By S. Callikan
For the sake of new generations and our adolescent youths, confronted weekly during the past few years by a new scandal chasing the previous one, no matter should be more important than to restore trust in the country’s institutions, its political class…
Candidate Donald J. Trump, among his signature campaign slogans pledged to ‘Make America Great Again’ and rid the country of the “swamp” in Washington, a reference to the widespread popular feeling that US lawmakers, lobbyists and advisors entrenched in the capital, were cut off from ground realities, insensitive to national interests or embroiled in so much political bickering and bargaining that they turned out to be corrupt, inept or ineffectual at their jobs, if not a combination of all three.
The far-right, the evangelicals, the remnants of the Tea Party radicals and even the Russians, Saudis and Israelis exulted: a man at last to their liking, riding the disenchantment with globalised liberal economies on the twin waves of populism and parochial nationalism. They don’t really care that the “swamp” has only been broadened by a new bunch of Trump loyalists and appointees, half of whom are such dubious characters that they have been indicted for white-collar crime and are busy plea-bargaining in various courts.
Neither did French or UK voters care very much about the risks pregnant in the outcome when, in their separate disenchantments, the former resolutely having ditched all traditional political parties (except notably the Lepen fold) now face the unending stream of “Gilets Jaunes” discontent and the latter, having endorsed Brexit, are locked since the past two years in gnawingly complex divorce negotiations with the European Union.
Some may say that’s the price of a democratic change of guard in the Western economies, something neither Presidents Putin, Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un have to contend with. In non-communist, autocratic states or states run by the army or their stooges, very few countries can claim the remarkable resilience and stability of Germany or Singapore, both reputed for their cultural aversion to social upheavals and about-turns, if we go by the political longevity of Chancellor Merkel and the People’s Action Party – a major centre-right political party in Singapore -, despite the ups and downs of their respective economies under globalisation conditions.
If the political leaderships and these two countries have had the invaluable assets of planning, policy and human resource development horizons that are exceptional for most functional democracies, these did not result simply from cultural predispositions, however strong. Would their people, for instance, be as quiescent if they didn’t have a fundamental element of trust, namely that their government, whatever the conjectural difficulties, was working for the common rather than the particular good?
Would they find unrelenting vendettas extending to political opponents and businesses acceptable? Would they entertain the thought that those of their institutions vital to that element of democratic trust and to a collective sense of nationhood, even when manned by political appointees, could fail basic tests of credibility and independence?
Would they tolerate the privileges and perks, the abusive level of back-packing ministers and even higher up, the life-time pensions of the political super-structure or a tightly knit “inner circle” of family and friends who scramble for the most lucrative chairmanships and directorships in key boards that, to compound matters, are generally unanswerable to the public? Or those fortunate prodigies who find employment, recruitment and promotion, by virtue of being coincidentally the progeny or the immediate relative of a select clan-member?
Would they be flabbergasted that the recommendations of a high-profile Commission of Enquiry on Drugs be shelved to discrete oblivion or that numerous fact-finding committees on various misdemeanours of the nomenklatura hobble along, raising some media attention every now and then? One could go on.
We are no Singapore, and our Westminster parliamentary model, as touted by the Attorney General, amongst others, looks like a fig-leaf. Fortunately, the population still trusts the judiciary as last resort and the Office of the DPP has calmly weathered the political mongrels and the dawn raid squads. Our system of political “alternance”, with few or no opportunities to voice concerns other than at general elections, comes therefore at a price. Traditionally, one could expect that incomers replace the chairmanships and perhaps a number of key CEOs but mostly meritocracy and transparency, rather than political loyalty, would continue to prevail otherwise.
The past few years have demonstrated how far that traditional system can be easily thwarted, particularly when disenchantment and populism of a real but modest level in the population have ushered in a lop-sided parliament, replete with its loud mouths and mischief-makers and which embarked on an over-riding partisan logic of its own making. Is it any comfort that many of the offenders may not get a ticket at the forthcoming elections but may be offered alternative “compensation” should their team be returned to office?
That looks, sounds and smells like a “swamp” from which we may have difficulty extricating ourselves. And yet, for the sake of new generations and our adolescent youths, confronted weekly during the past few years by a new scandal chasing the previous one without meaningful penalties, no matter should be more important than to restore trust in the country’s institutions, its political class and the reliable equity of its processes.
In the context of the “Gilets Jaunes” manifestations in France, it may come as a shock that large segments of the French population and more than 35% of its own disenchanted youth find it normal to use violence to defend their interests, to attack police or to express hate openly. That is obviously a more complex reality than ours. But warning signs abound that lawlessness within our best colleges, private or public, adolescent violence at public places and bus stations, recklessness against symbols of authority, consumption and trade of nefarious, illicit substances are on a disturbing upward trend.
They should not be ignored and it is still time for a “sursaut”. Perhaps through an “Assises de la délinquance juvénile” to be set up by the next government and regrouping all state actors and ministries, psychological and sociological observers and NGOs, evolving a coordinated strategy and an action plan for the short- and mid-term horizons. But that would need political leadership and a driver getting hold of the process.
* Published in print edition on 18 October 2019