Sunday, 24 September 2023

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The Elephant In The Room

By Elijah Pear

The conventional argument runs like this: Without economic growth follows limited investments, unemployment trails and the collective wellbeing of society deteriorates. I perfectly acquiesce with it. Without doubt, Singapore’s economy has grown since her independence. Perhaps social disparity is escalating. “Nonetheless,” we have housing grants, CPF savings and very generous subsidies that are not reflected in Gini coefficients measure [1]. Compared to countries such as North Korea or China, at least democratically we are progressing. With the aftermath of 2011 elections representing the apparent transformation on how we assess our government. What has brought us this far today?

Well, that will be our prominent economic growth. In its simplest form; economic growth yields educational progress that sooner or later produces a population that demands control over their own fate. Eventually this fosters discussion that leads to transformations. Certainly the whole point of economic growth is the wellbeing of society, egalitarianism, social equality and so on. On the contrary 3rd in terms of GDP per capita (assuming that is how we evaluate growth), why are we still classified as a “partly free hybrid regime?”[2]

To answer this let’s look at the People’s Republic of China, the world’s fastest growing major economy. Emphatically growth has augmented the prospects of the Communist Party of China. Without elections it is impossible to judge the party’s popularity. But at least according to the Wall Street Journal, support for the regime has indisputably grown[3]. With such a growth, what adjustments has China made?

To begin, economic growth has expanded the Chinese government’s resources and improved its ability to deal with various problems. (To name a few) their government dealt with its population dilemma; now the ratio of men to women is skewed dramatically.[4] Next they managed to periodically block access to Google’s English language news service and also recently forced Microsoft to block the use of words such as “democracy” and “freedom” on the Microsoft software used by bloggers.  Nonetheless the paramount solutions of all must be the creation of a Special Internet Police Unit that frontiers in limiting Internet gateways. Although they have had some setbacks; for instance the recent escape of Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng. At best their current complications are not as appalling as the episodes in Syria.

So, what is the key to their success? Upon examination, each of these “solutions” involved the restriction on important aspects that affect coordination of potential dissenting voices, but have relatively little impact on economic growth. With such strategies, incumbents can temporarily improve prospects of staying in government while at the same time preach on economic growth and social development. Key feature of these examples reflects the restriction on the regulation of political rights, press freedom and accessible higher education. The freedom to express and share information is vital to effective political opposition; opposing views provide valuable knowledge for progression. Observed from our perspective, internet savvy individuals certainly managed to spark debates in both the general and by-election; illustrating the prominence of free information.

The process works as follows; economic growth advances infrastructure, technology and education while dramatically facilitating communication (eg: internet) and vital discussions which can help the progress of a country. In a speech in the summer of 2000, President Putin acknowledged that “Without truly free media Russian democracy will not survive, and will not succeed in building a civil society.” Ironically Putin placed all national television networks under strict controls; and arrested Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of his most prominent critics[5]. Yet Russia’s economy is still progressing, with a growth rate of 4.3%; one of the fastest in Europe.

In reality, economic growth does not always come hand in hand with the well-being of society; neither does it achieve democracy. In fact incumbents have expended their resources (from economic growth) to augment their reign in government.  Depressing in fact, some of these restrictions actually cost more to suppress than allow. Consider this for example; if a government depends more on foreign investments or talents than on its own citizens; how much restrictions does this incur on local development and talent? In the last decade Greece’s economy was flourishing, attracting large amounts of foreign investments. However things took a turn as investors fled upon losing confidence in the government. What effects have this had on its people?

Certainly there are flaws in globalisation and the free market. We are told that without economic growth, our confidence will be dented and there is no chance of improving collective wellbeing. Singapore; without natural resources undoubtedly limits directions available for economic growth.  But what transpires would entail dependence on foreigners; in tandem with that imposition that constraints political rights, press freedom and accessibility to higher education fetters foundational progression.  This not only leaves the country vulnerable without foreigners, but also hinders society’s advancement.

During President Ronald Reagan’s first year of Administration he stated:

“We who live in free market societies believe that growth, prosperity and ultimately human fulfilment, are created from the bottom up, not the government down. Only when the human spirit is allowed to invent and create, only when individuals are given a personal stake in deciding economic policies and benefitting from their success—only then can societies remain economically alive, dynamic, progressive, and free[6].”

At times we are told to stand in a corner and not think about the 800lb elephant. Yet even 5232 miles (literally) away I have not lost sight of it. I hope Singaporeans won’t miss it.


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