How Should the Singapore Government Govern?

The question of how the government govern is a philosophical one. On the one hand, Singapore is a nation, where the government should take a holistic approach to protect the people’s needs. On the other hand, Singapore is a capitalistic economy, which is also compounded by the fact that our economy is very intertwined with the global economy, by necessity.

The government has thus made a firm decision to value capitalistic economic growth, with proportionately more importance than with attending to people’s needs. This is the reason why many decisions made the government are left to ‘market forces’, to allow for market demand and supply to achieve a price equilibrium for goods and services. However, in a capitalistic market, necessarily, the wealth of the richest will grow, by virtue of their buying power, which can push prices up, and leave the lower income group in the dust. This is further perpetuated by goods which sold singularly, for example, such as resale housing. When resale flats are out onto the market, it has been shown in recent cases that there would be a resale flat which has a confluence of characteristics which appeal to one buyer – location, proximity to the city, height etc – which thus drives one singular buyer to drive up the price of one resale flat. This would necessarily have a ripple effect on the other resale flats.

In an ideal world, the government would necessarily have to balance achieving economic growth and the people’s needs, to find a balance that allow the country to grow and that which allow the people to achieve a basic standard of living that is respectable. Necessarily, most countries are capitalistic, and this tips their balance in favour of the economy. They do so because in a capitalistic economy, you need to favour the rich, because they are the ones that drive the economy. However, the flip side is that they would also drive up income inequality.

Has Singapore done a good job? Singapore is in a unique position. As explained, our country and economy is compounded by the fact that we are necessarily intertwined with the global economy. This means a compromise on the standard of living of the people, as we divert attention on the economy. Also, it is true that without natural resources and a large enough domestic demand, we would necessarily have to rely on the import of resources and international demand. In short, we have no choice. One can only look to Bhutan to see how the other alternative of the situation could be. We could choose to allow the people’s social and emotional needs to outweigh that of the economy. This would mean that the people accept a more basic standard of living and that the country doesn’t look at economic growth as the main priority. Can Singapore do the same? We can. But only if the people are willing to accept a standard of living that’s considerably and relatively much lower. We would be able to only sustain a much lower population. At the same time, we would need to rely on natural resources for the production of goods and services for our own use – which would mean we would be a largely rural economy, with some manufacturing sectors. Can we accept that?

Necessarily, Singapore has grown to such an extent, that seen from another perspective, we have trapped ourselves in the global economy. Unless the global economy changes, Singapore will not be able to pull itself out. So the government has to continue to rebalance itself according to global dynamics and changes. Unfortunately, Singapore isn’t America, China or the European Union. Otherwise, we would be in a better position to redefine the global economic model. Even so, realistically, at this point, no matter how large a country’s economy and influence is, we have all been trapped by the capitalistic mode of production. So unless the world decides as a whole to change the economic model and to look for alternatives to the GDP as a marker for growth, countries will continue to be trapped in the capitalistic economy and the world will destabilize further, as GDP growth stagnates or drops.

And thus Singapore does not have a choice. Its main focus for survival is to ensure that it continues to reinvent itself to stay afloat in the intertwined and outdated economic model, which has served its time and needs to have a rethink – sooner than later.

Even so, does this mean that there’s nothing the government can do? Can a balance still be achieved – between economic growth and the people’s needs? Actually, the government has been trying to do that. But because they understand the deal that a strong governmental role in the redistribution of wealth will necessarily lead to an unsustainable economy and future, they have thus tried to inculcate a sense of responsibility in the people, for the management of their own wealth and social protection.

Herein lies the question – how much should a government take responsibility over people’s wealth and needs, and how much should the responsibility lie on the people? Currently, the government has put the responsibility primarily on the people. But the fact is, if you leave people to manage their wealth, are they the best people to do it? For the rich, it doesn’t matter as much, since they would have a larger stock to begin with. But with the poor, it becomes an issue. First, they do not have the capacity to increase their wealth in their jobs, for a few reasons – lack of education or opportunities, for example. Second, the management of wealth is a skill that needs to be trained. The poor is thus necessarily outclassed in a capitalistic model which they cannot manoeuvre effectively in. This is when a government needs to step in.

