out vetting of court cases, a specially created bureau which has powers of impeachment of court officials and a system of imperial examination which select talents to become court officials.

The only problem with this feudal system is that these five power are being concentrated under the Emperor's court instead of being separated. Technically speaking, the bureau that empowered with impeachment function should be made independent and protected from persecution but this is hardly so in practice.

The idea of including the Examination Power in Dr. Sun's democratic reform is to ensure that the civil service as well as politicians are being examined for their "proficiency". In my view, such examination system may be good to ensure the civil service is being staffed with quality people, but it will hinder universal suffrage of politicians based on the electoral process. It would mean that candidates have to be "screened" by whatever means before they are eligible to be elected by the people as their representatives. Such system will actually end up with a congress or parliament filled with elites which may not fully represent the whole spectrum of the societies. Elitist system with elitist legislative representatives will end up with a disconnected power from the ground.

Thus instead, I think the Power of Examination Power should only apply to civil servants selection process while for the electoral process, we need an independent Election department to ensure that gerrymandering is being used as a means by individuals or political parties to entrench their monopoly of power.

In fact, I would advocate a electoral system that is based on proportionate representation which could avoid the tyranny of majority rule. Only such system would promote all round inclusive governance. Democracy is not merely about "majority rule". Such thinking is one of the most crude primitive understanding of Democracy. Many of the advanced Democracy in Europe has shifted to proportionate representation system to ensure that there is sufficient checks and balances within the political system and decisions are made through real consensus making that is inclusive in nature, not bulldozed through by mere tyrannic of majority rule. Interesting enough, the British has in fact experimented the concept of proportionate representation in Hong Kong in spite of the fact that it has a commonwealth style of Westminster parliamentary system.

In fact, if we look at the whole Hong Kong political structure, it has more or less followed Dr. Sun's concept of Separation of Five Powers except for the electoral system. In Hong Kong, there are special examinations designed for those who aspired to be civil servants, regardless of their paper qualifications. The famous ICAC is very independent empowered with the task of checking on the politicians, civil service as well as corrupt practices among the private companies. The Judiciary system is also "fiercely" independent. Although the executive arm, Chief Executive and his cabinet ministers, are not elected directly by universal suffrage, but its power has been restricted and independent from the Legislative Council (Legco). There are further separation of functions from the elected representatives. There are two types of representatives elected from the people. One is for the Legco, the other is for the respective grassroots representatives of Town Councilors. Apart from all these separation of the Five Powers, the freedom of the press has acted as an independent subsidiary arm of checks and balances.

Thus, I would say that even if Hong Kong is not a country by itself but a special administration of China, it has demonstrated that practicing democracy in an Asian society is possible and there is no "conflicts" or "incompatibility" problems between Asian Values vs Democratic Values.

The ultimate aim of any political system is to seek a stable and long lasting governing system for the society. Historical experiences have shown us that any system that is based totally on "freedom" or "concentration of power" is unstable and undesirable for the society. Democracy is not solely about "freedom" or even "human rights" but it is about building up a political cum governing system that is beneficial to the people, for the people, by the people.

In Asian context, there is nothing "special" for it to deviate from such universal desires. The European countries have gone through various political experiments with Marxism, Socialism, Communism, even Fascism to come to one simple conclusion that any power that concentrate too much power with little checks and balances inbuilt within the system is totally undesirable. We have also learned that total freedom - Anarchist does not work at all in modern days' complex society. I would say that in Asian history, ancient Chinese administration has provided a concept of what a government should possess in terms of powers as well as the necessary checks and balances needed to make it works. However, what is lacking is the concept of separation of such powers in past dynasties.
To say that Asian Values is not compatible to Democracy or vice verse is really far from the truth. Either in theory or practice, Asian societies have evolved and implemented successfully to a certain degree, a Democratic system that is tailored made according to the traditional concept of powers.

In Singapore's context, our political system is far from democratic because we are facing the same problem of Chinese dynasties whereby most of the powers are concentrated to a few individuals or the ruling party. This is unhealthy and it may just face the same ups and downs or even crisis like the Chinese dynasties. I feel that instead of focusing our effort in "fighting for freedom" or "rights", the most important and urgent thing for us to pursue is to develop a more balance political system by designing a proportionate representation electoral system couple with an effective separation of the Five powers.

This is basically my political aim for my lifetime.

Goh Meng Seng