Consider the view that efficient government is more important than democracy.
by Steven Ooi, GP & English tutor
B.A. (First Class Honours), National University of Singapore
Democracy is a word and an idea that whips up a great deal of emotion and idealism in people all over the world. While there is no perfect or universal definition of democracy, it is generally accepted that it refers to a political system in which all the citizens have a say in who governs their country, and how their country is governed. To most people, democracy is also a belief in the freedom of the individual to express his or her opinions and wishes freely in the form of free speech and even public protests and demonstrations. However, a problem that arises with democracy is that despite its lofty aspirations and ideals, it often does not deliver an efficient government, which this essay shall define as a government that is effective in delivering the positive long-term outcomes which most people desire, such as prosperity, stability and good health, with the resources that are available to it. In fact, many nations that are considered to be highly democratic are also among the poorest in the world, and their people have a very low quality of life. Examples would be India and the Philippines. Conversely, some countries that are either ruled by autocratic regimes, such as China, or only marginally democratic, such as Singapore, enjoy greater economic prosperity than India. While democracy brings many benefits, I believe that efficient government is more important than democracy.
Thomas Jefferson once said, “The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government.” What people want most from a government is that it should take good care of their needs, in other words, that it should be efficient. To provide the people with a high standard of living and quality of life, a government needs to be efficient in its administration of the country and its long-term strategic planning.
However, democracy often obstructs this goal, especially when there is too much democracy. When the voices of the people and the voices of politicians who claim to represent them grow too loud and strident, or worse, when the democratic liberties are taken to extremes and violence erupts, a country can be paralysed or worse, torn apart. The constant political wrangling and frequent policy gridlock in America illustrates this point well. When President Barack Obama sought to introduce healthcare reform in 2009, the Republicans bickered with Mr Obama’s Democrats so intensely and combatively that it took one whole year before both sides agreed on a healthcare plan. Even then, it was a heavily watered-down version of what Mr Obama had wanted as he had to make huge concessions to appease the Republicans, who controlled the House of Representatives. Ultimately, America’s healthcare system, which is widely regarded as broken and excludes tens of millions of Americans from access to medical treatment, did not get the thorough overhaul that it so badly needs. Even after the healthcare reform that was agreed on by US politicians, 30 million Americans are likely to be deprived of access to healthcare in the world’s richest country.
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Yet another example would be the massive political upheaval and turbulence in Thailand from 2008 to 2010. As Thais “enjoy” a high degree of freedom of assembly, protesters wearing red or yellow shirts, depending on which political faction they supported, staged massive rallies and even blockaded important public buildings such as the airport and parliament. Street rallies often turned violent and the streets of Bangkok descended into chaos and bloodshed. Hundreds were killed and thousands injured.
By contrast, some countries are less democratic but have more efficient governments capable of providing their people a higher quality of life. A prime example is Singapore, where the people enjoy only the rudiments of democracy, such as universal suffrage and a Parliament. Beyond that, Singaporeans are given hardly any freedom of assembly and very limited freedom of the press. The only place in Singapore where people are allowed to stage protests and demonstrations is the sleepy, quiet Hong Lim Park. If anyone takes his protest one step outside the park, he can be arrested. The country’s media are all government-owned and their content is quite tightly controlled. A single political party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), has dominated since independence in 1965. Currently it holds about 90 percent of the seats in Parliament. While the government allows everyone to vote and opposition parties to contest, it often creates a playing field that is not level, for instance by giving preference for estate upgrading to constituencies that support the PAP. Yet Singapore enjoys far greater prosperity than Thailand, as well as greater stability, safety and security. Singapore is a magnet for foreign investors who greatly appreciate these qualities; major multinational corporations including Procter and Gamble, Citigroup, Harley Davidson and Bayer invest billions of dollars setting up regional headquarters and research and development centres in Singapore, creating an abundance of jobs and wealth in the country. According to the CIA World Factbook, Singapore’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, adjusted for purchasing power, is US$62,100, higher than that of America (US$47,200), France (US$33,100) and Sweden (US$39,100).
When democracy is taken to extremes, governments have to constantly fight in the arena of politics and have therefore less time and energy to devote to governance, which is far more central to the well-being of the people. In a highly democratic country such as the US or India, the government is constantly fighting for its political survival and hence finds it very difficult to adopt policies for the long-term good of the country. The government is often unable to look beyond the next election. However in a country like Singapore or China, the government is more entrenched and secure in its position, and thus finds it easier to plan for the long term. For instance, the Chinese government has carried out massive long-term projects to upgrade the infrastructure of the country, including close to 10,000 km of high-speed railway and modern water treatment plants. America may be a more developed nation than China, but its infrastructure is ageing and crumbling – many experts have criticised the decrepit state of its subway stations. The infrastructural development in China has propelled its economy to very high growth averaging 10 percent over the last three decades. Its economic growth is faster than India’s, and the average income in China is three times higher than that in India. While China’s infrastructure in some ways already surpasses that in many developed countries, India is notorious for regular power outages, even in major cities like Mumbai.
To be sure, it is highly desirable to have the rudiments of democracy, especially elections, as they engender accountability and transparency of government. Without accountability, a government would have absolute power, which is likely to lead to corruption and abuse. Democracy also promotes a basic degree of social equality as every member is conferred certain basic rights, such as the right to live and vote. However, too much democracy often leads to inefficient or even worse, dysfunctional government and mayhem in the country. Furthermore, democracy has certainly proven to be no bulwark against corruption. Among the more than 200 countries in this world, the great majority practise democracy, but most of these countries suffer from very significant, often egregious, corruption. Interestingly, Singapore – which many Westerners like to label a police state – ranks as the fifth most transparent country in the world in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, ahead of many more democratic countries such as the United States, Australia, Italy, France and Germany.
To conclude, I believe that efficient government is more important than democracy. What people want most is for the government to create the conditions in which they can have a comfortable quality of life, and find happiness; it is clear that democracy is highly overrated as a means to achieving these goals. Democracy can help if it is adopted in measured doses, but being the highly idealistic and emotive notion that it is, it is usually taken to excess and ends up hampering rather than aiding what Jefferson called “the care of human life and happiness”. As John Simon once said, “Democracy encourages the majority to decide things about which the majority is ignorant.” Ordinary people can be given some say in the running of a country, but for it to progress, you still need highly capable leaders to be firmly in command. A ship where thirty people are wrestling with the captain for the steering wheel is not likely to be successful in its voyage.
Copyright 2012 Steven Ooi. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without the written consent of the author.
The blogger, a First Class Honours grad from NUS, retired from a distinguished 14-year career as an English and GP tutor at the age of 42.
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