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Questioning Singapore orthodoxies

Posted on Aug 24, 2012 8:38 PM Updated: Aug 27, 2012 6:24 PM
Sacred cows, beware -- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

After the Prime Minister delivered his National Day Message last week, I rang up academics, political observers and ordinary Singaporeans to get their reactions to what he said.

A key highlight was that Education Minister Heng Swee Keat had been tasked to head a new committee which would “rethink our approaches and reinvent ourselves,” in PM Lee’s words.

The general reaction to the “Rethinking Singapore” committee, which I shall dub it, was quite uniform among those I spoke to, all of whom follow Singapore politics closely.

First: “Another committee?”

Second: “Will they really do anything radical?”

Given that the past year has been littered with the carcasses of sacred cows, the enduring cynicism was a little unexpected. Perhaps it’s because other broad committees in the past – like 2002’s “Remaking Singapore” committee – are now remembered only for such underwhelming change as institutionalising a five-day work-week.

But I think the time is ripe for Mr Heng's team to defy the scepticism that has greeted their formation by showing that they are serious about rethinking and reinvention. This must mean challenging the orthodoxies that have underpinned Singapore's governance since independence.

PM Lee, in his message, identified three unchanging “core values” of multi-racialism, meritocracy and financial prudence”. But within these broad principles, he said: “We should review what needs to change and where we should act more boldly.”
Indeed, I believe that to successfully “Rethink Singapore” we must explore the assumptions underpinning the way we execute these three core principles, and challenge what philosopher Pierre Bourdieu describes as what “goes without saying because it comes without saying”.

Singapore's multi-racialism, for example, is a central part of its identity, and part of what makes me proudest to be a Singaporean. But among some policy-makers and citizens, there seems embedded the thinking that our multi-racialism exists, held in a state of equilibrium, only through strict state control. The assumption is that racial and religious relations are a tinderbox and any brief spark could ignite a firestorm.

Older Singaporeans who have lived through the race riots will call me young and naive, but I venture that they may be closed off to the possibility the Singapore society has matured beyond that era. State policies to keep racial relations in sterile check - from the Group Representation Constituency system to ethnic-based housing quotas - may serve only as a reminder of difference, and prevent a sincere state of multi-racialism, one built on desire and community, not fear.

One thing that has always confounded me is how many times the police have been called in for an off-hand racist remark on social media. Condemnation from a community is always more effective than retreat from fear of state action. Why do we think we are not capable of the former, and default to summon the authorities?

Then there is the core value of financial prudence, which has served Singapore well. But embedded under this broad principle is a set way of doing things that I would term “grow, then redistribute”.

The principle is that the free market should be left alone as much as possible, and then with the money we make, we help those it grinds up through subsidies and handouts.This way of doing things encompasses the gamut of policies: the Goods and Services Tax hurts the poor the most, but we give them vouchers to offset the cost; HDB flats are priced competitively, but then large grants are handed out; public transport is run by private sector companies, but the Government pays for some trains and buses.

This may be the purest, cleanest way of doing things from the point-of-view of the academic or the scholar civil servant, but it fails to take into account the political and emotional price it extracts.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam recently told an anecdote that encapsulates this: an elderly couple, due to a bill of thousands of dollars, told him that they were afraid to return to the hospital. He asked to examine the bill. After deductions and subsidies, the $6,000 actually went down to $300.

Even so, there are many Singaporeans who will remember only the sticker price, and feel aggrieved and overwhelmed. Rather than chalk this up to a lack of clear-minded thinking and intelligence on their part, why not seek to understand how empathetic policy-making can improve people's lives? The elderly couple may have had incorrect information, but their fearfulness is very real, and will impact their decisions and their quality of life.

The broad principle of meritocracy is similarly a prized aspect of Singapore society - for those who have indeed come from nothing and succeeded, thanks to an open system that rewards ability, and hard work. I consider myself a beneficiary of this.

But as the stratifications in society deepen, we must openly examine if meritocracy serves every Singaporean well, or if there are groups which will never even get onto the first rung, and are therefore left further and further behind with each meritocratic cycle.

There are many more orthodoxies that I would like to see Mr Heng's team grapple with, such as the belief that “welfare” is a dirty word, or the way grades still define a young person’s self-worth.

Most importantly, I hope that as a team of young ministers, most of whom are exemplary graduates of a civil service which has consistently made policy according to these assumptions, they are able to see past them, and through them.