Let's strive to be a non-populist democracy

SINGAPORE - Lest anyone get me wrong: I am not saying that being a civil servant was ever straightforward.

Throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s, the difficulties Singapore faced as a country were quite stark, and the adversity that had to be overcome must have appeared mountainous to public servants.

Furthermore, much of the work was exploratory and pioneering in nature, as Singapore's institutions were relatively unestablished.

But in one area, things were more clear-cut. Because of the political capital the Government had, it could afford to approach challenges in a more clinical fashion.

You see a problem, do the sums that lead you to the most optimal or efficient solution, and implement it, despite the (relatively muted) objections from some quarters.

To give an occupational analogy, one functioned more like an economist or an engineer.

For example, the Government, for years, took over private land plots with next to no compensation to build new towns like Bishan and reclaim sea fronts. Later, when Singapore became developed, the law had to be amended to require market-rate compensation.

From what source did this political capital spring?

Some say the People's Action Party ruled then with an iron hand, suppressing dissent on national interest grounds. They may be right.

I would argue, however, that Singaporeans of that age were only too happy to overlook the occasional violation of principles because, having emerged from decades of poverty and instability, they were just so hungry for growth and prosperity.

Whatever your explanation is for Singapore's past, it is safe to say that we have put it behind us.

Last week, I received another confirmation of this when I read a speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to top civil servants (delivered in March, but just published).

The phrase that caught my eye said policies today "have to deliver not only practical results but also political dividends" - given how society was changing.

In other words, you see a problem, do the sums that lead you to the most optimal or efficient solution, and, instead of implementing it, you think some more.

How will this be received? What impact will it have on support levels? Will a longer consultation period help? Should we go ahead, but in phases? Might we be better off getting a half-solution today and hoping that the winds change in the future to allow for a fuller one?

The more apt occupational analogy might be a political scientist.

Not that public servants didn't ask these questions in the past. But the answers did not bear on them with quite the same arresting force.What has changed since?

The short answer is: the 2011 General Election.

One public servant told me how, in the aftermath of the election, a pilot project involving residential units that his team had been implementing after merely informing residents took a sharp turn. They now have to hold lengthy consultations before going ahead. That election mattered.

But the longer answer takes into account the changes in the populace building up since the 1990s. The election was merely part of something larger. That desire for more checks and balances, that willingness to sacrifice speed for kindness, that questioning spirit and that longing to participate in the formation of solutions.

Some welcome this era with open arms. That was my first instinct and remains my dominant instinct. But I confess I occasionally find myself shuddering when I contemplate the implications.

Here, I am reminded of what former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew said in 1996, on a visit to India. He said the PAP made populist promises in its early years that it would have preferred not to, and that it was in the nature of democratic elections that they generated populist pressures to which parties had to respond to win votes.

Even with the conviction to get things done and to get things done right that we know Mr Lee to possess, he found it necessary, in the face of the pluralistic climate of the 1950s and 1960s, to be populist.

What hope do we have of avoiding populism in the coming years?

This is why I shall exhort us to rationality as much as I exhort us to the free-spiritedness of a vibrant democracy that we recently discovered and that I, to be sure, applaud.

If there is such a thing as a non-populist democracy, let us be the first to lay claim over it. We do so by denying our worse angels and rejecting at the polls any attempt by anyone to appeal to them.

For in the end, that old adage rings true. We get the government we deserve.


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