Politics First vs Policy First: The Sortition Solution [Part 2/2]

Isaac Chng Yong Lun | Public Policy and Global Affairs Year 2

Review of Part 1 – The Relative Merits of Politics First vs Policy First

In the previous article, I wrote about the problem of demagoguery, and how this exposes the conflict between politics first or policy first approach in governance. The article noted that in democracies, where all votes are counted equal, low-information voters, acting as cognitive misers, can yield broad and harmful choices. This is a problem that is common to all democracies, especially in countries where civic mindedness is deficient.

We must keep and strengthen our faith in Democracy. Work must be done.

On 11 November 1947, Winston S Churchill famously stated: “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…

I believe in the importance of Democracy. It allows a non-violent avenue for voters to ensure that governmental elites act for the people’s welfare, or at the very least, not turn rouge against the people’s interests. The degree to which this tool can be wielded effectively by citizens depends on their willingness to participate in politics, think critically and equip themselves with knowledge on current affairs.

When politics revolves around a politically active population subgroup, such as political parties and special interest groups, the common citizen feels alienated.

Alienation occurs when persons feels being isolated from a group or an activity to which one should belong or in which one should be involved, or in this case, the lopsided power relationships in favour of political elites.

This undermines citizens’ faith in democracy and its government. Without faith, there is no perceived legitimacy in the role of government as a guarantor of security, provider of welfare and symbol of national unity. The result is a nation-state where social groups and individuals takes matters into their own hands, greater exploitation by the economically powerful, and national disunity.

I will therefore double emphasize on the importance of faith in any governmental system and the following suggestion proposed serves not only to resolve the cognitive-miser problem in democracy, but also instil faith by institutionalizing greater involvement of the common citizen in the political process.

Introducing Sortition.

In governance, sortition refers to the random selection of representatives from the pool of eligible citizens. In many common-law jurisdictions, sortition is currently used to select jurors to hear court cases, and in some cases, to form political advisory units such as the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform in Canada.

In addition to elected career politicians representing the conscious choices of the people, Sortition yields representation through scientific sampling of “jurors” from the electorate. An citizens’ assembly of jurors selected by sortition will yield a more accurate representation of the electorate and their life circumstances, knowledges and values held. Suppose you have a tub of mixed fruit juice, and you scoop a spoonful of it, the taste of the mixed fruit juice in the spoon would taste the same as the juice in the tub. Sortition assures descriptive representation, where the body of representatives possesses the same descriptive characteristics of the population.

These jurors, who would advocate for themselves, and consequently advocate for persons of similar circumstances to their own, will participate directly in the political decision making process.

A Demarchy-Representative Democracy Hybrid – The Sortition Solution and harnessing the Science of Sampling

Singapore’s electorate population, as of the most recent general election in 2015, is 2,462,926. Suppose we are willing to accept a 5% margin of error and 95% confidence level of representativeness, we would need to allot 385 “legislative jurors” to the citizens’ assembly.

Stratified sampling can be performed to improve precision of representation, and to reduce nonresponse biases, or in this case, the different levels of willingness among different homogenous population subgroups to serve on the citizens’ assembly. The population can be divided into categories that represents different life circumstances such as age, income and wealth levels, gender and sex, race and religion, and place of residence.

The use of scientific sampling to select legislative jurors assures political inclusiveness, as it eliminates the role of educational and socio-economic privileges, political connections, and other political hurdles for citizens of all levels of society to participate directly in governance.

With descriptive representativeness assured, the next step is for the state to invest quality resources to ensure that all legislative jurors are equipped with relevant knowledge for the day and critical thinking skills.

To ensure that legislative jurors learn the relevant knowledge and critical thinking skills for the discharge of their duties, I suggest that they be selected in advance and be trained in the 1 year before taking office. To establish continuity of the citizens’ assembly, legislative jurors will serve for 5 year terms and be selected annually in equally sized batches. This allows newer legislative jurors to learn from the more experienced ones.

Roles of Legislative Jurors

I propose 3 main roles for Legislative Jurors.

Firstly, on issues not well-managed by self-interested politicians. Legislative jurors can decide on issues that involves conflict of interest among elected politicians. These issues include electoral law, redistricting, campaign finance law, the regulation of political speech, anti-corruption, ministerial pay, and organic law. One reason dominant political parties’ foothold in politics seems unshakeable is due to their power to decide on the terms and conduct of the elections. In the US, electoral boundaries in states are often decided by the elected legislature. While gerrymandering along racial lines has been rules unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, partisan gerrymandering is still permissible. First Past the Post system, coupled with politically motivated gerrymandering, has entrenched Republicans and Democrats powers across federal, state and city level of government. In Singapore, the GRC system has also benefited the People’s Action Party at the expense of smaller opposition parties. These controversies cannot be well-managed by self-interested politicians, and since Legislative Jurors are mostly laypersons who does not enjoy opportunities for re-election, such issues can be decided in an impartial manner.

