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Are democracies less able to act in time?

Are democracies less able to act in time?

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Published by Li Xueying

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Published by: Li Xueying on Dec 06, 2010
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Progress Brazilian style


RAZIL has emerged in recent years as an economic powerhouse along with China and India, but not everything can be taken for granted in this South American nation. Despite the enormous popularity he won for reducing poverty and putting Brazil on the world stage, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva did not have his choice as successor, Ms Dilma Rousseff, win outright in Sunday’s election. Falling short of 50 per cent of the vote, she is in for what will likely be a bruising second round at the end of the month against runner-up Jose Serra of the Social Democratic Party. But she will more than likely prevail and become the country’s first woman presi-

dent. The electoral battle will fortify her right to govern in her own right. It enhances Brazil’s maturing democracy that Mr da Silva is not only vacating office to observe the constitutional limit of two presidential terms, but also allowing voters an essentially free choice among candidates, albeit one that he obviously hopes is based on his Workers’ Party government’s impressive record. There being no automatic walkover, the new administration should be all the more responsive to the electorate. Whoever takes over from Lula, as he is affectionately called, has outsized shoes to fill. Will his successor, like him in the last

eight years, continue to bring political stability, steady economic growth and much-needed social improvement? Thanks to the foundation he built, the outlook is bright, but there has to be not only perseverance of effort, but also attention to lagging and neglected sectors. While 20 million people in a population of 193 million were lifted out of poverty during his tenure, income disparity remains a source of concern. Even as the middle class expands, the poor continue to face discrimination and abuse. Education access and quality remain a key to social mobility. There is a need to reinforce such programmes as Bolsa

Familia, which dispenses grants to help parents keep children in school. More skilled workers are needed as the country continues to industrialise at a rapid pace. Infrastructure development has to keep up with economic growth or exports will begin to suffer. Revenues from vast offshore oil fields promise to provide some of the funding for development, but this is likely only with the right government policy. And environmental degradation needs to be avoided. Not much, then, can be taken for granted, but with a new government poised more for continuity than change, Brazil can look forward to further progress.


Take holistic approach to public policy


F MY mother were alive today, she would be surprised to read this article. From a young age, I absorbed from her a profound respect for Western medicine. After all, it saved my life as an infant when diarrhoea led some doctors to declare that my prospects were “hopeless”. Western medicine gave me a second life. As I get older, I have also come to believe that Western medicine – which often treats our body as a collection of parts that can be repaired separately – can be complemented with Chinese medicine, which generally treats our body as a holistic system that must be treated as a whole, linking both the physical body and the soul or spirit. Good science also needs to be complemented with good intuition. I begin with these analogies because I have come to believe that the principles of Chinese medicine can be applied to public policies in Singapore. There is no doubt that Singapore has done exceptionally well with its public policies; our body is not sick. But we have not achieved perfection. No state has. But as an eternal optimist, I believe that there is scope for improvement everywhere. Take the case of transportation. There is little doubt we have done well. Each

“limb” (to use a medical analogy) of our transportation works well, from the MRT system to Electronic Road Pricing (ERP). But even 18 years ago, when I was dean of the Civil Service College, one principle of our transportation system puzzled me. It was then a holy article of faith that each “limb” of the transportation system had to pay for itself. Hence, the surplus revenue from ERP, say, cannot be used to “subsidise” the public bus system. Indeed, the word “subsidy” was taboo. In our own human body, however, there are “subsidies” everywhere. Not all parts of our body are equally strong. The strong parts compensate for the weak. The critical thing is not whether the right arm is as strong as the left but whether the body as a whole is working well. This is why I wonder what our conclusions would be if we viewed our transportation system holistically. Each “limb” of our system may be working well. But does the system as a whole deliver the best results? Equally importantly, what criteria should we apply to assess the “best results”? Should we give priority to “efficiency” considerations? Or should we add in environmental considerations? And who should “pay” for these additional considerations? All these thoughts came rushing into my head when I visited the truly impressive Chinese pavilion at the Shanghai Expo. Of course, the most impressive visual display was the long video mural depicting street life in the Song dynasty. But the exhibits that really impressed me were the ones that tried to measure the

carbon footprints of each mode of transportation. The Chinese also proudly displayed the electric cars they had manufactured. Indeed, they had an all-electric bus fleet on the Expo grounds. I wondered why we could not afford to have an all-electric bus network in Singapore. In the short term, there is no doubt it would cost more than the current diesel-driven bus system. But there would be many other public policy benefits that would compensate for these higher financial costs – including cleaner air and being seen to be an environmentally responsible global citizen. It is little things like that that root people to their soil. I should emphasise that I have chosen transportation only as an illustrative example. This principle of “holistic” analysis can be applied to all other public policy sectors. Take education: In a brilliant op-ed piece in The Business Times last month, a PhD student at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Ms Leong Ching, argued

that a comprehensive review of Singapore’s education should look not only at the $8.037 billion that the Government spends on public education, but also at the additional $820 million that Singaporean parents spend on private tuition. She did not use any medical analogies but the image of the parasitical limb of private education undermining the main body of public education occurred to me. Shouldn’t we look at both when we evaluate the state of education in Singapore? I firmly believe that a “holistic” analysis of our public policies will eventually create a better Singapore. Why? When we do a holistic analysis, we have to factor in non-material considerations of ethics and values, as well as social considerations. Simply relying on economic principles or on the forces of the market would be incomplete, if not downright wrong. Hence, in our public policies, we must give increasing weight to the intangible. A greater infusion of ethical considerations will also strengthen the soul of Sin-

