Thursday, 24 April 2014

New book questions policy 'hard truths'

By Robin Chan, The Straits Times, 23 Apr 2014

TWO Singaporeans have written a book that argues against the way the Singapore Government provides housing and social support, and questions how it has dealt with values such as meritocracy and identity.

At the launch of the book Hard Choices: Challenging The Singapore Consensus at the National University of Singapore (NUS) UTown yesterday, its two authors Donald Low and Sudhir Vadaketh said they wanted to encourage Singaporeans to question the beliefs and practices that have become hard truths in the public policy arena.

Hard Truths is also the title of a book by former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Elaborating on this, Mr Low said: "We think that policymakers, and Singaporeans in general, should be less guided by hard truths, the ideologies, policies and practices that have served us well in the past 30 to 40 years, and be more guided by this idea that perhaps there are few hard truths, there are very few eternal truths.

"The far more meaningful debate we should be having is what are the choices we realistically have."

He is the associate dean for executive education and research at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and a former civil servant.

One such choice is whether Singapore must be a global city, said Mr Vadaketh.

He said the antagonism towards foreigners in Singapore is a result of tensions between those who see Singapore as a global city with a global identity and those who want it to have a more local identity.

Mr Low, 40, and Mr Vadaketh, 36, wrote most of the 15 essays in the book, which also includes contributions from Dr Linda Lim, professor of strategy at the University of Michigan, and Dr Thum Ping Tjin, research fellow at the Asia Research Institute in NUS. The book is published by NUS Press.

Mr Low said he hoped for a return of "the debate that used to characterise the Singapore Government" but had been "sucked out of the system" because of the Government's success.

He cited a 1972 speech by former deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee that raised concerns over Singapore's continued reliance on foreign investments and foreign workers for economic growth. "I think we have regressed."

Hard choices in a changing Singapore
This is an excerpt from the book, Hard Choices: Challenging The Singapore Consensus, edited by Donald Low and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh
The Straits Times, 3 May 2014

MANY of the policy debates in Singapore in recent years reflect deeper, more fundamental disagreements over the normative beliefs, principles and desired outcomes that underpin Singapore's public policies.

The disagreements, say, over economic restructuring, social spending or population policy, are not just over how government should achieve its outcomes but the outcomes themselves. The principles and beliefs that public policies are founded on, as well as the meanings attached to those principles, are also increasingly being questioned and challenged.

Consider meritocracy, perhaps the most crucial principle of governance, so vital and fundamental that it was one of the reasons Singapore separated from Malaysia. For the PAP Government, meritocracy has an egalitarian streak: It gives everyone a fair shot at success and ensures that a person's position in life will not be determined by his race, parentage or lineage, and social connections.

Yet, in the context of rising inequality and concerns over declining social mobility, many Singaporeans now perceive the meritocratic system as being less fair and just than before. Right or wrong, they view meritocracy as thinly veiled justification for elitism, and the reason for the state's indifference towards equality and redistribution.

Part of this dissatisfaction with meritocracy is a reaction to growing inequalities of income and more conspicuous displays of wealth in Singapore. But it is also driven by the Government's constant harping on how the talented should not be held back by policies, or shackled by higher taxes or onerous regulations, how they are the ones who create jobs and prosperity for the rest, and how if their taxes were raised, they would leave Singapore to the detriment of the greater good.

With rising inequality and the perception that elitism is sanctioned by the state, it is hardly surprising that a defence of meritocracy on the grounds of trickle-down economics will grate on the nerves of many Singaporeans, including even some who have benefited from the very meritocratic system they decry.

Or consider the critique of a second deeply held principle of governance: vulnerability and elite governance. The political establishment in Singapore has largely defined the Singapore condition as one of inherent, permanent, and immutable vulnerability. Given Singapore's vulnerabilities of size, geography, its neighbourhood, the country's lack of natural resources and its ethnic make-up, it is commonly argued that the country's survival depends on a strong, exceptional government composed of the best and brightest in the country (they are compensated at levels comparable to the highest incomes in the country).

