Guest post by Lorong Cat
Is Singapore better off than she was four years ago?
Mitt Romney, U.S. Republican presidential hopeful, triggered a wave of self inquisition amongst Americans earlier this month when he asked the same question of America. After the initial fumbling over an immediate response, the Democrats came out to answer in the affirmative, pointing out the positives put in place by the Obama administration in his first term. Likewise, newspapers and bloggers with political leanings to both and neither of the parties fell over themselves to answer Mr Romney arriving at varying conclusions.
The Economist produced an analysis1 ever slightly partial to Obama. Areas in which the paper evaluated the Obama administration are namely: crisis response (on the U.S. car industry), economic stimulus, housing, labour market, trade, industrial policy, regulation and debt/fiscal policy.
Meanwhile a slew of other notable papers and blogs, in their own responses, focused almost exclusively on the economy, quoting statistics of job creation, GDP, wage levels and even domestic oil prices to evaluate how America’s first black president fared.
As has been said right from the beginning, the U.S. presidential elections 2012 is all about the economy and there is no doubt it is what’s on voters’ minds. This must surely have struck a resonant chord with our policy makers in Singapore for it seems every policy decision these days is made supposedly for the betterment of our economy. Especially the unpopular ones.
Is this singular focus on the economy healthy?
When Obama came into office, he had lofty ambitions for change and to remake the American economy. He wants to leave behind a legacy so grand as to befit his title of America’s first black president. Universal healthcare is one (which he has struggled to implement) and he also had a vision of America becoming a world leader in clean energy. Unfortunately things didn’t turn out as planned and he was not able to focus on his ideals.
Let’s turn back home to Singapore. Do you think we have progressed as a nation since four years ago? It would appear so if you follow global news and watch CNN. The F1 grand prix brought glamour to our tiny island and nobody can now say Singapore is a province somewhere in China. When the world watches the Singapore F1 night race on TV, they see awe inspiring sights of the futuristic looking, brightly lit race track and gleaming Marina Bay area. Gross gaming revenue from our new integrated resorts is poised to overtake the Las Vegas strip by the end of 20122. As further proof of our prosperity, we make waves on the front pages of the Financial Times with news of our sovereign fund taking up stakes in established European banks.
But underneath these ostentatious artefacts of wealth and progress, there are deep fissures in our society. If we cast aside the money matters and look at the “softer” measure of well-being, I think many would agree the nation is seeping into the winter of discontent. The goal of achieving high GDP growth should not be seen as an end but means to an end and to that end, a large segment of our nation remains deeply dissatisfied, if not more so than before. Problems of immigration, housing and transportation are on everyone’s mind.
A more holistic approach to policy making is necessary and to achieve that, we need to define a vision as to how we would like to exist as a society in 5, 10, 20 years’ time other than being solely known as an economic miracle. That should be put onto a scorecard to which we use to measure our country’s progress X years from now. Some areas would be blindingly obvious, such as income inequality and public healthcare. Other suggestions that have emerged in recent times include national productivity and welfare.
Personally I think Singapore has come to a tipping point. We have gone as far as we could sustainably do so, relying on disciplined industrialisation policies which developing countries with able governments are able to replicate easily. To progress – not just to get richer – we need a remaking of our political philosophy, economy and education system.
So now my own two cents as to how I would measure progress for Singapore: I would like to see more political openness, less passiveness, greater level of innovation, more innovators and risk takers, more people pursuing non traditional yardsticks of success, and happier folks (use the GNH – Gross National Happiness index for that). After all, we promise ourselves this in our national pledge “ … so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation”.