Making sense of the figures, for accountability

Nowhere to Hide MBC eventBy Ghui

I don’t think I would be alone in saying that at times, I find it difficult to effectively question the government’s presentation of facts and figures. This is not to say that the figures are wrong or that the government has been factually inaccurate.

However, this does not mean that the data presented is not presented in a way to convey to the unsophisticated reader (that is, you and me) the message that the figures are good for Singapore as a whole when in reality, only the very top benefit.

This is, I reiterate not an assertion that anyone has been dishonest but rather an observation that accurate figures can be presented in a way to present benefits, which may or may not be there and laymen are not the best equipped to fully comprehend this.

How then does the general public effectively hold the powers be accountable if they cannot digest the facts and figures properly? With the surge of the online media and globalisation, the populace is increasingly of the belief that something is not quite right but yet unable to pinpoint what exactly is not right. This in turn leads to simmering resentment, suspicion and rants, which seem silly but often belie a deeper cause.

The government constantly reminds us how well our economy is doing by citing ever-growing GDP figures. But while the magic GDP is growing, average Joe only sees inflation and the increasing number of things he cannot afford. He cannot make sense of it. All he knows is that something is not quite right and comes to the conclusion that the government is lying. In truth the government has not lied but neither is average Joe wrong in feeling frustrated.

I fall into average Joe’s camp. What is the use of increasing GDP unless the increase is distributed equitably? It is with these doubts, questions and confusion in mind that I attended a book club discussion hosted by the Monsoon Book Club in London on the economies of South East Asia.  The book in question was “Nowhere to Hide” by Dr Lim Mah Hui and Lim Chin.

During the course of the talk, Dr Lim patiently explained to us basic economic concepts and how to make sense of and dissect data that is presented to us. Many who attended the talk were well-educated working professionals but many did not understand how the numbers worked.  How then can we hold the government accountable for all the economic promises they have made us when most people don’t understand the numbers?

This talk is by no means about Singapore. It was primarily Malaysian centric. That said, the principles apply equally to a Singaporean context.

I certainly found the talk comprehensive and useful and it would be beneficial for book clubs, The People’s Association, media organisations or the like to host such talks, seminars or discussions in Singapore.  This would not only benefit the population at large, it would also remove a lot of misunderstandings average Joe may have with the government. As they say, with understanding comes wisdom. Or to put it bluntly, there are benefits for both the average Joe camp and the government camp.

As we near our 50th birthday milestone, it is imperative that we are on the same page as the government we elect. For that to happen, we have to understand enough to make an informed choice.