A year of maturation for S’pore

This year has been an eventful year of maturation for Singapore. The first half of the year began with the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) losing its second consecutive by-election in 12 months.

The introduction of the Population White Paper in February caused a national furore, and the ripple effects continue to make themselves felt.

A short but intense episode of extreme haze in the middle of the year came as a shock and served as a reminder of the country’s vulnerability to the actions of proximate neighbouring countries. We had further shocks in terms of knocks to the country’s reputation for integrity when several senior public officials were charged in court for corruption.

The second half of the year was also exciting. There was disquiet in social media when media regulations were amended to regulate the online news space. The National Day Rally in August then served as an occasion for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to bring the year-long Our Singapore Conversation to a close with signals of significant shifts in policy direction.

This month, the country experienced its first riot in four decades when a large group of intoxicated foreign workers briefly went amok. The economic performance for the year was mixed, with reasonable gross domestic product growth but negative productivity growth for the fourth consecutive year.

What do these events say about Singapore’s present and near future in political, social and economic terms?

THE PAP: ATTEMPTING ADAPTATION

Politically, 2013 represents a period where the PAP, in the wake of the results of the last general and presidential elections, undertook a deliberate effort to overhaul its popular image, its political approach and its policy tenets.

It initiated the Our Singapore Conversation to show Singaporeans that it could be a listening, not a lecturing, government. Its politicians began to showcase themselves aggressively on social media and were more diligent in their presence on the ground. In doing so, it wanted to demonstrate that it was still a party of and connected to the people.

It undertook reviews of its housing, healthcare and education policies — shifting to greater public expenditure on social issues and increasing the amount and reach of social assistance. It was reaching back to its democratic socialist roots, a direction affirmed by the PAP party resolution adopted this month, a resolution which was the work of the latest generation of PAP leaders.

There are three significant insights into this political process.

The first is that the PAP is attempting to adapt and not completely remake itself. This is not an exercise in reinvention as much as it is a major effort at political updating and refreshing, based on existing but now reinterpreted principles.

2014 is the midpoint between the last General Election and the coming one and, going forward, the electorate should expect to see fewer, if any, further major adjustments. The focus will be shifting towards execution and consolidation of the new policy directions and programmes.

Secondly, that it has had to do so is indicative of a significant change from the nature of its past relationship with the electorate. Historically, the PAP had been leading the changes in Singapore society — a role that protracted incumbency made it complacent about. Today, society is leading the PAP in its future direction.

This is an uncomfortable position for its leaders and their unease will continue to be a source of tension. How well they can manage this tension or, better still, find a way to reclaim the high moral ground, will be the story of the 24 months leading up to the next General Election.

Third, the PAP is in internal transition. Hidden behind the party walls, its front rank is readying themselves for the path towards and beyond the next election. The younger leaders have been given tremendous exposure and responsibilities since 2011, not only on national policy issues but internal party policy as well. It will be they who shape the political image and message from here on.

It is curious, then, that their rhetoric — whether the Lee Kuan Yew-like sabre-rattling of Minister Chan Chun Sing at the 2013 PAP Convention, or the language of the new resolution, which harks back to the simpler format and brevity of the party’s earliest manifestos and platforms — are lines thrown to the past and not forward into the future.

It remains to be seen whether this tactic of adapting to become more like they used to be, rather than something new, is the correct reading of the political message communicated by the electorate in recent elections.

SOCIETY: NORMALISING DIVERSITY

Several thousand Singaporeans protested at Hong Lim Park against the Population White Paper. The social media became entrenched as the preferred medium to debate, dispute or simply comment on public issues.

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The physical and virtual engagement by Singaporeans exhibited a spectrum of typology — with balanced views nearly drowned out at times by the dogmatism in specific groups’ views, be they supporters of the ruling party or those of the political opposition — and often, knee-jerk reactions which were too often vitriolic, occasionally xenophobic and sometimes utterly baseless.

