Posts Tagged ‘Singapore’

Corruption and Democracy: Disputing Neera Chandhoke

April 17, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

We have the opportunity to improve our understanding of corruption, democracy and the relationship between them by examining critically the views of Professor Neera Chandhoke outlined recently in connection with the Anna Hazare campaign.

In The Seeds of Authoritarianism, Chandhoke articulates two fundamental positions. First, the establishment of a Jan Lokpal is not democratic and carries within it the seeds of authoritarianism. Although Singapore has controlled corruption, it is not a preferred model because it ‘does not respect the two prime fundamentals of democracy as India does: popular sovereignty and the equal moral status of citizens.’ Therefore, corruption in India needs to be addressed within the procedures and norms mandated in the Constitution.

Second, Anna Hazare’s political beliefs are questionable because he has expressed a low opinion of the voter by saying that some sell their votes; contempt for the voter defies the ‘very rationale for democracy and that of its very claim to legitimacy, that of equal moral status.’ Political democracy, despite all its flaws, has empowered voters to influence political behavior.

We can begin our engagement with these positions by stating the obvious. First, democracy has been in existence in India for over sixty years; it has not been able to eliminate, reduce or even restrain corruption. Corruption has grown by leaps and bounds in tandem with the growth of the economy.

Second, although corruption as an issue agitates and angers every citizen, there seems no reason to believe that democracy as practiced in India would be able to translate this anger into meaningful political action in the future any better than it has in the past.

There are two questions here: Why is this so and what is to be done? Chandhoke does not provide an answer to either.

The reason for this inability, in my view, is that while Chandhoke focuses on the reality of corruption, she seeks her solutions in the practice of an ideal democracy. Despite an early acknowledgement that India’s democracy ‘is deeply flawed in many crucial respects’ she moves on to argue that ‘the proposed solutions for a corruption-free India that are currently on offer might not be democratic at all.’

But what we have to work with is a deeply flawed democracy and the fact of the matter is that in this democracy we have not been able to find a way to channel the deepest desires of voters into effective political outcomes. It is also a matter of fact that votes are traded in this deeply flawed democracy; much evidence was available earlier and more confirmation is provided by the latest revelations from Wikileaks. To state this fact can only be considered contempt for the citizen in a moral framework that values political correctness over truth.

Another perspective on this reality can lead one to argue that voters are rational; they consider the compensation for their vote the best deal they can get out of a deeply flawed democracy. The hope that a vote cast entirely on the basis of ideas can deliver results seems a fairy tale to most voters given the reality with which they are intimately familiar. Popular sovereignty and equal moral status are fine as ideals but woefully wanting in their lived reality. A contrarian position would argue that respect for the citizens requires an acknowledgement rather than a denial of the circumstances that compel them to trade their votes.

It is equally obvious that in India it is ‘non-democratic’ mechanisms like fasts to death that channel popular concerns much more effectively that ‘democratic’ ones as has been witnessed by the outcome of the Anna Hazare campaign – it has put public representatives on the defensive in a way no other mechanism has in the past. We should be learning from what works and asking why rather than being concerned more with what ought to work.

If we start with the reality of what clearly works much more effectively, we can move to the subsequent stage of thinking how such mechanisms can be institutionalized so that they become more compatible with popular sovereignty and less susceptible to authoritarianism. Referenda on single issues and the ability to recall individual public officials would make up for some of the flaws that cripple the democratic process as it exists today. This could be extended, perhaps, to directly electing the governors of the Jan Lokpal that may come into existence in the future.

Related to this discussion is Chandhoke’s comparative evaluation of Singapore and India. After mentioning that “[t]he island-state has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, possesses a world-class educational and health system, and boasts of an incorruptible public service’ she expresses her preference for India because of the latter’s adherence to  the two prime fundamentals of democracy, popular sovereignty and the equal moral status of citizens. One could argue that such a preference itself cannot be imposed via an authoritarian choice. It too should be the outcome of a democratic expression of opinion.

