Tuesday, August 28, 2012

What's the Government for?

Recently, there was some furore over Lee Kuan Yew's (former Singapore prime minister) call for Singaporeans to  procreate to raise the sinking birth rate of the city-state. His precise words were "If we go on like that, this place will fold up..."

It seems that it is one's national duty to procreate and ensure that one has created a new being to take his or her place so as to ensure the continuity of the nation.

With LKY's lament that Singapore will fold up if Singaporeans do not have children, is he indicating that the state should come before the people? If so, he has strayed from the primacy of people's welfare to the welfare of the state.

The purpose of the state is to protect, help and benefit the people who make up the jurisdiction of the state. The state is created for the people; people are not created for the purpose of the state. We should be careful about putting the cart before the horse.

In the Agganna sutta, Buddha described the beginnings of a state. A fair, strong and capable person was selected as the Maha-Summata (meaning Great Elect), as a preventive and corrective measure against prevailing crimes, on grounds of his qualifications and attributes. He served the people by ensuring safety, security, law and order amongst the people, who supply him with a portion of their income for his duties. That was the origination of Income Tax.

A social contract between the Maha-Sammata and the masses was thus formed; the people paid him to do his job. His duty was to serve the people, not the other way round. If he should renege on his duties or become unsuitable, a new Maha-Sammata would be chosen by the people as he had to be accountable for his duties.

However, as time went on, this role began to be passed down from father to son, or within the family. Descendents of the current ruler automatically ascended to the role after the passing of the old one. Hence the electoral process took a hit and even if existing, had descended into a farce. Those who were aligned with the next ruler would ensure his ascension to the throne to obtain the continuity of their power and privileges that sprung from their greed.

The Buddha had encouraged the spirit of consultation and the democratic process within his Sangha community which was a significant precursor to the democratic parliamentary system used today. Serious questions and issues concerning the community were put forth and discussed openly.

The Buddha discussed the importance and the prerequisites of a good government. He showed how the country could become corrupt, degenerate and unhappy when the head of the government becomes corrupt and unjust. He spoke against corruption and how a government should act based on humanitarian principles.

In the Cakkavatti Sihananda Sutta, the Buddha said that immorality and crime, such as theft, falsehood, violence, hatred, cruelty, could arise from poverty. Kings and governments may try to suppress crime through punishment, but it is futile to eradicate crimes through force.

In the Kutadanta Sutta, the Buddha suggested economic development instead of force to reduce crime. The government should use the country's resources to improve the economic conditions of the country. It could embark on agricultural and rural development, provide financial support to entrepreneurs and business, provide adequate wages for workers to maintain a decent life with human dignity.

In the Milinda Panha,it is stated: 'If a man, who is unfit, incompetent, immoral, improper, unable and unworthy of kingship, has enthroned himself a king or a ruler with great authority, he is subject to be tortured‚ to be subject to a variety of punishment by the people, because, being unfit and unworthy, he has placed himself unrighteously in the seat of sovereignty. The ruler, like others who violate and transgress moral codes and basic rules of all social laws of mankind, is equally subject to punishment; and moreover, to be censured is the ruler who conducts himself as a robber of the public.' In a Jataka story, it is mentioned that a ruler who punishes innocent people and does not punish the culprit is not suitable to rule a country.

Going back to the original point, the purpose of the ruler or government is to do what is in the best interest of the people, as opposed to the best interest of the economy, state or its own pocket.

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