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Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh and Donald Low

From Hard Truths to Hard Choices – Singapore thinkers take on PAP’s entrenched governance mindset in new book

By Howard Lee

Singapore can no longer rely on a fixed set of people and ideas for it to progress into the future. There was a need to address and relook some of the basic “Hard Truths” that have been ingrained into the Singapore model of governance, and for a more open discussion on policy issues to bring in alternative ideas.

Hard-Choices-Front-CoverThose were the views expressed by Donald Low, Associate Dean at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, author of Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore, at the book launch event for their joint publication, Hard Choices – Challenging the Singapore Consensus.

The authors took issue with many of the common narratives – such as the constant reference to Singapore's vulnerability, system of meritocracy and avoidance of social welfare – coming from the political elite, which they felt warrant a closer re-inspection.

In particular, the growth model – which I would describe as one which is heavily reliant on MNCs and foreign investment, and relative high dependence on foreign labour – has over time been elevated to a level of ideology and is not questioned, scrutinised and challenged as much as we should,” said Low.

But contrary to popular belief, this model has not been the mainstay of the Singapore story since independence. Low quoted from a speech by the late Dr Goh Keng Swee, former deputy Prime Minister, made in 1972, which alluded to the need for the government to pay attention to the sustainability of the import of foreign labour and the heavy reliance of foreign investment.

This was despite the fact that Dr Goh was one of the key architects of Singapore's economy, using the very same model that has brought the nation much success in its early days.

Unfortunately, Low lamented the current lack of will to challenge such status quo, which he suggested was “slowly sucked out of the system” due to the success of the People's Action Party government.

In addition, Sudhir believed that such narratives did not only apply to economic narratives, but also govern the way Singaporeans think about civil rights issues like democracy and our model of governance.

The idea that we are vulnerable, we have different ethnic groups, our small size – all this leads to the conclusion that regular democracy would not work here, and we need a really heavy, top-down kind of state,” said Sudhir.

Sudhir also attributed this reluctance to “confirmation bias”, where the tendency to focus on the good things that have been said about the system by international think tanks, while ignoring the negative reports by the same think tanks, have led to an affirmation of this system. He believed that confirmation bias takes place among both the political leaders as well as the people.

All the actors and participants in the Singapore system are kind of petrified to challenge the first order of the Singapore consensus. They are very willing to debate second and third order elements of policy issues and smaller elements about housing and transportation,” said Sudhir, but core pillars like race relations are left untouched. This lack of debate on the core issues, he felt, was unhealthy for the country as a whole.

Low elaborated on this further by drawing on the example of the Pioneer Generation Package, which was touted as a progressive move by the PAP because it signalled a shift towards greater social spending. Not so, according to Low.

If you go back 30 years, what was the healthcare system we had before? It was a system where the state pays for about 60% of total healthcare spending. Fast forward by 25 years, and state spending has fallen to about 25%. Once you chart a long trajectory of how risk in healthcare is distributed and put the PGP in that context, you realise that we are in a sense making up for the fact that in the past 30 years the government has been pulling away state support for healthcare. If we had not tried to shift cost to Singaporeans, we probably would not have needed the PGP.”

Sudhir agreed, expressing scepticism about what he sees in policy tweaks to be “window dressing without real substantive change, sort of like patching up holes here and there before we get to the next general elections”.

However, the authors did not feel that it was only through a change in government, made through the ballot boxes, that improvements can be made. This is due to the emergence of a population that is generally more exposed to international standards, more accustomed to using the Internet to find information, and less hesitant to challenge the political leadership.

(Some believe) that some major electoral action has to be taken before we get real change in our media, civil society, a real energetic transparent movement for dialogue,” shared Sudhir. “I'm still hopeful that ordinary people can start speaking out more, start pushing for change in our media, getting our government to be more transparent, pushing for a Freedom of Information Act. I see people much more willing to speak up today than they were three or four years ago.”

Low agreed, adding that the pressure would likely come from the people, as we are now more open to “liberal polity”, where the people are more willing to consider an alternate agenda for Singapore.

Low also believed that there was a role for the public service to play in this change. But this might require a shift in organisational mindset, one that champions incremental change as much as disruptive innovation, such as creating competition internally between teams working on the same project. “I certainly see room for policy entrepreneurship and innovation within government,” he opined.

In ending, the authors acknowledged that not all will be agreeable to the ideas and alternative policy proposals they have expressed in their book. What they hope to achieve was to inspire Singaporeans to think about what can be done to make Singapore better, by rethinking some of the “Hard Truths” that have been repeated once too often.

Indeed, it is through challenging the status quo that we can attain resilience in our governance and political systems.

It is extremely tempting for the human mind to respond to uncertainty and complexity with a greater desire for control, harmony, and stability,” they wrote in their book. “But the reality is that the complete avoidance of shocks and failures is a utopian dream. More problematically, insulation from competition and shocks weakens the signals for the system to adapt, and breeds strategic brittleness and fragility. In the long run, such insulation leads to instability and the system’s eventual collapse.”

It would appear that it is not disruptive democracy, but the lack of it that will destroy Singapore.

Hard Choices – Challenging the Singapore Consensus is available at Bookhaven in NUS and selected outlets. It can also be pre-ordered from Amazon.com.