Friday, November 04, 2016

It Could Be Worse

As the American Presidential heads into the final few days, I’ve noticed a few people in cyberspace questioning the state of affairs of the world. How did the world’s “greatest” democracy come to a stage where the people are left with a choice of a dubious, power-hungry who may have compromised national security by using her private email server and an incompetent demagogue who has a history of turning business deals to shit and is currently making being a racist rapist (man goes to trial for child rape later this month) into an activity of trendy frat boys (not that he actually did any sport)?

Americans must be wondering how their system, which has been touted as the “greatest” model of government and an example of how everyone else should create a society, has been reduced to this awful choice – a case of daily scenes of the awful doing the awful. Is this, as they say, the prime example of how democracy doesn’t work?

While this year’s election has been a case of the nasty doing the nasty, the pessimists have missed the point of what makes democracy tick. The purpose of a democracy is not to produce the best leadership but to provide the most efficient and bloodless way of removing bad leadership.
When you live in a democratic system, you can get frustrated with the way things work. Good leaders with good ideas end up disappointing and only achieving a fraction of what they promise because along way during their time in office, they were either blocked or had to compromise with different parties. FDR, one of America’s greatest champions was consistently thwarted by the Supreme Court. More recently Barak Obama spent more time dealing with a Republican dominated Congress that was openly determined to screw him up because he happens to be a shade darker than them.

Democracy at times can seem like the opposite of a system that promotes meritocracy and action but are the alternatives any better? Surely, a better form of government would be a “Divine” or “Benevolent” dictatorship – a case of the ruling elite being selflessly devoted to the well-being of the people.

Dictatorships or places that are ruled by one unchallenged party can produce miracles – governments that actually function for the benefit of the people. I live in Singapore, which has all the things you’d expect in a functioning democracy (elections, courts etc) but for the most part was run by one unchallenged man – our former Prime Minister, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. Mr. Lee and his team literally grabbed the nation by the scruff of its neck and made it into a clean, rich and green paradise.
While Singaporeans may complain about the government and the lack of any form of opposition, the efficiency of the government has performed such a good job that everyone from outside ends up looking at us and saying, “What are you complaining about?” An Austrian fellow even told me, “In Singapore, at election time should be about saying “Thank You PAP.”

The likes of Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton would never exist in Singapore. The slight whiff of scandal surrounding Mrs. Clinton would never have been allowed let along Mr. Trumps “inflammatory” rhetoric. Our politicians may lack entertainment value but they all have rather clean cut records – in Singapore “boring” is a virtue.

However, as Bhutan’s former King, Jigme Singye Wangchuk argued – how guarantee that your successors are as benevolent as you. King Jigme was true to his word – he abdicated in favour of his son and moved the monarch from an absolute one into a constitutional one. People cried when the king told them to choose their government rather than have him tell them what to do. Bhutan has to be the only case in the world where the King imposed democracy on the people rather than got himself overthrown or had his powers curtailed by the people.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck clearly understood that ruling and leadership are more than just about your own performance. It’s about ensuring the place gets better after you leave the scene.
Let’s look at the example of another monarchy – Thailand. Everybody acknowledges that King Bhumibol was a benevolent king. While, in theory, only a constitutional monarch with no actual power, the late King Bhumibol had so much moral authority that no politician or coup leader would even consider taking power without his blessing.

While, Thailand has draconian “les majeste” laws that make insulting the king or the royal family a criminal offence, nobody doubts that the admiration and affection for the late king was genuine. Yes, he had a good PR machine, the Thai people felt his affection for them and in return gave it to him. The King was to all practical purposes the one thing that stabilized the Thai national psyche, which has been torn by conflicts, military coups, corrupt politicians and so on.

Unfortunately, the saintly King Bhumibol is dead. The next king is the current crown prince, Prince Vajiralongkorn. Prince Vajiralongkorn has a reputation for being the total opposite of his father. While King Bhumibol was a king who used his fortune to improve the lives of his people, Prince Vajiralongkorn is known for indulging in every vice known to man and likes to grant high military ranks to his poodle. While King Bhumibol was the living example of monarchical dignity, Prince Vijaralongkorn is known for showing up at the airport sporting fake tattoos and dressed in a singlet.
Unfortunately, this is a monarchy we’re talking about. The rules of succession are clear – the throne stays in the family no matter how competent or incompetent they may be for the job. Yes, life was good when Bhumibol was king but now he’s gone and we’ve got a nut on the throne.

In more extreme circumstances, removing bad dictators can be bloody. Africa is awash with examples of rulers who should not have been around to rule. Zimbabwe is stuck with Mugabe who is living and still on the hot seat well past his sell by date. Let’s not forget that Mugabe was a hero, on the scale of Mandela, when he came into power. Then, he realized that he liked being in power and couldn’t live without it and he’s stayed on regardless of what happened to everyone else. Further north of the continent, you had Mobutu in Zaire who had to be removed by a war and the war has been going on and on and on since then.

The choice of Trump or Clinton can seem depressing. However, the fuck ups can be voted out in 4-years and the country is not going to be plunged into a civil war. The alternative of a system where a fuck up needs to be removed by force of arms is worse.


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