Sunday, May 22, 2011

Refocus on social values, engagement

May 21, 2011
By Elgin Toh

FEW would claim to understand the importance of economic efficiency as well as Mr Heng Swee Keat does.

After all, the former managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) is seen as the economics wizard among the 23 new People's Action Party (PAP) MPs.

With a mixture of scholarly acumen and steely resolve, he is said to have steered Singapore safely out of the recent global financial storm, which sank a few European countries.

Mr Heng was permanent secretary of the Ministry of Trade and Industry before his move to MAS.

Yet those who expect the 50-year-old to sing lavish praises of Singapore Incorporated may be surprised to find him humming a slightly different tune these days.

'We need to change some of the ways we view our society,' he declares in a post-election interview with Insight.

Economic efficiency must not be the be-all and end-all because many things hold a social value 'that is not measured by how many dollars and cents people are prepared to pay for them'.

Mom and pop shops are a good example, he points out. They may not be competitive when placed alongside sprawling hypermarkets. But they can act as natural gathering points for local communities - where neighbours meet, chat and chill out.

'I met some residents who lamented the loss of their neighbourhood shops,' he says, recalling one of countless conversations he had with ordinary Singaporeans while on the campaign trail.

The same can be said about hawker centres, where Singaporeans from different ends of the class spectrum can share a table without batting an eyelid, he notes.

[This is the problem. To enable hawkers to afford the rent, HDB can either sell the stall to them at a concessionary price, or rent to them at a concessionary rate. The good effects are: prices are kept low and food remains affordable. The bad effects: The hawkers don't have to work as hard to pay the rent or they get older and they don't wish to work such long hours. So they close early. This then leads other people to offer to rent the stalls from them. And they think: good deal, I get an income, and I don't have to work. So they rent to a sub-tenant, and because the sub-tenant pays a premium over the original rent, they have to work longer and harder. And they may or may not raise the price. Maybe they don't in the first place. But then the lease ends and they offer the same rent, but the original hawker now says, I have a better offer. So either the sub-tenant raise their offer (and the rent they pay), or they lose the stall. So they raise the rent. And now they have to raise their prices. Market forces at work.]

This need to refocus on the 'socio-cultural aspects of our society', as he puts it, is just one of many lessons he hopes his party will take away from the watershed general election earlier this month.

It forms part of a new vision for Singapore - being articulated by Mr Heng and his comrades - as a more caring and inclusive society.

The election result that sparked the introspection was a sobering one for the PAP, which was returned to power with its lowest share of votes in its post-independence history.

Post-mortems are still under way, but up and down the pyramid of PAP hierarchy, one word is being uttered more frequently than others: transformation.

And as the ranking MP among the newcomers - he was the only one appointed full minister in the new line-up of office holders - Mr Heng is not afraid to ruminate on how a party in power for more than five decades has to reform to stay relevant.

There needs to be a paradigm shift by the PAP in its relationship with the people. 'We need a process of constructive engagement,' muses the new Education Minister.

At both the national and municipal levels, the Government has to listen, connect and respond to Singaporeans more than it has done in the past, he says.

Along with that, policy implementation has to be made more flexible so that help reaches those who should get it, and harm does not inadvertently befall anyone in the process.

All this requires an intensified conversation between those who govern and those who are governed.

In many ways, that conversation can be seen as a natural continuation of one that began during the election campaign.

For Mr Heng, talking and listening to residents as he pounded pavements in Tampines GRC - where the PAP team was elected with 57 per cent of the votes - proved to be rewarding.

He was encouraged by how Singaporeans appeared readier than ever to get involved in the community - as if they were only waiting to be asked.

A pair of cyclists he met provided feedback on how road safety could be improved. When he invited them to volunteer their services at the grassroots, they agreed immediately.

Of course, not all conversations were carried out amid such bonhomie.

One resident nearly blew his top when relating to Mr Heng how he felt government agencies were pushing him from pillar to post when he approached them about a problem he had with a neighbour.

And often, there is simply 'no magic bullet', he says.

He met a woman who declared herself 'breathless' due to the influx of foreign workers. But he also met a man whose car washing business would go bust if foreign worker quotas went down any further.

Nevertheless, talking through even the most difficult of trade-offs with Singaporeans is necessary under this new vision for Singapore, he argues.

It promises to inject energy into the whole of society, as the ideas and knowledge that Singaporeans possess are harnessed and put to constructive use.

But he also offers a few caveats.

Important as it is, the transformation of the PAP and of society should not mean rejecting every element of the status quo - for there are many things that do work.

The Government must also avoid becoming short-termist or populist.

And, he adds, when decisions have to be made robustly, the Government must be willing to move forward.

'Singapore must not become ungovernable,' he says.

An impossible balancing act? Perhaps.

Mr Heng and the other PAP newcomers couldn't have chosen a more exciting time to breathe new air into the Government and politics.

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