Lee Hsien Loong and the Straits Times annoyed me again today. The newspaper, like the good toady it is, devoted its front page headline to the prime minister’s attempt to pass a motherhood statement off as statesmanlike wisdom.
Right up there in the second paragraph, a quote from him:
“If your politics is wrong, your economics is bound to go wrong. And the reason why so many countries cannot get their economics right is because their politics don’t work,” he observed.
— Straits Times, 6 July 2013, Singapore must get politics rights: PM Lee
He went on to say that
“. . . so far we have been able to do so,” he added.
Perhaps he was thinking of GDP growth, the topline figure that the Singapore government pays homage to above anything else, as a measure of “right economics”. Perhaps too, he was tacitly comparing Singapore with the United States, a country that in the past has been cited by him and his cabinet colleagues as an instructive example of dysfunctional politics, what with Congressional budget showdowns and all.
Indeed, Singapore compares well when viewed over a ten-year period:
But he should be careful not to gloat too soon. Less than a month ago, “Private sector economists expect the Singapore economy to grow by 2.3 per cent this year — down from their previous estimate of 2.8 per cent in March,” reported ChannelNews Asia (Link). Even the Ministry of Trade and Industry said on 23 May 2013 that “it will maintain the GDP growth forecast for 2013 at 1.0 to 3.0 per cent” — in other words, with 2 percent as its mid-forecast (Link).
In the United States, the range of GDP growth forecasts for 2013 — and there are plenty you can find on the web — are roughly in the same ballpark. Moreover, its first quarter figure beat Singapore’s handsomely. “Gross domestic product rose at a 2.4 percent annualized rate, the Commerce Department said today in Washington,” reported Bloomberg on 30 May 2013, referring to the January – March 2013 period. The comparable Q1-2013 figure for Singapore was 0.2 percent.
Moreover, we need also to bear in mind that over the ten-year period, Singapore has seen massive immigration. With more hands on deck, we can naturally expect a percentage or two added to the GDP growth. On the other hand, one might argue that the cost of such a high rate of immigration has not been captured in our GDP data, but nonetheless experienced in quality of life and housing prices.
More importantly, topline figures are only one measure of economic health. What about how wealth is shared? Singapore’s Gini index of household income (a measure of income disparity) is generally a shade worse than the US’.
These considerations taken together, this attempt by Lee to claim moral superiority for the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) iron-fisted style of government by reference to the economy must be treated with skepticism.
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Perhaps he was thinking of Turkey, Brazil and now Egypt, countries that have taken newspaper headlines from him through the outpouring of popular discontent on the streets. It would have worried our government to watch what was happening in these places. Massive street activism is not at all part of their constipated notion of “right politics”, and the fear of Singaporeans doing likewise no doubt motivates all manner of laws not just against the freedom of assembly but also the freedom of speech, lest speech rouse people to action.
It is impossible to have an exhaustive discussion here of the events in those countries, and in any case, there aren’t a lot of immediately apparent parallels with Singapore. For example, the important element of creeping Islamisation in bringing dissenters out onto the streets — in the case of Turkey and Egypt — is not mirrored here, though some Singaporeans might point to a creeping Christianisation of the Singapore state as cause for concern. That said, if one looks beyond Islamisation, one also sees a creeping authoritarianism in both the Erdogan and Morsi governments (in Turkey and Egypt respectively). To the extent this brings out protestors, one might likewise argue that the Singapore government ignores these 21st Century trends at its peril.
It is Brazil that I find interesting. Massive street demonstrations were triggered by a 20-centavo (11 Singapore cents) rise in public transport fares in Sao Paulo. Millions marched in various cities for over a week. It took a while for observers to understand what was going on in people’s feelings, but eventually commentators seem to have reached a consensus that Brazilians were disgusted with the way their federal and state governments were spending lavishly on glittering sports stadiums in the lead-up to the 2014 football World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro while public and social services (health, education, transport) remained as rotten as ever. Governments that keep too much an eye on international acclaim and prestige projects at the expense of overall well-being have been put on notice.
Did the Singapore government notice?
Hmmm . . . .
The sidebar to the main story on Straits Times’ front page (as you can see from the picture at top) showcases Lee Hsien’s Loong’s boast about Marina Bay.
“There’s only one Marina Bay in the world,” he says — another meaningless statement. There is after all only one Canary Wharf, one Silicon Valley, one Cotai Strip and one St Moritz. What does that prove?
If anything, Marina Bay’s shiny skyscrapers, inflated-ego ferris wheel (now in receivership), the energy-intensive, high-entrance fee gardens, and the giant casino with shops and restaurants too expensive for most Singaporeans to even smell, suggest exactly the same misplaced focus on prestige projects that brought the millions out in Brazil.
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There was something else in Lee’s statement about getting politics right that bothered me. It reminded me of this slip of the tongue during the 2006 general election when he told voters not to vote in opposition members of parliament. If they did, he would have to spend all his time thinking up ways to “fix” them and he’d have no time to govern, he told his crowd. Given this history, one cannot help but ask what Lee really means by “getting politics right”. Does he picture a scenario of the People’s Action Party reigning with little dissent inside and outside parliament? One where his government has complete freedom to implement whatever muddled-headed policies it chooses, beguiled by its own sense of inerrant wisdom?
If one takes into account runaway housing prices, soaring healthcare costs, crowded and frequently-breaking down public transport, wide income disparity, all kinds of restrictions on liberty, and a steady destruction of the independence of many state institutions, I am not at all convinced that we have “right politics” producing right outcomes.
In fact, one can easily argue that when Brazilians took to the streets to demand accountability, and when President Dilma Rousseff acknowledged the validity of people’s dissent, promising to turn policies around, that was politics that was much more “right” and likely to produce better outcomes than Lee and the PAP’s brand of silence-all-opposition rule.