Another one? Education minister Heng Swee Keat will lead yet another committee that “should review what needs to change and where we should act more boldly”, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day message.
“We will engage Singaporeans in this review, and build a broad consensus on the way forward.”
Rachel Chang of the Straits Times spoke to academics, political observers and ordinary Singaporeans, and reported in her blogpost that there were two main reactions:
First: “Another committee?”
Second: “Will they really do anything radical?”
People remember various other committees in the past that had grand-sounding names but produced forgettable reports. I have always thought that the main problem was inherent in the format, and there is nothing to indicate that the new committee will be any different. The flaws are these:
1. It is headed by people with a stake in the existing system — people who have spent their careers within the system, rose through it and currently have their political fortunes tied to its legitimacy. There is going to be a natural resistance to any idea that is far from their comfort zone, so how radical can they get?
2. It is trying to hoover up ideas from, it hopes, all and sundry, but as more likely, there will be a skewing in the the sources of inputs. They will probably get them from individuals, including some very learned ones. But it is unlikely that they will go out of their way to invite inputs from organised groups, especially those who have criticised the government in the past. This means opposition parties and even many civil society groups, formal or informal, will tend to be excluded or only given a polite hearing. Yet precisely because these are organised groups, whether of artists or economists, means they have been thinking about issues they are familiar with for some time. They will have tossed and dissected ideas among themselves. They will have evidence at hand to support their arguments, they will have tested their ideas for internal coherence, and compatibility with other facets of public life and governance. Generally speaking, groups come up with better proposals than individuals, but because this government is allergic to dealing with groups, especially critical ones, the very nature of such a committee will skew it to inputs that are less well-formed, less tested by debate, and piecemeal.
3. It then sits behind closed doors as prosecutor, judge and jury of all the (probably conventional) ideas that it manages to get, almost surely unaware that it will be viewing and selecting them through the lens of the committee’s own orthodoxies.
Going by the reactions garnered by Rachel Chang, I suspect few Singaporeans would be surprised if it produces little more than small tweaks on the existing paradigm.
In a nutshell, the process is flawed because it is hierarchical, insider-driven, like-minded selective, with no way to create public buy-in of its findings, simply because of its closed-door process.
The funny thing is that a proven process exists: it’s called democracy. It’s a process whereby groups of people — in political parties, think tanks and civil society organisations — would have spent years thinking about issues from their perspective and coming up with solutions, then selling those ideas doggedly to the public. Needing to be sold to the public, contestation occurs in the public arena. The ideas’ flaws are identified, argued over and modified, and what emerges then would have been tested for public acceptability.
In its narrow form, “strategic review” would actually be a national election, where different political parties present their vision of what a country should be about and strive to get their vision accepted. Of course, as anyone can plainly see, a pre-requisite must be to have political parties with the freedom and resources to brainstorm and package their proposals.
However, there are also parallel ways short of an election, in which a society can debate and arrive at a consensus about many other issues, e.g. on questions such as euthanasia, healthcare funding, single-parenthood, school reform or investments in roadbuilding. These parallel ways however, require a free media and an unshackled civil society. And a government that lets the debate play out without trying (as so often) to steer it to its preferred conclusion.
The best thing the government can do therefore is to free up the space and step back. This Heng Swee Keat committee is going to be little more than an imposter of a meaningful process.
One big danger, because it is almost invisible, lies in the unquestioned assumptions held by the committee members, which prime minister Lee Hsien Loong said would comprise younger ministers.
An example of orthodox thinking kept kept echoing back and forth at the recent scenario-brainstorming conference (yes! yet another one) I attended recently. Participants were asked to think through the implications of a few future scenarios. But everywhere I looked, one scenario kept popping up for discussion: that of “populist pressures” rising, government having to accede to demands for redistribution and more public services, leading to budget deficits and economic stagnation. Various shades of this scenario were continually thrown up by participants; it wasn’t a scenario mandated by the conference organisers.
I kept shaking my head. It showed how thoroughly Singaporeans have bought into this fearscape. I tried arguing against it, but soon gave up in the face of such widespread (and to me, unthinking) acceptance.
My view is that redistribution does not automatically equate with stagnating economic growth. And when we have accumulated obscene reserves, we need to get out of thinking that we must keep on running budget surpluses. I would argue that in a situation such as we are in, both in Singapore and globally, when income gaps have widened over the last few decades, it is stupid to keep thinking that rewarding the rich and hoping for trickle-down is still the best strategy.
The better-off (including better-off corporations) are now accumulating wealth at a rate far greater than they can ever consume. The rational strategy for them is to park their wealth in assets and aim to preserve or grow asset-value. This has a number of effects. Firstly, when a significant portion of economic product is sequestered in assets rather than ploughed back into consumption, there is a net diminishing of demand, which then has a decelerating effect on the economy. Secondly, as more and more wealth chase the same assets, there is asset inflation. It might not be so bad if the assets being chased are things like Impressionist paintings, black tulips or pink diamonds — though any crash will still have horrible distorting effects — the assets most likely to be chased are property and financial assets such as shares and bonds. This in turn feeds price distortion into the real economy. More and more of the price of an ordinary bloke’s meal goes as rent to the restaurant’s landlord who then sequesters the profits he has so generated into more property purchases at rising prices. Meanwhile, vast amounts of money wash in and out of a country in response to exchange and interest rate changes.
I have previously described our present world economy as one in which billions, maybe trillions, of dollars of hot money are sloshing around looking for the illusive safe assets. It is a very destabilising force.
Where we are today, I think it makes better sense to actively redistribute. A dollar in the hands of the less-well off who will spend it on consumption has a more positive effect on the economy than in the hands of a millionaire who keeps it in his safe. This is not even including the positive social effects of improving general wellbeing and social mobility across a wider span of people.
An argument can be made that levelling wealth would stimulate an economy rather than ruin it. It adds to consumption and demand, and a more democratic distribution of wealth and demand will open up more opportunities for differentiated products and services, thus encouraging innovation.
Another way to look at it is this: If less people were financially insecure, more among us might be prepared to take risks creating new products or enterprises.
In this connection, something hopeful was said by Heng Swee Kiat, albeit in a much narrower context than what is discussed here. He said “. . . strengths, overdone, can become weaknesses.” The rewarding of the “meritocracy” may now have gone too far, stifling the economy rather than boosting it.
I may be whistling into the wind. The reality seems to be that many Singaporeans have bought into this fear that responding to demands for redistribution means the end of Singapore. What more of government ministers who created this fear?
But if one starts with closed minds, how open can a process of a consultation committee possibly be?