Speech by Hri Kumar, MP of Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC in debate on the President’s Speech 2014
I had prepared a speech on constructive politics, but so much has been said about it this week, that I have had to re-write most of it. But despite all the heat, I am not sure how much light has been provided to Singaporeans outside this House on this issue. I hope the Prime Minister’s speech today will be seen and read by all Singaporeans for it provides an important framework for good politics and good government.
I think that the real question is: what do Singaporeans want from Government? The French economist, Frederic Bastiat once described government as that “great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.” That is true of Singapore as it is of every other country.
So when Mr Gerald Giam accuses the Government of being very good at managing its own risks but not the risks of Singaporeans, he completely misunderstands what Government is. Governments don’t have risks. It is people who have risks. The allocation of risks is always between one group of people and another group of people: between
- old and young;
- current generation and future generations;
- employers and employees; and so on.
It is the Government’s role to allocate risks between these different groups in an equitable, sensible and sustainable way. So when you say you want one group to bear less risk, you are in effect saying that another should bear a higher risk. Except opposition politicians find it inconvenient to mention this second group of people – so they call it the Government.
I think that it is easy to answer what people want at a general level:
- less stressful education but a better educated and more competitive workforce;
- higher wages but lower costs;
- a free market which promotes investment and create better jobs but with protection from competition.
It is when we come to the details that things get a bit more complicated. But the details are everything. It is what distinguishes a successful country from one that is not. We are fond of saying that in this House – “the policy sounds good, but the devil is in the details.” But very few critics of the Government are prepared to get into the details, because it is not always pleasant to see the sausage being made.
Mr Low Thia Kiang said something I found quite interesting. He said: “To achieve the outcome of constructive politics in a diverse and open society like those in mature democracies and to nurture an environment conducive for it require much effort, and everyone across the society has their part to play.”
What has politics become in “mature’ democracies” around the world? It is the art of winning elections. In “mature democracies”, millions of dollars are spent at every election, not on improving the lives of the people, but on public relations, messaging, image makeovers and, more and more so, negative campaigning. Politicians make grand speeches, and even grander promises – all crafted by professional writers and vetted by focus groups, who press different buttons when they hear something they like or something they don’t. The whole objective is to make sure they say what people want to hear, and therefore make them believe their lives will improve. Never mind that what they say is not true or they do not actually believe it.
In the US, opponents of the Affordable Care Act (better known as Obamacare) were rallying people to oppose it on the argument that America has the best healthcare system in the world, and there was no reason to change it. Many people bought into that assertion. Never mind that a 2013 Bloomberg Survey ranked the US health system 46th in the world, with a score of 30.8 out of 100. Singapore came in second with a score of 81.9.
And what politicians say in closed rooms is quite different. We saw a great example of that when US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was recorded in a private meeting as essentially describing 47% of Americans as deadbeats and recalcitrants, and that he was not really concerned about them.
It has been said that “Statesmen tell you what is true even though it may be unpopular. Politicians will tell you what is popular, even though it may be untrue.” There are very few statesmen in “mature democracies”, because it is not politically profitable to be one.
So, in “mature democracies”, after politicians get elected, they set about doing what they were going to do anyway, not necessarily what they said they would do. People get disillusioned, and so, every so often, they vote the opposition into power, because they say they will do things differently. But it almost never happens. And so, people change the government again. That is the very definition of madness, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
Is it any surprise that people get disillusioned with politics and politicians? Underlying it all is a deep-seated sense of cynicism and hopelessness; an overwhelming belief that people run for political office, not to help the country or their fellow citizens, but to satisfy their egos, or their thirst for power. In “mature democracies”, there is a thriving, multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry dedicated to making fun of, and running down, politicians and governments. Politicians become the subject of ridicule, and they even run themselves down lest they be accused of lacking a sense of humour or being out of touch. There is contempt for what should really be the most important and serious office in any land.
So, what has happened and is happening in “mature democracies” is that people are increasingly tuning out of the political system. They no longer bother to vote because as far as they are concerned, the political parties are just different cheeks of the same bum. Voter turn-out in the US fell below 50% for the 1996 Presidential Elections and has been in the mid-50% for the last few elections. Voter turn-out in the UK was 80+% in the 1950s but had fallen to 65% in the 2010 elections. In Germany, which we tend to associate with having a more engaged, disciplined population, the voting age turnout was 66% in 2013. In Japan, it was 59% in 2012. In Switzerland, it was 40% in 2011.
