In Britain we are proud of our democratic tradition and institutions. We can openly criticise our politicians and our media are free to comment.
We have the privilege of the vote and yet nearly 50 per cent of us fail to use it.
Is it a system without fault? Certainly not. Does it often promote just negative comment without the constructive?
Yes indeed. Meanwhile, we hear complaints that in Britain it takes far too long to get anything done, particularly any major infrastructure project, but then we choose in our democracy to entertain consultation and comment.
We now have the modern phenomenon of the internet giving huge opportunities for protest groups to try to shape opinion or organise a campaign.
I am writing this while on holiday in Burma (Myanmar). Up until late 2011, Burma was generally considered to be a country where an unofficial tourist boycott was in place.
The ruling military junta was accused of multiple human rights violations, but at the end of 2011 elections (albeit rigged ones) were held, the generals handed power to a ‘civilianised’ government and Burma’s hero/figurehead
Aung San Suu Kyi was released from confinement. She has since said that tourism is good for her country.
She is campaigning for more democracy and is seen as an inspiration for the Burmese people.
I don’t know what her prospects are, and the task of economic and social reform while holding together a country that remains very tribally based, would be a huge challenge for an experienced politician, let alone one approaching the age of 70 at the time of the election which could bring her to power.
However, one must try and be optimistic for the future of Myanmar. I can’t really see how much worse it could get.
Contrast this picture with Singapore, where we spent our first two nights of this holiday.
This is a city-state where in 30 years the standard of living has grown to one that exceeds most western countries.
The infrastructure is modern and immaculate and seemingly everyone enjoys high standards of health and education.
Yet here democracy in the way we know it struggles. Yes, there are ‘free’ elections but voting is compulsory, criticism of the government is muted and the same party always wins.
The office of prime minister has been held by a father and then by his son. Certainly, if we compare the two countries the conclusion must be that military dictatorship probably never delivers well-being while a benevolent autocratic leader (with a stress on benevolent) is capable of maximising resources and encouraging investment, and this benefits the people enormously.
Few Singaporeans would, I got the feeling, openly criticise their leaders but more quietly, the young, the primary beneficiaries of this huge change, are seeking change to a less autocratic and more western-style political approach.
I am sure that many an experienced Asia-watcher would dispute my simplistic assessment but I give here my observations as a tourist and from a brief encounter with these countries.
Maybe if our system leads us to fall behind other less democratic countries or if we see a decline in our living standards we might then find voices questioning the way we do things in Britain.
However, we, by and large, do not have civil unrest and our political system, though not without fault and certainly open to cynicism, probably delivers the best we humans have yet devised.