Saturday, September 10, 2011

Governing in the new normal

Sep 9, 2011
By Donald Low

THE two elections of 2011 herald a significant shift in the political values, attitudes and aspirations of Singaporeans. While the People's Action Party (PAP) and its preferred candidate for the presidency were returned to power, it would be a mistake for the PAP Government to assume that with the elections over, it can return to the business of governance along the technocratic lines it is used to.

The Singapore polity has changed profoundly, perhaps irrevocably. President Tony Tan hinted at this when he said at the start of his election campaign that politics in Singapore has entered a 'new normal'. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong too recognised that politics in Singapore has changed when he warned of the dangers of polarisation and populism. He also highlighted an important, but often forgotten, truth: to get our policies right, we must first get the politics right.

For more than 40 years, the PAP Government 'got politics right' by containing and minimising it. Apart from parliamentary elections, the PAP drove out many forms of democratic politics from public life. It saw governance as a rational pursuit that should be only minimally subject to political contest. Governance, government leaders believed, should be undertaken by an enlightened elite insulated from the political pressures which they believed would lead to extremism, demagoguery and populism.

Politics in Singapore allowed a system of technocratic governance dominated by elites. To the extent that there was politics, it was kept within the Establishment, a state of affairs described by Professor Chan Heng Chee in the 1970s as the 'politics of an administrative state'. For their part, citizens mostly accepted this state of affairs, trading away some of the liberties found in democratic societies for a government that delivered the goods.

In the aftermath of the 2011 elections, the Government can no longer take this for granted. Competitive politics has returned to Singapore; the Government can expect a political landscape that is far more contested and vexed. Can good governance be sustained in the new normal? How should the system of technocratic governance adapt?

My contention is that good governance is possible in the new normal, but it requires the Government to accommodate, and adapt to, the new socio-political and economic realities of Singapore. In particular, I believe the Singapore Government needs to rethink its current model of governance in at least three ways.

First, the state needs to broaden its basis of legitimacy. For more than 40 years, the PAP regime secured broad-based support on the basis of superior performance. This is now changing. Increasingly, Singaporeans care also about the fairness of our political system and about having checks and balances on government. Trust in government can no longer be assumed. Instead, it has to be earned through transparent and fair processes.

One reason the Workers' Party did well in the 2011 General Election was that its calls for a first-world Parliament that can provide a check on the Government struck a chord with the electorate. The response of many Singaporeans to the spat between the Workers' Party and the People's Association over the use of community spaces, and the subsequent debate over who should be appointed as advisers to grassroots organisations, are also indicative of the newfound appetite for fairness.

How should the Government respond?

It could start by reforming the parts of the political system that are clearly unfair in the minds of Singaporeans. The constant redrawing of electoral boundaries (some justified) and the expansion of the GRCs over the years (until the recent election) conferred significant advantages to the incumbent. These changes tilted the playing field and caused voters to give opposition candidates a handicap - an unhealthy state of affairs that stunts the development of a mature, fair-minded electorate.

Another area of political reform is to depoliticise the grassroots organisations. The grassroots organisations which were created to foster social cohesion have now become a source of political division instead. Whether intended or not, the grassroots organisations are now perceived as partisan. That they are disconnected from opposition MPs is not only unfair, but also divisive.

Second, the Government needs to rethink the narratives and practices of elite governance. The review of ministerial salaries is important in this regard but not sufficient. Singapore's elite has become more diverse, and less cohesive ideologically and politically. The repeated emphasis on how vulnerable Singapore is, how this justifies our system of governance, and how important it is for the country to be governed by a carefully selected elite, even if true, alienates many educated Singaporeans.

The Government has to move away from the model of elite governance to one of collective governance built on a distributed network of people who can contribute to public life. It means tapping the collective wisdom of citizens, and harnessing the tools of social innovation and co-creation. Not only is such a system of governance more inclusive, it is also likely to be more resilient. Some parts of the Government, such as the Ministry of National Development in relation to ideas to turn the old KTM land into a 'green corridor', have taken tentative steps in this direction. Hopefully, this approach will extend meaningfully to other contested policy issues.

To hasten this process, the Government should liberalise its quite restrictive policies on data sharing. For Singaporeans to be involved in the 'trade-offs and dilemmas of governance', they must first be aware of what those trade-offs are. An open and inclusive democratic polity needs a more transparent information environment than the current one.

Finally, Singapore needs a new social compact. The current social compact was appropriate for an era characterised by youthful demographics, rising incomes across-the-board, and the need to achieve exceptional rates of GDP growth.

In such a context, policies that emphasised individual responsibility, high national savings, relatively weak social safety nets, and public housing as the de facto instrument of redistribution were successful in ensuring growth with equity. This created a relatively benign political environment which gave Government the room to pursue long-term, growth-oriented policies with minimal political constraints.

This context is now changing. Our population is ageing, social mobility is slowing, economic growth is more erratic, and the fruits of growth are distributed far more unevenly than before. These forces are largely external, but they make it much harder for Singapore to achieve the equitable growth that it achieved before the start of the 2000s. In response, Government and citizens must find a social compact that achieves a better balance between growth and equity, between market forces and an activist and redistributive government, and between individual responsibility and social insurance.

There is no necessary reason why politics in Singapore should become polarised or populist. Neither should we conclude that the only way to ensure good governance is to deny Singaporeans their newfound political energies, in the vain hope that politics can return to the old normal.

The forces revealed by the elections of 2011 make it incumbent on the PAP Government to pursue bold policy and political reforms. These reforms, founded on the virtues of fairness, inclusion and resilience will not only make us a more 'normal' democracy, but will also help sustain good governance in the new normal.

The writer, a former Administrative Service officer, is vice-president of the Economics Society of Singapore.

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