Monday, September 26, 2011

On The Necessity of Democracy

I was asked recently where I plan to live after I finish graduate school here in the United States. Would I return to Canada or stay in the U.S.? I think I surprised the person when I answered, "Possibly neither of those."

This summer, as I followed the political posturing during the debt limit ceiling debacle in the U.S. Congress, I became increasingly disillusioned with democracy in America. Did I want to live long term in a country where the will of the people makes it logical to put unnecessary warfare before the health, well-being and education of its citizens? Or where the front runners for a major party openly and bafflingly demonstrate ignorance of basic science and economics? It's scary.

It became clear to me that in a democracy where corporate lobbyists and unbalanced media distort the equality of every voice the increased probability of having national interests hijacked by vocal, uneducated minorities (who are easily swayed) is what upset me about the whole situation. It happened in Canada too, with the HST being repealed by referendum in BC. Here was something that was a long-term policy solution endorsed by economists. Shouldn't we have deferred to experts on matters that aren't our expertise or, at the very least, given it one or two more years before striking it down?

Of course, the real reason it was struck down wasn't because of economic incentive (though that played a role as certain industries were hurt more than others supposedly gained); it was due to dishonest politicians who promised the HST wouldn't be brought in. But the whole thing left me uneasy; the movement was based on revenge rather than reason. "Democracy is prone to such movements," I thought to myself. In a system of where each person has a voice, invariably the loudest ones will be most influential; unfortunately the loudest and most confident ones are often the most ignorant and least knowledgeable.

In a circuitous way, this leads me back to the beginning of this post, when I was asked where I want to live after I graduate. Is it bad that Asia jumps immediately to mind? In a place like Singapore, where one party has ruled since the country was formed, you can have a Western standard of living and live comfortably as long as you forego that great pinnacle of Western civilization - democracy. But is it all that bad? Sure, you give up a few civil liberties, but in exchange you receive a low crime rate, a clean city and world-class amenities. And with China trending upwards and the U.S. trending downwards, who's to say that the U.S. will continue to be a superpower at all? Maybe it's Asia's time now.

To me this viewpoint is new; if you had asked me during my time in Singapore if I could have lived there permanently I would've responded with a resounding, "No." But as I started to think more logically, the idea grew and grew. Why not live in a place where the the best economists run the economy? ...where leading urban planners plan the city? ...where education and knowledge are more powerful than ignorance?

Of course I'm aware of the adage that if you let the someone take an inch, they'll take a mile; the implication being that I shouldn't be so eager to give away my hard-earned civil liberties. And of course I'm sure my position would be much different if I were an oppressed minority. If I were Indian or Malay, why would I want to live in Chinese-dominated Singapore where the government is much less likely to do things that I agree with? But I'm not. I'm a foreign-educated Chinese person. And I could probably stretch my personal capital much further in Singapore than in the U.S., where I'm less desirable.

I don't know if I ever will live in Singapore again, but the important thing is that I am not outright dismissing it as an option any more. When I was younger, my parents told me to keep my Hong Kong ID updated in case I ever go back to work in the future. At the time, I thought that was insane; why would I ever leave North America? But the current state of the U.S. and the high quality of life in Asia (coupled with attractive avenues for future research) have led me to re-think things. Who really needs to chew gum, anyway?


  1. But then your breath will be stinky from garlic

  2. I just gotta point out that things aren't anywhere near that rosy for everyone in Singapore. Yeah, it's easy-peas if you're the majority and Chinese, or have the benefits of white privilege. If you're a migrant worker from Sri Lanka or the Philippines, or even at points in time an uneducated Malay, life isn't easy. And if you point those kinds of things out, you could get sued by the government for libel. I'd provide evidence, but I'm too lazy right now. My point is that western democracy is not really true democracy, and right now things are shitty so it all looks even worse, but hey, we're further along than other countries! At least we can point out who is being wronged, and not get sued for it.

  3. Yes that's true. There are at least systems in place in North America where justice as we understand it can be doled out. So you've got to weigh that against the benefits of living in Asia.

    Maybe I'd be happy just not rocking the boat in Singapore. Or maybe I'll go crazy under the tyranny of oppression.