The point is that the preference for popular sovereignty and equal moral status over a world-class educational and health system and an incorruptible public service is not independent of one’s station in life. One can’t eat popular sovereignty and equal moral status, nor, it seems, can one translate them into outcomes that would put enough on the table over a reasonable period of time. We will not belabor the point here because we have covered it adequately in earlier posts – Would You Wish to be a Chinese in China? and Is Singapore a Successful City?

The conclusion we arrive at is that the starting point of any analysis or proposal for reform should be the reality of democracy as it exists in India today and an understanding of how and why it frustrates the translation of popular desires into political outcomes. There is something not quite right in saying that a democracy that has half the population at starvation levels for over sixty years is still preferable to an authoritarian state that has transformed ‘a malaria-infested swamp to an economic powerhouse.’ Such a choice between life and death should not be made on behalf of starving people without their consent.

Of course, this is presenting the argument very starkly in order to highlight what is at stake in the alleged choice between democracy and authoritarianism. The real challenge is to move beyond pointing to the superiority of an ideal democracy. It is to incorporate into the practice of democracy as it exists in India today the mechanisms that allow citizens to make their desires matter and their voices heard. Mechanisms that ensure accountability and are themselves accountable are steps in the right direction.

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Singapore: Evidence from Bollywood

January 14, 2009

Picking up on a story in the New York Times we had suggested a counterintuitive hypothesis about Singapore – that despite the fact that it is considered one of the most successful cities in the world it could have a lot of unhappy citizens whose dissatisfactions were going unregistered and failing to affect its approval ratings.

A reader had asked why, if that were the case, the citizens were not protesting and making their voices heard? We had provided a speculative answer applicable to all cities but kept wondering if there was some real evidence we could bring to support our position.

Such evidence is very hard to find and the frustration was mounting till we had a brainwave – when in doubt, turn to Bollywood. Bollywood captures perfectly the mood and spirit of the times and records the major changes that occur along the way. So, if we were looking for the unhappiness of citizens that does not get captured in measures of urban success, we would have a good chance of finding it in the movies.

Aakar Patel has captured this aspect of Bollywood well in his claim that Indians often discover India through the movies. As late as 1964, the year Nehru died, India made movies in which politicians were noble (e.g., Dilip Kumar’s Leader). By the time of Rajiv Gandhi’s election in 1984, Indian’s believed that India could change but the vile politicians who were standing in the way were the villains of Bollywood. By the turn of the century, the economic optimism generated by Manmohan Singh had led the Indian middle class to disengage from both politics and the state – hence Shahrukh Khan and movies like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Ghum and Kal Ho Na Ho.

So what did we discover in Bollywood about urban life and the feelings of citizens?

Plenty, it turns out. For example there was the story that when Nehru had given a speech in which he had remarked “I am proud of India”, Guru Dutt asked Sahir to work the line into the refrain of a song. This was the result:

yeh kuuchey, yeh niilaam-ghar dilkashii ke
yeh luTTey huuay karvaan zindagii ke
kahaaN haiN, kahaaN hain, muhaafiz khudii ke
jinheN naaz hai Hind par who kahaan haiN?

these streets, these auction houses of pleasure
these looted caravans of life
where are they, the guardians of self hood?
those who are proud of India, where are they?

This taunt was followed by a harsh indictment of the national leadership:

zara mulk ke rahbaron ko bulaao!
yeh kuuchey, yeh galiyaaN, yeh manzar dikhaao!
jinheN naaz hai Hind par unko laao!
jinheN naaz hai Hind par who kahaaN haiN?

go, fetch the leaders of the nation!
show them these streets, these lanes, these sights!
call them, those who are proud of India!
those who are proud of India, where are they?

What was the response to the expressions of these sentiments?

“This mode of filmmaking soon ran into problems. The censor board, now under the control of the Indian government, kicked into gear, reflecting the government’s hyper-sensitivity towards any reference to people’s struggles, particularly in the cause of socialism…. The lyrics of phir subah hogii were considered so radical that two songs from the film were banned for a while.”

One of them was a parody of the famous Iqbal poem saarey jahan se achchhaa Hindostan hamaaraa (our India is better than the rest of the world):

Cheen-o Arab hamaaraa, Hindostan hamaaraa,
rahney ko gahr nahiiN hai, saaraa jahaN hamaaraa!

