Behind Singapore Inc. (Part III): ‘PAP must return to its roots’

Singapore's government needs to return to its roots of pragmatism and its priority of serving the needs of the ordinary citizen, says former GIC chief economist Yeoh Lam Keong. (AFP file photo)

In a wide-ranging interview with former GIC chief economist Yeoh Lam Keong, Yahoo! Singapore’s JEANETTE TAN  finds out what he thinks are the key challenges Singapore faces in its quest for continued economic development. This is the last of a three-part series entitled “Behind Singapore Inc.” that takes a look at the country’s key policies and governance.
[Read Part I and II of this series.]

Former top financial sector economist Yeoh Lam Keong says the government should be more pragmatic in its approach and return to its roots to meet and serve the needs of the ordinary citizen.

The 54-year-old, who was the chief economist at the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation for a decade, said the ruling People’s Action Party succeeded and even exceeded expectations in doing this, from Singapore’s early years right up to the mid-1990s.

“One of its founding values, which is still found in large measure in government today, is pragmatism — ‘I will do what works to get what I need done, done successfully, regardless of ideology, convention or dogma’ — that’s a great strength of our government,” said Yeoh, who left GIC last year to spend more time with his family.

However, during a recent one-hour interview with Yahoo! Singapore, the economist said this innovative pragmatism has been replaced by a rigid mindset of conventional policy and what he terms an over-reliance on market forces as the best basis for social policy design. He singled out the area of social welfare, where the government believes spending should be avoided or minimised.

“It is unrealistic (for example) to expect individuals and families to be able to look after their healthcare needs successfully without hardship in our current system,” he says. “Right now, it needs more systemic government support and active management given actual wage, economic and demographic trends.”

“That kind of systemic policy reform and re-engineering is something they (the government) are very capable of, so they need to go back to being realistic and pragmatic, as opposed to defensive and ideological — assuming things will work out, that the market will adequately provide.”

The need for a change in mindset is pressing, says Yeoh, who warns of a potential backlash from voters in future elections that could hamstring policy should the party fail to tackles current issues head-on.

“They need to be more realistic and return to creating policies for true citizen well-being. If they don’t, they will likely continue to erode public trust in policymaking and government credibility,” said Yeoh, who lives in a five-room HDB flat in Marine Terrace and who still takes public transport.

Beyond that, Yeoh says this could lead to policy paralysis, or worse still, populist policy that sacrifices the long-term good for short-term political success.

“We can’t afford that in Singapore. You need strong public trust in government policy capability, and you need the government to be able to mobilise the public to do what is needed together, even if it is difficult.”

'Start making changes'

How to show a change in mindset? Yeoh says the party simply needs to start making changes — in housing, healthcare, education, social security, unemployment protection and really tackling poverty.

“They need to wake up and smell the coffee, (and) make the serious, far-reaching policy adjustments — they are fully capable of it,” he says. “If they can go back and address those areas, and it’s well within their capability, they will win back a lot of policy credibility; they’ll win back a lot of their original brand.”

Yeoh said he felt encouraged by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s promise in his recent National Day Rally that his government will engage all Singaporeans in a National Conversation to re-look current government policies.

"I thought that the PM's focus on heart issues and social policy was refreshing and authentic," he said, sensing the government’s serious interest in re-engaging with the public.

He also called the PM's National Conversation "a much needed move" toward genuine dialogue and collaboration on policy issues that matter to citizen well-being, but added his hope that it will not simply be a cosmetic one.

"My dearest hope is that it... will actually be matched by the substance of real policy solutions. Rather than just 're-affirm, recalibrate and refresh', are we also willing to really re-think, reform and co-create a truly national social vision, with a supporting core of social policies that bring citizen well-being to a new, materially higher level?"

It is at this point that Yeoh raises his caveat: these changes need to be made realistically, in a manner suited to current times. They must also be sensitive to circumstances rising from globalisation, wage stagnation, ageing and rising structural unemployment exacerbated by wage restructuring.

“They (the government) just need to get into gear and deal seriously with it,” he adds. “They’re perfectly capable of managing overall policy reform, but they also have to realise that they need to be a lot more consultative and collaborative about it as the issues are a lot more complex than they used to be in the 60s, 70s or even the 80s.”

Yeoh also notes that given the new normal in Singapore, these sweeping reforms need to be designed and implemented in a politically participative and contentious public environment.

And indeed, consultation is key — something the PAP has been gradually doing more of in recent months, and even more so now with Education Minister Heng Swee Keat’s pledge to engage all in a National Conversation.

“They need to get real about facilitation of crowding in and aggregating expertise in co-creating policy,” he says. “Lots of big companies and regional governments are doing it; a lot of governments have done it — why can’t they? I’m sure they can. You need to realise it’s difficult but very, very necessary, and only then can you do it.”

Not counting them out yet

Despite the blunt manner in which Yeoh speaks out about policies and governance, he ultimately does still have faith in the capability of Singapore’s government as an institution.

“I haven’t counted the government out yet — I hope they may yet deliver on a lot of these things (housing, healthcare and education, in particular), and that they may actually move significantly in these areas,” he says.

Despite the wave of anti-government sentiment in Singapore’s online space, Yeoh says he genuinely feels that most Singaporeans want to give the government the benefit of the doubt.

“Most Singaporeans would love to see them deal decisively and pragmatically with these issues as they did long ago, and are rooting for them, but they’re just not giving Singaporeans who are hoping for something to cling to. And as a result their hope is sort of slipping away,” he says.

He adds, “That’s the real pity — the loss of the chance of real policy reform that can really bring the well-being of citizens to a new high that we can afford, and the loss of the leadership opportunity to craft a new social compact for Singapore’s future, by reclaiming our key founding values.”