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Whose system is it anyway?


July 16, 2016

Like misaligned medical prescription, which causes serious side effects instead of addressing the original ailments of the patient, our system of governance has deteriorated so much that it has become the cause of problems rather than their cure.

Almost every other country in Asia reformed and fine-tuned their systems of governance within a quarter century to successfully address the challenges faced by their people, and delivered higher quality of life to their citizens and improved security of the state. At one time or the other, Pakistan was at par in various economic indicators with South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Turkey, Vietnam and others – but has now been left behind by them all.

As if that was not bad enough, the rankings of the Fragile States Index place Pakistan in the company of Somalia, Burundi, Haiti and others at the bottom of the index. And in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Pakistan has not for years found a place among the 100 least corrupt countries. The youngest billionaire of Africa is the daughter of the president of Angola – a country where 70 percent of people live under $2 per day. This would bring on a feeling of déjà vu for the people of Pakistan.

Is there need for any further evidence that our system of governance is so misaligned to people’s problems that it has itself become the cause of adding new problems into their lives than finding solutions to their original basic issues of poverty, illiteracy and unemployment? For decades, the system has been unable to collect taxes from more than one percent of the population. Nor has it been able to prevent flight of capital.

Where countries from same baseline achieved 100 percent literacy within 20-25 years, 50 percent of our population remains illiterate after 70 years. And people in villages prefer local jirgas – as cheap, easy and quick means of resolving disputes – wary that the system will keep picking their pockets and eating away their lives. So for whom has this ‘system’ of governance been working all along?

“The fundamental question of governance”, said Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew to this writer in a meeting, “is to decide whether the instruments of governance of a country ie its laws and policies are made for the benefit of the citizens or for the benefit of its rulers”. And to ensure that the instruments of governance work for all, Lee continued, their enforcement should start with the leaders of the government and business. Once people see real application of laws and policies, there will never be any problem with their enforcement and the establishment of a level playing field for all citizens.

For Pakistan to follow this tried and tested advice means it would have to first apply its existing laws and rules upon some 5,000 people in various leadership roles. Within a few years of that this country and its people will be on their way to realising their great potential. Apart from lip service, though, the leaders of our system cannot afford to implement Lee’s prescription of good governance. They have created a consensus among themselves that instruments of governance are to be exercised for their own benefit – and not for the benefit of the people. Hence, no ‘leader’ wants to deliver a rule-based and equal opportunity society.

Although the success stories of Asia practised different forms of government, their governance reflected the same common feature. Their leadership used instruments of governance to uplift the quality of life of their citizens and not for their ‘self enrichment’. Today, their citizens enjoy better quality of life than the perpetually poor people of Pakistan.

In Pakistan, this fundamental question of governance has been lost in the misplaced rhetoric about the ‘form’ of government rather than the ‘purpose’ of governance – ‘the worst of democracy is better than the best of any other government’. Consequently, instruments of governance – the laws and policies of Pakistan – have been unabashedly made, manipulated and used for the benefit of the rulers. The system of governance has been turned into ‘government of the leaders, by the leaders, for the leaders’. In consequence, the improvements in the quality of life of leaders have been on display all the way from Pakistan to Dubai, London, Switzerland and Panama.

How did governance in Pakistan deteriorate to such depths and became the cause of the people’s problems rather than the cure?

This is the story of the real coup of medieval political culture creeping over instruments of governance of the state; this coup has finally completed its conquest over ‘modern democratic governance’ and disabled the state and its institutions from acting according to the law.

Let us call a spade a spade. None of the values of modern democratic governance that we often talk about – sovereignty of people, their inalienable fundamental rights, equality before law, equal opportunities for all, separation of powers, due process, and ‘free and fair’ elections – was nurtured in the darbars of rajas, maharajas and Mughal emperors of the Subcontinent. The political culture in their courts was the ‘Zill-e-Ilahi’ model of governance – where the ruler was a lord over his subjects who did not have ‘rights’ to anything.

The instruments of power in this culture were exercised for perpetuation of the rule and enrichment of the rulers. There was no concept of theft of public resources by the rulers because resources ‘belonged’ to the rulers – not to the people; nor was there a system of accountability because the state did not exist to hold the rulers accountable under its laws.

Look around. With some trappings of modern dress and dialogue, it is the same medieval values dictating governance in Pakistan. With the state and its cowed-down or compromised institutions becoming mere observers, the instruments of governance are openly being used for self-perpetuation and self-enrichment. Is this the new normal for Pakistan?

This is the real coup against the people, where the past has been made their future. Neither the state nor the people can benefit from it even if it rules the roost for the next one hundred years.

This conclusion is supported by independent research on several developing countries carried out at institutions like Yale and MIT, which found that the continuing underdevelopment of people in these countries was the result of deliberate policy choices by their leaders. As per Lee Kuan Yew, that means that the leaders of these countries decided that instruments of governance would be used for their own benefit.

So the critical question of delivering good governance in Pakistan can be framed as: how can ‘government of the leaders, by the leaders, for the leaders’ be reformed into ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’?

Only then will the ‘system’ of governance cease to be the cause of people’s problems and will work to find their solutions. Only then can it save itself.

The writer designed the Board of Investment and the First Women’s Bank. Email: [email protected]



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