Secondly, on oversight roles. Where the citizens’ assembly finds that national issues are not well-resolved by the elected politicians, legislative jurors may act to participate in the decision-making process for that issue to forge a more acceptable consensus, otherwise, the citizens’ assembly may veto the relevant bills from the elected house of parliament.

Third, advisory roles. During non-election periods, legislative jurors may hold a political advisory role, combining their knowledge of circumstances faced by individuals within their own social strata, and knowledge gained from the discharge of their political duties, to advise elected politicians on the best course of action, based on the collective personal conscience of the legislative jurors. In addition, during the election season, the citizens’ assembly, and individual legislative jurors, representing the diversity of values, social groups, and life circumstances in the nation, could advise the electorate on the best candidates or political parties to vote in an election.

Limits of Sortition and the need to retain Elected Representatives

With the inherent advantages of sortition, coupled with its potential to strengthen faith in democracy, one would ask: should we replace elections entirely with sortition? Nope. I believe that this would be unwise. There are several reasons.

First, the nature of sortition is such that as batches of legislative jurors are randomly selected at every term, it is difficult for the citizens’ assembly as a body to exercise strong expertise in governance, and to translate public values into sound policies.

Second, legislative jurors lack of enthusiasm present in career politicians means that long hours of policy deliberations can lead to burn out, and lacklustre policies.

It is thus evident that elected politicians still play an important role in governance. Sortition should thus serve as a complement, rather than replacement of electoral democracy.

Beyond institutional reforms. Change begins within you.

            While sortition can translate public values into sound policies with greater precision and thus strengthen faith in democracies, it does not on its own solve the problem of cognitive misers in democracies. Institutional reforms may help to mobilize the potential within the society, but change begins from the individual. A country of citizens who continue to cling on to dogmas and reject facts can never stomach sound policies in the face of emotionally appealing but unsound policies. Furthermore, it will be an uphill effort for the sortition proposal to be adopted, given its political implications to political elites.

As we adopt a culture of critical thinking, with respect to facts, with compassion and kindness, and without undue influence by hatred and ego, we can look forward to a more equitable, just and utilitarian society.

See also: Politics First vs Policy First: The Relative Merits [Part 1/2]

Politics First vs Policy First: The Relative Merits [Part 1/2]

Isaac Chng Yong Lun | Public Policy and Global Affairs Year 2

The rise of demagoguery

Demagoguery politics is a manipulative approach that appeals to people’s emotions and prejudices rather than on their rational side. Demagoguery politics favours knee-jerk policy preferences that embraces short term emotional relief at the expense of rational, evidence-based policies that would better advance the long-term welfare of the nation-state.

Common methods employed by demagogues include: (1) dividing the population into an in-group and out-group, and blaming the out-group for social troubles; (2) fear mongering and intimidation; (3) lying; (4) exploiting humans’ inherent cognitive biases with logical fallacies and gross simplification; (5) promising the impossible.

Demagoguery politics has caused problems to democracies. Consider the consequences of the rule of high-profile demagogues such as Hitler’s ethnic cleansing policies, or the Chinese Cultural Revolution that was launched upon Mao call to purge bourgeois elements in society.

With the recent Brexit Vote and Donald Trump’s US presidential election victory, and several parallels in the methodology employed by involved politicians, it has showed how better policies can be side-lined by political manoeuvres. Good policies require political support to be effective. We cannot have policy reversals every other election cycle. However, the problem remains that politicians are primarily interested in attaining power, with political ethics taking a backseat. Thus, I find it timely to discuss the dichotomy of politics first vs policy first approach in governance.

On the importance of politics and the limitations of policy pragmatism

Politics involves the distribution of power and resources within a given community as well as the interrelationship(s) between communities, which in turn shapes the process which decisions are made. In democracies, politicians are primarily interested in winning elections. Without winning elections, they would not have formal powers to effect policies or to advance their agenda.

Governance is about more than just rational policy. If we live in an idealized world isolated from economic interests, political ambitions, and ideologies, then we can afford the luxury of a more rational approach to policy making. We are not. In fact, humans are not perfectly rational creatures. We face cognitive limitations. Humans are subject to numerous cognitive biases such as confirmation bias, attribution errors, self-serving bias, etc., and are susceptible to committing logical fallacies. It is impossible to expect humans to consider all policies rationally, instead, people rely on cognitive shortcuts such as dependence on emotions and dogmatism. This results in value-conflicts that are difficult to resolve and prevalent inconsideration of facts. In democracies, where all votes are counted equal, low-information voters, acting as cognitive misers, can yield broad and harmful choices.

