You may be aware that productivity levels have been disappointing in the last decade and, try as we might, we have not been able to resolve the problem. We have thrown money at it, suggested a plethora of schemes including making the public pay for gizmos that private companies acquire and tweaking foreign workers levies – none of which have worked.
We have tried everything except one which, to my mind, is the most crucial. Such a measure necessitates that we situate our economic and political intuitions within the view that productivity is about human behaviour. And this is where economics ends and psychology begins. I have not heard of a situation – whether in an experiment or the real world – where anyone has brought out the innovative and productive best in people, be they employees or entrepreneurs, by instilling fear and conformity in the populace, a process that seems to be de rigueur with the PAP since in took over the reins of power more that half-a-century ago.
There is a reason why North Korea does not produce the Steve Jobs and J K Rowlings of the world. There is much to take away from Dan Acemoglu's and James Robinson's book, Why Nations Fail, where they talk about extractive and inclusive systems. Where extractive institutions concentrate power in the hands of a few and extract resources from the many for the few, inclusive institutions emphasise pluralism and innovation. Inclusive systems, the authors note, have the ability to engage in creative destruction and ultimately be able to regenerate their economies.
There is little argument that Singapore relies more on extractive institutions than inclusive ones.
In Singapore, low productivity means that wages are kept low. To augment low productivity levels, the Government turns to bringing in foreign talent including cheap foreign labour. Such a measure exerts downward pressure on wages especially those in the low-income groups. This exacerbates income inequality and leads to unhappy and unproductive workers.
On the other end, the Government attracts the super-rich which exerts enormous pressure on the cost of living. The high cost of living is cited by younger Singaporeans as the main reason that they put off having children (or have fewer children). The PAP then cites the falling birthrate as justification to further loosen the immigration policy – and the vicious cycle continues.
It seems to me that there are several entry points that policy interventions can be made to arrest the downward spiral created by the morass of socio-economic problems that our society faces. One of them is something that I've alluded to earlier on and something which I have been talking since I got into politics nearly 25 years ago, which is that the system needs a good dose of democracy.
Our intuitions, our observations – our studied observations – and our experiences all point to the fact that openness, transparency and political freedoms – values embodied in the concept of democracy – will allow us to resolve, or at least facilitate the resolution, of the socio-economic problems that I have cited.
It is more than a correlation that the happiest and most productive peoples in this world live in the democratic and free countries.
The SDP has proposed other policy prescriptions in areas such as healthcare, housing, population growth, the Malay community, education, ministerial salaries and the economy.
Many people have wondered why the SDP has spent so much time and effort doing this when the electorate is generally uninterested in policy details. There is an important reason: Without putting our minds to thinking about the problem and coming up with workable and comprehensive solutions, how are we going to go to the people and, truthfully, say that the opposition has alternative ideas. And if and when we enter Parliament where will we have the ability to scritinize proposed legislation or even author and table bills of our own?
As much as we criticise the PAP for being authoritarian, it behooves the opposition to rise to the challenge of coming up – as democracy expects – with alternative ideas for Singapore. At the minimum, it prevents the PAP from levelling the accusation that the opposition is of sub-quality, unable to challenge it on substance.
The problem is not that the SDP has not articulated our vision as well as a set of policy papers to achieve that vision, the problem is how we get this information to the public.
On this point let me say that institutions such as the IPS has an important role to play. Recently, you hosted a public forum which Ministers Chan Chun Sing and Teo Chee Hean participated. Couldn't the same be done for the SDP instead of it being a closed-door discussion like this? I am not asking the IPS to promote the SDP's policies but rather to facilitate public discussion on some of these policies.
On an individual basis, policy analysts such as yourselves can hardly contemplate your neutrality at this critical juncture of our national development.
As long as we try to hide or diminish the contribution or the role of the opposition, we do a disservice to our nation and ultimately to ourselves and our loved ones.
Already if we do everything right starting tomorrow and reform everything we need to reform and get the system just where it ought to be, it will take us another generation to cultivate the kind of culture where we catch up with the societies which are innovative and moving ahead.
As it is, our politico-economic system is living on borrowed time and everyday we wait to reinvent our society and regenerate our economy is everyday we dig the hole a little deeper. And like time and tide, the global economy waits for no one. (31 Mar 2015)