There is nothing guaranteed about the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) reform agenda, or that of the government it controls. While ministers have been reshuffled, motherhood statements made about listening more closely to people and a committee set up to review ministerial salaries, a cursory look at reform attempts elsewhere in the world will indicate that more often than not, they don’t go very far. Many eventually vanish without a trace like a puddle on hot tarmac.
Reform is never an easy thing to do. There are winners and losers and the losers will make every effort to stymie it. Especially when big budgets are involved, e.g. public housing and transport infrastructure, for every argument in favour of change, there are as many arguments against it, or to go more slowly, or in a different direction. You could almost expect that reform petering out would be the default outcome. From the examples of history, reform succeeding to general satisfaction is the outcome one bets against.
No prime minister alone can fully manage the process. He has to depend on ministers (of varying competency) delving into the details of the controversies affecting respective portfolios, measuring public opinion for each alternative, working out cost/benefits, and squaring a multitude of circles. Each minister brings in his own bias. Some ministers would rather not see any reform at all, though they might be politick to keep quiet about their true feelings. Other ministers are plain incompetent.
This is the moment when prime-ministership is to be the exact opposite of a technocrat. Impossible as it will be to master the intricacies of every policy and sifting through every reform idea and its pros and cons, his job should be to look at the environment in which this attempt at reform operates. How can I make the environment as conducive to reform as possible? is the question he should ask. And here there are many things he can do to prevent backsliding, or at least to make it painfully difficult NOT to reform.
Essentially, he has to empower the forces for reform and disempower those most likely to resist. He has to take away the tools that were so favoured by the old guard in setting a course that led to the present situation, for these tools may be used again when the anti-reformists want to reassert themselves.
Interestingly, what the prime minister can do, and quickly, don’t cost money. Here are some ideas:
1. Enact a Freedom of Information Act. Anti-reformists would like to manipulate information available in the public square so as to protect their agenda. Any reform that seeks to advance a wider, popular interest therefore must empower the people to obtain the necessary information to see for themselves what is needed to be done, what resources are available and therefore what can realistically be done. Information however is useless unless it can be disseminated and discussed. Hence. . .
2. Free up the media:
(a) Repeal the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act that gives the government golden shares in media companies, thus exercising a veto over their editorial direction;
(b) Repeal Section 33 of the Films Act that seeks to control political films;
(c) Repeal relevant provisions of the Broadcasting Act and the Films Act that empower the government to exercise censorship in any of three ways: (i) banning films and other media, (ii) refusing to classify or rate a film, thus effectively banning it, (iii) imposing such stringent distribution conditions on media content that it severely limits its circulation. In essence, the government should have no powers to censor or prohibit any information; its power should be limited only to classification and reasonable controls over the distribution of certain categories of media content for universally agreed objectives (e.g. exposure to children).
3. Raise contestibility in politics. Reform the electoral system. Re-establish the Elections Commission as an independent body answerable only to its charter and the President. In other words, raise the stakes for those ministers who resist reform or who make a hash of it.
4. Entrench human rights. Much of the climate of fear that pervades Singapore is a result of a history of human rights abuses with little recourse offered through our judicial system. This climate of fear serves as a useful tool for officials to intimidate people from speaking out against policies. As a tool it can be used both ways — to silence those for reform and those against reform. But the greater likelihood is that since non-reform serves narrower interests, it will be used by those who wish to gag any pressure for reform. Therefore, we need to institutionalise respect for human rights:
(a) Repeal the Internal Security Act;
(b) Repeal the Sedition Act;
(c) Sign and ratify the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (UNCCPR);
(c) Set up a Human Rights Commission empowered to investigate complaints of human rights abuses (where human rights are as defined in accordance with the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UNCCPR), and initiate prosecution against anyone infringing these rights, including ministers.
5. Step back from the present tendency to ban all public assemblies, by issuing permits for public processions and assemblies for political purposes on Saturdays and Sundays in downtown areas; thus allowing citizens to voice their feelings about politics in a demonstrative way — like in any normal country.
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On the matter of ministerial salaries, one red herring is being brandished. It is that sky-high salaries serve to ensure the non-corruptibility of political office-holders. We see it even in the Terms of Reference given to the committee set up to review ministerial salaries and over the last two days I’ve seen several comments online repeating this scriptural chant. We also have a letter leading the Straits Times Forum Page by a certain Alice Koh arguing against any lowering of ministerial salaries at all:
I urge the committee reviewing ministerial salaries to consider the negative consequences of not pegging ministers’ pay to top incomes.
Having mediocre ministerial salaries will blunt our aim of attracting top talent into government. No matter how much is said that politics is about serving Singapore, attractive wages remain a motivational factor for high-fliers in different sectors to enter public service.
— Letter by Alice Koh, Straits Times print forum, 24 May 2011
When someone is greedy, there is never enough. Dishonest politicians have been known to accumulate hundreds of millions of dollars. Even our current way-out-of-line high salaries don’t come close to satisfying the stratospheric heights of greed.
This is not to say that political office holders shouldn’t be adequately rewarded. Of course they should; it is only fair. But a distinction has to be made between (a) paying them enough to lead comfortable lives so that there is no reason to worry about supporting their families nor need to resort to improper receipts, and (b) paying them beyond reason on the premise that doing so would keep them incorruptible. The latter does not withstand scrutiny. Corruptibility is never satiated.
The only proven way to keep politicians honest is freedom of speech. A strong anti-corruption agency helps too. Even if one looks at our own history, how did we create a largely corruption-free government in the 1960s and 1970s? Not by high salaries — these didn’t come into effect until the 1990s. The key factors then were political will (on Lee Kuan Yew’s part), a free media (at least until the 1970s) and a powerful anti-corruption agency.
Consequently I consider it a little dishonest intellectually for the government to keep repeating this mantra about high salaries being needed to prevent corruption. Decent salaries do, but marginal utility falls off rapidly beyond a certain point. Worse yet, that same dishonesty holds us back from developing the truly useful tools that DO prevent corruption: citizens’ right to access information, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly. In other words: Human rights.
If the prime minister is serious about reform, he should stop behaving like a technocrat looking at what levers to pull, and start thinking like a statesman.