In the aftermath of Brexit and Trump’s success in becoming America’s Republican nominee, there seems no better time to discuss the failure of democracies. At The USP Rector’s Programme session held on 5 September 2016, the USP community was honoured to have Professor Kishore Mahbubani, Dean and Professor in the Practice of Public Policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), speak on “How Democracies Fail”.
“A government of the people, by the people—but only for the rich elite”
When Professor Mahbubani visited Harvard University in the 1990s, Western academia was still celebrating democracy’s victory at the “End of History”. The dictum of the West was for the rest of the world to be a democracy, to be guaranteed success. This blind worship is based on the assumption that the people will make the right choice and choose the best leaders for their country. Never would they have imagined Donald Trump becoming America’s Republican nominee for the 2016 Presidential Election.
What explains Trump’s unanticipated popularity? Why do Americans vote for him? Public anger as a result of rampant income inequality has been cited as one reason. But what underlies this inequality is an alarming truth about American democracy. “American democracy has been hijacked by money,” Professor Mahbubani explained. A ruling in 2010 by the US Supreme Court to allow a corporation to spend as much as they want on political expression was emblematic of this. He said, “That has opened the faucet for anyone with money to decide what gets into public debate.”
Another built-in failure of democracies is that “honest politicians never get elected”. Politicians who speak about what a country truly needs, which in many Western democracies today are often unpopular policies like austerity measures or the downsizing of the public service, face the impending wrath of populist anger and they get punished for it in the next wave of elections. As the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker puts it, “We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.”
Is there then no hope for democracy? Professor Mahbubani thinks that democracy is still the best possible instrument for picking rulers, but adds that there are certain things that need to change. In his view, instead of worshipping democracy, we can focus on giving an honest critique of the political system. Electoral systems should also have rules in place to ensure that good governments get elected. And to find an example of a good altercation to democracy, we can look no further than Singapore’s meritocratic system—one that gets the best and the brightest in government.
Democracy in Singapore
Interest in meritocracy arose in the Q&A session as students asked if meritocracy was Singapore’s “sacred cow” or if it even existed in the first place. Professor Mahbubani shared with students that he is a firm believer of meritocracy, having benefited from bursaries and scholarships. Regardless of whether there is a worship of meritocracy here in Singapore, it is still the best possible principle for picking good leaders for a country. That said, he recognises the social stratification and income inequality as a by-product of a highly meritocratic system.
The recent review of the elected presidency in Singapore was another hot topic. Some asked if Singapore’s move to have its President elected in 1991 was a move towards more democracy. “I would argue that the elected Presidency was a mistake,” Prof Mahbubani responded candidly. While the move to an elected presidency was for a good President to check on a rogue government, he fears that this would open up the possibility of a rogue President checking on a good government, saying, "My number one worry of democracy in Singapore is that a populist figure will emerge and promise the people of Singapore goodies…and that’s very dangerous.”
As the dialogue drew to an end, students showed their appreciation towards Prof Mahbubani for taking time to be at USP. The evening left us with much food for thought. One wonders how democracy in Singapore will play out. Will we, one day, fall prey to populism? And what impact can each of us make to influence or shape the future of Singapore?
Professor Mahbubani is the author of FT’s 2013 Book of the Year The Great Convergence: Asia, the West and the Logic of One World and top-selling title Can Asians Think. For more of his insights on international relations and politics, visit his website at http://www.mahbubani.net/.
Please email Ms Ang Lee Koon if you have any feedback on this event.