Trust, Governance and Democracy

As Singapore prepares for the announcement of the dissolution of parliament (sometime next week I think), as a nation we have to come together to see what it is that we want to see happen and what can we do to make that so.

At a technology/academia-related event in Penang earlier this week, in a conversation I was in, it was mentioned that of all the challenges they have in using some technology, the biggest was trust. Trusting that the technology they use will deliver what they need, that their “vendors” will not shortchange them etc. Trust was also about sharing knowledge across the board quid-pro-quo and unconditionally. Someone then mentioned Steven Covey’s book, The Speed of Trust.

Visiting that page, it’s interesting to see how they linked in the element of trust and how countries prosper. And that at the top end of the scale of prosperous nations, according to one metric, were three countries – Denmark, New Zealand and Singapore. These nations were tied for top spot because of “trust”. The “trust” here has to do with least corruptibility as measured by Transparency International.

It is instructive to read what comprises corruption as defined by TI:

Corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. It hurts everyone whose life, livelihood or happiness depends on the integrity of people in a position of authority.

While I think it is a useful and workable definition, I think it misses out on some nuances such as pork-barrel politics and dangling of carrots during election periods by incumbent politicians and incumbent political parties. “You better vote for me or else!” threats for example.

TI’s definition of corruption seems to be temporal of sorts. It only defines how entrusted power is abused for private gain of the entrusted power.  In the Singapore context, it is a given that we do not have to worry about paying off someone to get things done by government. And for that, I am immensely thankful.

But, the fact remains that carrot dangling and gerrymandering do not seem to be included in this measure as it surely will imply an element of abuse of entrusted power for private gain. The incumbent politician/party who dangles this or is able to contest in a district that was gerrymandered and thereby the process of winning the vote is corrupted. Please convince me that it isn’t corruption.

The democratic process involves the entrustment of power from a large group to a few for a period so that the few, a trusted few, will work for betterment the larger group and to be done without fear or favour.

So, when we look at how things are done here with regards to a specific instance of the running of Town Councils, the individuals who run the town councils are the MPs of the area and part of the funding comes from the government.

The Town Councils Act, interestingly, is set up, IMHO, a skewed manner especially when there are changes in the MP(s) of the council.  See Section 34. It favours the previous incumbents in helping them build surpluses that can be reinvested into the Town/GRC, which works against a new MP(s) who will see all surpluses from the previous group go into the sinking fund. This is one of the reasons, as I see it, why if a new group takes over a Town Council, they will be handicapped financially at the beginning. This is an example of how “if you don’t vote for me, you will pay for it” can be done. That is a nuanced form of “corruption”.  It does not look like it, but dig a little, and it is obvious.

So, this brings me back to trust. As Singaporeans we have marginally trusted the currently ruling party over the years and you can see how they’ve cleverly manipulated the system to make it work for them. The democratic process has been tweaked to enable governance that has little or no accountability.

Could this have been done by any other party? For sure. But that the current ruling party was able to put in these things over the years because they could do it without question (and debate) shows that Singapore needs minimally a two-party system in parliament. It is the checks and balances that will make this country of mine a great country.  Until that happens, we are on our way to becoming a banana republic.

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