Even so, it is undeniable that the social media has been a powerful platform for diverse voices, with virtually no barriers to entry. Social media has also served as a tool for Singaporeans to organise civic self-help initiatives, as was the case with SG Haze Rescue and other prominent grassroots efforts.

These strengths are likely to remain extant, despite the perception that the Government is tightening its grip on the Internet space through the use of the new Media Development Authority regulations. That they do is a net positive, if Singaporeans can learn to normalise diversity as a good thing rather than as divisive and disruptive.

Singaporeans need to adopt the mindset that, while we can differ on how to change or manage complexity, change and diversity are not in themselves enemies. Rather, they represent opportunities to renew, refresh and recharge our country in the face of mutating challenges.

Adopting such a mindset is not merely a choice of attitude; it also requires an investment of mental effort. Our challenges are neither simple to understand nor are they susceptible to simple or quick fixes. RSS feeds, headline-scanning, blog-surfing and Twitter hits are useful but insufficient preparation to really begin to grasp the issues.

Singaporeans need to do more to inform themselves and challenge their thinking. We need more public intellectuals to play visible roles as mass educators and as debaters of different perspectives on complex issues.

We are not short today of vehicles through which thinkers can play such roles or for the public to access good-quality information and debate — television shows such as VoicesTODAY, It Figures, Sg+ and Talking Point, this newspaper and the forums organised by the Institute of Policy Studies are just the more prominent examples.

An enlightened state is ultimately predicated upon an enlightened citizenry. It is up to the citizens to light their own candles of understanding from the flames of these many and varied lamps of learning.

THE ECONOMY: RUNNING LEAN AND MEAN

Our economy has been on a restructuring path since 2009. However, its productivity is still poor. Ninety-nine per cent of firms are still small- and medium-sized enterprises which contribute only half of the annual GDP.

There is an intuitive link between these observations. The economy needs to see more consolidation, more capital investment in technology and smarter, rather than harder, ways of working. The current government policy initiatives have yet to make any noticeable impact on these dimensions of the economy.

It may be necessary for more invasive measures to force consolidation — an additional step the Government could take would be to work with trade and industry associations to consolidate supply chains, aggregate common services and co-invest in technology and innovation.

A more radical step would be to invert the current approach of providing incentives to encourage sectors and firms to make productivity changes, to one where incentives are provided only after firms show that desired improvements have been made.

This would reduce dead-weight loss in subsidies and create competitive pressure between those who made improvements and the laggards.

The Singaporean worker is, in general, hard-working, diligent and committed; these are universally well-regarded traits and have been a source of attraction for investors. However, he, as with a large number of indigenous firms, also prefers predictability and is risk averse. This has to change.

The economic environment is highly competitive and will only become more so with the eventual introduction of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the economic integration of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The Singaporean worker needs to retain the good qualities for which he has become well-regarded, but he and local firms also need to change other characteristics to become confident in dealing with economic change, more risk-seeking of opportunities and more able to cope with employment volatility.

This combination of old and the needed new qualities will position Singapore workers and businesses to prosper in the 21st-century labour market and economy.

CHOOSING HOW WE EVOLVE

Singapore is an evolving nation. It has achieved much in its nearly 50 years of independence.

It would be a mistake, and one that is too commonly made, to equate achievement with finding a settled point of nationhood. We will always be evolving. Not to do so is not a mark of success but of national suicide.

What we do have a choice about is the process and direction of our evolution. When we look back on 2013 in later years, we will perhaps see that it represented a period of maturation as we struggled with difficult issues.

What we will need to keep in mind is that we can differ without suffering divides and that we can have disagreements without incurring disputes. Most of all is the acceptance that even when we may have uncommon views as individuals or groups, we have a common destiny as a country.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Devadas Krishnadas is Managing Director of Future-Moves, a strategic risk consultancy. His new book, Sensing Singapore: Reflections in a Time of Change, will be released in January.

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