Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The return of politics

May 24, 2011
Politicians will have to put people at the forefront of policies
By Li Xueying

ON NOMINATION Day, a crowd of Singaporeans turned up at Deyi Secondary School to cheer their teams, waiting patiently in the field under the sun.

The candidacy of the People's Action Party (PAP) and Workers' Party (WP) teams was confirmed several hours later. The candidates addressed the cheering crowds. Some went down to the field to greet supporters. I saw some PAP candidates being feted and carried aloft by supporters.

But the WP team did one thing more.

Mr Low Thia Khiang led his team-mates to the gate of the field. They stood there humbly in line. And then, in the noon-day blazing sun, they shook hands with each supporter streaming out and thanked them one by one.

'That, truly, is a politician,' I thought to myself.

As Singapore enters a new chapter in its political development, MPs and ministers will have to relearn how to win not just the minds of Singaporeans, but their hearts too.

No longer can PAP ministers be just technocrats, intent on crafting the right policies, secure in the confidence that Singaporeans will swallow the bitter pill of 'unpopular but necessary' policies because it is good for them in the long run.

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted last Wednesday in introducing his new Cabinet, ministers need to make 'not just policy judgments but political judgments'.

The PAP was born out of the political acumen of a small group of leaders. In the uncertain era before Singapore's independence, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was the consummate politician - a charismatic orator and a master strategist able to galvanise people to give their support to the Government's policies.

After remaining in power for decades with no serious challenger, the PAP has come to rely more on its track record and its ability to deliver a stable life in order to win elections. Some say it is the PAP's track record that wins elections; not necessarily the PAP candidates contesting in each election - many of whom are political neophytes, compared to the Old Guard, even if they had been in Parliament for a couple terms.

For example, two decades of walk- overs in many constituencies meant that four ministers in the old Cabinet had never won an election before May 7.

But political skills can no longer take a backseat in Singapore.

The world is more unpredictable and governance more complex. Not even the sharpest minds can grasp all the possible exigencies that can occur. At the same time, a changing electorate is no longer content with just having a government who helps put food on the table and ensures security on the streets. They want higher-order Maslovian needs fulfilled - to feel respected and valued, listened to, and to have a say in national decisions.

As former Aljunied GRC MP Lim Hwee Hua noted in a recent interview after losing her seat in the May 7 polls, this means that 'it is sometimes not the most optimal solution that is the best, but the one that is the least objectionable that is the best'.

As the former Second Minister for Transport, Mrs Lim probably learnt this lesson well. Distance-based fares for buses and the MRT, introduced last July, were a classic example of a policy that got its calculations right (it is fairer that people on longer commutes pay more) but its politics wrong (two-thirds of commuters may pay less, but this does nothing to please the one-third - including students and the elderly - who have to pay more).

What does this mean for Singapore?

One: Politicians can no longer divorce politics from policies.

Purist policy wonks may wish that they can continue to craft the most rational and efficient policies in what was once termed 'pristine near-laboratory' conditions in Singapore.

But Singaporeans are no lab mice. Politicians make decisions for real people. Real life is messy, with individuals' unique situations sometimes making nonsense of policy rules. Politicians will thus have to spend time to listen to what people want and take on board their preferences before deciding. And then they have to spend yet more time to explain, convince and explain again the rationale behind policies and their trade-offs, including those that no one likes: potentially higher taxes, for example, to finance more help for the low and middle-income which so many vocal Singaporeans seem to want.

Politicians have to spend more time on politics and will have less time to spend on policy details.

Singapore ministers over the years may have got too much into the weeds of policymaking. They should leave it to the able mandarins in the civil service to consider the details, and focus on the direction of policies, how the policies will affect Singaporeans, and how to get buy-in for these decisions.

Second: Singaporeans must be prepared for a slower pace in decision-making if they desire more involvement. Consulting and refining policy take time.

They must understand that slower decisions can have a real economic cost, and so must be prepared either to accept that cost, or understand the need for some fleet-footed decisions.

Take one recent example. When Singapore's economy rebounded strongly after the global financial crisis, could the Government have afforded to spend six to 12 months consulting Singaporeans on whether to let in more foreigners to meet businesses' demand for labour? Surely not.

If the Government put as much emphasis on politics as on policies, they could have done better in going for a dual-track response. Open the doors but calibrate the inflow so they do not overload domestic infrastructure. Concurrently, explain to Singaporeans what is being done and why it is necessary, and take steps to alleviate the anticipated big squeeze.

The return of politics in Singapore means politicians have to once again remember to put people at the front and centre of their policies, and that it is bad politics to force people to accept policies.

In the wake of the election, PM Lee has indicated over the past few weeks that the PAP has grasped this. He has promised that his government will listen, even as he called on Singaporeans to come forth with 'ideas and energies, to join our minds, our hearts and our hands to create a better Singapore'.

It is a hopeful start.

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