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Digital and more local Parag Khanna gives his prescription for democracy

kids on bikes in singapore

Singapore: a future model of stable and sustainable democracy?

(swissinfo.ch)

With his provocative theses and books, the Indo-American political scientist Parag Khanna is omnipresent on television and on stage. Whether on CNN, at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, or in TED Talks, Khanna is an intellectual superstar. #DearDemocracy met up with him in his adopted homeland of Singapore.

I meet the father of two in the lobby of a hotel in the centre of the city, a meeting place that seems common, almost boring.

However, the location as well as my interview partner are anything but common. The lobby of the Oasia Hotel, which opened a year ago, is 12 floors up and offers a glimpse into the future. Here, the high-rise building, which is covered in plants and lies at the heart of the city-state, opens into a bright urban atrium of big lawns, fountains, waterfalls, and seating area.

“What a wonderful place. I have never been here before,” Parag Khanna says. The 40-year-old has just returned from a four-month trip to Germany where he was undertaking research as a Richard von Weizsäcker fellow at the Robert Bosch Foundation in Berlin.

Where it happens

“Big cities are the engine of globalisation.” These were Khanna’s opening words in our conversation. “The mayors of cities like Singapore set the tone when it comes to important issues such as education, traffic, and climate protection.” It’s certainly no coincidence that he decided to move to Singapore with his wife and two children.

Born in the northern Indian metropolis of Kanpur in 1977, Parag Khanna grew up in the United Arab Emirates, the US and Germany and graduated with a doctorate from the internationally acclaimed London School of Economics.

He then found employment with prestigious organisations such as WEF and the Brookings Institution think tank. In 2008, the renowned Esquire Magazine added the then 30-year-old to its list of the “75 most influential people of the 21st century”.

Prior to that entry, the then-US president elect, Barack Obama, had asked the smart youngster to join his team of foreign policy advisors. Khanna has since been considered a leading expert on globalisation, and as a ‘global contributor’, he is also a commentator on international events for the US news channel CNN.

parag khanna and bruno kaufmann

Khanna with swissinfo.ch's democracy correspondent Bruno Kaufmann.

(swissinfo.ch)

‘Welcome to Paragistan’

And with 650,000 followers, his Facebook profile certainly reflects his self-confidence. Those who visit his page are directly welcomed to “Paragistan”, his “territory” or “Parag Land”.

The videos he regularly uploads would lead one to believe that this man is somehow present everywhere in the world and has all the right answers to burning questions.

This is not only attributable to his wide range of scientific tools, but also to his endless passion for travelling to all corners of the world and talking to the locals.

“In the past 14 years, I have visited more than 100 countries all over the world in a quest to understand these nations and find out which approaches they use,” Khanna says.

He has collected and written down his findings in several books, in which he presents his ideas for a better future. For example, with Connectographyexternal link, Khanna explains how geopolitics and globalisation no longer take place within the old structures of nation states but are interlaced economically, politically and mentally worldwide. 

In the book, Khanna calls for democracies all across the world to be strengthened on a local level. He carries this message to all the places he visits. The democracy theorist Benjamin Barber, his mentor and inspiring conversation partner at Berkley University in California, encouraged him to adopt this attitude.

On the way to ‘direct technocracies’

Superficially speaking, however, this point of view actually contradicts the findings in his latest book Technocracy in Americaexternal link. Here, Khanna advocates the system of “direct technocracies” - led by experts but frequently consulting the people through a combination of democracy and data.

Apart from his adopted home country of Singapore, Khanna also points at Switzerland as one of the prime examples for future governmental systems. “Both countries differ a lot from representative governance systems, as seen in Great Britain or the US,” Khanna says.

He also concedes that the book titles, chosen by the publisher, could sometimes be a bit misleading. “I am not for the abolition of democracy. On the contrary, I want them to be become stronger.”

When it comes to Singapore, the fact that the city state he thinks so highly of fares badly in international democracy and freedom rankings, thwarts his theory. But he prefers to keep them in perspective. “In my view, these rankings use antiquated methods and orient themselves too strongly on traditional electoral democracies,” he says.

In his opinion, the reason Singapore’s de facto one-party state is so successful and stable is because the political leadership constantly adapts its actions to citizens’ preferences, doing so with the most modern forms of digital communication.

Prior to political upheaval

Founded in 1965 as an independent city during diverse political and economic turmoil in Southeast Asia, Singapore has indeed managed to develop a very successful business model with a strong global impact over the last 50 years.

But according to Khanna, it remains to be seen how sustainable the model will be in the future. In the next few years, the family dynasty founded by Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015) is due to be replaced. His son Lee Hsien Loong is currently leading the country and will do so until the next elections in 2020.

Another fact is that the term ‘participation’ is not really practiced properly in Singapore. Citizens’ participation does exist, though it has only consultative character and depends on the dynasty’s goodwill.

For this reason, Khanna does not only call for stronger localisation and digitalisation of democracies, he also wants more direct people’s rights such as in the Swiss model. “Without giving the citizens the chance to have a say between elections, representative democracies are nothing more than representative governance, like we see in presidential systems,” he says.

Khanna also recognises clear similarities between Singapore and Switzerland. “Due to its consensus model, which integrates all important political powers, Switzerland is technocratically much better positioned than we’d like to admit.”

Boredom – continuity instead of uninterrupted noise

In his plea for more direct, more digital and locally stronger embedded democracies, Khanna considers himself a true friend of democracy. He also admits that he is a great fan of “political boredom”. As this sounds a bit weird to me, I ask him to elaborate.

“Dramas and tragedies in democracies, like Donald Trump’s election, only leads to people’s agitation. It is much better if the same political powers are in charge for a long time and carry on exchange and dialogue with citizens on a daily basis, as is the case in Singapore or Switzerland.”

At the end of our conversation, Khanna is obviously content with his ideas. His confidence allows him to be absolutely sure that they could be applied universally.

However, a lot of convincing will be needed for “Paragistan” to spread across the globe.

#ddworldtour

Swiss-Swedish author and journalist Bruno Kaufmann is on a world tour to explore the state of democracy visiting more than 20 countries on four continents until May 2018. 

swissinfo.ch publishes a weekly Notebook and multimedia reports by Kaufmann over the next few months as part of its coverage of direct democracy issues.

Kaufmann's democracy world tour is mainly sponsored by the Swiss Democracy Foundationexternal link, where he is the director of international cooperation. The Swiss Democracy Foundation hosts various projects and platforms linked to participatory and direct democracy across the globe, including Democracy International, external linkthe Direct Democracy Navigatorexternal link and the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe.external link 

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Translated from German by Billi Bierling, swissinfo.ch

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