Democracy Classroom Report
This is a report about New Naratif’s Democracy Classroom, held on 14 April 2020. At the highest, there were about 40 participants. The event was held on Google Hangouts. Connection seemed relatively stable.
Participants were divided into 7 groups, with about 5 participants in each group. Each group’s presentation during the round-up is summarised below. Some editing was done to try to make sure that each group’s presentation remained coherent. The report ends with a brief overall summary that highlights the main themes across the groups.
Group 1’s discussion focused around what they deemed the ‘basic’ question – why is the PAP holding an election?
Their group contained a plurality of experiences of democracy in different countries. Those who had lived in the UK explained how funds were set aside for gender neutral toilets and other inclusive measures, while those from the Philippines noted qualitative differences between those in there and those in Singapore. It was also noted that the youth seemed more aware. In contrast, those in Singapore noted that foreigners were often banned and censored, and that the practices were not inclusive.
They discussed how a more inclusive and democratic platform could be built, and the different types of indicators of democracy. However, many things stood in the way, including the legacy of torture, as well as self-censorship. This meant that Singapore was at best a flawed democracy, and that change is not going to come easy. Nevertheless, it was important that Singapore maintained platforms where those in the country could access alternative sources of information.
The group concluded that the host, PJ Thum, as well as New Naratif, were doing a great job.
Group 2’s discussions followed the recommended discussion questions. The first question was “Why do we have elections? What is the purpose of elections?” The group distinguished between ideal and realistic answers. The former was to authorise the right people to represent the citizenry, while the latter was that elections are used to reinforce the power of the incumbents.
The second question was “What role do elections play in our democracy?” The group conclude that elections and democracy were not synonymous, pointing out that democratic structures was not strong enough to prevent the recent unjust takeover in Malaysia. They noted that democracy should not be reduced to a day of voting every few years, but had to be broadened to include institutional accountability, and other matters. If not, North Korea was also a democracy.
The third question concerned “What are the principles on which elections should be run?” Again, the group concluded that election design, where elections can be made to be truly free, fair and regular, might be “good in theory”, but realistically “very hard in practice”.
The group then raised the difference between voluntary and compulsory voting, and noted how the context of each country differed. This would presumably affect how each country’s elections would be designed, structured, and run. They raised how South Korea was holding elections amidst the coronavirus, something other countries would not even consider doing. They also noted how the policies of Indonesian parties have to work on the national level, instead of just a regional level or tailored to a certain constituency. The group wished to be able to go more in-depth into questions concerning short-term election cycles versus long-term issues.
The group then concluded that to have a democracy, there needs to be robust a civil society that coexists with elections, and that cultural norms and attitudes must change. The presenter finished by noting that a democracy classroom was fun. Woohoo!
Group 3 broke their findings into 3 levels. The first level was to do with elections, specifically in Singapore. They noted that elections in Singapore were not free nor fair, as there was no proper contestation for power and no way to express one’s democratic preferences. This was compounded by fear of voting for opposition party, and gerrymandering.
The second level had to do with the relationship between elections and democracy. The presenter noted that while an election is ideally supposed to be an expression of the will of the people, the question of who actually “the people” are needs to be answered and clearly defined. In effect, who the “in-groups” or “out-groups” in every given society are need to be defined. They raised the situation concerning migrant workers in Singapore, and noted how they do not have any democratic rights or a vote, and therefore cannot express their preferences in elections despite the elections greatly affecting their livelihoods. This means that a permanent underclass of workers still exist in Singapore, despite the existence of elections.
The third level was the most abstract, and tackled structural concerns. The group asked the question – are free and fair elections enough? They looked towards mature liberal democracies as examples, like the United States. These countries had a long tradition of democracy, but when we scrutinise them more closely, we find that the actual will of the people is not expressed. Instead, political outcomes decided by political or economic elites. The group suggested that we look at social movements, or other politics that take place outside the formal electoral sphere. They concluded that democracy should not be taken as simply free and fair elections, but in broader sense, perhaps as a principle of political equality and participation of the people.
A discussion about the legacies of colonialism and how they affected the UK’s system ensued. It was noted that the different types of elections in the UK had different electorates: National elections permitted Commonwealth citizens to vote, in addition to UK citizens; Local elections generally permitted local residents to vote, with the basis being local residency rather than citizenship; and European elections permitted EU citizens to vote in addition to UK citizens. The elections were thus tailored to their constituents.
