Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Seng Han Thong (MP), Senator Arlen Specter, Healthcare Reform and the People’s Voice

The current debate about healthcare reform in the US is heating up.

As US politicians canvas their constituencies, they are not always received with deference.

The experience of US Democratic Senator Arlen Specter is a case in point. (Please watch a video his recent Town Hall meeting on You Tube.)

UK, England, London, Big Ben and Houses of Parliament at dusk

Big Ben and Britain's Houses of Parliament at dusk

It is interesting to speculate how a (similar) scenario where a people's representative is almost jeered off the podium may have played itself out in the different political climates of Pakistan, Singapore or the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

A hypothetical picture could look as follows (in alphabetical order by country).

Pakistan: If constituents can locate the whereabouts of their elected Member of the National Assembly (MNA) then they deserve a medal! Once the Parliamentarian is located the next obstacle will be to get past the MNA's security contingent. Once past and if the MNA is heard speaking (on anything!) then the likely coherence of the MNA's statement means that the constituent really has only two choices – kill himself or the elected representative (aka suicide or suicide bombing). Western human rights activists, please note that Pakistan is now a functioning democracy and President Zardari is an elected civilian President!

Singapore: It is a fact that all Singapore Members of Parliament have a regular 'meet the public' session in their respective constituencies. This is standard fare in an 'urban village' where local issues are dealt with effectively at the grassroots level. Singapore's social contract is unique in that it tends to be an inclusive society and most major issues are handled after a national consensus, no doubt 'guided' by the ruling party, reached. It may sound odd, but in a country where an MP (Mr. Seng Han Thong) has been (literally) set aflame by a disgruntled constituent it is unlikely that an elected representative of the ruling party will be jeered aggressively in a town hall setting.

The UAE: The 'majlis' is where leaders and other notables meet with their 'flock.' Like Singapore, most issues are generally handled at the local level by a combination of government functionaries and tribal elders. Any problem that looks set to become serious means the government will throw enough money at it to suitably address the matter before the status quo is placed at risk. In a society where local citizens have their every need satisfied, to the extent of receiving a generous grant to assist with marriage arrangements, grievances are few and far between. That is possibly why traffic accidents and the resulting deaths is a bigger political tinderbox than health care.

Democracy is found in many forms and the Social Contract between a nation's leaders and population is often an emotional bond that does not lend itself easily to rational discourse.

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