IS it part of innate human nature to want change, even for its own sake? Much of modern political thinking seems to hinge on it; that it is unquestionably healthy to have periodic political change and that this is best done the democratic way via the medium of elections.
That, at least superficially, seems to be what so energises the young in Hong Kong where, for weeks now, they have braved perhaps an equally determined government to take to the streets in protest.
What started out as a protest against an extradition bill some regarded as a way to muzzle political dissent in the special Chinese autonomous region has morphed into a perennial clamour in recent years: universal suffrage to freely elect Hong Kong’s top political leader.
This naturally sets the city in direct confrontation with the national government in Beijing over exactly what the “one-country, two-systems” formulation that facilitated Hong Kong’s handover from British colonial rule means.
The political tumult enveloping Hong Kong is not lost on another Asian city, Singapore. The city-state is undergoing a carefully planned political transition out of the Lee family where father (Kuan Yew) and son (Hsien Loong) have dominated government for most of its independent existence. Or is it?
A wrenching Lee family feud has finally taken a political turn with a new party — the Progress Singapore Party — whose acronym, PSP, has a suspiciously familiar ring given that the only ruling party Singaporeans have known since independence is the People’s Action Party (PAP).
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s younger brother, Hsien Yang, has publicly endorsed the PSP. Hsien Yang may or may not be a candidate for his country’s upcoming general election but his very endorsement of PSP may be comforting especially to older, conservative and more risk-averse Singaporeans.
His endorsement statement gives a hint that he is squarely banking on positioning the PSP as the “true” torchbearer of his father’s political legacy.
It will, of course, be a tall order for anyone — even someone surnamed Lee — to take on the forbiddingly formidable political machine that is the PAP, which ordinarily leaves almost nothing to chance. So why is there even a taker for such an unenviable task?
Maybe it does not look as unenviable as it appears? Some of the same issues that animates political debate in Malaysia can find a Singapore echo: rising costs of living and too many foreign workers being staples.
But there is also something distinctly Singaporean: a younger generation trying to make sense of the seemingly unremitting daily struggle to get ahead economically.
For example, the contradiction is highlighted between public policy encouraging the birth of more Singaporeans and an almost unforgiving work culture that makes anything resembling a normal family life for young working adults almost impossible. Monetary inducements, it is contended, are no substitutes for enforced absentee parenting of young children.
This is possibly an intractable Singapore problem that even a change in government may not produce satisfying alternative solutions. In a dog-eat-dog international economic environment, Singapore probably has little room for any government or popular let-up.
Yet the hankering for change of some sort is almost palpable. Young Hong Kong citizens believing that theirs is a life-long fate of hard toil to the disproportionate benefit of the rich land-owning and property-developing class and taking to the streets because they feel little stake in an ostensibly prosperous city may have something in common with their Singapore peers.
But political change for change’s sake seems counter-intuitive in both Asian financial hubs which, if anything, are exceptions that disprove the general democratic theory that a full panoply of political checks and balances is the only real guarantee of exemplary good governance.
Strict adherence to the rule of law may be the better guarantor of good governance if the history of these two cities is any guide. Governments in both appear to be doing their utmost lately to disabuse their populations of any notions that rule-of-law adherence and full-fledged democratic politics are inextricably linked.
In fact, if Malaysia’s recent political developments and those in advanced Western democracies are any guide, political checks and balances that had in the past served as important guardrails against egregious governance lapses or poor political judgements have failed us quite spectacularly.
It was Malaysian voters in the end who acted as the decisive arbiter and bulwark against such lapses. Even so, success was never preordained. A few more chapters on governance theory and practice may yet be written.
The writer views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak