10 Aug 2006
I remember a number of political maxims. One is that for any government "Good things should be done a little at a time; bad things should be done all at once", so that the pain passes and people keep hearing the good news. The other is that "When you are making big changes, always reassure people these are just minor adjustments, with all kinds of familiar features and precedents, so that the people do not get frightened and confused; when nothing much is happening, keep telling people all those exciting things you are doing to make their life more interesting." To me those rules are not Machiavellian, just simple practical sense.
If you read Straits Times regularly, you would keep hearing that Singapore is remaking itself. In fact, a few years ago there was actually a Remake Singapore Committee working out a programme for Singapore to remake itself. More or less at the same time, bartop dancing was hotly discussed, and eventually legalized; a briefer discussion about the pros and cons of allowing bungee jumping was carried out, ending with the installation of the Clark Quay bungee machine (which was recently in the news again because of a cable coming loose). There was some kind of announcement that homosexuals can now be appointed to senior positions in the public sector - they were previously considered to have higher security risks due to the possibility of closet blackmail. This encouraged the gay community into seeking permits to bring in various activities, but after a few rejections things quietened down again on that front. The Crazy Horse troupe came into Clark Quay (causing, among other things, the closing down of the weekend flea market which I used to go to regularly!!), followed by the long-awaited decision to allow the construction of two casinos.
So is Singapore really remaking itself, or are all these just "weapons of mass distraction" from the lack of real changes? If you use the recent election as the indicator, then you can see that the political processes, from the selection of new parliamentary candidates and their public introductions, the comparison of their first world qualifications to the lesser credentials of the opposition party candidates, the streneous search for evidence to show that opposition candidates have poor characters, the far from subtle message that voting opposition would result in poorer estate redevelopment prospects, etc, have remained the same. When a group of young people met Lee Kuan Yew for a televised dialog session, he was asked when he planned to retire. Actually, this question has been arousing attention since the early 1980s, when he approached the then standard public service retirement age of 60.
In one of the 2005 NUS centennial celebration dinners attended by a group of international university presidents (mostly from USA), PM Lee Hsian Loong was the guest of honour; following his formal speech he engaged in a dialog session with the international guests, and was asked how he saw the fostering of entrepreneurship among Singaporeans. He gave the conventional wisdom reply "reduce the role of the government". This too is very old. Starting in the 80s, companies like DBS, SIA, Capitaland (originally two parts DBS Land and Pidemco at different times), parts of the Singapore Technology Group (later all consolidated into ST Engineering), SingTel, etc were listed on the Stock Exchange by selling shares to the pubilc, originally termed "privatization" but later more accurately described as "divestiture", since control of the companies has remained under the government holding companies. During the 90s and after, these government linked companies, with deep pockets and high technical expertise, grew very large, and overshadow the few privately owned companies under local tycoon clans. (The kind of diversely held companies one sees in USA, often dominated by large pension funds in share ownership, is little known here.）
Whatever the original intentions, a number of events occurred in the business and political spheres all pushing against reducing the span of control. The Pan Electric stock market crisis, started by the collapse of several companies headed by the Malaysian politician-businessman Tan Koon Suan with a chain of debts to a number of stock broking companies forcing the market to suspend trading for several days, initiated a process whereby the stock exchange changed from a club of local stock broking firms to a listed company under government supervision. The discovery of a Marxist network in the Catholic church community started a chain of events that led to a confrontation with members of the Law Society, in which both opposition party figures and a foreign embassy played a part (leading to the expulsion of one foreign diplomat). Even the horse racing club had to be put under the control of a Totalization Board and Island Golf Club under PUB whose reservoir land the Club uses for the courses. Privatization is risky because some people who know how to pull strings can get very rich out of it (as occured in Russia in the 90s and Taiwan more recently); loosenig political control is risky because many parties, political and other kinds, are waiting to fish in the murkier waters. Singapore Inc has to stay together so that it has some weight to throw around.
A monolithic system is bound to be a ponderous one. It absorbs new ideas mostly by having these filter upwards till they stop somewhere, or hit a receptive spot where idea turns into action; it renews itself by having younger people work their way up the hierarchy till they get stuck (Peter Principle) or hit receptive openings that happen to be there. Now and then it might even stir things up a bit by bringing some ideas from the outside by hiring consultants that attach their brandnames to the ideas, or even fill vacancies with different types of people. But the system as a whole cannot easily change itself because there are so many pieces that have to fit together in order for it to operate.
In the mean time, a World Bank/IMF meeting will come to town in September, and there is a Four Million Smiles campaign right now to get people to contribute happy faces to electronic and other displays that will greet the delegates all over the country. Good things are being done, a little at a time.
Posted by yuen at 8/10/2006 08:44:00 pm