In an opinion piece published by Project Syndicate and subsequently reproduced on various news agencies such as Livemint and Arab News on 29 December, Singapore’s Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam called for states and people to come together to rebuild the political centre.
In his article titled “Rebuilding the political centre” that was adapted from Mr Shanmugaratnam’s keynote speech at the 10th anniversary conference of the Institute for Government in the UK.
Mr Shanmugaratnam said that the mass protests we’ve seen happen around the world this past year “were not bolts from the blue”. Rather, he says that trust in government and markets have faded in many countries, compounded by a sense of “us versus them”.
Mr Shanmugaratnam notes that while globalisation and new technologies have certainly contributed to these, they are not at the core of the issue. What matters, he says, is policy response and whether governments, businesses and unions take responsibility for addressing the difficulties.
The problem as Mr Shanmugaratnam identified, is that the loss of trust and solidarity is “fragmenting politics” and undermining democratic institutions’ capacity to effectively respond, thus weakening its ability to secure global growth, avert crisis and ensure sustainable growth through cooperation.
The senior minister suggests that a step forward is to rebuild confidence in the broad centre of politics, which requires a broader social ambition.
“We need more committed and sustained investment in the social foundations of broad-based prosperity if we are to restore optimism in the future,” wrote Mr Shanmugaratnam, adding that these foundations are in “disrepair” in most of the advanced world and “woefully inadequate” in developing countries.
He suggests that people have to be given a better chance early in life and even second and third chances later. Through politics, schools, neighbourhoods and employment, Mr Shanmugaratnam calls for development in the sense of affinity among people of different social and ethnic backgrounds, noting that this is critical to reducing the appeal of the populist right.
Addressing social mobility and inequality is key
“Reversing the prolonged trend of weak productivity growth and restoring economic dynamism is thus a necessary first step,” asserted Mr Shanmugaratnam. However, he cautioned that governing from the centre requires intervention up stream to redress sources of inequality.
“We must close the gaps in maternal health and early childhood development to avoid lifelong disadvantages. We must upskill workers and match them to new tasks while they are on the job, rather than waiting for them to be displaced by new labour-saving technologies. And we must redress the problem of increasingly segregated neighbourhoods, which have created growing social distances between people and shaped different aspirations.”
Mr Shanmugaratnam admits that none of that is easy. However, he suggests that it is far more difficult to tackle larger issues that will form downstream. He goes on to argue that this is not something that can be left to the market which “on its own tends to amplify initial disadvantages and advantages”, says the minister.
He goes on to explain that the “new centre” must engender the collective solidarity of the right and personal responsibility of the rest, thus transcending the traditional narratives of either side.
“Rather than viewing collective solidarity and personal responsibility as alternatives, we should look for ways in which they reinforce each other,” he advised.
Mr Shanmugaratnam then called on the state and its social partners to broaden opportunities and provide support that people need which will enable them to “earn their own success in education, employment”, and lead them to contribute to the community.
“This compact of personal and collective responsibility is what makes strategies for social upliftment succeed,” asserted the minister.
He added, “Society never tires of supporting people who are making an effort to help themselves.”
A focus on long-term objectives
Moving on, he also suggested that a well-designed progressive fiscal system which is fair to the poor and middle class so as to support both growth and inclusivity is critical in sustaining support for open, market-based democratic systems.
He says that strategies which seek to empower people – fundamentally different from traditional redistributive schemes that “compensate the loser” – have proven successful in spurring regrowth.
Another part of the solution, suggested Mr Shanmugaratnam, is to refocus attention towards public goods from efficient public transport and quality public schools to research and development, museums and parks, renewable-energy infrastructure and the like.
He said, “Fiscal policy in many countries has undergone a decades-long drift toward spending on short-term over long-term objectives, and on individuals over the social bases of welfare. “
Mr Shanmugaratnam argues that investment in public goods are ultimately vital to the quality of life for ordinary citizens, and to restore optimism in the future.
Stop postponing large scale collective action
Finally, addressing climate change, he suggests that this new political centre must take responsibility for building a more sustainable world.
The senior minister cautioned, “We cannot keep postponing the large-scale collective action needed to arrest the climate crisis and the already dangerous shifts in the world’s ecological balance. To delay any further is to risk crippling consequences for future generations everywhere.”
Likewise, he also cautioned against delaying in dealing with the burden of unfunded healthcare and pension systems of the next generation.
“The new political centre must commit to reforms that are socially equitable but sustainable. This requires developing in our democracies the collective capacity to recognize the costs and benefits of our choices.”
“Some societies are developing this capacity, but many have seen an increasing tendency to promise benefits without acknowledging the costs that must be met either today or tomorrow,” he lamented.
Mr Shanmugaratnam asserted that rebuilding confidence in the centre will require leadership, a strong sense of moral purpose, and agility in today’s fragmented political landscape.
However, he warned that the longer it takes of nations to build this new consensus, the more lasting the damage will be to both the quality of democracies and the multilateral orders, and the more difficult it will be to restore them.