In the article Values for power, I discussed how the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) constructs and propagates a set of values with an eye to staying in power. Unlike many parties in mature democracies where coherent branding and a set of values constitute the launch pad for winning votes and getting into power, in the case of a dominant party in a quasi-one-party political system, cause and effect can be reversed. Since power is virtually a given, values can change whenever needed to best ensure staying in power.
However, there is one value or worldview that is perhaps independent (or as independent as the matrices of politics can ever be) of the imperative of staying in power. In other words, if the PAP were out of power, they would be campaigning for your votes based on this principle. It is fundamental to what they believe is in the best interest of Singapore.
What is this principle? It is that the course of human history is determined by a few people. Just a few will make the difference between success or failure. For Singapore to succeed, we need to identify and cultivate the few who will make that difference. Coupled with this worldview is the notion, sotto voce, that Singapore is forever under siege, from our neighbours and their envy, from our tropical climate that promotes a lotus-eating languidness and from our physical limitations of size. This siege mentality justifies over-compensation: All the more crucially we need to identify, cultivate, attract and reward the few that will deliver success.
This accounts for the attention paid as much to attracting talent into Singapore as to identifying the brightest among our young for streaming into the best academies. This accounts for the importance attached to rewarding them well, with good pay, scholarships and a quality of life second to none. Providing for the rest, the rhetoric of inclusiveness and a caring government notwithstanding, is secondary to making sure we’ve first looked after the best so that the elite in turn will generate the surpluses from which we can look after the others. Providing for lowly migrant workers, or even citizens who have fallen short (e.g. prisoners) comes a distant third.
In such a system, the distribution of resources favours those who are believed to be success-makers. Especially in a world where Singapore has to compete against countries with bigger markets, larger populations (therefore larger pool of talent), strategic depth and underground resources, we need to ensure we are exceptionally good at attracting and rewarding talent, to compensate for our weaknesses. If this means we skew the distribution of resources even more, then it’s just a hard fact of survival. If this means we have to live with a grotesque income gap, so be it.
Many Singaporeans do not agree. They won’t find it hard to come up with the rebuttal that the rich and the brightest are usually more than able to look after themselves. If distribution of resources is to be skewed, it should be to help the disadvantaged. The moral imperative is to close gaps rather than widen them further through deliberate policy.
Unfortunately, this riposte may be too glib.
Firstly, is it not a valid argument that throughout history, people have not contributed equally? A smallish set of exceptionally gifted, determined or hardworking individuals have made the difference between invention and stagnation, progress and decline, success and failure. Hence, is it not valid that whether we’re referring to a corporation or a state, there is an ineluctable need to identify, nurture and reward talent?
Secondly, is it not a simple truth that unless the conditions and rewards are in place for the talented to generate surpluses and the dynamic of progress, nobody gains?
Thirdly, how does one balance that survivalist imperative against the moral imperative of skewing the distribution of resources more towards the weak, untalented and disadvantaged?
I don’t have the answers. I stop here at just those questions, for those are the questions that should give us pause. The third question is particularly acute. It is easy to demonise the PAP government’s policies as a train speeding down the wrong tracks without brakes, to suggest that the party is self-serving and mendacious, and to bait xenophobia.
This video, for example, is well made, and no doubt emotively powerful:
Yes, it is important that there should be a better balance of dissenting voices in parliament, but at the same time, it is important to understand where the PAP is coming from, whether you agree with them or not. They are not just being power-hungry and self-serving, though I won’t say that these play no part either. But they genuinely believe that in Singapore’s case, the kind of skewing I’ve described is what is needed to survive and prosper.
If you disagree, it is incumbent on you to think through your alternatives and have a good answer in hand to each of the three questions. Otherwise, no genuine debate is joined.