The vulnerabilities that Singapore is saddled with have also been used to justify a wide range of restraints on the democratic freedoms one normally finds in countries at similar levels of development and with similarly large middle classes.

One can, of course, question the correctness and validity of this vulnerability narrative. At a public lecture he delivered at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in 2011, Thomas Friedman, a columnist at The New York Times, was asked what he thought were Singapore's key strengths. His reply: That it is small (and so can be very agile and flexible, and can forge political consensus more easily), and that it has no natural resources (and so will never suffer from the complacency or the resource curse that has blighted many resource-rich countries). Vulnerability is not necessarily an objective fact; it is just as much a matter of perspective, and may even be a social construct created by those in power.

Nonetheless, Singaporeans have largely accepted this vulnerability story for decades. They have also bought into the basic trade-off offered by the PAP Government: That if they want growth and rising living standards, they have to forgo some of their democratic rights and freedoms. Being exceptional, in the Singapore Government's view, does not simply mean achieving excellence or good governance. It also means accepting that Singapore is not normal, that citizens cannot enjoy the same rights and freedoms enjoyed by the citizens of normal democracies, or have the same levels of social protection.

The term "new normal" should be contrasted not with the "old normal", but with the "old abnormal". For many decades, Singaporeans' acceptance of the old abnormal reflected their grudging acceptance of a national ideology emphasising Singapore's inherent vulnerabilities, and the constraints this imposed on democracy, civil liberties, and social protection.

In the post-2011 new normal, the previously unquestioned logic of vulnerability and exceptionalism is increasingly being challenged. At one level, what this means is that there is no longer the presumption that "the Government knows best" or that trust in the Government should be given by default or unquestioningly.

Part of the growing disillusionment with the Government is due to the policy failings of the last decade (in immigration and foreign worker policies, housing, transport, etc.), but perhaps a larger part is the consequence of citizens' greater global exposure, in turn made possible by rising educational attainment, the digital revolution, and the democratisation of information.

If this is correct, it suggests that the Singaporeans who are least likely to accept the ruling elite's basic ideologies are also the most educated, the most globalised, and the most mobile of its citizens - indeed, the ones who have benefited most from successful governance in Singapore. This is perhaps the main paradox of the new normal in Singapore: Middle-class liberals who have benefited the most from the PAP's long hold on power are also the segment of society most likely to challenge and question its stories and ideologies.

A third long-cherished principle of governance that has come under greater scrutiny and criticism in recent years is the state's reliance on economic incentives as the primary instrument of governance. A common gripe in Singapore is how everything the Government does is framed and justified in narrow monetary terms. This is a government that takes the economist's policy prescriptions - of getting incentives right, of using cost-benefit analysis - seriously.

There are various objections to the extensive reliance on incentives as a policy lever, but two are commonly highlighted. The first is it reduces citizens' relations with the state to a purely monetary transaction. Rather than foster citizenship, commonality and identity, the relationship between state and citizens breeds a "what-the-state-owes-me" mentality. It reinforces the impression that the role of government in Singapore is to dispense patronage and secure people's compliance through economic incentives.

The second objection is that the current approach is highly individualised rather than universal. Singapore's social spending has become more narrowly targeted at lower-income citizens through means-testing. An individual's income and socio-economic status matter a great deal in determining how much benefits he/she gets from the state. In contrast to the more universal approaches taken by the Singapore Government in the past - in public housing, public health care and education, recent policy changes have tended to stress targeting, surgically directing financial aid to those who need it most.

While this approach makes sense from a fiscal and efficiency perspective, it also breeds a calculative, zero-sum, "your-gain-is- my-loss" mentality. It makes the Singapore system of taxes and transfers a potentially divisive and exclusionary one, rather than one which builds trust, solidarity, and a sense that "we're all in this together".

When society was already becoming more unequal in the 2000s, the fiscal system increasingly emphasised individual entitlement, differentiation and targeting, instead of social protection and risk pooling, universalism, and solidarity.

Donald Low is associate dean for executive education and research at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh is author of Floating On A Malayan Breeze: Travels In Malaysia And Singapore. He also writes for a variety of publications, including The Economist.

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