Taking the example of the removal of fuel subsidies in Nigeria. The removal of fuel subsidies makes good economic sense, however, a protest movement called ‘Occupy Nigeria’ occurred. The government then had to commence new mass transit schemes to cushion the pain felt by affected groups.

So, good politics are necessary to resolve value and interest conflicts. It makes a lot of sense to anticipate the legitimate objections of opponents and find ways to give them some recognition in proposed policy solutions. Successful policies require acceptance across a broad spectrum of opinion and circumstances. If policies are perceived as simply the narrow special interests of the current political majority, they are unlikely to be effective or long-lasting.

The stories politicians tell

The nature of politics is such that the making and execution of good policies requires citizens’ faith in the government. However, relying on “pure politics” to make public policy carries equal risks.

Politicians often tell stories to shape people’s perceptions, facts and scientific evidences being secondary in importance. They rely on anecdotes and selected pieces of statistics to frame the perception of voters. Policy stories are like fairy tales, with universal themes.

For instance, the story of decline often goes like this: “things have gotten worse, that things were once better than they are now, that the current trend of affairs is insufferable. Unless this potential crisis is addressed, inevitable doom will occur”. The story of decline aims to paint a negative trend of affairs to motivate people to seize control. Here, facts are of secondary importance and perception of needs in society can be manufactured. Think of the way Apple market its products.

Politicians then tell stories of taking back control, where they pose as the heroes in the story. They offer to solve the problems that the people now perceive to exist. It goes like this: “Things are not hopeless. Let me show you how we can control and solve the situation. You have a choice and by supporting me, you are taking control of this mess.”

This pattern of political narratives exists in many countries.

In the recent U.S. presidential elections, we hear of unsubstantial claims by Donald Trump that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations are redundant and hurting businesses, that “what they are doing is a disgrace” and therefore EPA regulations should be scrapped.

In the events leading up to Brexit, we hear of deceptive claims by Nigel Farage that the UK “sends the EU £350 million a week”, this money could be used to “fund our NHS instead”. Farage later admitted that what he said was a mistake and blamed it on other Leave Campaigners.

Limitations of politics first approach

By now, it is clear that politics on its own cannot generate solutions. In a democracy, politicians main goal is to win elections, and in a political environment, there are some actors that are more influential than the others. This often leads to politicians pandering to powerful interests. An excellent example would be in the US, where campaign financing rules entrenches the influence of the rich in politics, and winner takes all system in the electoral college system led presidential candidates to focus on swing states, or congressional representatives engaging in pork barrel politics. Furthermore, politicians engaging in bad politics could exploit the cognitive biases of people prejudices, dogmatism, and short-sightedness, and informational asymmetries between the laypeople and the elites towards their political goals. Thus, creating policies that are equally bad.

Over the long run, populist but unworkable policies collapse under their own contradictions, sometimes replaced by equally ineffective policies. This precipitates further political upheavals, culminating in a wicked cycle.

Importance of policy pragmatism

Policy is what the elected politicians, analysts, and administrators are supposed to accomplish on a day to day basis as part of their jobs to maximize welfare for their people. A strong framework for rational policy making that is logical and evidence-based is required to produce good, rational, policies that maximizes the greatest good for the greatest number of people over the long term.

As I would believe, short term popularity does not equate to long term popularity. It takes time for citizens to realize the long-term benefits of policies that may be unpopular in the short run. Making good policies with a long-term view sometimes requires the political will to push through unpopular policies. Despite that, good policies could still yield good political returns over the long run.

Take Singapore for example. The government had transited the language medium in all public schools to English. This had proven unpopular with the Chinese-educated. However, today, Singaporeans English proficiency had minimized barriers for Singaporeans to participate in the global economy.

In overall, politics and policies needs to work together. With politics playing the role of maintaining faith of people in policies and good policies translating political goals into effective action.

See also: Politics First vs Policy First: The Sortition Solution [Part 2/2]

The Ghost of Christmas Past

24 January 2017

Author: Kun Yang | English Year 1

In light of recent world events, I thought it might be interesting to look at certain historical parallels with our present time …

1914: The German Empire is the rising power that seeks to displace the dominant power of the time, the UK, investing heavily in naval armaments to challenge the might of the British navy, then the best in the world, spurring an arms race. Diplomatically, it formed an alliance of what would become the Central Powers against the Western Allies, including the UK, France and later the US. World War 1 erupts with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by the Bosnian Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip.

