On one side of the globe, international attention was riveted on the most polarizing and controversial presidential election in recent history. On the opposite end of the globe, a fundamental change to presidential elections took place with nary a peep.
The US Presidential Elections and the Singapore Presidential Elections could not be more different. In the US, an openly racist, sexist and divisive figure took office without having prior political experience. In Singapore however, a new caveat has been added to an already long list of criteria for a presidential candidate: in addition to having at least three years of public service in a senior position or having been a director/chairman of a private company with a capital of at least $100 million, one has to be a Malay to qualify. The stark difference between the two countries illustrates the opposite spectrum of democracy: an unfettered election where anything is possible versus a carefully controlled and vetted election.
American democracy is far from being ideal. The greatly polarizing election of 2016 has left the country with deep divides that still resonate across the country. Clinton supporters are still outraged and in disbelief that such a controversial figure like Trump can storm to victory. Yet, they and the media in America have underestimated the key fact of democracy. One of the hallmarks of democracy is that everyone can vote. Ironically, the fact that everyone can vote is both the strength and downfall of democracy. In the words of George Carlin: “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that”. Therefore, figures like Trump can actually come into power.
Despite all the shortcomings and flaws of American democracy and yes there are many, their greatest strength is the peaceful transition of power from one leader to another. No matter what the result is or how unfavourably the incumbent president views the president-elect, he cannot and will not deny the overall result. Thus, we have President Obama and Hillary Clinton conceding defeat and calling for all Americans to accept the vote and support the new President, despite their disagreements. This is the sign of a mature democracy that no matter what has happened, the losers agree to shake it off and to move on, knowing that the system will be in place and power cannot be consolidated in the hands of one person.
Singapore politicians will no doubt point at America and exhort the benefits of having a controlled presidential election filled with criteria and benchmarks put in place. Singapore, they argue, cannot afford to make mistakes like America or experiment with different types of leadership because our survival is at stake. I personally agree that having certain safeguards in place to ensure at least a modicum of competence in having a candidate is important. Yet, previous safeguards focused on the qualifications and skills of the candidate and not on the race of the person. The former can be attained over time while the latter is fixed, rigid and determined at birth. In an effort to be more representative, Singapore has undermined one of the values that it values highly: meritocracy.
Additionally, the fact that the government can pass such a motion into law easily without much consultation from the public points to how easily policies in Singapore can be implemented . Thus far, Singaporeans as a whole, have trusted the leadership of the government to implement right policies and to make right decisions for the good of the country. What happens then if the people’s will is ever in opposition to the government’s? Is there any safeguards against the government from dictating certain rules aside from elections?
There is certainly no right answer to this situation. And so the debate between democracy and good governance rages on.