The difference between a republic and a democracy

Singapore is not just a small country, she is a very small country.

Before I continue writing further, I want to reveal that I made a special effort to check whether the correct pronoun to refer to a country is “she” or “it”. Apparently, after some web-research, both pronouns are correct and equally acceptable depending on your own preference.

Anyway, I think “she” sounds more poetic and I will use that.

Well, we also often describe Singapore as a city state. Because Singapore is a small island, some writers even go further to call Singapore an island city state.

So, what exactly is a city state? Is it a city that is so large that it occupies the whole country or a country that is so small that it has only one city?

It is a common experience for many Singaporean travelers when we are overseas, to be baffled for a moment whenever we are required to fill in our home address on one form or another. We will write “Singapore” in the box for city, and we will also write “Singapore” again in the next box for country. So, the whole home address will read something like Block 123, #12-34, Jurong Street 12, Singapore, Singapore. However, most of our friends in other countries will normally write their home address ending like Sydney, (NSW) Australia; Boston, (MA) USA; Bangkok, Thailand, or Penang, Malaysia etc..

I think it will be really cool if someday in the future, all the different towns in Singapore will be known as different cities/towns in their own right, and we will fill in our home address like Bukit Panjang, Singapore; Toa Payoh, Singapore; Ang Mo Kio, Singapore or Pasir Ris, Singapore etc.. I admit this is just one of my fanciful wishes!

Buford 2 - with logo

But before you think I am being crazy, please see this picture (on right) of an American town with a population of only one person, and it has its own zip code to boot!




By now, you must be wondering what on earth have I written thus far that has anything related to the subject of the title of my post, which is “The difference between a republic and a democracy”.

Well, it is just my quirky way (or long-winded way!) of building the message of my post so that I can find an appropriate juncture to bring in an important point, that many Singaporeans often conveniently forget that the official name of our country is not just “Singapore”. Officially, our country is known as the “Republic of Singapore”. This leads us to the next question, “What is a republic”?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

noun re·pub·lic \ri-ˈpə-blik\

: a country that is governed by elected representatives and by an elected leader (such as a president) rather than by a king or queen.

Finally, what is the difference between a republic and a democracy? I recently read an article in the Washington Post that explains it quite well. The article (shown below) refers to the United States of America. I think it will help us to understand the difference in the context of Singapore as well. It is like asking: “Is Singapore a republic or a democracy?”. If you are not interested in reading too much about the history of governance in the USA, my suggestion for you is to read the first two or three paragraphs, skip the other paragraphs and then jump to the concluding last paragraph.

Is the United States of America a republic or a democracy?

May 13 2015

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.

(Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

I often hear people argue that the United States is a republic, not a democracy. But that’s a false dichotomy. A common definition of “republic” is, to quote the American Heritage Dictionary, “A political order in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who are entitled to vote for officers and representatives responsible to them” — we are that. A common definition of “democracy” is, “Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives” — we are that, too.

The United States is not a direct democracy, in the sense of a country in which laws (and other government decisions) are made predominantly by majority vote. Some lawmaking is done this way, on the state and local levels, but it’s only a tiny fraction of all lawmaking. But we are a representative democracy, which is a form of democracy.

And indeed the American form of government has been called a “democracy” by leading American statesmen and legal commentators from the Framing on. It’s true that some Framing-era commentators made arguments that distinguished “democracy” and “republic”; see, for instance, The Federalist (No. 10), though even that first draws the distinction between “pure democracy” and a “republic,” only later just saying “democracy.” But even in that era, “representative democracy” was understood as a form of democracy, alongside “pure democracy”: John Adams used the term “representative democracy” in 1794; so did Noah Webster in 1785; so did St. George Tucker in his 1803 edition of Blackstone; so did Thomas Jefferson in 1815. Tucker’s Blackstone likewise uses “democracy” to describe a representative democracy, even when the qualifier “representative” is omitted.

Likewise, James Wilson, one of the main drafters of the Constitution and one of the first Supreme Court Justices, defended the Constitution in 1787 by speaking of the three forms of government being the “monarchical, aristocratical, and democratical,” and said that in a democracy the sovereign power is “inherent in the people, and is either exercised by themselves or by their representatives.” And Chief Justice John Marshall — who helped lead the fight in the 1788 Virginia Convention for ratifying the U.S. Constitution — likewise defended the Constitution in that convention by describing it as implementing “democracy” (as opposed to “despotism”), and without the need to even add the qualifier “representative.”

To be sure, in addition to being a representative democracy, the United States is also a constitutional democracy, in which courts restrain in some measure the democratic will. And the United States is therefore also a constitutional republic. Indeed, the United States might be labeled a constitutional federal representative democracy. But where one word is used, with all the oversimplification that this necessary entails, “democracy” and “republic” both work. Indeed, since direct democracy — again, a government in which all or most laws are made by direct popular vote — would be impractical given the number and complexity of laws that pretty much any state or national government is expected to enact, it’s unsurprising that the qualifier “representative” would often be omitted. Practically speaking, representative democracy is the only democracy that’s around at any state or national level.

Now one can certainly argue that some aspects of U.S. government should become less direct, and filtered through more layers of representation. One can argue, for instance, that the 17th Amendment should be repealed, and that U.S. senators should no longer be elected directly by the people, but should return to being elected by state legislators who are elected by the people. Or one can argue for repealing state- and local-level initiative and referendum schemes. Or one can argue for making the Electoral College into a deliberative body, in which the electors are supposed to discuss the candidates and make various political deals, rather than being elected solely to vote for particular candidates. And of course one can equally argue for making some aspects of U.S. government more direct, for instance by shifting to truly direct election of the president, or by institute a federal-level initiative and referendum.

But there is no basis for saying that the United States is somehow “not a democracy, but a republic.” “Democracy” and “republic” aren’t just words that a speaker can arbitrarily define to mean something (e.g., defining democracy as “a form of government in which all laws are made directly by the people”). They are terms that have been given meaning by English speakers more broadly. And both today and in the Framing era, “democracy” has been generally understood to include representative democracy as well as direct democracy.

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