Group 4, like Group 2, also followed the recommended questions. Regarding “Why do we have elections? What is the purpose of elections?”, they answered that it was to allow everyone to have a say, and to create a majority. He noted that it was important to understand that elites could influence outcomes based on donations, advertising and other techniques.
For the question of “What are the principles on which elections should be run?”, Group 4 had multiple views. Some thought that the electoral college in the United States was good in principle but not in implementation, while others thought that local elections were better, as they were more direct and could better represent ground sentiments. They felt that every country was different, and had to run on different principles. Nevertheless, it was imperative that people vote based on their values and principles, and took part in society. However, they also noted that people often feel disconnected with government, and focused on their own wealth instead of helping others in different classes.
Speaking specifically about Singapore, group 4 noted that voting power should not be 2/3, but around 50/50. Avenues for the government to understand what the ground was saying, like Meet the People sessions, were too administrative. Singaporeans also lacked a political culture, and were generally unaware of political issues. They suggested that alternative modes of participation be crafted, so that people could participate in between election periods.
They suggested having more sessions where the people could communicate with the government, to make them feel more connected.
Group 5 took the role of elections to be a means for people to communicate with government. This gives them stake in future of nation. They raised the idea of a social contract, where if people voted for the government and gave it legitimacy, it meant that government must in return protect them and their interests. This meant that voters had some form of responsibility, and needed to be educated. They then moved on to structural issues, where it remained possible to influence voters through money, wealth and influence. This was in direct conflict with the idea of 1 man 1 vote. Regarding education in Singapore, Group 5 noted that the Singaporean education system was subtly biased, and did not present different perspectives on key issues.
The group concluded that as long as information for alternative perspectives is available, then citizens should be satisfied. While the PAP held an incumbent advantage, so did Google.
Group 6’s discussion focused on the common theme of the structural background factors necessary for a democracy. They asked the question of what else people needed besides voting, to help claim to be a democratic society. They highlighted the right to protest, a free media, and a credible education system. They raised the interesting phenomenon where in most countries, protests are seen as a democratic act, but in Singapore, they are framed as undemocratic. Furthermore, there are many laws in Singapore that shut down protests. This is compounded further by how people in Singapore often snitched on each other, and acted as outsourced policemen.
They discussed the differences between the Malaysian and Singaporean electoral systems, especially with how race was represented. both were multi-racial, multi-cultural societies, but Malaysia was the only one to have explicitly race-based parties. However, it was noted that these race-based parties were not always healthy for democracy, and did not appropriately represent the interests of those in their race.
They rounded off by noting how citizens needed to vote for the good of everyone in the society, and not simply along self-interested lines. They raised the example of India, where the majority voting along religious lines lead to horrible outcomes. This meant that there needs to be a different culture of voting on behalf of everyone, instead of narrow self-interest.
Group 7 only had 3 people, and were all Singaporean. They therefore focused on Singapore, since they had that basic foundation.
They picked up on Group 6’s points on protests, which they note were taken as a form of democratic expression in other countries. However, in Singapore, this was sadly not the case. They however noted that in Hong Kong, what started as an expression of unhappiness with a specific bill degraded into violence. They then made it clear that they did not advocate violence, but that they would still support protests.
They then decided to look at the growth of the ‘PAP System’ in Singapore. What started as a simple Westminster system that was conducive to nation-building, with a close working relationship between the 3 arms of the government, evolved. Many strange things like GRCs, SMCs, and other unnecessary feature were introduced, overcomplicating the system. They concluded that a single-party system was not conducive for democracy, as it was not representative of people’s needs.
Below are 3 suggested take-aways from the round-up. However, it should be noted that since groups were suggested to not repeat points made by other groups, perhaps some points were given less emphasis than they should have been.
More than elections
Many groups distinguished between elections and democracy, stressing the need for participation beyond merely voting in elections. Democracy entailed certain values and norms, as well as a robust civil society. Elections are a necessary but insufficient condition for democracy and good governance.
As perhaps to be expected, many of the groups focused on Singapore. Most were critical of Singapore and how the country facilitated democracy, pointing to various laws and a lack of a suitable political culture.
Sensitivity to context
Many groups were also keen to stress how different countries faced different problems, and one must be sensitive to the context when thinking how to structure elections.