WP’s Jamus Lim explains why policies should be evaluated on their broad merits and demerits in Parliament

The role of Parliament is to debate the most desirable policies that meant to be evaluated on their broad merits and demerits, said the Workers’ Party (WP) elected Member of Parliament (MP) Jamus Lim on Saturday (26 July), as he voiced out his thoughts on the process of policymaking in a democratic society.

In a Facebook post on Saturday, the newly-elected member of the 64th Economic Society of Singapore’s (ESS) council shared about his professional career in the World Bank, where he was involved in formulating policy for different kinds of economies.

According to him, the decisions made by the majority – including its representatives – in the policymaking process apply to all citizens in the country. Even though one might individually oppose the decision, he indicated “the time to debate a policy’s merits is prior to enactment”.

“But once policy becomes law, we are all compelled to follow,” said the economics professor.

With that said, it would be “profoundly undemocratic” and “discriminatory” to apply a policy selectively to a segment of the nation’s population, unless if the segment “were the explicit target of the policy”, such as maternity leaves for mothers or minimum wages for the low-income group.

“This doesn’t rule out limited policy trials or A/B testing, but this works well when there are opt-in (or out) clauses,” he remarked.

However, Dr Lim cautioned policymakers to stay mindful of the risks derived from involuntary exclusion or inclusion as it might lead to the “perceptions of unfair or biased treatment”.

“Such bias doesn’t just offend our sense of fairness. It can also invalidate any inferences we draw about the efficacy of a policy, because–unlike atoms or chemicals—humans possess agency, and can modify their behavior in response to a policy when they are aware of how it’s applied,” he asserted.

Dr Lim further explained, “The role of parliament is to debate the most desirable policies to adopt. Ideally, MPs consider both the interests of their constituents and the country as a whole when they choose to support or oppose a proposed policy. Policies are evaluated on their broad merits and demerits.”

Noting that the policy’s proposer should also elaborate on the details of the proposed policy, Dr Lim emphasized the importance of understanding the potential impact of the policy towards the Government’s budget, the overall economy and society, and others.

“The finer details should be left with a capable and apolitical bureaucracy. These are nonpartisan professionals who are expected to translate the general into the specific and practical,” he noted.

According to him, some democracies will see changes among the top appointments in the civil service along with the Government as it would “best to align the two”.

“Because social science is imprecise and country- and situation-specific, all policy should be evaluated. The gold standard of evaluation is a randomized trial (like for medicine), but doing so for national policy is often impractical, since it treats some people as guinea pigs,” said Dr Lim.

With the developments in the science of statistics, the impact of a policy can now be assessed with “less discriminatory” tools. But Dr Lim pointed out that professionals in the civil service should also be trained to use such tools, in service of the nation.

“Ideally, independent assessments (by academics, say) are also undertaken (which requires data sharing when in the public interest). Assessments of efficacy should then be fed back to parliament to determine if policies are worthwhile, and where they may have failed,” he noted.

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