Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Change? Yes, but just how and where?

It would help if voters are given a better sense of where leaders are heading, and why
By Warren Fernandez, The Sunday Times, 7 Apr 2013

Nike says Just Do It. Standard Chartered Bank declares it is Here For Good. BMW proclaims its cars the "ultimate driving machine".

In today's hyper-media world, it is all the more critical that organisations and brands are clear what they stand for, and communicate this to those they would like to serve.

The same goes for politics, even though selling policies and getting buy-in for them is obviously not quite the same as selling soap or shoes.

So, United States President Barrack Obama stood for change in 2008, rallying supporters with resonant cries of, "Yes, we can". Closer to home, Singapore's leaders once held out a bold vision of attaining a "Swiss standard of living", while Malaysia had its Vision 2020. Mr Goh Chok Tong's call to foster a "kinder, gentler society" when he took over as prime minister in 1990 also went down well.

It might seem simplistic and overly reductionist, but when done well, a good slogan, or more elaborately, an overarching narrative, can help focus minds and frame perceptions about deeper changes that are taking place.

Besides, politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. In the absence of any conscious effort to shape this narrative, the gap is likely to be filled, perhaps in unintended and even unfortunate ways. Once perceptions stick, they are hard to shake off or change.

So, it is worth pondering: What is the underlying storyline for politics in Singapore today?

Last year's mantra was all about building an "inclusive society", with the idea reiterated by political leaders throughout the Budget debate and afterwards.

The germ of a new idea emerged during the campaign for the recent Punggol East by-election, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sought to assure voters that his party and Government was "on your side".

This might have seemed self-evident to some. But in the aftermath of the roiling election campaigns in 2011, when criticisms were made that the People's Action Party had grown distant and aloof from the common man's concerns, it was worth making plain just where its leaders stood, and what drove their decisions.

Variations on this theme followed. This year's Budget was dubbed by some as a "Robin Hood" budget, with Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam cast as the bandit of Sherwood Forest, robbing the rich to help the poor, on whose side he was, presumably.

There were also moves to lower the cost of new Housing Board flats, steps to bring car prices down for the masses while raising them for the rich, and tough new measures to ensure that local workers are given a fair deal by employers.

This "on your side" mantra is a powerful one. Voters want to be assured that the people they pick as leaders understand their worries and woes, and can be trusted to look out for them in putting these right.

For this to happen, though, the rhetoric must match the reality, if it is not to be dismissed as just so much political talk.

Herein lies the difficulty. For once you get down to the details, it becomes a lot less clear just what being "on your side" means under different circumstances.

On tax policy, for example, does being "on your side" imply taxing the rich till the proverbial pips squeak? What if this results in driving away businesses, investors and jobs, and hitting the people the policy was meant to serve?

On immigration, the call to put "Singaporeans first" has taken on greater resonance in the wake of the fraught debate over that 6.9 million population figure. Some have taken to saying that putting Singaporeans ahead should entail penalising newcomers, or making it less enticing for them to come in the first place. Some even want "no vacancies, we're full" signs on the door.

Most Singaporeans, I believe, don't buy this nativist nonsense, spouted by a vocal minority. We know full well that Singapore was built on the hard work of our immigrant forefathers and by being open to people, money and ideas from around the world.

So, to my mind, being "on your side" when it comes to immigration entails ensuring that the country stays open and accessible to those who might come to help this place prosper, while making sure that the social and physical infrastructure systems are able to cope.

Clearly, there is a balance to be struck between shutting the door to further immigration and the wide open door of the past, which caused the sense among many Singaporeans of being swamped and overwhelmed. Going forward, the debate should be about how to strike that balance.

The same might be said of housing policy. Is being "on your side" simply about lowering public housing prices? What impact would that have on the many who already own their homes, and rely on their flats for rentals or retirement? Or those who have been holding out to upgrade?

Or take transport. Does being "on your side" mean making cars cheap for everyone who wants one? Or limiting every household to having one or two cars? Or is it more about making buses and MRT services cheap, convenient and consistently reliable?

What about education? Would abolishing the Primary School Leaving Examination put Education Minister Heng Swee Keat on the side of parents wanting to ease stress on their children? Or should he be mindful to stay on the side of those who believe that the exam helps give bright but poor kids a better chance of getting into top secondary schools?

Clearly, there are no easy answers. As a society facing a major transition, we are going to have to make some difficult decisions, which entail trade-offs between competing "sides", each with legitimate claims and interests. We will have to contend with the age-old 3Cs of politics: choices, costs and compromises. We will have to work out the costs of our various choices, and shape collectively acceptable compromises.

That, to me, is what the Our Singapore Conversation process should be about. So I am glad that it is finally moving into its second phase, delving deeper into the many pressing issues we face as a society, from a rapidly ageing society to an increasingly challenging external environment, both economically and geopolitically. This is where it gets interesting, as well as more challenging, and perhaps more controversial.

It is well and good that earlier rounds of discussions have signalled agreement that Singaporeans would like a society that cares more about the less well-off, or where preserving its natural and social heritage is given its rightful priority.

But now comes the hard part: How to do that? How to trade off one competing good against the other? How to figure out the costs, weigh up the trade-offs and agree on the compromises? That is where the debate must now turn.

Giving Singaporeans a better sense of the underlying philosophy that will shape these "on your side" decisions will help in the process.

This might entail an overarching storyline on just where our leaders are trying to go, and where we might end up as a society in the wake of the welter of policy reviews that are now under way.

Voters will want to know just why they should back them or agree to go along. Certainly, in today's world, they will not take kindly to being simply told to "just do it" as their leaders "are here for good".

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