Tuesday 14 August 2012

Surviving change

by Devadas Krishnadas, Published TODAY, 13 Aug 2012

Singapore has just won an unprecedented two Olympic medals. Yet, the public seems dismayed because the winners were so-called foreign talent.

Whatever the unhappiness over the population augmentation strategy, it is a done deal. What matters is for Government and the people to jointly figure a way forward. 

Change is nothing new in Singapore. So why the general unease today? 

First, a look at social change. There was massive change in the 1960s and 1970s as Singapore undertook a sustained programme of urbanisation. There were welcome uplifts to general welfare. People adopted new locations, new skills and new patterns of behaviour. 

Today, Singaporeans have a high level of urbanity and expect high and improving standards of public health, education and transport. However, the effort required to make marginal improvements when one gets close to the highest standards is much greater than when one is at a lower base.

It was commonplace up to the 1980s to have local flooding, occasional blackouts, even infrastructure calamities. I do not recall these being blamed on the Government, or any hand-wringing that we were becoming less Singaporean. Rather, these episodes gave Singaporeans common cause to work together to push forward. 

It is right to insist upon high standards, but expectations should also be realistic.

Second, economic change. During major changes in the past, the space for trade-offs was much larger. Singapore had more land, a greater production frontier to push out to and a work force with much latent potential. People found jobs, then better jobs. Real wages improved.

This march of progress was the result of good policies and a low base. Importantly, this nation had the good fortune to find its economic feet in the period of the "Great Moderation" as the world economy grew steadily in aggregate terms from the 1970s to the 1990s.

However, more recently, Singapore has begun to hit the limits of land and labour, and is past the period of Great Moderation into a period of Great Volatility. Population augmentation was chosen as a way to supply the economy with labour. 

All this has happened over a short period of time, during which we have also had several economic shocks from 1997 to 2008. The result is that many people may be psychologically conflating the economic unease induced by external systemic volatility and the sudden presence of large numbers of foreign workers. Yet, these are not the same thing at all. 


Then there is what I call the "grumble zone". It is human to vent to find release from daily stress. In the past, Singaporeans limited their grumbling to coffee shop and taxi ride rants. Having vented, we moved on. 

Today, social media allows for venting to be endlessly echoed and magnified. This may feed the false sense that problems are greater than they may really be.

The Internet is fertile ground for simple arguments, casual attributions of intent and easily assumed conspiracies. If we made random reading of the social media commentary, we could be forgiven for assuming the country is on the verge of social collapse. It is not. 

In 1980, the top income tax rate was over 50 per cent while corporate tax was over 40 per cent. Today, it is just 20 per cent and 17.5 per cent, correspondingly. Even if one factors in the Goods and Services Tax, individual tax rates have never been lower. 

In return, Singapore has world-matching - if not world-beating -standards of public and merit goods. Yet, today, we also have unrealistically low tolerance for failure, while expecting all responsibility to lie with the Government.

Responsibility for the country has to be shared between Government and the people and distributed among all as stakeholders.


First, there must be a discussion on the facts and not on emotions. To keep our heads, in both good times and bad, requires citizens and government to find a common and factual basis for discourse. 

Second, move from unilateral government to shared governance. The public needs to make its concerns known and in a reasoned and disciplined manner.

The Government, in turn, needs to trade off some efficiency in order to ensure that a more inclusive process of consultation is adopted. This sometimes means giving time for the issues to be aired and deliberated. 

Once a decision is made, it should be a shared one and everyone should pull together to see it through, not just walk away disgruntled if one does not entirely get their way.

Third, accept that there is no magic policy formula for how we can enjoy the benefits from economic growth despite our economic vulnerability. This means that Singaporeans have to accept some economic realities, such as the need for an open labour market.

However, we need to be concurrently sensitive to the absorptive capacity of our society. There is no science to such a policy calculation but one has to be made anyway. 

Increasingly, such non-precise policy calibrations will typify our decisions on social support, housing, healthcare, and other important and intensely personal issues. We all have to learn to get used to it.


To move forward constructively, all parties need to reframe. Government is not omniscient or infallible. Feedback is not criticism, nor is making statements the same as making analysis. If the Government is willing to experiment with policy, citizens should be willing to manage their expectations.

Voices must speak to give feedback but also try to propose solutions. Not everything will be possible and not all that is tried may work well.

These are not reasons to throw up our hands and conclude there can be no progress. These are, in fact, reasons to keep engaging, for the policy challenges before us are neither trivial nor are they limited. 

What they are, are our problems, and so must be both the solutions and the manner in which we arrive at them.

Devadas Krishnadas is Principal Consultant and Director at Future-Moves, a consultancy which uses foresight methodology to support strategic decision making.

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