Thoughts : Singapore (Economic Development) : Economic Prosperity at All Cost?

Ms Chua Lee Hoong (‘Use your brain!’; ST, June 18) was correct in asserting that the ultimate aim of our Government is, and any change that results from the whole remaking Singapore process will be due to, ‘economic survival’.

Who could disagree that economic prosperity is important? But should the ‘ultimate’ aim of a person’s life and our Government’s policies be merely to maximise our economic prosperity? Whether this should be or not, it is the case. As Ms Chua wrote, the Remaking Singapore Committee (RSC) isn’t about ‘making Singapore kinder and gentler, or more gracious, or less stressful – except insofar as these will aid Singapore’s long-term survival’.

Indeed, as she had also pointed out, the RSC – and the political and social policy changes recommended by it – is secondary to the Economic Review Committee (ERC). All this means that the Government will only take into serious consideration those recommendations that will promote the economy. This can be seen in Trade and Industry Minister George Yeo’s dismissal of a five-day work week for civil servants. The RSC had recommended such a policy as it felt people needed to have balance in their lives rather than working all the time. Unfortunately, this may harm our economic prosperity and competitiveness. It is no big wonder that Singapore boasts one of the highest emigration rates. It also doesn’t surprise me that many of my friends plan to stay on in Australia after their studies as life here is more relaxed and enjoyable.

Perhaps the much-talked-about OB markers apply here. Maybe we should have told the RSC that there’s one OB marker for them to observe: Recommendations that do not ultimately bolster our economy are out of bounds. A kinder, gentler, less stressful Singapore and Singaporean? It’s all about the economy, stupid.

This is the reason why political control by our Government is slowly being loosened. It’s not because it is starting to listen to us and suddenly wants to give us our political liberties. But, rather, conventional belief is that the market needs to take more control and have its say. Power needs to be moved gradually from the state to the market. There is no alternative, so we are often told, if a country wants to keep in tune with the global economy. Restrictions have got to go so that self-interested freedom may be allowed to reign for the common economic good of the nation. Again, it’s about the economy.

Less state control in economic matters is good, but only to a certain extent. But why only to a certain extent? I am afraid that Singaporeans equate freedom in the political realm with freedom in the economic realm. When we are told that we should learn not to expect the Government to help us all the time, many of us think, “Yes, that’s what we’ve been waiting for. We want our freedom and independence.” We equate such expectations with increasing political freedom and liberty, and think that freedom given in the economic realm should be just as good as the freedom we long for in the political realm.

But leaving it all to the market is not all that desirable, contrary to what globalisation advocates say. The truth is that pure capitalism and globalisation have resulted in increasing inequalities. Such an economic and global system produces winners, but also losers. And the losers aren’t always those who have not worked hard enough.

As the 1999 Human Development Report states:

When the market goes too far in dominating social and political outcomes, the opportunities and rewards of economic globalisation spread unequally and inequitably – concentrating power and wealth in a select group of people, nations, and corporations, marginalising the others.

What is urgently needed in this age of increasing globalisation and resulting inequalities isn’t for the Government to let go of its responsibilities and let the invisible hand of the market dictate our economy in the name of meritocracy and freedom. Indeed, we shouldn’t allow prosperity and the economy to be our only or ultimate aim. Social solidarity is needed, as much as prosperity. We need to show compassion to those who lose out in this global economy.

We still need our Government to be active in the economic realm – especially as it relates to the losers. A balance is called for that takes into account, on the one hand, the importance of incentives and markets to inspire entrepreneurship and economic prosperity and, on the other hand, the importance of compassion and social solidarity, and so provide welfare for the poor and other losers.

Sydney, Australia

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