Monday 28 October 2013

Two-party system? Try a litmus test, says ex-minister Raymond Lim

It must be able to forge consensus, and get things done: Raymond Lim
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 26 Oct 2013

TWO questions should be asked as Singaporeans decide whether they want the country to transition towards a two-party system, said former minister Raymond Lim yesterday.

One, whether the system it is evolving towards can forge consensus on the priorities and "necessary things" that must be done to move Singapore forward.

Two, having reached that decision, whether the system has the capacity to get it done.

The two questions are a litmus test for Singaporeans negotiating the change, Mr Lim told a student who asked him about the contrast between economic competition and political monopoly here.

The student, among 180 guests at a lecture and question-and-answer session held in conjunction with the launch of Mr Lim's first book, had argued that democracy requires the check and balance of a strong opposition.

Mr Lim, a former journalist and economist, said the political situation here has evolved as no society can remain static. But he cited the "dysfunctional" system in the United States as a negative example of one that cannot agree on how to move forward and resolve its problems. The US recently emerged from a 16-day government shutdown caused by gridlock between the Democrats and Republicans over a Democrat-backed health-care law.

Beyond coming to a consensus, an ideal political system should also be able to implement its decisions, said Mr Lim at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

"This is the difference between talking about doing something and actually getting it done," the MP for East Coast GRC said.

A former transport minister who left Cabinet after the last General Election in 2011, he also touched on challenges for Singapore and the region in a lecture held as part of NTU's new undergraduate degree programme in Public Policy and Global Affairs.

Rising income inequality, which is troubling not just Singapore but other societies, has led to many feeling excluded from the benefits of growth, he said.

"This is why even though our economy is up, which is no mean feat in a crisis-strewn decade, yet the 'feel good' factor seems missing," said Mr Lim.

Bridging this divide and ensuring no one is left behind is high on the Government's agenda, he said, pointing to recent Budgets aimed at ensuring inclusiveness and the National Day Rally announcements in August.

"But the Government can only pursue this in a big way if it has the support of the people," said Mr Lim.

Support for an inclusive society is not a given once the questions of "how to pay" and "who to pay" are asked, he said.

Mr Lim highlighted the importance of a strong sense of community and an active civic society.

More are now willing to speak up, Mr Lim noted, adding it is "far better" to have an engaged citizenry than a "switched-off" one.

However, he called for courage to not just voice popular discontent, but also to oppose it "when you know in your hearts that it is right to do so".

While people used to speak of a climate of fear deterring them from criticising the Government, the converse is now true.

"Ordinary people are worried that if they speak up in support of an unpopular policy or against a populist view, they are immediately pilloried and flamed on the Net," he said.

"If you concede this civic space, not speaking up for our collective interests, then our society will start to fragment as populist voices and special interests will slice up our common welfare."

Dad's death spurred writing
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 26 Oct 2013

WHEN his father suggested that he write his memoir, former Cabinet minister Raymond Lim demurred initially.

"I told him it was too soon; that if I do decide to write my memoir, it would benefit from the perspective of time," he said yesterday.

But he was spurred to do it after the death of his father, active ageing champion Henry Lim, in March last year at the age of 86.

Yesterday, Mr Lim, 54, unveiled his first book, Straight Talk: Reflections On Singapore Politics, Economy And Society.

"Hopefully, (the book) meets his request halfway," he said at its launch.

The book is a collection of speeches and essays spanning his 20-year career as a political journalist, economist and politician.

He wrote fresh material to lead off each of the six chapters on topics such as society, politics and foreign affairs. He called the 168-page book an "intellectual memoir of sorts" as it covers areas he has been involved in and which he has thought about for years.

The MP for East Coast GRC, who is chairman of APS Asset Management and senior adviser to John Swire & Sons (South-east Asia), entered politics in 2001.

He rose to be Transport Minister and Second Minister for Foreign Affairs, two portfolios he held before he left the Cabinet after the 2011 General Election.

He declined to take questions beyond his book yesterday.

Royalties from it will go to the Gerontological Society of Singapore, which his father co-founded. The book costs $26.75 (including GST) at major bookstores.

The romantic Singaporean
Former Transport Minister Raymond Lim has launched a new book. Straight Talk: Reflections On Singapore Politics, Economy & Society is a collection of speeches and essays spanning 20 years of Mr Lim's career in journalism, finance and politics. In this excerpt, taken from a speech given at Raffles Junior College Founder's Day in 2006, Mr Lim argues against the view that the great causes in Singapore have been settled.

I WAS in Raffles Institution from 1972 to 1977. It was a different world from the one that you are growing up in.

No mobile phone, no Internet and no iPod. The photocopying machine was then considered cutting-edge technology. (After I left school, the fax came along and we worshipped it as a wonder of modern communications.)

The classroom was not air-conditioned. No Nike Air. No Dry-Fit T-shirt.

When I first represented RI in the sprints for the City District Championship in 1973, I borrowed my friend's spikes for the finals. It must have helped as I got silver for both events and our 4x100m relay team broke the C division record.

School-organised trips abroad were rare. Our hope for overseas adventures rested on securing a scholarship to study abroad. The first time I took a jet plane was as a shaven-haired army cadet to Taiwan.

As for assembly talks, we had guest speakers but, unlike your "interactive" talks, they did all the talking, we did all the listening and no one thought that we might want to ask them some questions. My teachers were more concerned that we did not fall asleep during the session. This, I am told, is one of these things that have resisted change as this generation of students is also similarly afflicted.