And the government has. The question is – is it enough?

There is no definite answer to this. The government thinks it has. But the people thinks that it hasn’t. Thus herein lies the third philosophical question.

In the first, the government needs to think about striking a balance between the capitalistic economy and the people’s needs.

In the second, the government has to strike a balance between what is considered the government’s responsibility and what is considered to be the responsibility of the people.

In this third question, the question is, how can the government strike a balance between the government’s priorities and strategies, with the people’s demands, which arises from their perception of their needs.

The last question cannot be answered on its own, and would rely a lot on the first philosophical question. Whether or not the government feels that the third philosophical question is important depends on whether they can achieve a balance in the first. And where there is economic fluctuations, the government’s priority will necessarily be on the first. Yet, in our current landscape in Singapore, the people’s priorities are on the third.

We have reached a point where we think that our standard of living is high enough that we want to our needs for social and emotional well-being to be met. However the government doesn’t think so – it feels that the country needs to be protected against any onslaught of economic changes. Yet, in a democratic government, they necessarily have to listen to the people, which thus puts them on a spot. As a responsible government, you would want to focus on the first question – to ensure Singapore’s survival in the world economy, which otherwise, you won’t even be able to think about the third question – to satisfy the people’s needs. Yet, the strength of the government is no longer that it was, what with the outburst of online tirade, and also with the government showing its lowest performance in the general elections last year, since the country’s independence. Finally, Singapore has fallen into the trap of democracy.

Democracy has its advantages but in a situation where the country needs to make strong decisions, it is necessarily handicapped by having to deal with multiple philosophical questions, than to be allowed to deal with the economy first. And this is why the government has taken a stronger overtone in its message to Singaporeans – let us do our jobs lest we let the country languish and become irrelevant! Of course, Singapore won’t disappear from the economic landscape just by a few bad decisions – not at least in the short term. But to keep Singapore on the radar of investors, on a long term basis, at an almost paranoid manner, requires a government which makes bullish decisions and continues to hold itself with such perfection.

The issue then is – how can you tell the people without having them think you are neglecting them? Because by doing so, you will lose more votes in the next elections, which will compromise your ability to make strong decisions.

After the elections last year, the government figured – let’s try to satisfy some of their demands, so that we can then refocus to do our jobs. So Khaw Boon Wan have been tasked to look into housing prices. The government had initially been resistant towards raising incomes, but due to social pressure, they have been forced to announce wage increases in targeted sectors.

Next, the government finally understood that, if we don’t help the people think about and to love Singapore, we won’t be able to let them understand what we are doing! So they decided that after the many years of stunting our ability to think about social and emotional issues, they would like to encourage us to think about compassion and love for one another. However, this is still not working. Necessarily, it won’t and they would understand it won’t because in the span of a few months, people aren’t going to learn about compassion and love. No human has the capacity to do that.

And with the urgency of the global economy becoming more tumultuous, the government felt that it needed to adopt a stronger stance – so, enough is enough! And that is why they have decided that they would have to talk down to people. Like an exasperated parent who feels like he or she has done everything to teach the child and yet the child wouldn’t respond, the parent has decided to scold the child. But of course, like any child who wants to have his or her own mind, the child won’t listen to the parent or will find the parent disrespectful – though the disrespect is felt both ways.

At this point, this is where Singapore is. The final question is this – how much are Singaporeans willing to understand the broad governance ideals that the government has to operate within? How willing are Singaporeans to look beyond the shores of Singapore to understand the dynamic changes in the world and how we would need to look beyond ourselves, to be patient with the government as they steer our ship in the right direction, and away from the storm, knowing that this storm isn’t something that Singapore has a choice in defining? How much are the people willing to understand these complexities and come out with their own solutions to help the government, and most importantly, to help themselves? At this point, the government’s priorities have shifted towards the global economy. It has to. Not not that, because the government bowed down to pressure and reduced the inflow of migrant workers, this has resulted in a shortage of workers in some sectors, which thus makes Singapore’s position even more vulnerable, because you need a strong domestic economy to ensure that while you manoeuvre in the global economy, you have a strong market to rely on. And this is why the government has to shift their position, while putting the needs of people on hold.

