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A fitting legacy for Lee Kuan Yew

This Monday, far away from home, my thoughts are, fittingly, on a person who so thoroughly altered every single aspect of it. Singapore’s first and longest-serving prime minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew died this morning. While local obituaries in the mainstream media included history lessons reminding us of the progress we made under him, foreign ones emphasised political and media ‘repression’ he engineered. (The Economist‘s, my favourite among the ones I’ve seen, subtly and at times humorously steers a middle course between both.) Instead of looking backward, though, I’m reflecting on the future.

The enormity of Mr Lee’s task at independence is well-known to Singaporeans, as is the audacity of his team’s accomplishments. But he and his team were also placed in a uniquely favourable position in history. There was a demographic transition ripe for the picking (see Leete and Alam 1993, who point out that fertility rates in Penang declined at nearly the same pace as Singapore with a short time lag and, significantly, without a Stop at Two policy). There was a demographic dividend of a youthful population. Globalisation 2.0 was just taking off. And though the HDB justifiably deserves credit for housing so many so quickly in the early years, Singapore avoided the kind of messy urbanisation that happens in so many cities in the global South not just through its efforts but also partly because in 1965, we were separated from a neverending stream of migrants from rural areas aka Malaysia—the kind of neverending stream that crowds Dharavi or Soweto even today. So there certainly were external factors working in Mr Lee’s favour.

Even so, Mr Lee was singularly astute. Failure was not an option, and so Mr Lee made sure that every possible tool at his disposal was geared towards success, right down to his intimidating presence. I think it is fair to say that in 1965 or 1975, Mr Lee’s success or failure was synonymous with Singapore’s own success or failure, simply because it is vanishingly unlikely that any other party could have assembled a team of such visionaries as Mr Goh Keng Swee or Mr Lim Kim San. And so some of these tools included the Internal Security Act, the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act, defamation suits as a means of defending the reputation of political leaders, and later on the Group Representation Constituencies. The human cost of these tools to those people on whom they were used is only starting to become more widely known. What these tools saved us from, we will never know.

In any case, Singapore today is vastly different from what it was in 1965 thanks to the efforts of Mr Lee’s team. But it reflects priorities that they have chosen. We have a variety of state-led capitalism (Hall and Soskice 2001, Ritchie 2009) that has arguably stifled innovation and limited the bargaining power of the labour movement even while it efficiently generated a massive stock of human capital and paired it with financial capital from MNCs. We have a welfare regime (Esping-Andersen 1990, 1999, Peng and Wong 2010) that emphasises individual and familial self-reliance. While keeping social spending and transfers low, the system has also reinforced (whether inadvertently or by design) a feeling of shame around seeking help, as well as left out people who don’t fit into traditional conceptions of family—because according to our Shared Values, the product of a White Paper from 1991, we put society before self. These economic and social policies form a system or regime of government policy choices that show an internal cohesion and logic—choices that were made beginning with Mr Lee’s team.

The pioneering work by Hall and Soskice and by Esping Andersen also makes clear that there are different policy regimes—different welfare regimes, different varieties of capitalism—with their own advantages and disadvantages, and there are trade-offs between them. What’s more, there are countries with similarly high levels of human development which nevertheless exhibit different policy configurations. In other words, we are not in a situation where the only choice lies with the decisions made by the PAP, and the alternative is to be doomed to failure. Rather, there are multiple paths out there with no clearly optimal one a priori.

Moreover, choosing between these paths involves questions about priorities and values. Are single-parent families less Asian, more immoral? Can we afford individualism? And where there are questions, there must be answers. It used to be the case that our top political leadership and civil servants worked together to hammer out the ‘correct’ answer. But it’s unlikely there will be ‘correct’ answers to ever-more pressing questions of priorities and values. And if there’s one thing the Great Immigration Debate has shown us, it’s that we the people can place political constraints on the kinds of answers we will accept. The sustained though still small volume of critical writing online and from the think tanks shows that dissent will not go away. In other words, it is inconceivable that our policies will continue only to reflect negotiated agreements at the top. They certainly shouldn’t.

None of this is meant to demean Mr Lee’s achievements, merely to place them in context. He was helped by external factors, and what he did in order to lay the groundwork for his accomplishments may not be necessary today. It may not even be appropriate if we think that the increase in political participation in recent years is legitimate, as well we might if we accept what I have argued, that different policy configurations may well lead to broadly similar outcomes in the aggregate (though the distribution or the types of people who benefit may be different).

So here’s what my argument’s been building towards. If you think Lee Kuan Yew was a great man, it must be admitted that the system was built for great men. As his generation of giants passes on, as Singapore progresses, and as our wants and priorities diversify, it becomes less clear that his chosen successors will be able to fill those shoes 100% of the time. If they can’t, then we need to quickly build up a vibrant public discourse and a B team that we can trust to govern, for five years if not fifty. And if he was not a great man, even more reason for the people to make the choices (some might say mistakes) they will live with, rather than leave the tools Mr Lee crafted in the hands of those lesser mortals who have followed in his footsteps.

Properly acknowledging the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew involves tweaking our political system to extend the boundaries within which alternative views can be expressed. Our political system was built to be run by great visionaries far ahead of their time, and Mr Lee and his small crew were just such visionaries. Today, the path ahead is far less certain, and the nature of the policy regime we want to see in Singapore far more contestable. No comparable crew of visionaries is readily apparent. And no one leaves heavy machinery in the hands of babies.

