Respect for constitution indicates maturity of society

I refer to the 14 Oct 2014 Straits Times letter “Constitution no guarantee of peace, prosperity and progress” by Ong Kah Han.

Placing the constitution debate in the wider national context means the entire nation should be involved in deciding constitutional changes. What better way to involve the entire nation than through referendums.

Although a written constitution is no guarantee of peace, happiness, prosperity and progress for the state, no state which is at peace and in happiness, prosperity and progress is without a written constitution.

Low home ownership rate doesn’t necessarily mean lack of affordable housing. Low home ownership rate can simply mean that rent is even cheaper. For example, German housing prices are generally much lower than Singapore’s. Yet German home ownership rate is lower than ours because German home rental is even cheaper.

Singapore’s high home ownership rate isn’t necessarily a good thing. It can simply mean that most of our retirement money is locked up in our homes resulting in insufficient funds for retirement.

Yes, written constitutions cannot guarantee there will be no civil wars. Nothing can.

Yes, written constitutions cannot guarantee there will be no coups d’état. Nothing can. Not even political consensus. The military need not abide by any political consensus.

Regardless of debates about the fine details of the constitution, the bigger picture is always that constitutional changes must reflect the will of the people, not the will of a political party. We must never lose sight of that.

When the written constitution can be trampled all over by civil wars and coups d’état, it simply means the nation is still at a primitive stage of societal development. When the written constitution is firmly enshrined and can no longer be violated by civil wars, coups d’état or the whims and fancies of a political party, it means society has reached a certain level of maturity and stability. Do we as a society aspire for a constitution that is respected or a constitution that can be easily violated?

Although the national machine may break down from time to time and not function well, without the constitution blueprint, how do we build the national machine in the first place?

Straits Times, Constitution no guarantee of peace, prosperity and progress, 14 Oct 2014

I READ with interest Ms Dierdre Grace Morgan’s letters (“Constitution should reflect will of the people”, Sept 23; and “Constitution’s higher purpose”; last Wednesday).

Her arguments, as well as those of Assistant Professor Jaclyn Neo (“Should constitutional principles be eternal?”; Oct 4), are well-founded and deserve greater reflection.

However, the Constitution should not be viewed merely through a Constitution-centric lens, where debate centres on the purpose and meaning behind the Constitution per se. Rather, we should place the debate in the wider national context and what it means for our nation-state.

It bears no reminder that the presence of a written Constitution is no guarantee of peace, happiness, prosperity and progress of a state.

For example, some nations guarantee a constitutional right to property, but still face low home ownership rates because of a lack of affordable housing.

Singapore, despite recent increases in housing prices, has a high home ownership rate despite its lack of a constitutional right to property.

Also, many nations have written Constitutions but are still mired in civil wars because the people believe in settling their differences through the law of force rather than the force of law.

Some states experience repeated coups d’etat because of a lack of political consensus among the political actors, who resort to extra-constitutional measures to achieve what they want.

Essentially, we may have lengthy debates about the finer details of our Constitution, but we must not lose sight of the bigger picture.

Extra-constitutional forces such as societal acceptance of the rule of law and political consensus, and trust among political actors to tackle hard and crucial national issues together are equally important as – if not more important than – having a written Constitution with a clear purpose.

After all, a Constitution is just like a blueprint for the national machine. We can have the best scheme of interlocking gears but it will still break down and not function well if we lack the lubricants of adherence to the rule of law, trust and political consensus.

Ong Kah Han

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