by Brad Bowyer
I feel all political systems are a balance between Socialist and Capitalist ideals on the one axis and Democratic and Autocratic management methods on the other. For example, Communism is an extreme autocratic socialist model and most Western systems sit somewhere on the democratic side of the graph swinging between more socialist or capitalist ideals depending variously on whether you are in Scandinavia, Central Europe or North America.
There is no universal right and wrong on these systems because every country has its own place based on its history and culture where the four measures intersect but increasingly you see the most successful, adaptable and happy countries in the world are the ones operating close to or on their own ideal political sweet spot.
I feel this model also holds true of companies as well as countries but obviously typically was very slanted towards the autocratic/capitalist side and it is with this idea in mind I start my article in detail.
The lessons of companies
For eons, companies have tended to be very top-down and pyramidal in their management structure so can be described as highly Autocratic and extremely profit focused so definitely highly Capitalist however, this is changing.
In a disruptive environment with more competition and changing choices along with the understanding that one person does not hold all the answers companies are becoming more democratic in their styles to get more minds involved in the complex problem solving now needed.
For family-owned companies, this also means they are starting to look outside the family for talent because they know just because the father was competent it does not necessarily follow that the son has the same level of ability and in a new world new thinking is required. There was a good piece on this in the Straits Times on 15th June regarding Japanese companies doing just that.
Companies are also realising that they are part of an eco-system and don’t exist in isolation and as such need to be more mindful of both their employees and those around them and are now looking more at the socialist side of the equation. With a better work-life balance and corporate social responsibility, they are seeing they get more loyal and productive workers with lower turnover and more loyal and supportive customers as well.
They are also realising, especially for those with consumer products, that their employees are often their customers and without disposable income and time to spend it and use their products they will also have a poor business and so the more aware are starting to factor that into their compensation and employment packages as well.
Companies are in effect starting to practice what I call “enlightened self-interest” because unlike autocratic governments their customers and employees in the main have a choice as much as the multinationals have tried to make it otherwise through regulatory capture, monopolies and other anti-competitive measures often linked to globalisation and trade deals.
The leading edge of science also now shows us that collaborative ecosystems flourish and are sustainable far better than competitive ones who often have a limited lifespan even when they can geolocate and this understanding is seeping into the corporate psyche as well.
Against that information I believe many today see Singapore being run as an unenlightened company and not a country because of our governments’ extremely autocratic attitudes and interactions with the citizens and its current big focus on privatisation, the multinational/GLC sector and extracting profit from every activity it undertakes while limiting choice wherever it can.
It was not always that way
Under Lee Kuan Yew yes it was still highly Autocratic, a well-known quote of his printed in the Straits Times on April 20, 1987, reads, “We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think” and this was typical of his attitude. Also well-known was his attitude towards alternative voices and so we saw every vehicle of power at his disposal used to shut down and silence any choice but his.
However, at least he maintained a balance between socialist and capitalist attitudes and while the economy was important to him effort was also put into the people’s needs and supporting many of them to climb out of poverty.
Despite that, over time his autocratic ways and desire for control wore heavily on the people and this was reflected in the brain drain phenomena in the ’80s, with many highly educated Singaporeans leaving, and the People’s Action Party (PAP)s popularity sinking throughout his premiership reaching a low of 61% share of the vote just as his replacement took over the helm.
In contrast to Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong had a softer more collaborative and people focused style. He moved Singapore back towards a more democratic model with greater genuine public consultation and although there was still a lot of emphasis on stopping alternative voices in parliament they were at least listened to in other ways.
This was reflected in the PAPs resurgent fortunes under his watch and they climbed back to 75.3% of the popular vote at his last election and many natural born talents returned to our shores as well. It was also a period of maturing for our population who now expressed their desire to have more of a say in their future and not just be told what to do thus moving our systematic sweet spot closer to the centre of the model.
However, Lee Kuan Yews son and his team appear to have not only taken us back down the Autocratic path but at the same time moved the focus to everything Capitalist. Whatever social actions they have undertaken seem only to be afterthoughts or reactions to solve problems and continue to get compliance rather than from a genuine or people-centred focus. I say this because whatever words they may utter the hard truths of the actions, results and realities on the ground tell a very different story.
This I believe is at the core of why the PAP popularity dived over 2 elections to its lowest level ever in 2011 at just 60.14% and despite a pop, provided mainly by sentimentality around the death of Lee Kuan Yew and the SG50 celebrations in 2015, is likely to continue its downward trend at the next one.
Because since 2015 we have seen the “selected” presidency, where our democratic voices were cut off, more unpopular decisions alongside revelations of a growing list of failures all paired with a highly increased cost of living and employment and economic uncertainty.
Added to that we recently saw a series of technological investments and legal changes culminating with the recent POFMA act that have put in place more tools to surveil and curtail us to the greatest extent ever. These last are to be expected because once popularity and thus compliance falls below a certain point subtle coercion will need to be replaced with more overt coercion for the PAP to retain its hold on the country against the will of the people.
What happens if we don’t change?
This will surely spell the end of Singapore the country. When more time, resources and effort are put in to “fixing” the alternatives and the people that are put into running the country in a manner that garners the peoples support then the outcome is inevitable just the final mode is in question. We could have been a world-leading democratic nation but within 3 generations a small group could well have presided over both our rise and our fall with these short-sighted attitudes and practices.
The end will likely come all the sooner because unlike the Japanese family companies in the aforementioned Straits Times article that have learned their lessons, some painfully, our government doesn’t seem to as family members abound throughout our Civil Service and GLC sectors and many good minds are never approached because the longevity of a particular party seems more important than the longevity of the country as a whole. This means that not only are we a corporate autocracy we are a badly run one at that.
We could still salvage things if we learn from the growing wisdom of the private sector who are understanding that for long term sustainability you must win hearts and minds and provide a real value proposition for all and not just focus on short term profits at all costs and try to cut off the choices of consumers to maintain it.
And of course, run our country as a country again with a greater emphasis on the social and democratic values of the people, a varied and supported creative SME sector and drawing talent from the whole population not just a narrowly defined or related few.
This will require either a massive change in how the PAP runs things pointing their model back towards our national sweet spot or a change away from the PAP completely if they are too self-centred and recalcitrant to do so. Certainly, if we continue down the current path the final destination won’t be good for anyone and we will most likely end up a failed state with what’s left of our population possibly being reabsorbed by our neighbours as many other small nations that followed this path have done in the past.
The world is changing, Singaporeans have grown up, are more aware and are moving into new thinking, so why is our government still exhibiting all the attitudes of the emperors and monarchs of old all be it with PR campaigns and a pseudo-democratic veneer to try and make it more palatable?
It is no wonder I daily hear of more people no longer believing their hollow words or seeing a real future for themselves in Singapore anymore.
We need 21st-century leaders, not 19th-century rulers.
If we do not get evolution in governance soon, we may face either revolution or extinction and neither is a very desirable proposition or end for us to be aiming for.
This was first published on Brad Bowyer’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission.