How do you reassure a jittery nation to remain trusting, mollify an insecure populace that is increasingly vocal while sounding a note of sombre caution of unforeseen valleys ahead?
Bank on truisms and leave much unsaid, as Prime Minster Lee Hsien Loong did in his fourth National Day Message. His awkward hand gestures were probably the most novel element of the speech.
His speech began with an assessment of the local economy ravaged by a global recession, before claiming credit for alleviating the intensity of the downturn.
Not as bad as it could have been
The Job Credit Scheme was mentioned in tandem with other measures taken to mitigate the effects of the crisis. Purported as a novel measure when first introduced, it was designed to keep employees on the payroll by a de facto government wage subsidy.
What Mr Lee avoided to mention was whether the outlay commensurate with the number of jobs saved. It is a truism that spending money can reduce the magnitude of the problem; however, standing at $4.5 billion, the JCS is an expensive truism.
In May, CIMB-GK research head Kenneth Ng described the handout as helpful, ‘but only very marginally’. SATS provides an illustration of the scheme’s efficacy: without the $12.3 million grant, its ‘operating profit would have remained flat’. (>)
Hence, the government’s maiden raid of the sacred reserve was then to effectively ensure that one firm could post an operating profit which was higher than the year before.
And if the hallmark of economic salvation lies in reserve-dipping exercises to fund schemes such as the JCS and the Special Risk Saving Initiative, the government’s economic acumen leaves much to desired.
The JCS was borne as a temporary expedient – one that incurs too much costs to be viable. The lack of a new and sustainable policy is a mockery to the assembled wealth of technocratic talents in the Cabinet.
As far back as 1994, Paul Krugman warned that ‘all of Singapore's growth can be explained by increases in measured inputs. There is no sign at all of increased efficiency’.
Krugman’s assertion is not only prescient, but worrying: it indicates that the government has nothing new to offer, but only more of the same.
Ministers expounding the critical importance of foreign talent are defending a high-input growth model that has become inadequate, instead of focusing on the falling productivity standards and encouraging innovation.
Even the recourse to an Economic Strategies Committee is all too familiar. It is to the government’s credit however that the private sector is involved – in a bid to ‘gather the best ideas’. It is a tacit admission that the government neither has a monopoly on knowledge, nor is always capable of providing the best answers.
And nowhere is this more evident than in its management of the sovereign wealth funds. Temasek Holdings has been plagued with financial and recruitment imbroglios; these issues still fester in the public consciousness, yet Mr Lee made no mention to it.
Temasek is that impenetrable enigma of elitist hubris that underwhelms as it fails to deliver the lofty expectations, and is an encapsulation of a Singapore that most of its citizens can’t identify with.
coming one through crises
That does not stop Mr Lee from lauding our progress into nationhood.
Employing the crises narrative, this economic predicament becomes just another challenge in a long-running series of obstacles.
Mr Lee reminded Singaporeans that ‘each time we were challenged, we responded as one, everyone pulling together and working for the common good. We are doing this again in this crisis. Everyone of us – government and people, employers and unions – is working together’. Implicit in this statement is the benevolence guidance that the PAP has provided before, and will continue to provide.
This elucidates the rhetoric of ‘so long as you make the effort and do your best, the rest of us will help you through’ and of the ‘opportunity to strengthen our social compact’; the speech is essentially an appeal to return to the classic social contract of government hegemony and passive citizenry to provide for economic security.
This is hardly a new vision for Singapore. In 1959, the PAP were a force that was, for better or worse, progressive and revolutionizing. A half century later, it sadly embodies a flaccid staleness.
Perhaps Mr Lee could be credited for trying to shore up the flagging national spirit. Reminding the layman that ‘the community and the country are behind him’ and calling on people to ‘stand shoulder-to-shoulder, whether it rains or shine’ are inspiring sentiments, but moral encouragement sounds hollow without moral leadership.
When Public Assistance recipients are only entitled to an inadequate monthly payout of $290, and fare and utilities hikes have become a mind-numbing norm, ministers drawing millions and civil servants on lavish French cooking holidays present an anomalous politerati that is far removed and alienated from the general populace.
This disconnect is particularly more pressing when academic studies and statistics have shown that social mobility in Singapore may be hampered by distortions to the meritocratic ideal. Advancement is not only purely predicated upon talent, but increasingly involves socio-economic status, personal connections and patronage.
While ‘unity is key to our success’, it remains to be seen how far united Singapore can be with rising income inequality. So, while Mr Lee cheers the nation on, the nation would surely be cheered if he, at the very least, effects significant reductions to ministerial pay.
Leadership in Singapore seems to be preeminently concerned with the leaders themselves, instead of the people they serve. The concept of servant leadership does not fit well into the idea of a corporatist state, but if Mr Lee really wanted to empathize with the plight of the ordinary Singaporean, it wouldn’t be a bad principle to follow.