Elections not enough? We also need referendums

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By Vignesh Louis Naidu

referendumA couple of weeks ago, Zurich opened its first drive-through sex boxes. These were built by the state to provide prostitutes a clean and safe environment to work from and to move prostitution out of the main streets of Zurich. The project cost the state $2.1 million to install and $749,000 to run annually. The residents of Zurich are generally supportive of the government’s decision, which was based on a referendum.

A referendum is an interesting tool that democracies can choose to utilize. In a referendum, the electorate can support or oppose a policy proposal. When democracy first flourished in classical Athens, it was a system of direct democracy where all eligible citizens were allowed to directly participate in policy crafting. As countries got larger, more diverse and complex, democracy adapted to its most common present form, a representative democracy. In a representative democracy the electorate chooses its leaders and representatives in regular elections.

In the mid-800s the Swiss added the ability to hold referendums into their state and federal constitutions.

Many countries have since used referendums to decide on critical national issues. Even Singapore held a referendum regarding the decision to join the Malayan Federation. The Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD) did a study on the use of referendums in Asia. The study covered 35 countries in Asia including Australia and New Zealand. Singapore was classified as “a country that is quite unfriendly to initiatives and referenda”. This put Singapore together with countries such as China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and North Korea.

In the last decade the Singapore government has had to make many critical decisions that have in some instances contradicted earlier policy stances. A prime example would be the decision to allow casinos. When the idea of opening a casino had been previously mooted, the government took a very strong stance against it. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew famously said that there would only be a casino in Singapore over his dead body.

The government had highly charged debates regarding the decision. Many PAP members spoke against casinos. Religious leaders united to petition the government to reconsider the decision. Many economists, on the other hand, spoke about the economic benefits of casinos. The issue was debated online and offline, in coffeshops and swanky bars. The decision to allow casinos was seen as  a wholehearted embrace of capitalism and the final nail in the coffin of our socialist past.

Did the government ever consider holding a referendum on this matter? After all the debates in parliament and the media, could the government have not called on the citizens to make the final decision? Today many people accuse the government of having disregarded public opinion and taken a unilateral decision to allow casinos. A referendum would have ensured the outcome reflected the views of the majority.

The government has in recent months talked about the “silent majority”. The decision to embark on “Our Singapore Conversation” was meant to capture their voice. What better way to make them heard than through a referendum?

If the government does decide to seriously consider using referendums to give Singaporeans a greater say, we have to be cautious. We cannot resort to a referendum every time a controversial or politically challenging decision needs to be made. We should only conduct a referendum on issues that affect the threads that bind the fabric of our city-state. The government should allow the citizenry the ability to initiate a referendum but should ensure that requirements are sufficient but not excessively onerous. Many countries that hold referendums cloak their options in political and technical jargon making the average citizen feel that there is only one feasible choice. Singapore should ensure that referendums do not become tools that political parties can capture. The citizens should be presented with a simple choice; Yes or No.

A current issue that could be decided through a referendum would be, whether Section 377(A) of the penal code should be repealed. This is an issue that is very personal and important to various groups in society. There are the LGBT activists who want it repealed and more conservative groups who believe that we as a society are not ready to decriminalize homosexuality. The two major political parties have not taken a very strong stand on the issue. It is not a very political issue but has to do with our social values. It would be great if the people were allowed to make an informed decision. At the end of the day the argument made against any possible repeal is that the majority of Singaporeans are not that accepting of homosexuality.

So let’s find out!

Vignesh Louis Naidu is a young and passionate Singaporean who recently completed the Master of Public Policy course at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.