Democracy is not a bad system, but 'we've got to focus on quality': DPM Tharman

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam gives his take on whether governments in Asia are now more sceptical about democracy. In an interview with the Financial Times on Oct 17, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam was asked by correspondent Jeevan Vasagar about democracy and developments around the world that have given it a bad name. Here is an excerpt.

Q As you would have seen through a year of populism around the world - Brexit, Trump - do you think it's made governments here in Asia more sceptical about just the whole idea of democracy and about involving the people in decision-making? I imagine there's some conversation with people saying: "Look what happens when you ask people to decide on matters of great national significance and put it to a referendum."

A Democracy is not having a great run, but we've got to avoid too simple a conclusion. It's not that democracy is a bad system. But we've got to focus on quality - quality of debate, quality of the electoral process, quality of accountability on the part of the elected government. And it's not just the democracies in the West that are running into trouble.

So we've got to keep moving in the right direction. The essential question is: Are you able to preserve trust in leadership and in the institutions that govern society? Are you able to unify people whilst respecting differences - and at the very least not ripping them apart the way it's happening in some countries? Are you able to hold government accountable for enabling broad prosperity, and not getting captured by vested interests?

These are the essential objectives of any political system. Democracies do a better job at it than others. I think the long wash of history does show that. But amongst democracies, it has to be a constant journey of improving the quality of democracy.

And even the most mature democracies can lapse, they can get tired, and what stood for decades after the war when living standards were going up for everyone, starts evaporating when people don't sense that they are moving up and their lives get stagnant.

So there are new challenges that do come about because of this economic reality. But it doesn't mean that everything is determined by the economy. Political leadership is important. Holding the centre together in politics is critical in order to achieve economic revitalisation.

Q Can you give us a flavour of the conversation we are having about democracy this year because it has been such an extraordinary year for the democratic process. Is there a sense that democracy itself is brought into disrepute?

A I would avoid going so far. We have to look at things in perspective. It's been a real achievement how for the first 50 years after the war, you've had peace in Europe, you've had advancement in living standards, and you've had - whether it's (government by the) centre-left or centre-right - a certain stability in society. Now that's coming apart. The centre is getting weaker. The populism of the left and right is getting stronger, and most dangerously, the parties of the middle are chasing the shadows of the populist extremes, talking the language of the extremes in order to get re-elected.

I think, and I hope that I'm not being too hopeful here, this is part of a long cycle. It's not part of a secular decline in democracy. In Europe, I think it's possible to bring back faith in values of the centre - whether it's the social-democratic ideals of the centre-left or the social-market economy ideals of the centre-right. They were actually very similar in their basic values - thrift, hard work, but collective responsibility to protect individuals from the vagaries of the market.

But Europe has to tackle its problems of immigration and cultural identity. The US also has issues of cultural identity - both within the US itself, independent of immigration, and then accentuated by immigration. But the US also exemplifies the way in which economics shapes politics, when you have long-term income stagnation of the middle class and a good part of the lower-income group.

There's been less than active effort to help those who have been left behind by new technologies or global competition. It's not that it was inherent in globalisation or technological change that you get towns and cities left depressed decade after decade. But it happened, and the efforts weren't aggressive enough to help them get back in the game, grow new industries, help individuals who have been displaced in the workforce to come back in with some retraining.

It was assumed that the market would do this. But we've learnt that even in the US, which has a more flexible labour market than most mature economies, the market doesn't do it quickly enough or sometimes doesn't do it at all. People stay displaced for a long time. And as the economists would put it, "hysteresis" sets in - you lose your skills, employers lose interest in you, and you become long-term unemployed.

So, helping those who lose to get back into the market, and helping towns and cities that are left behind to regenerate themselves, is a key priority of public policy. It's not just economic, it's a social priority.

What we are seeing today is the lesson of not having done that well enough, or assuming that the market will do it for us.

This article was first published on Nov 13, 2016.
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