Always love your country, but never trust your government. This seemingly paradoxical statement is backed by powerful logic: public powers are too tempting and will thus be abused; those in power must not be trusted unconditionally; hence, their exercise of power must be checked by strong, independent and properly mandated institutions.
Yet modern societies are increasingly complex. People are educated, informed, and empowered to stake their claims. Too often, these claims are conflicting. Taking policies forward thus requires skilful balancing of interests among these stakeholders.
Trust, the single most important factor in making the balancing act work, ought to be a prerequisite. Yet, the constitutional design of liberal democracies is based on the principle of distrust. Therein lays the paradox of governance.
This paradox did not come into existence for most parts of the world until the last century. Before that, most people were ruled by kings and emperors who claimed their right to rule through divine authority.
It is due to the painful consequences brought about by these self-imposed rulers who abused public power that modern democracies anchor their governing institutions on the principle of separation of powers. The aim is to reduce the risk of power being monopolised, which inevitably leads to corruption and decay.
Let us come back to this paradox of governance in democracies. For the government to work, its people must accept, or at least tolerate, diversity. They have to take compromise as a rule and occasionally even have to muddle through differences.
In time, people develop trust in the governing institutions. And when they have sufficient faith in the ability of these institutions to check abuses and balance against excesses in the system, they grant their collective acceptance willingly.
Exercise of power by modern-day government has to be based on collective acceptance by the people it serves. And collective acceptance is best realised through the majority.
The sceptics among us might believe that the "Western" democratic form of government is coming to an end after the global financial crisis, because popularly elected politicians have now run out of money in the public coffers to appease their voters. But we have witnessed how the mature democracies have come under severe, if not worse, fiscal and economic pressure in the 1970s and early '80s as a result of the overblown welfare state.
It had not brought the democracies to their knees. Instead, inspiring and strong leaders were voted in to swing the pendulum back. The capability for self-adjustment is indeed the greatest soft power of democracies.
Democracy is not going to turn earth into heaven. But it can at least make the world less evil. The fact is that, hitherto, liberal democracy is the only sustainable form of government with relative stability. That says a lot about its merits. And it is worth repeating often, lest we forget.
Lam Woon-kwong is convenor of the Executive Council