Rational voters best bet against populist politics

A FEW recent conversations I had with Singaporeans from an older generation – I am under 30 – brought to my attention an unmistakable sense of anxiety among them over Singapore’s future.

After last year’s general election, the People’s Action Party government appears to have gone soft, they allege, and no longer shies away from changing policy to pander to popular sentiment.

Their evidence includes the Government flinching first over ministerial salaries and the slew of “Singaporeans First” policies of questionable long-term benefit.

Their conclusion: Singapore is going downhill, and if voters continue to push the country towards a two-party system, the pace of decline will only accelerate.

I was not convinced. But last night, as I listened to the National Day Rally, I made a mental note to look out for signs that proved or disproved the hypothesis.

To make things clear: I am not saying that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has reverted to an earlier style of doing politics characterised by cold, hard analyses and voters getting beaten up (verbally) for not understanding the country’s long-term constraints.

In many ways, Mr Lee’s style is the antithesis of that.

And yet, the verdict for me yesterday was that the fears of the older people I had been talking to were mostly unfounded.

If anything, Mr Lee last night demonstrated an eagerness to do the opposite. He told it as he believed it – albeit in a warmer tone overall – even when he knew it would not be popular.

The most obvious examples of this came when he spoke about social spending and foreigners.

On the former, he started off arguing that Singapore needed to share the fruits of growth more with the less fortunate, but then proceeded to throw away all potential populist brownie points by pointing out that this would eventually result in higher taxes.

He even prefixed his point on higher taxes with the phrase, “let me tell you the truth”, just to make sure we sat up and received the cool-headed vibe too, not just the warm-and-fuzzy one.

Sure, the timeline he put on raising taxes is a long one – 20 years – but that only further proves the point for me. Which PM with an eye on votes would take the trouble to warn voters about a problem that will arise only after his scheduled retirement (two general elections from now)?

He then moved on to the controversial subject of social friction between Singaporeans and foreigners, on which he was even more straight-talking.

He chided Singapore society for reacting with outrage when foreigners make inappropriate comments about Singaporeans but staying silent when the opposite happens.

He said: “If you go online, you will find many nasty posts by Singaporeans about foreigners. In fact, there are some websites which specialise in tormenting and berating certain groups of foreigners from certain countries. Very few stand up to say that this is wrong, this is shameful, we repudiate that.”

The PM certainly could not be accused of playing to the gallery, since the speech was watched primarily by Singaporeans.

There are other, smaller examples. On pre-schooling, he resisted strong public pressure to nationalise the industry or to at least build a string of government kindergartens. He promised to pilot “a few” government-run centres, but then only to “test new concepts in kindergarten education”.

Finally, outlining the Government’s plans to encourage Singaporeans to have more children, he said “no” to increasing maternity leave from 16 weeks – a demand made by unions recently.

He also indicated that the Government was not prepared to throw a lot more money at the problem, because “it’s ultimately not about money, it’s about values, about deep motivations”.

Earlier in the evening, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, who also spoke at the Rally, added to this narrative by assuring Singaporeans that the national conversation project will not make changes to the country’s sound fundamentals and the Government’s core values.

Not all will be persuaded. The signs, if you look at government actions in the full 15 months since the general election, are still mixed at best. But for those firmly opposed to populism, yesterday threw up more than a few reasons to stay optimistic. Those who worry that more opposition naturally leads to populism might need to relook their assumptions.

In the end, Singapore will get populist politicians only if we elect them.

If we stay rational, allow policies with good, long-term objectives to be applauded, we can prevail against ourselves.

By Elgin Toh, Aug 27, 2012 – The Straits Times


some comments extract from Fabrications About The PAP :

  • the country is rich and can afford a welfare system”I wonder how many umpteen times I had heard that from populist politicians. Ah gong’s monies they claimed.These people are getting more and more inward looking and selfish. If such thoughts continue to prevail and influence others, surely Singapore will march into her sun set days. Sadly…
  •  PAP Government do not have to be apologetic about anything, they have done a marvelous job of bringing up Singapore to become one of the most admired and respected nation in the world.

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