Saturday, November 29, 2014

Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus

A thought-provoking set of essays. The main writer Donald Low is persuasive about how widening income inequality in Singapore is destroying the social compact between the government and the people. He argues for income redistribution and the strengthening of social nets, and against the shibboleths that stand in the way, such as elite belief in trickle-down economics, moral hazard, and decreased global competitiveness. He wants policy-makers to look hard at the empirical evidence, instead of being confirmed in their prejudices by past experience raised to the status of ideology.

Low is particularly good at using insights from cognitive research to explain why the governing elite is so slow to adapt to a fast-changing environment. His reliance on such findings is telling. He mainly believes that governmental failure is primarily a failure in thinking. Correct the thinker, and he will correct his policies and processes. At one point, Low assures the reader that the governing elite that he mingles with, both civil servants and ministers, are well-intentioned and public-spirited. He does not see them as a class, and that as a class they will act according to their class interest. And so his calls to the government to expand democratic freedoms may sound overly optimistic. Nothing is harder for the powerful than to give up their power. His co-writer Sudhir Vadaketh may be less analytically astute, but he has stronger political instincts. He speculates that political change, if it comes, will come from the ground up, and not from the top down.

The one essay by historian Thum Ping Tjin takes a very different tack. By taking a synoptic survey of the twentieth-century history of Singapore, he makes the nice point that present-day Singapore resembles Singapore in the 1920s and 30s when it was the richest and most cosmopolitan city in S.E. Asia. Then, as it is becoming now, it was also the most exploitative economy. When the British found it untenable to hold on to power, they tried to transfer power to the pro-British, pro-business Progressive Party. It was David Marshall and his Labor Party, however, who won the vote and implemented pro-labor policies, such as starting the CPF. Other good ideas came out of that period of intense political debate and contest, ideas that became the foundation of Singapore's success. The implication for modern Singapore is clear: we need multiple political parties that are capable of forming a government. This scenario looks more realistic, especially after the 2011 election, than any proposal to reform the entrenched political elite. Whichever party wins, it would do well to look hard at Donald Low's policy recommendations.

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