Saturday 22 December 2012

Transforming an island from nothing

How did Singapore build a "paradise" island from "nothing"? The key is good public administration based on a realistic understanding of human nature
By Wen Quan, Published The Straits Times, 21 Dec 2012

SINGAPORE'S success is nothing short of a miracle.

From a small country with no hinterland or huge domestic market, no natural resources, and not even a natural freshwater river, it managed to enter the ranks of the world's developed countries after more than 40 years of hard work.

People of different races, religions, languages, cultures and lifestyles co-exist in harmony and progress in today's Singapore.

Even though an illegal strike by China bus drivers took place recently, the tripartite partnership of Government, employers and workers is a consultative and cooperative relationship which shares the fruits and challenges of development.

Singapore today is politically stable and peaceful. It is also dynamic, vibrant and prosperous. While other places in the world are facing debt and fiscal crises, corruption, racial hatred, terrorist attacks and extremism, this small island-state would seem to be a paradise.

How did Singapore create "something" out of "nothing" and develop into what it is today? What is the recipe for its success?

Understanding human nature

MANY people feel that the key reason is Singapore's public policies and management. But which public policy is the most important? Which policy is fundamental to the country's success?

I feel that the main reason for Singapore's successful implementation of its public policy and administration is that its leaders and government have a comprehensive, deep and objective understanding of human nature.

The policies and laws they formulate take into consideration basic features of human behaviour so that as far as possible, they prevent public policies from bowing to the weaker side of human nature, while at the same time fulfilling and reacting to its reasonable needs and desires.

For example, there is almost no free public service in Singapore, whether it is going to school, seeing a doctor or even applying for an identity card (IC). Singaporeans call it co-payment. The Government feels that services will be abused if they are free.

While many developing countries are implementing, or hoping to implement, totally free education, few people believe that in Singapore, a developed country where the gross domestic product per capita is more than US$50,000 (S$61,000), its citizens still have to pay school fees (albeit at low rates).

Fees differ for services. For example, a person who loses his IC has to pay $100 for the first replacement and wait for one month. For second or subsequent losses, the fee is $300 and the waiting period is three months.

Such policies reflect an understanding of human behaviour. Singapore's leaders understand the human tendency to seek gains and avoid risk or trouble. They put to full use this aversion to risk or inconvenience in their formulation of policies.

For example, many people call Singapore a "fine city" in jest, as "fine" can mean both "good" and "fine" (as in a financial penalty).

For example, you can be fined for eating on public transport, smoking in public places and littering on the streets. Such fines use the attitude of "risk aversion" to regulate people's behaviour.

One example in this area is the fact that Singapore still retains two very traditional punishments - caning and hanging. According to those who have experienced caning for crimes committed, the pain is beyond words, and they say they do not want to go through such pain again.

Singapore's Government and policymakers understand that it is insufficient for policies to have a deterrent value only. People also desire justice and fairness. For example, no one is above the law when it comes to law enforcement. People who break the law will be punished severely regardless of who they are.

A classic instance was in early October when an official from the National Trades Union Congress posted derogatory remarks about Malays on her Facebook page. Within hours, she was fired by her employer and the outcome was made public.

In the interest of fairness, senior government officials receive high pay, but the Government does not give them any additional allowances, housing allocation or health-care benefits.

The poor have access to various assistance and support schemes, but access requires stringent checks and is limited to prevent abuses. These policies reflect fairness and justice.

Realistic view on gambling

SINGAPORE'S policy management also reflects the Government's ability to be objective and rational, and to act with courage when dealing with human nature.

In the past, Singapore's leaders used to object to the setting up of casinos on the island, fearing they would lead to social and moral problems.

But they realised later that they should regulate gambling instead of banning it altogether. Granting casino licences on a limited scale allows not only a closer regulation of the industry, but also the education and monitoring of gambling addicts, and helps prevent the emergence of illegal casinos and related organised crime.

In any case, many countries have eased restrictions on the gaming industry, so some gamblers have the option of going to other countries to gamble.

The Singapore Government decided to open two integrated resorts (IRs) after thorough debate, and allowed these two IRs to each set aside a small area for a casino. The two casinos have brought huge economic benefits to Singapore, and allowed the Government to streamline and mobilise efforts to tackle gambling addiction.

Strict penalties are in place to deal with those who flout the rules, and the Government is in the process of formulating even tougher regulations.

The traditional moral view is that gambling is not good. But given human nature and the fondness for taking risks and trying to make a fast buck, the simple act of slapping an "illegal" label on gambling may not be the most effective way to solve the problem.

The best way is to allow such actions to be regulated by law and reduce its negative social influence as far as possible, helping the public to boycott certain forms of gambling and curbing their urge to gamble, while involving society in regulation and education efforts.

Singapore can do this as it has a comprehensive and objective understanding of the human tendency to take risks.

High pay for public officials

STRONG determination and political will is necessary to maintain such a stand and allow the spirit to permeate public policies. Not every government can do it.

Take, for example, the high pay for senior officials in Singapore. It must have been a very difficult decision to implement the system because many people will think that those in public service, especially the senior officials, should embrace the public interest and not pursue private gain.

Giving high pay to government officials gives people the impression that a job in the public service is a way to get rich.

But public service is also a type of service and the people involved are normal people like us with families, relatives and friends. They face livelihood issues, pay for their children's education, and buy their own houses and cars. In other words, they have economic needs too.

So when people engaged in other services feel justified in getting their pay, especially in senior management, then it would be unfair if government officials do not receive salaries commensurate with their responsibilities.

This may then result in officials' rent-seeking behaviour as seen in many countries, or their using various allowances and benefits to boost their pay. Talented people may also shun politics for the business sector.

In the general election held in Singapore last year, some voters grumbled that ministerial pay in Singapore was too high.

After the election, the Government made a decision to lower salaries while generally maintaining the high pay structure. Such decisions need courage.

This realistic understanding of human nature, which permeates Singapore's public policies, is the essence of its management and the definition of its success.

It comes from the Singapore Government's acknowledgement that its people are its most valuable resource. With such understanding and respect, Singapore ensures that everyone in the nation maximises his potential and does his best in whatever he is doing.

This, in turn, transforms Singapore from a small island without any natural resources into a dazzling garden city.

The world should learn from Singapore its people-oriented spirit and imbue it in every public policy whenever possible.

The writer is assistant dean of the Nanyang Centre for Public Administration, Nanyang Technological University. He was formerly head of the International Exchange Centre of China Foreign Affairs University. This commentary appeared on Xinhuanet, a website of the Xinhua News Agency, on Dec 11.

Translated by Lim Ruey Yan

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