The pillars of state

A GREAT BRITISH VIEW - Asif Ahmad - The Philippine Star

Public buildings throughout the world, old and new, project status, power and invincibility. Pillars are a ubiquitous design feature. Beneath the obvious facade of strength, one should look closely at the condition of the pillars that hold up the state. Alongside examples of monuments of pride there are crumbling ruins of hubris.  The legislative, executive, judiciary pillars of state are now joined by the fourth, the media. Each of these has embedded character and institutional underpinning. What differentiates symbols of an oppressive state from a progressive one is the supremacy of the people. The pillars of state stand or fall depending on people who design, maintain, rebuild or neglect them.

In a democracy, every election cycle reasserts the power of people to consent to being governed in a particular way. Whether a voter grants the incumbent continuity or elects for change, is a judgement call for an individual to make. Legitimacy of voters is not determined by their place in society, level of formal education or intimidation. One can only hope that voters reflect their hopes and aspirations for their community and not succumb to the lure of celebrity or entitlement. Supreme misplaced confidence can be the crushing reality for candidates who take the people for granted. The underdog that secures support beyond expectations is a continuing lesson in humility.

The first question for anyone running for election is their motive. There has to be a noble sense of purpose and a commitment to making the lives of people better. There is no perfect ideology or position on a political spectrum. Once elected, the first requirement is active participation. That includes attending sessions in the legislature, advocacy based on informed analysis, voting with conviction and accountability, beyond the campaign, to the electorate. Respect is won or lost by the conduct of legislators and is not a guaranteed entitlement.

Governments want recognition for effort but voters demand that the real criteria of success is outcome. People have to experience tangible improvement. Machinery of government, agencies and institutional practices cannot be immune to reform or an excuse for poor delivery. People look to the whole of government for solutions and care less about procedural impediments. Quite simply, public servants should provide service to the public. Good governance cannot be bought cheaply. The obligation for well rewarded staff is to offer value for money and transparent accountability to oversight bodies and ultimately, to the taxwspayer.

The Magna Carta inspired the principle that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. No government can retain its integrity if it breaks the law in pursuit of suspected criminals. A trial cannot be fair if the odds are stacked in favour of one party nor can justice be served if the courts cannot process a case in good time. Detention of people in jail pending trial, at times for longer than the tariff for the alleged crime, is an ugly monument of injustice. The majority of citizens’ only experience of justice is their encounter with the Police and other uniformed personnel. The Police serve the community and cannot be immune from the law. Justice should be the standard by which judges and attorneys work. Perversion of the course of justice is not only about obstruction of due process, it is about the mindset and conduct of those entrusted to uphold the law.

Freedom of expression is a right that no one can take away from us. Adulation, criticism, protest or advocacy are all essential elements in the functioning of a legitimate state. The media has now become the fourth estate in a modern democracy. Social media has now taken journalism beyond the remit of professionals. Every journalist, blogger or broadcaster killed or impeded in their work is a symbol of the weakness of the state for its failure to prevent intimidation or to condone it. We have a right to information because knowledge belongs to us not the state.

The great institutions of state deserve respect if they show respect. A government office should be held in awe by the citizen not because of the power it exudes but by the values of the workers in the building.  Pillars for all their glory are still man-made structures. They stand well for what is good in mankind. They can also be brought down by man if they fail to carry the weight of responsibility. In our world, we the citizens have the power to sustain or demolish pillars. We do so not just when we vote but by every means with which we hold the state to account.

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(Asif Ahmad is the British Ambassador to the Philippines)

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