By Sim Ying
The PAP government, like any other government on the face of the earth, is not without its faults. On this, I’m certain, we can all agree. But Chee Soon Juan’s latest claim against the PAP in TOC (“Reliance on major infrastructure projects for economic growth unsustainable”) avoids truths at the expense of his own credibility.
Chee takes fire at Lawrence Wong’s support for “major infrastructure projects” as a legitimate means for restructuring Singapore’s national economy. He claims, rather pompously, that the PAP is “bankrupt of ideas”, while failing to propose any original ideas of his own, other than to spout his favourite platitudes about how the nation needs to generate growth through “innovation and productivity.” His statement that the PAP has “caused the dangerous malformation of our economy and society” is this side of absurd. One has to wonder whether he’s bothered to look around at the relative prosperity of Singapore at all. Is there room for improvement? Always, sure. But “malformation”? There're probably at least 150 national economies out there in the world that would just love to be comparable to Singapore’s.
Chee is an opposition politician who’s built his economic theories on paper puppet ideas. Of course, this is what opposition politicians do. But let’s step back for a moment and assess Chee’s credibility here. For one, has Chee ever led a major state economy? Has he ever balanced an annual national budget? Has he ever succeeded in building up multi-hundred billion dollar government surpluses and national reserves? The answer is, of course, no. Nor has he ever run a small or medium-sized business or ever done business as a local coffee shop owner. So, frankly, given Chee's own experiential deficits, when he denigrates the Singapore economic achievement, both in the past and for what it might continue to be, he puts his political credibility on the line.
Chee talks a good game, but he doesn't have that much to show for it. His calls for “innovation and productivity” fall on infertile ground because this work is already being done by the current government. Singapore has long been assisting businesses to innovate through Spring Singapore, a program that helps enable start-ups capable of making reality new profit-making businesses using ground-breaking ideas. And, as everyone knows, true productivity in this day and age requires worker retraining. The Future Economy Committee's recent report was very clear about the long-term need for this. It stated that Singapore should avoid, from here on out, "the pursuit of the highest possible academic qualifications early in life" and instead move towards life-long learning and retraining. This approach is crucial in a world where careers are likely to change multiple times in a lifetime, as technologies invent and re-invents themselves. Even countries like the United States are cognizant of this and advocating for major retraining programs. This is a no-brainer.
But incredibly, Chee has said that Singaporeans really don't need retraining. How curious is that? The world economy is undergoing a fundamental sea-change, taking into account globalization and automation, and Singaporeans, like workers almost everywhere, don’t require new forms of education to stay on par? Compete? I don't think so.
Chee's ideas about how to achieve a vibrant and viable future economy are about as vague and untested as his own business experience. Which says a lot. Instead of criticizing the PAP about its success, he should be encouraged to demonstrate acuity in this vital area of economic development by building his own "innovative" businesses. Let's see what he comes up with. In the process, he will learn from his own inevitable mistakes. But better he makes mistakes there than with the Singapore national economy. If Chee really wants to be a future master of the Singapore national financial system, he needs to learn how real businesses are run and experience first-hand what innovation means and how true gains in "productivity" are made. Then, and only then, will the public have a yardstick to judge his business and economic acumen by. Until then, his words and theories are just that--words and theories, without anchors in reality.
But still, the PAP's future economic plans are not without potential peril, either. For instance, it may be that the PAP will prove to be too timid in its plans to expand the nation's economy. Definitely, now isn't the time for hand-wringing, especially given the advancing regional competition that day by day is eroding Singapore's long-held, first financial position here in Asia. To be clear, the Future Economy Committee called for the government to be bold in its planning. But the cardinal question is: will it be bold enough?
Despite what Chee says, Singapore has always succeeded beyond all expectations by expanding its territorial footprint. This means, of course, pouring tons of concrete, and building up and out, for as far as the eye can see. This formula has always proved to be financially effective because it is all about imagining and then re-imagining Singapore as the key transport and financial hub of S.E. Asia. And what could be wrong with that? In a sense, Singapore envisioned a globalized world even before it became officially known as globalized. It has always sprinted towards financial advantage, even while other nations dawdled. This was good.
To be fair, both Chee and the PAP may actually be more or less on the same page with regards to Singapore's future economy—or at least in theory. Singapore must continue to innovate and improve its worker productivity to stay competitive. But Chee is wrong about retarding Singapore's physical limits on the pathway to further prosperity. This is, of course, basic economics, if not fundamental geography. To realize its full potential, Singapore must press ahead—far ahead—and continue to build new infrastructure, even as it expands its limited territorial assets, both now and for generations to come.
In short, Singapore must never fail to dream the dream of an even greater Singapore, one that won't fall behind the mounting and challenging progress being made by its friendly and very ambitious neighbours. To lose this historical ground would be to undermine, if not run down, the organic economic progress made over time by a very successful nation.
Now as always, Singapore's watchword should be, Forward, not retreat.
Read Dr Chee Soon Juan's reply on 24 August here.