A poster from the period that reflects the reality of the naval arms race as a risky game of cards.


1939: A resurgent Germany seeks to recreate the German Reich, or empire, bringing it into conflict with the UK and eventually the United States, taking advantage of the US retreat into isolationism. With Germany hungry for lebensraum, or living space, and natural resources, and seeking to avenge the humiliation of the treaty of Versailles, it joins hands with Japan, and Italy, which share the same concerns to form the Axis. World War 2 erupts with the invasion of Poland by Germany, triggering a French and British declaration of war.

An illustration of how Germany felt threatened and vulnerable after the humiliation of Versailles, which limited its army to 100,000 men.


2016: A rising China seeks to challenge American global dominance, investing heavily in regions like Southeast Asia and Africa, and even in Latin America, where the Monroe Doctrine (enshrining US dominance and resistance to outside intervention in the Americas since 1823) is losing relevance as America turns inward. China seeks to dominate the strategic shipping lanes of the South China Sea, with regional players like Duterte’s Philippines openly pivoting towards China, upending the long-standing alliance between the Philippines and the United States.

From Singaporean cartoonist Heng Kim Song, published in the New York Times.


Russia seeks to reassert itself on the global stage, to regain some of the ‘greatness’ of the Soviet Union. In Vladimir Putin’s own words, the breakup of the Soviet Union was ‘the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century’. To that end, it is intervening directly and indirectly in Syria, the Baltics, and Ukraine, taking advantage of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) with a US that is retreating into isolationism. Russian maneuvering in the Baltics, which are NATO members, ratchets up tensions to levels not seen since the Cold War, increasing the risk of a spark that could lead to global war, as an attack on one member of NATO will be treated as an attack on all.

The Russian bear turns towards the Baltic states. Interestingly, the tank that is supposed to demonstrate NATO protection is merely a picture with civilians cowering behind it.

With liberal democracy in retreat in most of the Western world this year, as demonstrated by Brexit, the shock election of Donald Trump, and perhaps the election of Marine Le Pen, leader of the ultraconservative Front National in France, the era of the ‘end of history’ and the triumph of liberalism as described by the noted scholar Francis Fukuyama after the Cold War seems to be coming to an end. Indeed, it seems to be a redux of the 1930s prior to World War 2, where far-right parties captured power in Spain, Italy, Germany, and Japan. The potent combination of old powers seeking a return to the limelight, and new powers seeking to displace the old, shows how ‘history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes’. (Mark Twain)


On This Day (5 Feb 2017)

1941: Hitler tells Mussolini to pull his own weight

As Italian forces in Libya are continuously pushed back by British troops in the North African theatre of the Second World War, Hitler demands that Mussolini, or Il Duce (The Leader) as he is known in Italy, command his troops to resist. However, British troops continue to push westward, even threatening to break into Tunisia, forcing Mussolini to seek assistance from Hitler. Despite Hitler’s reluctant assistance, 20,000 men are killed or wounded and another 130,000 are taken prisoner in three months.

A contemporary image of British troops in Libya during the North African Campaign.


1975: North Vietnamese prepare for the final offensive

North Vietnamese Gen. Van Tien Dung leaves for South Vietnam to take charge of communist troops in preparation for a new offensive that will bring an end to the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese wanted to observe how South Vietnam and the United States would react to a major assault near Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, as the United States had recently promised to defend South Vietnam against any such attack. Saigon would fall on April 30 that year, marking the conclusion of the Vietnam War.

An iconic picture of the frenzied evacuation of the US Embassy in Saigon, shortly before it fell.


1988: Manuel Noriega, the leader of Panama, is formally charged in court by the United States

Noriega, who was the de facto strongman of Panama since 1983, is charged with helping Colombia’s Medellin drug cartel to traffic cocaine and smuggling marijuana into the United States, as well as laundering millions of U.S. dollars. He denies the charges and threatens to expel 10,000 U.S. service personnel and their families who are stationed at the Panama Canal. As tensions continue to mount, the United States invades Panama in 1989, and Noriega is forcefully removed from power.

The smoldering ruins of a building during the fall of Panama to US invasion in 1989.


1989: Last Soviet forces depart Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan

A final withdrawal of Soviet troops from Kabul is conducted, marking the end of the decade-long Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, that began barely four years after the United States left Vietnam in defeat. Soviet losses number 13,000 dead and 22,000 wounded, in addition to massive financial costs that could no longer be endured by a state that was on the brink of collapse, suffering from immense social upheaval and economic turmoil. Within three years, the Soviet Union would cease to exist.

