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Lawrence Wong
Wednesday, Jun 4, 2014

Singapore

Towards a 'democracy of deeds' for Singapore

The Straits Times | Lawrence Wong | Wednesday, Jun 4, 2014

Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth.

The issue of "constructive politics" was the focus of the debate on the President's Address in Parliament last week, and rightly so. Politics is not just about campaigns, elections and votes.

As President Tony Tan Keng Yam said, politics is fundamentally about enabling us to move ahead as one united people and improve the lives of all citizens.

How can Singapore keep its politics constructive? Some people have suggested we should simply follow the way of mature First World democracies.

This is not a new idea. Indeed, after the Cold War ended, several predicted a new era of global convergence: In the battle of ideas and political systems, they thought that Western liberal democracy had triumphed, and history had come to an end.

But Western liberal democracy has not turned out to be a magic formula for success. In many countries, it has failed to deliver stable, legitimate and effective government. Even voters in the West are losing faith in their democratic systems.

I received a visitor recently who used to serve in the United States administration. Ten years ago, he would not have hesitated to preach the virtues of Western liberal democracy. But with the ongoing gridlock and policy paralysis in Washington, he has become more circumspect. He acknowledged that the American system was far from perfect, and that political reform was necessary.

He is not the only one. Two editors of The Economist magazine recently wrote a book calling not just for political reform, but a fundamental "Fourth Revolution" in Western democracies.

They note that "in America (today), the federal government has less support than George III did at the time of the American Revolution". As they put it, "interest groups have proved remarkably successful at hijacking government" and "the practice of democracy in the West is diverging ever more from the ideal… with the general public increasingly disgruntled".

In short, dysfunctional government has become a major problem in many mature democracies.

Politics is increasingly acrimonious, divisive and polarised. Young people have grown disillusioned and disengaged from public life. In America and many European countries, voter turnouts have been falling and surveys show declining trust in governments.

None of this should come as a surprise. There is a long tradition of concern over the limitations of liberal democracy as a system of government.

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