So, the final question isn’t philosophical, but one about responsibility, and a willingness to understand. Will Singaporeans step up to understand their responsibility, not only to themselves, but also to the country? This isn’t a question about PAP. Whoever is in government now will have to ride the waves of the economic situation. So, the question is about Singapore – how will we act to protect Singapore, and protect our lives and future on this little piece of land? How will we have the openness and broadness of understanding to understand what is at stake here for Singapore? How do we rethink our roles to think about what we can do to contribute to the protection of Singapore? How can we put aside our needs, for now, to think about these broad strategic issues?

Of course, the government would also need to remember that the people’s needs must still be met, after they ride out the storm. However, the people’s very worries are that the government will forget. And thus, the people keep up with their tirade. They have to – they’ve witnessed a time when they contribute to the economy, but when crunch time came, the government didn’t do as much as they could to support the people. Why should I work so hard for you, when it comes to my needs, you choose to cast them aside, even in the good times of Singapore? So, the government has to remember this – when the storm is over, people’s needs have to take precedent in some form again. Right now, the government can either pray that the economic uncertainty can continue through the next elections, so that their position in government can remain secure, or the people can hope that the economic situation will last only for another one or two years, so that they can use the next elections as a bargaining tool to urge the government to think about their needs.

Is this the best way forward? Unfortunately, we are trapped in a world which continues to purport the greatness of democracy and capitalism. The government had tried to steer clear of democracy, whilst pursuing capitalism. However, the concepts of democracy and capitalism are necessarily intertwined and at some point, a country which focuses on a capitalistic mode of production, will have no choice but to follow a democratic model, in some way. The openness of a capitalistic economy will fuel the openness for knowledge and thoughts. And fortunately or not, as we move into the knowledge economy, the government might feel burdened by a choice they have to shoulder on with, and at the same time, live with the difficulties that come with their strength of rule being compromised.

But is this the best way to rule? And is this the best way for the people to respond? Should the people hold the government to their responsibilities to respect the people’s needs, simply because they can do so in a capitalistic democracy? Well, we can. Then we will play into the game that has plagued governments in other countries, where the who in governance changes every few years and decisions flip flop according to who is in government. Thankfully, Singaporeans are pragmatic. We know what is good for the future of Singapore. We know where we shouldn’t head to.

But, doesn’t mean that there is a dissonance between our pragmatic thinking and the current online tirade? Well, it takes two hands to clap. In fact, the government has played itself into the democratic mode of governance, whether they know it or not. And when they do that, the people will necessarily play back to it since the people’s survival will be dependent on whether they can play it better than the government.

Finally, the real question is this – can all of us, as Singaporeans – as the people and the government – take responsibility? This is a very big question. It was a philosophical question that we had asked – how should the government balance the responsibility to ensure economic survival with the people’s needs? But it’s also bigger than that. How can all of us take responsibility to understand the situation that Singapore is in, and take the responsibility to be part of the solution? The government has to understand that Singaporeans have taken to the Internet to ‘complain’ because their voices have been repressed for a long time. Also, the lack of clarity that the people have with what the government is doing has led to a backlash, because of their fears that they will be taken advantaged of. At the same time, the government has fought back, as they try to refocus the government on tackling external issues.

It’s hard to end this article when the there are so many complexities to understanding the layers of operations of our country and economy, the form and functions of governance, and the social and emotional growth of the people. However, I do have to stop somewhere.

As mentioned, Singaporeans as a whole – the people and the government – has to ask ourselves this: How can we be responsible? How can we understand the strategic dynamics that affect our country and take responsible stances to produce solutions for ourselves, and for our country?

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One comment

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