gapore. And if we want Singapore to survive and thrive over the long run, the fundamental question we should ask is whether “holistically” our policies are strengthening or undermining the “soul” of Singapore. Transportation, education, environmental and so on, are different systems within a larger Singaporean body. These systems – like the respiratory, circulatory, digestive and reproductive systems of the human body – are interrelated and must be treated as a whole. Singapore has made enormous progress in the first 50 years by successfully finding the right answers to the urgent questions we faced in our early days. Over the next 50 years, we should try to find the right questions to ask before we begin trying to find the right answers. The writer is the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Think-Tank is a weekly column rotated among eight leading figures in Singapore’s tertiary and research institutions.

Are democracies less able to act in time?


RE liberal democracies less adept at tackling long-term problems head-on? That was a question that arose during a lively session hosted by the dean of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, Professor David Ellwood, when he was in town recently. In a lecture entitled Acting In Time at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, he dissected deftly that strange animal that governments sometimes evolve into – the ostrich. Why do they choose to stick their heads in the sand even though they can see catastrophes – whether it is climate change, the widening income gap, nuclear proliferation, or changing demographics – looming? Why can’t they muster the will to act in time to avert a disaster before it bludgeons them? Prof Ellwood put it down to the human

tendency to focus on the here and now, instead of the long-term good. For politicians to take pre-emptive action to avoid a pain that society does not as yet feel would involve expending both financial and political capital. Better to leave it to the next government to deal with the problem. “Confronting looming crises is bad politics,” declared Prof Ellwood. This is particularly so in the context of multi-party democracies where partisan politics demand short time-frames when crafting policies. A government, with its eye on the next election, may not wish to take painful but necessary action. Who knows whether it would still be in power by the time the policy reaps dividends? The policy might even benefit – horror of horrors – one’s political rivals. It was a variation on a familiar theme for the Singaporeans in the audience. Does this mean that democracies are illequipped to deal with long-term problems, asked a member of the audience, to knowing laughter. The People’s Action Party (PAP) has long cited its dominance in government as key to Singapore’s strength. Indeed, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, a

former student at the Kennedy School, has on two separate occasions spoken of Prof Ellwood’s struggles to bring about welfare reform when he was assistant secretary for planning and evaluation in the Clinton administration in the 1990s. But he had only 2.5 years to put his policies into action, before the next administration took over. Speaking at a rally during the 2006 general election, Mr Lee said: “In Singapore, 2.5 years, I’m just starting to think whether the person is good enough or not. But for (Prof Ellwood), that was his one chance.” The PAP’s dominance, Mr Lee said, allowed its own ministers to plan for the next 30 years or so, and focus on longterm issues. This has been critical to the ruling party’s ability to implement unpopular policies. This is a key part of Singapore’s model of governance: a “paranoid government” that worries all the time, looking over the horizon for dark clouds, and thus is able to act in time. Expanding on this theme a year later, during a parliamentary debate on the pegging of ministerial salaries to private sector pay, Mr Lee spoke candidly of how the “human tendency” that Prof Ellwood worries about is subverted in Singapore’s system.

On why Singapore’s leaders are forward-looking, he said: “It’s because we care, but it’s also because we know that if we screw up, in five or 10 years’ time, there’s a high chance that a lot of us are still going to be here to pick up the mess and we don’t want to make a mess for ourselves.” So democracies where power is regularly rotated are clearly handicapped when it comes to looking after a country’s long-term interests. There is a natural tendency by the powers of the day not to bring to the electorate “the bad news” of the need to solve long-term problems. But it would clearly be simplistic to conclude that all “highly democratic” systems lead to short-sighted partisan policies; or conversely, that systems with long-entrenched parties result in enlightened policies. Long-term leadership certainly helps. But it is neither a prerequisite nor sufficient in tackling long-term challenges. As the dean pointed out later in an interview with The Straits Times, there are also “many places with long-term leaders” but no long-term vision. North Korea and Myanmar come to mind. And there are instances where demo-

cratic nations acted in time. Indeed, argued the dean, “democracies are clearly capable of doing remarkable things partly because the leader has the credibility and the accountability that democracy brings”. So what can politicians do to implement long-term solutions without committing political kamikaze? Theory holds that democracies should create independent institutions with long-term perspectives. Most notably, the civil service, the judiciary and the central bank are vital in keeping the government focused on non-partisan considerations. The media and academia could also be helpful, suggested Prof Ellwood. What is key is to find “strange bedfellows”. An energetic leader should find allies with the same long-term interests. And then, get creative. After all, it is the job of a politician to sell his policies and make long-term problems vivid. Of course, none of these ideas is foolproof. For one thing, how much responsibility does one want to lay at the door of unelected representatives such as civil servants? But the ideas may be worth considering when the downside of the alternative is this: Even when long-term leaders do have the country’s concerns at heart, how do we prevent people from feeling they are mere clients of the state and not its vital actors? That, in itself, may be another Acting In Time challenge. xueying@sph.com.sg

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