Thursday, May 28, 2015

Singapore a 'victim of its own success': Former Blair advisor

938LIVE reports: Sir Michael Barber, former advisor to the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, sits down with 938LIVE's Michelle Martin to talk about his new book, and says its well-educated population now demands more of the Government.

28 May 2015

SINGAPORE: Modern-day Singapore is "a victim of its own success" said Sir Michael Barber, the ex-senior advisor to British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Speaking to 938LIVE about his new book How To Run a Government So That Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don't Go Crazy, Sir Barber said the country's "fantastically well-educated population" is now demanding more of the Government and wants a bigger say in things. "They want to be in dialogue and the challenge for the political system will be to adapt and make the most of that," he said.

Part of the radio interview is reproduced below:

938LIVE: What makes a good government Sir Barber?

A: What makes a good government is a government that understands the current reality and understands how it could be different and better, sets out a program to bring that change about and then applies the best thinking about how to do government. To make sure the promises it makes, get delivered on time, on standard.

You say the science of delivery is not a complete science and it never will be. Tell us about the moral purpose behind this book.

Well, you’re right. The science of delivery will never be a perfect science because government and politics is about the interaction of people, and people have different views and they get on differently and they have ambition and they have tension and all of that and politics is partly about resolving conflict so a lot of government is social science, rather than pure science.

But there are some real lessons about how to get things done and the moral purpose is very clear and very simple. When you look around the world, what you see is a growing cynicism, not just about particular governments but about government in general and if that cynicism becomes too great around the world and if people are frustrated with their governments, it will make it much harder to govern and if government isn’t effective, than people’s lives are less fulfilled, less happy, they have less opportunity to develop, they have less aspiration for the future. You only have to look at some of the troubled parts of the world like Somalia or Northern Nigeria or Libya to see what it looks like when government loses its grip.

So effective government is important, whether you like small government and low taxes or big government and high taxes, depending on which country you’re in, effective government is vital.

Sir Barber, in your estimation, how has Singapore performed in paying attention to the delivery of complex goals?

Well look, Singapore is renowned worldwide for the quality of its civil servants and political leadership. We’ve just seen all the obituaries for the great Lee Kuan Yew and his extraordinary achievement to the second half of the 20th century. I was in the audience when he spoke once and I was impressed. I met your current Prime Minister briefly. But Singapore has very good public administration.

[The "But" in the above and the general flow seems to suggest: "I heard LKY once, and I was impressed. (Then) I met your current PM briefly. BUT (at least) Singapore has a very good civil service.]

The challenge in Singapore will be to keep ahead of the game and to find, as they have been doing in the recent years with the Singapore Conversation, trying to find new ways of being in dialogue with citizens. In the last 50 years, certainly the first 30 years or 40 years of those, Singapore was a pretty top-down society. Very well-governed, very well-organised and people were rightly grateful for the improvement in quality of education, healthcare, roads, transport, whatever it was and you see the incredible economic success that Singapore has been.

But in a way, it’s currently a victim of its own success. It’s now got a fantastically well-educated population, it’s one of the best education systems in the world, the universities are fantastic. Well-educated people demand more of their government. They want more of a say, they want to be in dialogue and the challenge for the political system will be to adapt and make the most of that and if it does, I fully expect Singapore to be continuing to succeed in the next 50 years.

Speaking of priorities, don’t governments approach their task according to political persuasions? Can you really divorce ideology from priorities that guide implementation? So to what extent can this book really address the capacity of governments of all political persuasion?

[Interesting question. Does ideology matter? Are some ideology more conducive to excellence in governance and others less so?]

There are some people who strongly believe that the best thing a government can do is reduce taxes, keep it small, leave as much money in the pocket to the people who earned it and get on with it. That’s a perfectly legitimate point of view. There are other governments like those in Scandinavia, for example, that believe it’s a good thing to have high taxes to provide good social services and so on.

However, the rules about how to be effective or the lesson on how to be effective apply in both those cases. And even in the case of small government, the government does really important things, sometimes that people fail to notice. For example, you can’t have a free market without government regulation. You can’t have a free market without a government that’s willing to break up monopolies. You can’t have individual property rights unless government is prepared to protect them when they’re threatened. …You can’t have a railway system or a transport system or a planning system all of which, in somewhere like Singapore with a relatively small, crowded island. All of those things they are really important and although Singapore is known for its great government and for keeping taxes low, it does those things and it knows they’re important and that’s true around the world.

So ideology might decide the shape of government and what the priorities are, but once you’ve decided the shape and the priorities, the lessons of how to deliver apply generally.

[In other words, you can argue for big govt, or you can argue for small govt, but what you MUST have is effective government. Big or small can be effective or not. Bigness does not guarantee effectiveness. Neither does smallness.]

Well you’ve been the person responsible for the delivery of those results. What does your book offer individuals in leadership position?

I think what I try to offer, probably most of all, is optimism and hope: “You can do this”. When you as a citizen look at a prime minister, you think “Gosh they must be very powerful”. When you’re inside looking out, you feel “Oh my God, how am I going to change all that?”, “What can I do?”, “I’m just one person.” It’s really difficult and lots and lots of leaders have failed in history. Former Russian prime minister from the 1990s, Viktor Chernomyrdin, said “We tried to do better but everything turned out as usual” and that’s a common feeling among politicians and my book is a set of lesson of hope.

If you’re a political leader, you want to get something done. Most political leaders I know are positive good people. I don’t share the general cynicism about politicians they hear around the world. I think they’re good people who have a view of the world and would like to make a difference. This is a set of lessons that if you apply them, I guarantee you, not that you’ll achieve everything you set out to do, but you’ll achieve much more than you would otherwise.

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