A few years ago, RI invited me as a guest speaker and I was grilled for more than an hour by en unending stream of secondary school students. They were bright, articulate and I believe different from my generation. They had a different world view. They placed greater importance on what sociologists would call post- materialist values such as self-expression, greater political participation and quality of life.

I don't think that this is simply a generation gap issue. If it were, then as these young Singaporeans grow older, they would be more like the older ones who place greater emphasis on economic security issues. What we may well be seeing is an inter-generational shift in value priorities. This is because the post-independence generation has grown up under much more secure formative conditions.

This is not a reason for acute alarm. It simply means that if this shift indeed takes place, we will have a different society over time. What is important is that we recognise this, so that we can better understand and participate in its evolution rather than hanker for a world that may be gone. In fact, I think it is good that you are different because I believe that you need a less deferential frame of mind towards authority to succeed in a world where the premium is on creativity and out-of- the-box thinking.

Never fear

IT IS in this spirit that I would like to make three arguments against what seems to be prevailing wisdom of the day.

First is the proposition that "Singaporeans lack the romantic spirit of adventure". When I was young, one of my favourite quotes was from (then Prime Minister) Lee Kuan Yew. In September 1965, a month after independence had been thrust upon us, he declared to an anxious nation: "A hundred years ago, this was a mudflat. Today, this is a modern city. Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear!"

Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, his words struck a chord with me; they appealed to my youthful idealism that we would succeed against all odds. There is no mountain so high that we cannot conquer it if we are determined to succeed.

We built a modern industrial economy from a colonial entrepot by welcoming multinational companies... when it was unfashionable to do so. Today, this policy is emulated throughout the developing world. We are a major oil-refining centre even though we have no oil of our own. We have one of the best airlines in the world in spite of our tiny population.

So contrary to what you often hear - that Singaporeans lack the romantic spirit - our very national character is animated with a spirit of derring-do without which we would not be where we are today.

Second is the view that "the opportunities today are fewer for your generation". The good life is getting out of reach because globalisation has made competition that much tougher and getting ahead that much more difficult.

Is it true that the best is over? Not for a moment should you believe this. The truth is far from it.

Yes, competition is tougher because of globalisation. But globalisation has also enormously expanded opportunities through market liberalisation and integration. Take careers, for instance. When I grew up, they were more limited. Because families had less, many had to go for the beaten track rather than pursue what would then have been regarded as esoteric dreams such as being a singer, actor or entrepreneur.

But today, you can be a famous singer like Stefanie Sun with an Asia-wide appeal, an actress like Beatrice Chia, whose accomplishments include being judged best actress, director and playwright in the Life! Theatre Awards, or a doctor-turned-entrepreneur like Dr Loo Choon Yong, who was not content with being just a GP but went on to build a significant health-care business in Singapore. And you may wish to note that they are all Rafflesians.

Those careers are made possible because in an increasingly integrated world economy, the demand is there for a diversity of services and goods - and you can find fame, fortune and fulfilment in any one of them.

Finding our niche

WHAT about China and India? They are the biggest stories of this new century. Two giant economies with more than a billion people each and home to 40 per cent of the world's population. They are now joining the global economy and making up for lost time with a vigour that leaves one breathless in trying to keep up with them. Many Singaporeans who visit and work in China come back shell-shocked.

Will they wipe us and other small economies out of the economic landscape? I think not. Yes, they are a challenge. But as any Economics 101 student will tell you - even if China can produce everything that we can, and cheaper than us, there is still room for us to grow and prosper as it is comparative rather than absolute advantage that is critical for trade.

So we need to find our niches and ride those two giant stars of Asia. And because we are geographically situated at the confluence of these emerging economic powerhouses, and intimately understand their cultures, we are... positioned to ride their updraft and fly higher than we ever have before. So the opportunities are there. It is what we make of them.

Third is the belief that "there are no more great causes to fight for". All the big and important things to build Singapore as a successful country have already been done by the generation that fought for independence and the generation that grew during Singapore's economic transformation. There is not much more to do except to keep improving things at the margin.

Again, I think not. The years ahead will be both challenging and exciting. We have not arrived. We must constantly tell ourselves that even as we reach one mountain peak, our thoughts and sights must be to scale the next higher peak. This is because there is no permanent advantage in whatever we do.

The world is fast-forwarding at an unprecedented pace, powered by globalisation and digital revolution. The big challenge for us is to stay ever more flexible and adaptable to constant change so that even though we are only a little red dot, we are continuously relevant to this world in flux. The challenges are not just external. In fact, the internal challenges may be even more important.

Challenges just beginning

WHAT is the impact on the ties that bind our society when increasingly more and more people are connected and identify with virtual communities that transcend our national boundary? What does it mean for the governance of our country when the Internet creates pressures for more direct participation on policies without the traditional mediating process of debate, deliberation and compromise inherent in our system of representative government? How do we deal with the social consequences of a widening income gap between the top and bottom of our society caused by the very forces that underpin our economic success - liberalisation and globalisation?

... it makes a world of difference whether you are addressing these issues from the perspective of a nation with several hundred years of history or from that with only 41 years since independence.

So contrary to what some of you may think, the real challenges in bringing Singapore to the next plane of development are only beginning.

There is so much for your generation to do. I am confident that you will rise up to these challenges.

Straight Talk: Reflections On Singapore Politics, Economy & Society is published by Straits Times Press, the book publishing arm of Singapore Press Holdings. The 168-page book is available at bookstores for $26.75 (GST inclusive).

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