The idea of democracy as a form of government first appeared in ancient Greece in the city-state of Athens during classical antiquity. The word democracy comes from the Greek demos ‘common people’ and kratos ‘strength’. It is a system where people get to choose their leaders. This is in contrast to other forms of government like monarchy, oligarchy or aristocracy.
In a democratic government, decisions are no longer made by select members of the elite. In order to accomplish anything, leaders had to convince a large segment of the population to vote for them and their ideas. As a result, the ability to make speeches and persuade audiences became a prized skill. With this shift, it became possible for a member of the non-elite to lead the country.
The system, however, isn’t that simple.
In a democratic society, mutual trust between leaders and voters is vital. People must trust that leaders will do what is right for the people who put them in power. When trust grows thin, there will be frequent changes and society will grow increasingly divided–which inevitably leads to chaos. In some countries, a high percentage of voters do not vote as they have grown apathetic towards politics.
Nevertheless, there is an exuberance that sweeps through me whenever I watch world leaders deliver speeches to a stadium-sized audience–whether in my home country or beyond. I’m typically behind a small screen as I quietly watch the election take place from far away in the comfort of my home. But still–there is always a sense that one was there. That one was a part of a significant historical event that would shape a country’s future for decades to come.
My Right to Vote
In April 2020, South Korea became the first country to hold national elections right in the midst of the Coronavirus outbreak. Not only did voters turn out despite the risk of infection, but they turned out in the highest numbers in 28 years. Three months later, Singapore would follow suit. In my home city, voting is mandatory for all Singaporeans aged 21 and above.
The 2020 Singapore Election was distinctly different to the ones that had taken place since independence in 1965. There were no rallies. No big crowds. No grassroots campaigning of knocking on people’s doors. No masses of people getting behind a leader that they would like to represent them. The whole experience took place behind the small screen–for both politicians and the people.
I received my polling card in the mail a few days prior with details of an assigned time slot for me to cast my ballot. Me being me, I philosophically gazed at the polling card which had my name and address on it. I stopped for a second to realise that like every citizen in this country–I was given a vote. A formal indication that represented that I had a choice. With a population of close to 5.9 million, I couldn’t help but wonder–what did it mean to have a vote? The next question that came to my mind was–in a plethora of so many people, what did one vote even mean?
In ancient Athens, the birthplace of democracy, only adult male citizens who owned land were permitted to vote. It would be a long time before the democratic ‘rule of the people’ would extend to all people. Centuries would pass before the Suffrage Movement of the mid-19th century; when women would finally be given the right to vote.
As I stared at the ballot in my hand, I realised that this choice, this right to vote, was not always awarded to others like myself. When I headed to the polling station at my allotted time, I saw a long queue of people of all ages and ethnicities standing in line to exercise their choice. But still, there was something distinctly different about the experience this year.
Due to social distancing protocols, we were all standing a metre away from each other in the queue. Everyone had face masks on. Our temperature was taken as we entered the area where we would cast our ballots. After 45 minutes of standing in line, the decision itself took only several seconds to cast. I walked into the private booth, stamped my choice, folded the paper in half and stuffed it in the ballot box.
As I left the polling station, my curiosity in a topic I hadn’t given much thought to for over a decade suddenly returned.
Politics…or shall I say, the strength of the common people?