Friday, November 20, 2015

Western govts’ failure to deliver a reason for gridlock: PM Lee


SINGAPORE — The gridlock common in Western governments is “partly a weakness of the leadership” and also a recognition that the system is not delivering, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a recent interview with a foreign newspaper.

Also, people in these countries do not feel that they have an interest in what the system is doing for them, he said. “You promised, but in the end, you cannot deliver. That is a challenge,” said Mr Lee, adding that political deadlock is particularly a problem in the United States “because of the way their system of government works”.

Speaking to The Australian newspaper’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan last Friday (Nov 13) at the Istana, he was asked by Mr Sheridan whether it was “something of a problem in Western politics that the blocking power of popular sentiment, the ability of minorities to stop things from happening and the increased salience of populism in Western politics” appear to be making it difficult for governments in Western democracies to come up with a sound policy and implement it.

The embargoed transcript of the wide-ranging interview — where Mr Lee also spoke about terrorism, the South China Sea situation and the results of the recent General Election, among other things - was made available by the Prime Minister’s Office to the Singapore media. Mr Lee’s remarks on terrorism — made before the Paris attacks - were reported earlier this week.

During the interview, Mr Lee noted that despite the conclusion of negotiations for the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, “perpetual” worry lingers over the deal being ratified in the US Congress due to political gridlock. US presidential candidate and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who was part of the TPP talks, is now against it, as is Republican candidate Donald Trump, noted Mr Lee.

“(United Kingdom Prime Minister) David Cameron has less of a problem with gridlock or the Australian Government although you have an issue with your Senate from time to time. But with the Europeans and the Americans too, I think their problem is people are disillusioned or disappointed with what they see happening in their lives,” Mr Lee said. “They are disillusioned with the political leadership and then they opt for what they think are pristine solutions.”

Mr Lee said that Singapore has been “lucky” and its government has been able to deliver on its promises. But the country will have to cope with the implications of a different economic situation. “We have to learn how to live with the economy growing 2 to 3 per cent a year instead of 6 to 7 per cent a year, and what that means in terms of the rate at which your quality of life improves, your incomes go up, the bounce in the economy and the society, the sense of optimism, the jobs which are available,” he said. “These are trade-offs which we will have to accept and learn to live with.”

“It is not easy and it is very seductive for an opposition who’s just trawling for votes, to say, ‘Vote for me, I will reduce the taxes and soak the rich’. Fortunately, in this last election, some of the opposition pitches were so shrill that the population wisely took counsel and decided that there was a real risk,” he added.

Mr Lee reiterated that the challenges for Singapore include the need to grow the economy and increase productivity. The task of transforming old activities into new and more competitive ones is “arduous”, and one faced by all developed countries, he said.

The trend in the last decade or so is slowing productivity growth. “Nobody quite understands why and there are all kinds of explanations, but the fact is it is very hard to lift productivity and we are facing that, too. We have to do it, but it is a challenge,” he said.

Mr Lee noted that information technology has changed lifestyles and the quality of life but it has “not shown up clearly” in productivity numbers. “Hopefully, eventually, it will show up in performance, whether it is your hospitals getting scans read by a smart programme, faster and more reliably or whether it is delivering your groceries and your daily necessities, logistics more efficiently.”

Another longer-term challenge is the low birth rate and, with it, the need to “top up” with immigration and integrate the new population, he said.

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