The last Soviet troops leave Afghanistan.


On This Day 12 Feb 2017

On This Day Feb 12 2017

2002 – Slobodan Milosevic, former president of Yugoslavia, goes on trial at The Hague in the Netherlands.

On June 25, 1991, Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence from Yugoslavia and Milosevic sent tanks to the Slovenian border, sparking a brief war that ended in Slovenia’s secession. In Croatia, fighting broke out between Croats and ethnic Serbs. Serbia, the dominant entity in Yugoslavia, aided the Serbian rebels in Croatia. Croatian forces clashed with the Serb-led Yugoslav army troops and their Serb supporters. An estimated 10,000 people were killed before a U.N. cease-fire in January 1992. In March, Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence, and Milosevic funded the subsequent Bosnian Serb rebellion, starting a war that killed an estimated 200,000 people, before a U.S.-brokered peace agreement was reached at Dayton, Ohio, in 1995. It was the worst conflict in Europe since the Second World War.

A Bosnian special forces soldier returns fire in downtown Sarajevo as he and civilians come under fire from Serbian snipers, on April 6, 1992.





1912 – The last emperor of China, Aisin Gioro Puyi, abdicates.

Puyi was enthroned as emperor in 1908 after his uncle, the Guangxu emperor, died. He reigned under a regency and underwent training to prepare him for his coming rule. However, in October 1911, his dynasty fell to Sun Yat-sen’s revolution, and four months later he abdicated. His abdication would mark the end of the Manchu Qing dynasty in China, and the approximately 2000-year-old feudal system of government, signaling the beginning of the modern Republican era in China.

After 1925, he lived in Japanese-occupied Tianjin, and in 1932 Japan created the puppet state of Manchukuo in Manchuria under his rule. In 1934, Henry Pu Yi was enthroned as emperor of Manchukuo. Despite guerrilla resistance against his puppet regime, he held the emperor’s title until 1945, when Soviet troops captured him.

Puyi’s throne in the Forbidden City in Beijing.






1999 – President Bill Clinton is acquitted

On February 12, 1999, the five-week impeachment trial of Bill Clinton ends, with the Senate voting to acquit the president on both articles of impeachment: lying under oath and obstruction of justice.

In November 1995, Clinton began an affair with Monica Lewinsky, a 21-year-old unpaid intern. Over the course of a year and a half, the president and Lewinsky had nearly a dozen sexual encounters in the White House. Congress would later approve two articles of impeachment, but the Senate would vote to acquit him of both charges.

The vote in Congress to determine whether President Clinton should be impeached.











On This Day Jan 29

On This Day 29 Jan

2002 The “Axis of Evil” speech by George W. Bush

George W. Bush, 43rd President of the United States, makes his famous axis of evil speech during his annual State of the Union address, in which he denounces Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as threats to global peace and stability. Iraq would be invaded in 2003 without UN approval, the repercussions of which are still evident even today, in terms of the anarchy in Iraq after the invasion, which created a golden opportunity for the rise of ISIS.

Still relevant today.


1979 Deng Xiaoping visits Washington DC

Following the death of Mao in 1976, Deng Xiaoping makes his first official visit to the US as paramount leader of China, marking a major shift away from the confrontational relationship of the past under Mao Zedong. His visits to the headquarters Coca-Cola and Boeing indicate the focus on economic technological and development that the new regime will have, paving the way for China’s subsequent breakneck economic growth and rise as an economic colossus in the 21st century.

Deng Xiaoping and Jimmy Carter during the signing of a major Sino-American treaty in the United States.


1991 Gulf War: the first major ground engagement of the war, the battle of Khafiji, begins

Saddam Hussein’s attempt to seize Kuwait in 1990 would result in an armed intervention by an American-led coalition with UN approval, sparking the first Gulf War. This battle would see Iraqi forces driven from the Saudi city of Khafiji, a testament to the importance of American air power in combat, and the weakness of the Iraqi military despite its large numbers.

A burnt-out military vehicle in front of the Saudi city of Khafiji after the battle of Khafiji.


2005 the first direct commercial flights between Taiwan and Mainland China since 1949 begin.

In the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War that ended in 1949, mutual distrust between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China in Taiwan meant that flights between both sides had to be routed towards a third city like Hong Kong. However, warming ties between both sides, and the proposal by the PRC to establish Three Links (postal, transportation and trade), meant that these restrictions were gradually loosened, culminating in the launch of direct commercial flights between Taiwan and Mainland China.

An Air China plane lands in Taipei after more than 4 hours of nonstop flight from Beijing January 29, 2005.