There are serious consequences to this disengagement. Well organised and funded pressure groups end up shaping the government’s agenda. Although they are in the minority, they seize the agenda from the majority. There is clear evidence of this. In the US, over 70% of people want stricter gun control rules, but they cannot pass laws to get it done. That is because if you take a position against guns, that 30% minority will organise and vote against you, and you are done for. So, every mass shooting in the US is followed by a mass hand wringing exercise and people wonder why nothing gets done. Is that the kind of “mature democracy” we want?
The real question posed by the President is whether politics in Singapore can remain different. Can we continue to march to the beat of a different drum?
I believe that the cynicism and hopelessness that characterises politics in many “mature democracies” has still not infected our politics. The vast majority of Singaporeans still believe that politics remains a noble cause, that politicians and political parties must have integrity and that Government is, and must always be, a force for good.
The Straits Times recently commissioned a survey on the half-time performance of the Government since the last General Election, particularly on hot-button issues – education, transport, housing, immigration, etc. Singaporeans have expressed their concerns on these issues. But most recognise and accept that some of these issues will take time to resolve. What was most revealing was that the majority of the respondents were confident that almost all these issues would improve in the future. The people expect the Government to deliver and most are confident that it will. That expression of optimism is not present in most mature democracies.
But there are larger issues and more difficult questions looming. As the President noted, Singapore is at the cross-roads. We are reviewing the social compact between the State and its people. We are changing the formula which allowed our nation to not just grow, but thrive, in the last 50 years – despite all our obvious limitations and in the face of one global crisis after another. Is this new social compact sensible? Will it serve us as well? That is the debate we must have today.
And what is the role of this House, and indeed all politicians in this debate? I believe the simple answer is to be honest with the electorate. Do not sugar-coat and do not over-reach. Explain clearly why we do what we do, and why we cannot do what we are not doing. In 2007, I said I was glad that our political leaders were serious and a bit boring. I remain of that view. They are still serious and boring. But I think Singaporeans are fine with that. We do not need soaring rhetoric and grand promises. We need practical and workable solutions to improve the lot of all Singaporeans, and give them confidence and hope for a brighter future.
What of the opposition? Mr Giam said: “Robust debates which focus on the issues and the problems at hand and where alternative solutions are proposed and properly considered can help shape better policies which will benefit Singaporeans.” I absolutely agree with him. It is only by debating alternatives that the real strengths or flaws of a policy or proposal will be revealed. But that is not what we have been getting from the opposition.
The famous English author, PG Wodehouse, who was imprisoned by the Germans during the war, wrote that the Camp Kommandant would give the same instructions to his prison guards every morning: go and find out what the prisoners are doing, and tell them to stop doing it. The opposition in Singapore is like that. One gets the impression that their role is to find out what the Government is doing and to think of reasons why it is wrong. Singaporeans are getting wise to such tactics. No plan or policy is ever perfect or benefits everyone in the same way – and so it does not take any particular genius to think of criticisms. And proposing alternatives means giving proper details. Issuing Meaningless Motherhood Manifestos is not an alternative 3M framework.
So let’s deal with the real issues which confront us, and let us give details of what we propose to do.
For example, in Education, the Minister is under constant pressure to reduce stress and work-load for our children. But he has to ensure that there remains rigour in our system, because the education experts say that that is an important component in any education system. And he also has to ensure that while opportunities must remain open to all, the system must continue to recognise, encourage and push harder those who can do better.
For CPF, we can debate lowering the CPF Minimum Sum, and the call for Singaporeans to be allowed to withdraw more of their CPF monies sooner, but you also have to say what the Government should do if people run out of money.
We can debate the GRC system, but you have to say how you will otherwise ensure minority representation in Parliament. Or if that is not important to you, say so.
We can talk about increasing social spending, but we also have to address revenue. Mr Gerald Giam says that before the Government raises GST or income taxes, it should: ‘look first to increasing the net investment return contributions or taxes on profits derived from economically non-productive activities”. So, the Government should take more money set aside for future generations? What are “economically non-productive activities”? And how much money will that raise? He should be clear to Singaporeans.
The President urged us to debate our challenges, be prepared to take necessary and bold decisions and take a long-term perspective for the common good. Every government and political party in the world claims to do this, but we have actually been doing it. We have been showing the rest of the world in the last 50 years what can be achieved with honest and realistic policies, and constructive politics. And the world has sat up and taken notice of the magic of our tiny Red Dot. We all hope that they will continue to do so for the next 50 years.
I support the motion.