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Only power-sharing can deliver ‘One Guyana’
I was amazed that a Stabroek News editorial (03/03/2022), related to the one that has been under consideration here over the last two weeks, could have called upon Guyanese to seek an ‘innovative approach’ to their ethnic problem when the previous editorial had spoken as if ‘innovations’ are to be avoided. ‘Coming as it (the USAID report ‘Democracy, Human Rights and Governance assessment’) does from an American state agency this is possibly revolutionary stuff, since it involves by implication a recommendation to abandon the Westminster elements in our constitution in favour of a political model which has no historical basis here’ SN:20/02/2022). But maybe not all innovations are to be avoided; only those having to do with ‘who rules!’
Further, notwithstanding President Irfaan Ali’s warning against simplistic and propagandistic analysis, the new editorial presented a few hackneyed policy positions from Singapore, another extremely questionable example, as innovations. Singapore, we are told, ‘is a similar melting pot of four races, and whilst the dilemma has not been completely eradicated (racism will always lurk in the minds of some, regardless of location), it has made tremendous strides in that direction. The late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s bold government reforms were very instrumental in resolving the heated problem.’ Three initiatives were implemented by the Singapore government: reforms in public housing where racial quotas are enforced to prevent the development of racial enclaves; education that ‘fosters a Singaporean identity and educates students on its tumultuous past due to race riots and national service where all males are conscripted for two years into the security services.
Since a differentiation was not made between ‘race/ethnicity’ as an cultural identity and ‘racism’ as an unacceptable type of behaviour, it is not unfair to conclude that the outmoded assimilationist ideology that seeks to eradicate racial/ethnic identity and pervades Guyanese society permeates the above ‘innovations’. But more importantly, Guyana is not similar to Singapore: it is a multi-ethnic, bicommunal, society wherein two large antagonistic ethnic groups involved in competitive democratic politics control and divide almost equally about 80% of the voting population. In 2020, Singapore had a population of 5.9 millions: 75% Chinese, 13% Malaysians, 9%, Indians, etc. At the urgings of the Malay leadership, Singapore left the Malaysian Federation in 1965 and the one post-independence race-riot in 1969 had nothing to do with Singapore but there was an inexorable spillover of the communal violence in Malaysia into Singapore’ (https://www.wikiwand.com/en/1969_race_riots_of_Singapore). With the Chinese at its back, the People’s Action Party (PAP) of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has won every election since independence. Indeed, from 1965 to 1981, there was no opposition as the PAP consistently won every seat in the national assembly.
The recommended ‘innovations’ that are to ease Guyana’s ethnic problem suggest that the writer does not, or is pretending not to, understand the logic of Guyana’s political context that, in a nutshell, is as follows.
In competitive politics leaders sell stories for votes and politicians of all kinds are opportunistic. A minority group that votes as a bloc is something of a curiosity when it makes up 1% of the population of a state: the stories its leaders tell to gain support, though racially biased must be politically sensible. Yet, if sufficiently agitated and of significant numbers the traditional parties will have to accommodate it in the ruling circles. However, as the group becomes large enough, e.g., 40% the story its leaders tell becomes more radical. The group becomes a political party which can no long be accommodated within existing parties but only side by side with them. To the extent that the constitutional arrangements ignore this development, tension, alienation, disturbances and underdevelopment results. There is little point in blaming the community leaders for, … their stories are fit and do win them maximum support. There is little point in pleading right-doing for with similar facts the opposite story can also be told. … Nowhere has this story not played out. (It is a) mistake to blame the outcome on anyone. Power sharing become inevitable because of the logic of political cleavage in competitive democracies (Orr, Scott. The Theory and Practice of Ethnic Politics: How What We Know about Ethnic Identity Can Make Democratic Theory Better. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, 2007).
It is undeniable that Singapore has been economically very successful, but upon what was this success built? Firstly, it is still not a democracy and can well be classified as an ethnic autocracy. Last December, Singapore was not invited to the 110-nation democratic summit the United States convened. President Ali should note that during the global containment of communism when PAP was ‘winning’ all national assembly seats and when the ‘communist’ PPP, its trade union and supporters were relatively free under the Forbes Burnham regime to agitate, strike and otherwise undermine Guyana’s economy in protest against the subversion of their democratic rights, the ‘bold’ Lee Kuan Yew was busy imprisoning opposition and trade union leaders and activists he deemed ‘communist’ without trial. Chia Thye Poh, one such opposition politician, who was in 2015 nominated for the Nobel Prize, was imprisoned without trial for 23 years and then severely restricted for another 9 years – longer than Nelson Mandela!
We must consider too that for ethnic/opportunistic reasons the winner-takes-all mentality supports assimilationist type remedies because the processes are lengthy and will avoid the immediate establishment of power-sharing and allow time for the formation of ethnic dominance. President Ali, only power-sharing can counteract the logic of Guyana’s political context and deliver peace, democracy, equitable prosperity, i.e. ‘One Guyana’.