Happiness and Governance

Joshua Chiang/

“I don’t wake up everyday trying to figure out how to mess up your lives,” Member of Parliament BG Tan Chuan Jin told the audience towards the end of the Wild Rice forum ‘On POLITICS – A Brave New World?’ held today at Drama Centre.

He could be forgiven for being somewhat ruffled, for throughout the two-hour long forum, the policies and rhetoric of the People’s Action Party had come under heavy criticism from fellow guest speaker SDP’s Vincent Wijeysingha. (Granted, the other speakers NSP’s Nicole Seah and Alex Au aka Yawning Bread were critical as well, but the criticisms were perhaps not as direct as Vincent’s)

What followed was a seven minute speech by BG Tan explaining the work and thought that went behind every single one of the PAP government’s policies.

BG Tan is a likeable fella. In a private conservation with him, he shows he is willing to listen to me and even concede on certain grounds. I am unaware of how he was like in in SAF, but if his men spoke highly of him, you could easily understand why.

But at the same time, what he said this evening isn’t that much different from what we’ve heard before from the Establishment, albeit delivered in a much more palatable manner. (Which of course shouldn’t come as a surprise – you have got to be somewhat ideologically identified with the group that you belong to.)

In the time I had been with The Online Citizen, and especially after the elections, I’ve had the good fortune and honor to meet and speak to some members of the Establishment and actually came away with a better understanding of how they think. (But no, I’m not throwing away my “Cheaper, better, faster Gahmen” t-shirt)

All the members of Establishment spoken to sincerely believed what they are doing are for the good of Singaporeans, and that the policies have been carefully thought through and considered the best among the different options. They are aware of the criticisms but “if you knew what we knew, then you would agree our policies are the best for the long term.” In fact, the problem is not the policies, but how they have failed to communicate them through to win over the people.

Now, let’s work with a few assumptions before we proceed (also to prevent really unnecessary ‘the only good PAPpies are the ones who left’ kind of comments) – that the folks over at the Establishment sincerely want the best for Singaporeans; their motives are selfless, and – gasp! – in their calculations, the policies they decide on DO work out better IN THE LONG TERM. Many of these policies HURT, but they would rather people feel the short-term pinch, then the long term suffering. They are very careful not to succumb to ‘populist pressures’.

If world events are anything to go by, then the Establishment have many reasons to feel vindicated. One by one the welfare states are crumbling, and the exemplary Nordic countries’ systems are also starting to buckle, apparently. Again, let’s assume the Establishment has done its homework (because I am too darn lazy to do mine) , and is accurate in its assessment.

So that leaves us with policies that we may not necessarily agree with, but at least will not lead to an eventual collapse or Lost Decade in future. You may complain about the regular fee hikes but the alternative is going to be worse.

(To be honest, I think PM Lee’s remark that pegging the cost of water to its (high) production cost in order to make people value water makes some sense – if not for the fact that the same logic is not applied to other things like workers’ salaries. We should value our resources – but should this awareness come through education, setting of examples, or hitting people where it hurts most – their pockets?)

It is prudence like this, I believe that made us the country least affected by the economic downturn. But ironically, a survey in 2009 showed that despite this, Singaporeans are the most pessimistic!

I don’t know about you, but somehow in order to starve off future pain, not suffered by us, but our children maybe, we have to make-do with policies that actually hurt NOW. The Establishment believes that if they are able to make us see the future gains, then we would appreciate what they are doing now is necessary. It’s kinda like the doctor telling you to get off your couch to exercise so as to avoid being bedridden forever somewhere down the line.

It’s all pretty rational. And I guess, the Establishment must’ve wished everyone were rational. But the problem is… rationality, which I define as the ability to measure gains and losses and take the route that leads to the most gains, is only one component of being human.

Rationally, it makes more sense to hang all drug traffickers even at the risk of one or two who might be innocent, than risk the suffering and addiction of many people. Rationally, more people will benefit if we use the KTM railway lands for industrial/economic/housing means instead of converting to a Green Corridor.

Oh, and before I proceed, do not, for one moment presume that non-rational aspect of being human is irrationality. It’s not. It consists of everything from intuition, to a sense of justice, altruism, compassion, hey, even a belief in the supernatural.

Ever since the Enlightenment, we believed that rationality is what separates humans from other animals, but as more and more examples of animals are shown to make choices based on cost-benefit analysis, rationality is more likely a very refined survival mechanism. (And yes, I concede that this is a rather simplistic way of looking at rationality, but let’s just stick to it for the sake of brevity shall we?)

But if humans are more than rational, the question to ask therefore is, should rationality be the only consideration when it comes to policies? The Establishment takes pride in thinking 20 to 30 years ahead. Take the constant tweaks made to the CPF policies. If we can overlook the nagging suspicion that they are a really smart way for the Government to fund itself, then we are left with the consideration that it is meant to reduce the burden on future generations who will have to bear the cost of those people who are irresponsible with their money because the fact is, life expectancy has increased. (The problem of course, is that people who are responsible with their money will be angry. People who are irresponsible with their money will kick up a fuss too because they don’t know they are irresponsible with their money.)

One problem of such long-term view is unfortunately, that when our children grow up, they will have to bear with the pain of long term policies meant to benefit their children! And so on and so forth.

I’m not advocating that governments should make instant-gratification policies. But I am of the opinion that too much forward planning at the expense of current peace of mind is detrimental.

Because people are not made that way.

Our purpose in life is to be happy.

I didn’t say that. The Dalai Lama did, by the way. And a whole bunch of other really great people. I don’t think Lee Kuan Yew said anything on the subject of happiness. Goh Chok Tong, ever the numbers guy just averages out everything and call it ‘net happiness’.

It will take more than just a few paragraphs to explain what happiness is – and no, I do not agree that happiness means a different thing to everybody and that’s only because many people mistake gratification for happiness. If what Master Oogway (yes, he of Kunfu Panda fame) said is correct, then one aspect of being happy is being in the present. Clearly, always having your eyes to the future isn’t going to get you to Destination Happiness. No wonder Lee Kuan Yew is not a happiness guru.

I get worried whenever a member of the Establishment confesses to being worried. They should either stop worrying, or not tell me anyone they are worried. Because we have produced an entire nation of worriers. And then they get worried that we are becoming too worried, so they design campaigns to teach us not worry, and then worry if the Don’t Worry campaigns work.

I’ll admit though, I’m too stupid a person to know what a policy that is neither too warm nor too cold looks like. But I think our ministers should learn a bit more about happiness. You know, sign up for happiness courses. Make up a happiness workshop schedule. Set some KPI. Have happiness exams. And worry whether the happiness courses will last 30 years.

Man shouldn’t just think about bread and butter issues all the time. Unless his name is Ya Kun.

The article was first published on The Offline Citizen.