Monday 27 May 2013

Time to spell out core values of governance

Policy debate on housing, cars should be guided by vision of S'pore's future
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 25 May 2013

TO SOME worried observers, class envy has poisoned the public discussion over cars and houses.

They note with dismay that in the national conversation on how to cool the property market and ease congestion on the roads, fundamental debate has been sidelined by calls to penalise those who have more - be that multiple cars, properties or executive condominiums (ECs).

In the ongoing Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) exercise on housing, for example, the lion's share of ire has been directed at those who own both Housing Board flats and private properties, as well as EC owners who some believe do not deserve HDB grants.

Both are indeed problematic aspects of public housing.

But they are minor concerns in the grand scale of things: About 40,000 own both flat and condo unit, from a pool of a million flat owners overall; there are just 10,000 EC units in existence, with another 10,000 under construction.

Neither will fix the fundamental flaws in the housing system. Nor will they involve any painful adjustments on the part of the bulk of Singaporean home owners - probably why they have proven disproportionately popular topics. Trading someone else's benefit for minor overall gain is the easiest kind of trade-off.

Similarly with cars. Making those who own more than one car pay a levy will have little impact on easing congestion on the roads. The group is small to begin with - 7 per cent of all motorists - and there are many ways to avoid the tax, as observers have noted.

But it would make everyone else feel a little better when sitting in gridlock.

Compounding the misery of 1 per cent is the encouragement government leaders seem to be giving the 99.

Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said that there was "merit" in higher levies on multiple car ownership, while National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan told OSC participants that there is an "inequity" in the EC scheme.

Coming on the heels of Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam's declaration last month that in Cabinet, "the centre of gravity is left of centre", no wonder free-market advocates and meritocracy champions everywhere are alarmed.

They should be, but not for the reasons they imagine. What we are observing now is just another manifestation of the toxic and multiplied effects of income inequality in a small city-state.

The country's small size and lack of hinterland are non-negotiables. They have meant we have no option but to be an open, knowledge-driven economy. It is only lately that we are starting to notice how these same non-negotiables manifest when it comes to wealth and income inequality.

Singapore's population density and lack of hinterland have meant that the effects of inequality, evident everywhere in developed countries, escalate.

"Keeping up with the Joneses", the sociological phenomenon where conspicuous consumption - and anxiety and pressure - is driven by the material status of your neighbours, is exponentially worse when the people live cheek by jowl. We are all neighbours on this tiny island, even if the Joneses may live in Sentosa Cove.

There is no second-tier city for Singaporeans who feel under siege by a modern metropolis to find respite. Consequently, their resentment is directed at those who seem to benefit from the same dynamics that hurt them.

In this difficult moment, what is making matters worse is the mixed messages from government leaders.

In discussing these topics, politicians were quick to caution of the downsides of moves to penalise those with more.

Mr Lui said levies would fuel "anti-wealth sentiment" and that it was not for the Government to decide how many cars people can own. Mr Khaw pointed out that many Singaporeans count on their dual properties to see them through retirement.

They want to inject balance into the debate and get Singaporeans to see one another's point of view - a noble intent.

But it seems to me that Singapore society has passed the point where there are common goals.

Something like "fairness," for example, means different things to different people. Just as it is fair to some that those of greater means who can buy multiple cars should pay for the privilege, it is also fair to others that those who have earned their money honestly get to spend it without reprisal.

The policymaking environment has also become so complex that even if we did agree on shared goals in housing or transport policy, negative externalities, external shocks and shaky execution are all as likely as not to get in the way.

And when different groups of people want different things, what was intended as balance comes off to some as pandering, and to others as confused.

We must come to terms with Singaporeans not meeting in the middle on the most urgent issues facing us, nor coalescing around a single goal as they did in the past.

For many decades, the over-arching imperative was clear: economic survival.

But as this existential moment recedes from the current generation's minds, political leadership requires encompassing ideas, not adjectives.

With as many voices against as for, with failure as possible as success, policies need to be underpinned by moral reasoning.

For that, we need to know the core values of our governance.

This phrase has been uttered many times before, and national searches duly undertaken.

But because they reached desperately for consensus, they have produced only nice-sounding words so broad as to prescribe nothing: like the afore-mentioned "fairness", or "multi-racialism".

An empty consensus will not see us through difficult decisions, and cannot be called upon to decide which path to take at a fork in the road. Its only achievement is to be roundly inoffensive.

Powerful ideas and ideologies will always meet strong objection, but they justify action and form the foundation on which policymakers stand their ground when backlash mounts.

In my view, it would be useful for political leaders to set out where they stand on the kind of society they want to build. Their policy decisions then flow from that conception.

If we want to tax motorists who own multiple vehicles more heavily for the sake of social equity, for example, is this because the Government believes that social equity should be a thread that runs through its governance?

If so, then that would also extend to its policies on income tax, on the nationalisation or not of public transport systems, and yes, on Sentosa Cove.

Now, public debate seems to flail from one controversy to the next. That can cause confusion. Perhaps it is inevitable at this stage of the process - when policies are up for scrutiny, with a view to reviewing them if there are grounds to do so.

But I do hope that when decision time comes, there is also a clear articulation of the vision for the Singapore of the future, a vision that underpins policy change.

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