The future of democracy is being painted in gloom. Surging populism and declining confidence in its core institutions including independent judiciary and free press suggest a general disillusionment with democracy. High profile corruption scandals, outsized corporate influence and expanding inequality have increasingly exposed the limitations of democracy in delivering on its promise of a fair and just society. More recently under the strain of the global pandemic, we witnessed the rapid unraveling of many of democracy’s cherished features such as freedom of speech and right to protest. Societies world over witnessed strong centralising tendencies pushing for direct state control, censorship, rising state surveillance and diminution of civil liberties.
For centuries the western world has professed democracy as “the greatest invention of mankind”, the highest form of human civilisation and the most reliable mechanism for holding governments accountable. Its advocates have long contended that despite its many flaws, there is no better alternative to democracy that would ensure the rule of law and achieve lasting universal prosperity.
However now they are faced with the formidable challenge of China’s unprecedented economic success, and they seem to be clueless on how to respond. People have started openly questioning the foundational pillars of democracy such as universal franchise and free speech. Long abandoned alternative ideologies like fascism are finding new champions. Are we seeing the beginning of the end of democracy?
Many experts dismiss such dreary prophesies as unnecessarily alarmist. While acknowledging the trends noted above, they point to large scale protests in cities around the world, expansion of media, high voter turnouts and overthrowing of incumbent governments through free and fair elections as evidence of the civil society pushing back and people demanding more democracy, not less. The many recent instances where courts have ruled against governments’ encroachment on people’s rights show that the institutional checks and balances embedded within the democratic system remain robust. If anything, these tug of wars are likely to invigorate democracy. How does one make sense of these polar opposite views? That is what this session aims to explore through a lively debate among scholars with the experience and the insight for interpreting political trends.