Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh /
Many of us will experience the joy of voting this year. More thrilling, perhaps, is that we will actually have tough choices to make—Singapore’s opposition has recruited some credible candidates. Good thing, for we need more of them in parliament if Singapore is to develop politically, socially and economically.
Though the People’s Action Party (PAP) has proved brilliant at transforming Singapore into a manufacturing- and service-sector economy, it has been far less successful in nurturing a knowledge-based economy. Qualities that served early Singapore so well—such as easy political consensus, an obedient populace, and a compliant media—now seem archaic.
Many HR (Human Resource) directors at multi-national companies (MNCs) paint to me similar caricatures of the typical Singaporean worker—hardworking and smart, but unable to question authority, think outside the box, or work collaboratively across the organisation. Though our government has been moderately successful in attracting some high-value knowledge work to Singapore, many firms have had to look outside for talent.
The “Singapore model” is good at churning out disciplined, process-oriented workers who can follow orders in their own silos. It is less adept at developing creative, dynamic people who can think strategically or build companies.
Liberalising school curriculums, increasing funding for the arts sector, and prodding people to “be creative”, as our government has done, is all well and good. But these efforts are doomed if Singaporeans have to contend with a stuffy social and political atmosphere. Everybody must feel comfortable voicing their opinions and defending their points of view, particularly contrarian ones.
We Singaporeans tend to take our cue from those above. More debate and opposition in parliament, therefore, will trickle down through society, creating a more conducive environment for all of us who want higher-income jobs.
But why should we care about fluffy notions of creativity? After all, Singapore has still been developing fabulously, hasn’t it?
Well, not really. Though impressive, Singapore’s headline GDP growth numbers obscure some real problems. Consider income inequality. In the decade to 2007, the bottom 30 per cent of households saw their real incomes stagnate, even as Singapore continued to churn out millionaires. By some measures, Singapore today is more unequal than China and the US. Economic growth has not benefitted all. The cost of living, meanwhile, has spiraled.
The government is not entirely to blame for all this. Singapore is subject to the same disruptive economic forces that affect other countries, including globalisation and resource shortages. Nevertheless, some policies, such as promoting high immigration, have certainly accentuated their impact.
That speaks to the other benefit of electing more opposition Members of Parliament (MP) — Singapore desperately needs discussion about alternative growth models.
Part of the reason for high immigration is that the PAP has been pursuing a high-growth economic growth strategy that involves feeding greater quantities of “inputs”, such as low-cost labour, into the system, rather than focusing on improving the productivity of existing workers.
This depresses low-end wages—the median salary in Singapore is S$2,400. In other words, 50 per cent of Singaporeans earn, at most, only as much as a university grad’s first paycheck. The most poignant description I’ve heard of Singapore today is a “first-world country with a third-world wage structure”.
This is not to suggest that migrants are unwelcome. They are, and will always be, important contributors to the Singapore story. The point here is that society needs to take pause and contemplate—do we really need to grow this way, or is there a more inclusive, sustainable path to economic development?
Without a more open society and active political debate, we will never know—Singapore will not benefit from the rigorous competition of ideas that is essential for better policies. Sure, income inequality is discussed more today, but why wasn’t it in, say, 2005? The PAP, for all its virtues, is prone to groupthink, just like any hierarchical organisation.
Judging by its new candidates, the PAP also continues to prefer likeminded personalities. This is best exemplified by Tin Pei Ling, who recently admitted that her greatest regret in life is that “I didn’t manage to bring my parents to Universal Studios.”
Some might salute her filial piety. But that is a given—we expect every candidate to love and respect their parents. Ms Tin’s answer, in fact, betrays a shocking lack of ambition and imagination.
More worrying are her thoughts on income inequality. In a 2007 speech, she makes it a point to state that while the rich have gotten richer, “the poor have NOT gotten poorer”. (Emphasis hers.)
Imagine that by 2030, some 70 per cent of Singaporeans are driving around in BMWs and Ferraris, while the bottom 30 per cent live exactly as they do today, some struggling to put food on the table. Is that development?
While the PAP’s recruits are cut from the same cloth, the opposition offers some diversity. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently questioned how the opposition can find many talented people if the PAP cannot. It’s probably because some talented people do not agree with all of the PAP’s policies.
Consider Gerald Giam and Ong Theng Khoon, two first-time candidates. I have known both for more than 15 years. Gerald is a family friend, while TK was my junior college classmate. They are affable, compassionate and smart, and I expect will make fantastic politicians.
Gerald is running for the Worker’s Party, while TK is running for the PAP. Is one much better than the other? No. They just have different ideas about how they can serve Singapore. Candidates like Gerald prove that the opposition can recruit talent.
The PAP has always attracted people who have somewhat similar credentials and consistent views on policy. But Singapore also needs alternative voices that can infuse politics with fresh ideas. Gerald will certainly do this—for instance, he has spoken about the need for Singapore to reduce its reliance on government-linked companies (GLCs) and MNCs, partly because that will spur job creation in our small and medium enterprises (SME) sector.
All this does not imply that Singapore needs to dabble with multi-party democracy. The PAP remains competent, effective and transparent. Singapore’s ideal model may indeed be having one dominant party that is kept on its toes by an able, vocal, strong opposition.
The current situation, however, is pitiful. There are just two elected opposition members in parliament. An ideal scenario, in my opinion, is for Singapore to elect up to 20 credible opposition members in the upcoming election. Out of a total of 87, that will still leave the PAP with more than three-quarters of the elected seats.
It will be able to pass legislation, but will have to pay much more attention to alternative views. Some worry that if the PAP loses a Group Representation Constituency (GRC), Singapore will lose a crucial minister. But the PAP is bigger than any individual, with enough ministerial material in reserve.
This scenario will allow the opposition parties to improve, and will force Singapore’s staid mainstream media to report on more non-establishment opinions—both of which are in Singapore’s long-term interest. Our efficient civil service, meanwhile, will continue to chug along, implementing policies, and keeping Singapore working as smoothly as ever.
The only ‘downside’ is that politicians might have to engage in lengthier debates. But that’s precisely what will lead to better policies. Besides, I suspect our MPs will be adequately compensated for their time.
We should not, of course, expect the PAP to advocate such an outcome. The PAP will continue to behave like any successful monopoly.
Last year Minister Vivian Balakrishnan admitted that the PAP strives to grab all available talent in Singapore. In 2006, meanwhile, PM Lee said that if there are 10, 15 or 20 opposition members in parliament, “I'm going to spend all my time thinking what's the right way to fix them, to buy my supporters votes…”
Recall that in Singapore’s exacting meritocracy, we are taught the virtues of competition from the time we are toddlers. Students fight it out for the best grades. Our free-market economy is lauded for promoting the fittest companies.
When it comes to politics, however, Singaporeans are suddenly told that we should forget competition, and instead embrace a monopoly.
Isn’t that odd?
Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh is an editor at The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The views expressed here are purely his own.