|Straits Times, July 23, 2018|
Back to the accordion--I'm thinking of the one with a small harmonica attached--and the trombone. The accordion represents--or represented--three branches of government: executive (the doers); legislative (the people's voice, as written); and judicial (the brake or time-out, when necessary). As one branch would attempt to extend its influence, the other two would react to keep the tune harmonious rather than shrill. The trombone represented honest journalism, a complementary bass to sustain and awaken the accordion player if s/he ever became tired.
In reality, however, the "Court is a reactive institution. It's never in the forefront of social change." (Justice Ginsburg) So much for the judicial brake. Meanwhile, the journalistic trombone, by itself, can influence atrocious music if the audience is too busy, too tired, or too distracted to listen closely to any melody. (No one ever expected a musician to go rogue and supplant the conductor.) Moreover, if executive players insulate themselves from accountability through alliances with lawyers and the legislative branch (e.g., separate disciplinary standards and procedures for government workers), suddenly our accordion player has one very strong arm pushing against a weak one. In sum, Western democratic ideals are so optimistic, they presuppose a fragile, easily-manipulated system is capable of staying in tune even as vested interests stake out more and more territory over time. PM Lee Hsien Loong, in 2018, hinted at this assumption rather than requirement of self-correction: "Yours is a system which has elaborate checks and balances. It is meant to be able to correct itself and prevent policy from being taken to unwise extremes." Compared to the more robust and arguably less mellifluous Eastern model, the Western approach seems to get riskier over time. And what of the Singaporean model, a so-called "third way"?
|From Perry's Singapore (2017)|
Singapore proves the Eastern system, like the Western one, can work well if conditions are right. Additionally, the Eastern system's strong executive approach means it need replace only one leader rather than three or four potentially conflicting ones, providing the advantage of simplicity--no small matter when attempting national cohesiveness and the establishment of long-term goals. Yet, the simplicity of the Eastern system is also its undoing. A forceful conductor who limits the range of his musicians can succeed as long as s/he is alive, but left to their own devices, the musicians, so used to only one range of play and one style of direction, usually decline. Seen this way, both the Western and Eastern systems rely on leadership development and replacement.
Unfortunately, the world has no oversupply of able conductors--quite the opposite. Having lived in Singapore in 2001, I felt a "comfortable disconnect" in 2018 that did not exist until after founder Lee Kuan Yew's death in 2015. Of course it is better to be rich than poor, but no handicap is possibly more severe than being born into a too-rich family, especially in the public eye. Idleness is not the issue but the probability that one's opinions are disconnected from the reality shared by most people. In one sense, Singaporeans today are all Lee Kuan Yew's children born into one of the richest families in the world, and as Singaporean-American author Kevin Kwan notes, "The problem is that they all have too much money, and it's come so easily to them that they think they're bloody geniuses and so they are always right."
Devadas Krishnadas, in his interesting but unfortunately meandering book, hits the nail on the head when he examines reasons for Singapore's success: "[A]mongst the 5 W's--why, what, whom, when, and where--the 'Why?' was the singular most important query to satisfy. If that question had a good answer then the rest would be a matter of tactics." (Sensing Singapore, paperback, 2014, pp. 20) As long as Lee Kuan Yew was alive, the "Why" had an answer, but now, after his death, the Eastern model is flailing silently--but comfortably--in his long shadow.
Indeed, the goals of most Singaporean residents are no longer national unity, diverse hawker centres open till midnight, or the creation of an ASEAN role model. Most non-senior Singaporeans want things, not ideas. They desire houses, cheaper health care, and more flexibility in CPF contributions and withdrawals. The most common mobile image on the MRT? A Lazada screen. The natural result of a society divorced from the shared ideals of a strong leader is perhaps a rise in different ideologies, but certainly, more things. Most conveniently, things do not ask, "Why?"
The more one examines this new paradigm, the more one senses humanity entering a vast showroom filled with many wonderful things but lacking the ability to articulate a reason for any of them. In contrast, a vacuum and dishwasher saved every woman and bachelor in the 1900s time and energy. The sneakers worn today by your average non-athlete are far easier on your feet than the ones worn by Bob Cousy in his heyday. A car not only allowed easier transportation, it literally opened up vast stretches of land otherwise inaccessible.
Lest you become too aggrieved, note that human nature hasn't changed much. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote the following words in 1904, a time notable for its many new things, including the vacuum cleaner, air conditioning, electrocardiograms, and radar:
Things are of the snake.
The horseman serves the horse,
The neatherd serves the neat,
The merchant serves the purse,
The eater serves his meat;
’T is the day of the chattel,
Web to weave, and corn to grind;
Things are in the saddle,
And ride mankind.
Surely the more things change, the more they stay the same, but do they still stay the same when the digital world overtakes the tangible one, and when things no longer provide as much utility as before? I don't know, but I'm sure of one thing: in such a world, we need effective rather than ineffective checks and balances, and we are in danger of having everything except the things that matter the most. Good luck, lah?