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DPM Tharman's 20/20 hindsight vs PAP's claim of 20-year foresight

By Tan Jee Say

What does DPM Tharman's speech to NTU students last Wednesday tell us about the quality of PAP leadership? He had said that the bottom 20 per cent of Singapore workers have not seen any real increase in income in the last 10 years. Haven't Singaporeans known, felt and talked about this for a long time and yet it took a deputy prime minister and finance minister 10 years to know and talk about it, and only after the relevant data have been compiled and shown to him?

Long on hindsight…

He amazed us further when he said "the lesson we are learning in the world is that inclusive growth does not come naturally"(Straits Times 6 September 2012). One wonders which economic doctrine tells him that inclusive growth comes naturally and has misguided him all these years. And when he said that "Singapore's social compact cannot be left to market forces because these will only widen disparities in wealth and income", isn't this outcome to be expected of a free market economy that PAP espouses and which the history of welfare states from Bismarck's social insurance programmes in the 1880s to Beveridge's National Health Service in the 1940s, tells us about the need for Government's "sustained intervention" to provide "real opportunities" to those who start life with less? I have made similar points in a lunch with J P Morgan last year [link] What has DPM Tharman been doing all these years, from student of economics to central bank economist to finance minister? Daydreaming, he did say of his youth. Has he stopped daydreaming since?

Lunch meeting with Directors of J P Morgan Asia investment Management Trust on 6 October 2011

….Short on foresight

In an earlier posting on pre-school education [link],  I quoted DPM Tharman's comment on Singapore's low ranking in an EIU survey that "more can be done to lift the quality of pre-school education in Singapore and give everyone an equal chance early in life". ( 30 June 2012) A day before, he had said that "the Republic must do its utmost to prevent a permanent underclass from being formed," as "… the disadvantages of one generation is (sic) very easily passed down to the children". "We must do our utmost to work against that. Do our utmost to ensure that those who start off behind have the best chance of catching up," said Mr Tharman, noting that early intervention during childhood is important."  But he was Education Minister from 2003 to 2008 and what was he doing all these 5 years about improving pre-school opportunities "to prevent a permanent underclass from being formed"? Obviously nothing much in view of Singapore's low ranking in 2012. Why? Daydreaming again? And suddenly waking up with perfect hindsight 20/20? Where is his foresight that PAP never fails to claim its leaders possess to solve problems 20 years ahead?

Wrong on facts

It is not just DPM Tharman who is full of hindsight but seriously lacking in foresight. Birds of the same feather flock together and the leader chooses his flock. Not only is PM Lee lacking in foresight, he has also not articulated any coherent vision for Singapore. Worse he got his facts wrong.

Remember his speech to the Economic Society of Singapore (ESS) 3 months ago when he so confidently and proudly proclaimed that "there is no country in the world where the population gets smaller and incomes rise at the same time"? But in my FB posting [ link],  I provided facts and figures to show that PM Lee was wrong, that there were at least 4 countries whose national income rose in 2011 while population declined, for example, Estonia's GDP grew 7.9% in 2011 even though its population fell 0.65%. In addition, 4 countries (Austria, Finland, Taiwan and S Korea) whose populations effectively stagnated as they grew only marginally, registered respectable real GDP growth rates of 2.7 to 5.2%; and these are developed, high-income economies like Singapore. If PM wanted to justify his liberal immigration policy on the basis that it was critical for economic growth, he has failed on the facts of the case which show that incomes can rise even if population gets smaller!

At the same ESS function, PM Lee had also poured cold water on the Nordic model of the welfare state. Central to the PAP argument was the outmoded belief that welfare entitlements will weaken a nation's economic competitiveness through their effect on the work ethic and through high taxes to sustain the welfare benefits. I have debunked this PAP thinking in my posting [ link] where I pointed out that the extensive social safety net of the Nordic countries has not prevented them from achieving robust economic growth and top rankings in national economic competitiveness. And their work ethic is pretty good as can be seen in their many world class companies and innovative thinkers, with Denmark alone having 13 Nobel prize winners. And the Nordic countries are the happiest countries in the world. Mind you, these are countries with extensive welfare states and high taxes!

From disdain to embrace

The facts stared starkly and rudely in PM's face; he could not deny the facts and  in less than 3 months, he and his ministers have begun to sing a different tune. PM talked about increased social spending supported by tax increases not now but in 20 years' time, DPM Tharman laid out a case for active government policies "tilted in favour of those with less" and MOS Halimah Yacob planned to visit the Nordic countries[!] to study their pre-school centres!

From disdain to embrace! What a turnaround! And in such a short span of 3 months! It just shows how weak their convictions are, their lack of foresight and their desperate clutch of new ideas that come their way. And the convening of a national conversation ostensibly to find out what Singaporeans want to be in 20 years' time, is a telling sign of the paucity of ideas in the PAP to meet the challenges of the future. Yet PAP has never hesitated to tell us that it has very competent and talented leaders with effective solutions to solve Singapore's problems. If it has the ideas and solutions which it proclaimed to possess when it sought another mandate to govern during GE2011, then this national conversation is nothing but a public relations exercise to mislead and manipulate citizens' emotions; it just goes to show how insincere the PAP has become.

Regime change – get organised

Incompetent or insincere, or both? Events in recent years have shown that the PAP is both incompetent and insincere. To save Singapore from the PAP, we have to focus on regime change, a point I made in my talk to the Rotary Club earlier this year [ link]. We do not need a national conversation to generate ideas on how to bring Singapore forward. As Lucky Tan mentioned on his blog [here], "There is no lack of ideas. That is not the problem. What is lacking is the political leadership and will to implement them." 

But the current leadership is not equal to the task – what can one expect from a PM who has no vision for the country or an ill-conceived one based on wrong facts, and a DPM who is full of hindsight but empty of foresight? The real salvation for Singapore lies outside the PAP and there are enough talent out there to form an alternative leadership team. It's time for them to come together, get organised and stand ready to take over. A regime change is long overdue.

TOC thanks Tan Jee Say for his contribution. The article first appeared on his Facebook here.

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