What do you give a nation which has everything? It is becoming harder to answer that question. Therefore a fitting legacy for Lee Kuan Yew, paradoxically, involves repudiating part of his legacy—the part of that legacy that was built for great men by a great man.


(Edit 31/3/2015) Other LKY obitmentaries:


Esping-Andersen, Gøsta. 1990. The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

———. 1999. Social Foundations of Postindustrial Economies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hall, Peter A. and David Soskice. 2001. “An introduction to varieties of capitalism.” In Varieties of Capitalism: The Institutional Foundations of Comparative Advantage, edited by Peter A. Hall and David Soskice, pages 1-68. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Leete, Richard, and Iqbal Alam. 1993. “Fertility Transitions of Similar Cultural Groups in Different Countries.” In The Revolution in Asian Fertility: Dimensions, Causes, and Implications, ed. Richard Leete and Iqbal Alam, 239–252. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Peng, Ito, and Joseph Wong. 2010. “East Asia.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Welfare State, edited by Francis G. Castles, Stephan Leibfried, Jane Lewis, Herbert Obinger, and Christopher Pierson, 656–70. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ritchie, Bryan K. 2009. “Economic upgrading in a state-coordinated, liberal market economy.” Asia Pacific Journal of Management 26:435-457.
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The need for a new welfare capitalism: postscript

I wrote a couple of months back about the need for a new welfare capitalism in Singapore. This post supplements it with references to a couple more articles and books, which shed light on my argument.

Essentially I advocated a much more robust approach to ensuring job security and mitigating the necessarily insecure conditions of modern, global capitalism. This would involve unemployment insurance, job training and restructuring, and a minimum wage along with many other minimum conditions; complementary to that, the state would also have to reaffirm meritocracy by investing heavily in early childhood education and care (James Heckman at the University of Chicago is one of the biggest advocates for this, and has quantified, in the US context, the economic, educational, health and crime-reduction benefits of ECEC).

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The need for a new welfare capitalism

This piece takes a step back from empirical work and invites the reader to join me in a bit of conceptual exploration, on the way goods and services are produced in a modern economy like Singapore’s, and the institutions that support those people who work to produce those goods and services.

To Singaporean ears, the term “welfare state” epitomizes all that is wrong with the decadent West: a state which saps the industry and drive of its people, rewards idleness and irresponsible fecundity, and yet delivers unemployment, crime, a breakdown of the family unit, and all that at far greater cost to the taxpayer than the Singaporean system. By contrast, we value work so much that we have neither a minimum wage nor an unemployment insurance. We value family solidarity, so we require those in need to turn to their family first—even to the extent of legislating a requirement for children to care for their elderly parents.

But defenders of Singapore’s system neglect a few vital facts. The foundations of our social institutions were laid down when our population was much younger and the occupational structure of our economy was less skill-intensive than it is today. The demographic dividend paid off by keeping healthcare costs and demands on the health system low. Meanwhile, it was possible for (largely healthy, young) workers to switch jobs and sectors in a relatively low-skill economy if they were made redundant. Jobs were fungible and it was a workers’ market in a long boom era of near-zero unemployment. If one were looking for empirical confirmation, I suspect that the CV of a typical 55- or 60-year-old worker nearing retirement today shows a surprising amount of diversity and adaptability in occupational choice.

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The elitism of “private screenings” and “academic freedom”

Two weeks ago, Singapore’s Media Development Authority announced that they had banned public screenings of Tan Pin Pin’s film “To Singapore, with Love.” The film brings together interviews from political exiles and dissidents who have chosen to leave Singapore because they face perceived or real threats of state persecution. The MDA banned it for undermining “national security,” and claimed that the exiles had lied about the circumstances under which they had left. But it also mentioned (seemingly as an afterthought) that private screenings were permissible, and later, that the ban didn’t apply to screenings of the film for purely educational purposes.

While it has become clear that more and more Singaporeans are going to watch the film at events overseas (including over 350 at a screening in Johor Bahru, just across the border in Malaysia), Tan Pin Pin hasn’t agreed to any Singapore screenings, educational or otherwise. She’s specifically come out to say that she was not consulted by Yale-NUS about including the film in one of their classes. Given that till now the film has not been released anywhere for commercial distribution, there aren’t any bootleg copies from which people can organise private screenings. In short, Ms Tan has ensured that as long as the public ban stands, “To Singapore, with Love,” will not be shown in Singapore in any context. In my view this restriction on her part is absolutely appropriate—something I’ll argue in the rest of the piece.

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Which would you rather…

… a house, or a right to housing?

Professor Thio Li-Ann asked me this at my admission interview to NUS law this morning. (I’m applying for the GLB.) I gave a disappointing answer, in my opinion. I pointed out that a house could always be repossessed or expropriated whereas a right to housing was protected by the law. She replied that resources might be constrained, and that right to housing wouldn’t always be fulfilled. Moreover, the resources which had to be devoted to fulfilling this right to housing would have to be taken from someone else. We went back and forth a bit, and I brought out my standard argument: this is a society that has solved the problem of scarcity, and if we wanted to, everyone could have a good standard of living. Our problem is therefore not overcoming scarcity, the way it has been for millennia, but distributing abundance. (The idea of a post-scarcity society is something I found in JK Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, if anyone’s interested.) At that point we switched to a different line of questioning.

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