Thursday, December 29, 2005

*A system of trust or a system of checks and balances?*

I was going to do something on quantum mechanics and 'entanglement' i.e. the situation where a particle may be occupying two diametrically opposing states, in this case, spinning clockwise and counter-clockwise until the quatum collapses into a single state. This was Einstein's so-called 'spooky' science, which he demonstrated through mathematical formalism in a bid to discredit the theory. Well, we now know that while the law of big things (i.e. the standard physical laws of nature we observe) is, um, non-spooky, at the level of the very small, it is indeed, spooky.

Anyway, I was browsing Todayonline when I came across this letter which was interesting to say the least. In less polite terms, what the hell is he saying? But the $1 million dollar question is, does it even address the supposed issue he raises? The most ironic point to be made is that TI ranks us at number 5 in the world.

See through transparency
Quality of leadership more important than following openness trend for governance

Letter from Chong Lee Ming

How might the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) episode impact Singaporeans' perspective on public governance?
The Singapore Government upholds the principle that the key to good public governance is to have leaders who are beyond reproach ? honest, trustworthy, incorruptible. Most Singaporeans support this.

> Well, I suppose if it could be considered that the people who actually get to vote in elections are representative of the rest of the electorate, then this assertion does stand. But then again, who DOESN'T support this? No one wants to vote in corrupt governments who go around abusing them, unless you are in Zimbabwe and Mugabe says vote for him or he will plunge the country into civil war. Oh and the fact that he uses hunger as a politicking tool by withholding food aid to opposition wards in a famine stricken country .

Some foreigners, on the other hand, like to point out that Singapore falls short in certain areas they deem essential for good public governance, such as unconditional freedom of media and transparency of information.
> It's a strawman argument here. No one calls for 'unconditional' freedom of media, the media will always be subject to some form of regulatory control, mostly through the form of libel laws premised upon the more fundamental notion that even so-called fundamental rights can be abrogated when a compelling interest can be demonstrated.
> But on a more basic level, the freedom of media is part of a fundamental right to the freedom of speech and expression. Together with transparancy of information, they make up what is known as institutional checks and balances. Something that we'll come back to later in this letter.

So will the NKF saga cause a major shift in emphasis from the quality of leaders to the principle of transparency?
> Is there a dicotomy here at all? A false one maybe.

It has been pointed out in this newspaper that the NKF episode underlined the importance of "openness at the highest level". But I would be concerned if Singaporeans were prepared to compromise on the quality of leaders for the sake of transparency.
> This is a classic non-sequitor. How does it follow that just because we introduce more transparency, we will suddenly compromise on the quality of our leaders? If nothing else, it ensures the quality of our leaders instead of trusting them to remain non-corrupt in the face of power. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, a system based on trust tends to fail because of this all to real axiom. Hence, institutional checks and balances are much more likely to generate good goverance than relying on the emergence of a class of philosopher-kings or Jun-zi (Gentlemen).

In particular, I am worried they may support opportunists who ride on this "openness" fad.
> It's a fad? Wow, this just beggers belief. In a manner of speaking, it really is no different from demanding an audit and that the reports and company documents be available for inspection by members of the public. It's not a fad, it's reality. In fact, what might be tolerable in one or two companies is definately not the case if it infects your entire political system.

A case in point is Taiwan, where the relentless pursuit of democracy and freedom of the media have thrown up leaders of less desirable moral character.
> Eh? Non-sequitor here. Hell, maybe even a case of post hoc propter egro hoc. Just because one thing occurs after another, doesn't mean the first thing caused the second.
> And I find it terribly hard to believe that the current democratically elected members and president are less desirable morally compared to the corrupt dictatorial regime that predated them. KMT under Chiang Kai Shek and military rule anyone?
> This is thrown into greater relief in South Korea, they threw an ex-president (non democratically elected) and his son into jail on charges of corruption. Something unthinkable and much more so impossible without something called accountability through gee, democracy, freedom of the media and transparency.

Some may argue that the checks and balances arising from a transparent system would be sufficient to assure the quality of leaders. I am not sure real-world experience, both in the developed and developing countries, supports this.
> *Snigger*. Is it a wonder that autocratic and dictatorial regimes which do not have a system of checks and balances are the most corrupt and least transparent in the world? Not to mention some of the most repressive and oppresive in the world e.g. Zimbabwe, North Korea, Syria, Myanmar. Either that, or they are failed states.
> GEEEEEE!!!!! Urgh, how do people get away with asserting the most inane things wihtout substantiating it?

An obsession with transparency will lead to greater demands on the Government to explain its actions. People might expect the Government to investigate thoroughly every single allegation even frivolous ones.
> Should not the government have to explain its actions to the electorate, the people who voted them in and from whom they get their powers? Frivolity of issue is a very minor annoyance compared to the very real gains that one gets. It is a small price to pay for checks and balances and knowing what is going on in your name.

A "fault finding" culture could develop. This will drain public resources and affect the effectiveness of the government.
> And the converse? Without it, you most likely get corruption and autocracy and the people suffer. Which is more probable now?

Another consequence of erosion of public confidence in leaders is that it will become more difficult for leaders to introduce tough and unpopular policies. The difficulties faced by the French and German governments in addressing the high unemployment rates in their countries is such an example.
> Transparency and the lack of accountability will erode public confidence much faster. Not to mention, the onus is on the government to persuade people that change is necessary. Freedom of information insofar as people trust the information can in fact be the catalyst of that change.
> Such policies are difficult to push through maybe because they cause suffering and are therefore unpopular perhaps? But the problem in France was that the political leaders did have the stomach to carry through the change. In Germany, the existing political system makes it harder to carry out change. But nevertheless there has been change as people realise that short term suffering is necessary for the long term future.
> Anyway, with the exception of Singapore, most Authoratiarian governments have had and still have a piss poor economic performance.

The NKF episode has pointed out certain weaknesses in our system, but how we address them should be handled cautiously and maturely.
> How about we stop blindly trusting people to do good just because they are in power? This entire episode has been a fantastic case study of the lack of corporate governance due in part to the lack of transparency and we are fortunately in the sense that this emerged now rather than later. Like most institutions, the people that make up the institutions i.e. the agents forget about the purpose of the institution and set out to either enrich themselves or the institution itself.
> And I think schools should teach logic.

So with that little jaunt through a letter that doesn't seem logically coherent, I bid one and all a good day.




At 1:32 PM, Blogger gambitch said...

The Chiang Kai-shek era is a poor example to cite, I suspect, because of the political conditions of the time. Perhaps a more meaningful comparison would be to look at the Chiang Ching-kuo era.

But frankly, having casually observed Taiwan politics in the last ten years or so, I think it would be reasonable to suggest that they've got a pretty lousy government in terms of getting things done. They've overembraced the wrong parts about democracy, and they seem quite happy to keep it going.

I think too many people are too caught up in the politics of ideology to actually measure in terms of getting things done. In that regard, I think the Chiang Ching-kuo government fares rather better than the Chen Shui-bian government. Whose fault that is I wouldn't say.

At 9:00 AM, Blogger Shaun Lee said...

Well I do agree that the fighting in the parliament is disgraceful but it's a stable, prosperous and progressive country.

After all, there is a legitimate debate about independence and the citizens can actually act on their desires.


Post a Comment

<< Home