On 1 May, Academia.SG held a webinar titled “Beyond the pandemic: what we have learned, and still have to learn” featuring five panellists who shared their opinions and ideas of the current COVID-19 crisis and the aftermath.
The speakers were Professor of Media Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University’s School of Communication, Cherian George; Professor Emerita of Corporate Strategy and International Business at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, Linda Lim; Professor of Practice at the Institute of Public Policy of the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, Donald Low; Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Kenneth Paul Tan; and Associate Professor and Provost’s Chair in Sociology at the Nanyang Technological University, Teo You Yenn.
Guided by questions from the public, panellist reflected on the responses to the current crisis and the impact it has had on politics, the economy and society. Moderated by Assoc. Prof Teo, panellists were asked what problems they’ve seen crop up as a result of this crisis.
We have never been better informed; governments have no right to claim ignorance
Prof George noted that the crisis has revealed an institutional failure to close the gap between knowledge and action. The professor said, “Human civilisation has never been better informed as we are now. But there’s always a time lag, a sometimes fatal gap between what we know and what we act on.”
He explained that on an individual level, people tend to worry about trivial thing and no pay attention to serious matters. However, governments have no right to claim ignorance on this because a global pandemic is something that was “on every expert list of global catastrophic risks that people need to prepare for.”
Therefore, as research has shown, it is up to institutions such as the government, media, and universities, to close that gap between knowledge and action.
Prof George asked, “How can our institutions globally and at home do better at closing this gap between knowledge and action?”
He noted that the challenge goes beyond just efficiency. It is about morality and power.
The professor explained that the main reason this gap exists is that people with the most knowledge and power to act are the most privileged, and they know that they will likely make it through tough times.
“And it’s the same with pandemics. For all the talk about Covid-19 as a great equaliser, we know that’s not true; and it will be increasingly untrue as the crisis morphs from being a health crisis to an economic crisis,” he warned.
Expanding on this point, Prof Low said that the crisis has highlighted that we live in an increasingly globalised economy and society, but we have not yet developed global shared norms or cooperative institutions to ensure sustainable use of our global resources.
Referencing American economist Elinor Ostrom, Prof Low said, “Neither the market nor governments provide a perfect solution.” He added that nations have to develop shared rules, norms, and collective governance systems.
Singapore’s recent practices of authoritarianism is more sophisticated but no less debilitating
From the perspective of the political system, Assoc. Prof Tan said that the pandemic has exposed the weakness of the country’s recent practices of authoritarianism, which he described as more sophisticated than the older, brutal variety, but is “no less debilitating”.
Assoc. Prof Tan explained that Singapore’s neo-authoritarian system has two opposing tendencies: neoliberal globilization and authoritarian populism.
Going into detail, the associate professor explained that neoliberal globalization is the fixation on the “market” and the application of market-based logic to all parts of society from social, ethical, political, and aesthetics. The focus here is on making a profit and climbing a hierarchy. Under this idea, economic growth becomes a country’s most important goal and there is the “mistaken belief that it will naturally benefit everyone.”
Doing this limits the horizon, says Assoc. Prof Tan, as it keeps us from working collaboratively toward a more liberated, creative, empathetic and equal society where everyone has an opportunity to thrive.
However, Assoc. Prof Tan notes that this tendency runs counter to another tendency in Singapore’s system. That is authoritarian populism. He explained that as more people do not reap the benefits of neoliberal globalization, the more they feel systematically disenfranchised. This creates resentment against the elite.
Bring it back to the pandemic, Assoc. prof Tan elaborated that panic buying, public defiance, bullying, racist and xenophobic language and behaviour we have seen as a result of the pandemic can be explained through this lens of neoliberal globalization running counter to authoritarian populism.
Narrowing his focus, Assoc. Prof Tan notes that the large presence of migrant workers in the country reflects the demand of cheap, low-skilled labour to sustain the “myth of an economic miracle”. However, there is simultaneously an ongoing effort to contain and erase the presence of these workers in normal times. In times of crisis, this evolves into pathologizing the entire migrant worker population.
“This reflect just how much Singaporeans resent having to hare their already crowded city and limited opportunities,” said the associate professor, adding that we need to think about what can be done to address these deep structural problems of the economy and society which has led to a dependence on migrant labour.
On this point of point of market-based efficiency being universally applied to all aspects of community, Prof Low notes that this has become salient and apparent in Singapore.
He noted his surprise at the public pushback when the deplorable conditions of migrant worker housing was highlighted in the media, with many people saying that the conditions are “good enough.”
He said “What they are really saying is that since we have decided to provide foreign worker housing through the market — financed and provided by the market — their living conditions that are produced by the market are natural, just, efficient.”
“I think, as Sandel might say, we have replaced our social norms — our moral perspectives of what constitutes acceptable or adequate living standards of housing conditions — with entirely market norms.”
As such, Prof Low stresses that the crisis should remind us that the market is not the only lens and that public policymaking should consider more than just efficiency.
He qualified his statement by adding, “I’m still a believer in market capitalism. But we should like the market not because of its efficiency properties — and as this crisis has clearly shown, efficiency has its limits — but because of its effectiveness in promoting innovation.””
Economist have highlighted the hidden cost of Singapore’s economic growth model for years
Professor Emerita Lim also pointed out that the pandemic has merely highlighted what economists have been saying for the last decade, specifically the hidden cost of Singapore’s economic growth model and the country’s heavy reliance on highly globalised sectors such as export manufacturing, oil services, tourism, and international finance.
On the first point, Professor Emerita Lim explained that the country’s model is one where capital and labour is increased in order to produce more output. This leads to an over-reliance on labour intensive production which in itself relates to low wages and productivity.
The professor notes that we have been experiencing de-globalization for at least a decade, in terms of reduced growth in trade and investment. However, the economic models that Singapore relies on from the past does not work anymore.
Chiming in, Assoc. Prof Teo said that inequality isn’t just bad for people who have low income but also bad for society as a whole, including those who are higher income. However, she added that that although this crisis obviously affects everybody, it is also clear its impact is very different for different segments of our population.
She said, “This crisis may affect everybody in society, but people’s experiences of it vary sharply. And the variations map onto the systemic inequalities that we have always had in society – along class lines, along gender lines, along ethnonational lines.”
“The crisis has amplified the vulnerabilities and precarity for those who were always vulnerable and precarious,” added Assoc. Prof Teo.