MJC Prelim 2014: Do you agree the key to good governance is the courage to make unpopular decisions?

Niccolò Machiavelli famously promulgated in his landmark treatise, ‘The Prince’, that ‘a Prince (leader in our modern definitions) if made to choose between being feared or loved should choose the former. Politics has always been a game of winning the hearts of the vox populi. This quest, however, inevitably involves making game-changing decisions that could lead to a possible loss in subsequent elections. Then comes the question in the minds of political pundits – popular to unpopular, stability or fear? All decisions come with strings attached, and it is undeniable that good governance is characterised by one that can manage these costs so as to maximise benefits to the citizens. Therefore, I provisionally opine that the key to good governance is, indeed, the courage to make unpopular decisions.

Unpopular decisions, if used as a quick and effective way to salvage the country from conflict, is certainly the true mark of good governance. In times of conflict between the different factions of society, unpopular decisions that might spark fear among the masses would eventually lead to stability. This is best manifested when the First Emperor of China, Shi Huang Di, who was commonly knows as a tyrannical despot, brutally unified China through war, burning centuries of Chinese literature and killing erudite scholars. Before Shi Huang Di, China was made up of nothing but petty feudal states locked up in wars of stalemate. After Shi Huang Di, China had a common language and a basis for understanding, allowing China to flourish economically. Another pertinent example is that of Paul Kagame of Rwanda. His military movements attacked the Hutu element of the 1994 genocide and pushed them out of Kigali. Once the Hutu element was removed, he declared a total end to violence. To draw lessons from these episodes, it is conclusive that when unpopular decisions are made to persecute certain groups of people, the country could be actually bound for stability in the long run. This is essentially what good governance is – the astuteness to know when to turn to harsh measures to resolve a conflict for the overall benefit of society.

Upon further thought, it must also be noted that unpopular decisions could be the main sentiment of marginalised groups because they do not have the strength in numbers to make that decision ‘popular’. Thus, unpopular decisions can ensure that the needs of the minority groups are addressed, which is another true mark of good governance, for it reduces inequalities and thus there likelihood of war. For instance, Singapore’s decision to start the annual Pink Dot at Hong Lim Park was initially faced with much resistance from the majority of straight, conservative Singaporeans as some felt that this event, to support the freedom to love, would result in more homosexual marriages which deviates greatly from the traditional Asian values. Nonetheless, the decision to host Pink Dot was approved to ensure that the minority gay comnmunity inSingapore was not ostracised. This is surely a true sign of good governance because Singapore is able to build a more inclusive and harmonious society.

Unpopular decisions also have to be made in times of economic hardship for the overall benefit of the nation. The concept of opportunity cost comes to mind when talking about economics, for one person’s interests have to inevitably be sacrificed. For example, in the US, the Recovery Act, which cost Americans over $800 billion in spending in an 18-month period and the Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform Act were met with great resistance because of the tax implications, but allowed America to transit from economic crisis to recovery. Additionally, the Recovery Act improved more than 6,000 miles of rail networks. Thus, during times of economic recession, governments have to, by the law of economics, raise taxes. Although this inevitably results in public discontentment, good governance is precisely about losing some popularity now in exchange for more popularity later, with the eventual success of that unpopular policy.

However, the natural corollary to the aforementioned arguments would be for apologists to contend that unpopular decisions could in fact lower the popularity of the government when the majority start to develop anti-government views. This is because the majority are perhaps the most influential stratum in society and can turn their backs on the political parties that they have initially supported if their needs are not met. For instance, China’s decision to heavily censor the Internet was highly unpopular as citizens felt that they wold be deprived of the happenings in the rest of the world. Any comments online that spread anti-government sentiments about the Chinese Communist Party are immediately deleted. Yet, this certainly goes against the very essence of good governance by infringing on the basic freedom of speech of the people. If the citizens do not have access anti-government material, how then can they be critical citizens who are politically active and participate in public discourse, for the overall benefit of the country? Having said that, it is undeniable that good governance is characterised by the ability to manage the feelings of the people and ensure that they do not get out of hand, which could then tarnish the credibility of the government on the global scale. (MARKER’S COMMENTS: But unpopular decisions do not necessarily means that it is poor governance. Link to the question.)

In conclusion, while I must concede that popular decisions are still, in some way, the key to good governance,  it is undoubtedly true that the most successful counties of today, like Singapore, the UK and the US, are characterised by the ability to make unpopular decisions to maximise society’s benefits in the long run.

Score: 34/50

Marker’s comments: Fairly well written. Your examples lack breadth/width. You can talk a lot more about Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel and Winston Churchill – leaders who made difficult and unpopular decisions at the risk of losing elections but for the collective national interests. Rebuttals need to be stronger for your counter-argument paragraph.


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