China and Arabia are ours, so is India
yet we have no home to live in; the whole world is ours!

jitnii bhii bildingeN theeN, seThoN ne baanT lii haiN
fuTpaath Bambaii ke, haiN ashiiyaaN hamaaraa

the wealthy have distributed all the buildings among themselves,
while we are left to take refuge on the footpaths of Bombay.

“These songs reflect a disenchantment of the urban poor with the state. The ban came into effect around the time of the second parliamentary elections and was not repealed till 1966.”

So here we have it: the proclamation of success by the leaders and the elites, the protests of the poor, and the silencing of their voices.

Case closed.

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The material in the text is from the chapter by Ali Mir (Hindi film songs and the progressive aesthetic) in the book Indian Literature and Popular Cinema edited by Heidi RM Pauwels, Routledge, 2008.

Is Singapore a Successful City?

January 8, 2009

What a question? Is there any doubt? Singapore is seen as the poster child of successful urban and economic development.

But it is good to revisit such certainties, if only to reassure oneself that the case continues to hold.

The reason for this particular revisit springs from an article in the New York Times published on January 3, 2009 (Singapore Prepares to Gobble Up its Last Village). Readers should look at the short article which describes how Singapore’s last village (Kampong Buangkok – 28 houses in an area the size of three football fields) is being acquired for high-rise development.

Three statements reflecting three perspectives stand out in the article:

The Government: “We will need to optimize land use, whether it is though reclamation, building upwards or using subterranean space.”

The owner: “If there’s a change, I won’t have my friends any more,” she said, but added: “We must not cling on to things. If the government wants to take the land, they will take it.”

The citizen: In modern Singapore, few neighbors know each other, said Sarimah Cokol, 50, who grew up in Kampong Buangkok and now lives in one of the apartments that people here call pigeonholes. “Open door, close door,” she said in the terse speech of no-nonsense Singapore. “After work, go in. Close door.

These statements provide us the frame for our revisit. What we take away is that the government is focused on optimizing land use, the owner feels helpless against the State, and the citizen is unhappy with the outcome.

So, how do we look at the choices and tradeoffs implicit in this story? First, Singapore is renowned for the efficiency of its land use. But is efficiency everything? Should we forget that we are dealing with human beings in the pursuit of efficiency? Would it be preferable to give up some efficiency for a little bit more happiness? If so, how much?

Could the starting point be wrong? A successful city might not be one with the highest land use efficiency or the highest GDP growth but one with the most satisfied and unafraid citizens. How would we rate Singapore if this became our criterion for urban success?

Let us begin with the owner who is 55 years old. If there is a change, she will not have her friends anymore – she clearly does not wish to sell. Could there be some compromise at the cost of some land use efficiency? Could only part of the village be developed now and the rest after the owner reaches an age when she wishes to move voluntarily or dies? Have we lost the imagination to think in these terms? If so, is that a good thing?

And then look at it from the perspective of the citizens living in what they call pigeonholes. That is not a description of happiness but of resignation – a one-word verdict on the model of development. Should we be listening to these voices? Would they have preferred a slightly less rich Singapore that gave them slightly more room to live?

Suppose, East Asia were to become like the European Union with the choice to live anywhere in the region and suppose there was a rapid transit link between Singapore and Johor Bahru across the strait in Malaysia. How many Singaporeans would prefer to live in Johor Bahru and commute to work in Singapore? Have we tried to elicit that opinion?

This lack of choice, this constrained unhappiness, the feelings of helplessness are not revealed to us by the statistics of GDP per capita that we use to measure success. But these are dimensions we should think about too because, in the end, life is about people. People do not exist to maximize the GDP of cities; cities exist to give people the kind of lives they want for themselves.

If we look at cities through this lens, which cities would you rank as the five most successful cities in the world? Or to make it more concrete, if nothing else in your life changed (you had the same assets, the same education, the same skills), only there was freedom to live in any city of the world, what would be your first five choices in order of preference?

Would these two lists be the same? If not, why not?

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