GE2015: Ben Leong on Aftermath of GE2015, ‘Hitherto, Where To?’

BEN LEONG is an Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore. Yup, he addresses the Workers’ Party’s Daniel and the Singapore Democratic Party’s Paul by their first names coz they’re colleagues.

Anyway, he posted a Facebook note the day after the GE2015 results were out.

 

Aftermath of GE2015: Hitherto, Where To?

12 September 2015 at 14:39

First, I would like that thank the public officers who manned the polling stations yesterday. I thought the polls were really well organized! Not sure if it was my imagination, but this time seemed more efficient than GE2011. :-)

While the PAP has won by a landslide, I actually thought that the PAP ran quite a poor campaign. I guess the moral of the story here is that campaigning may not matter much in Singapore. Seems like the voters had already made up their minds.

Among the PAP candidates, I thought ONG YE KUNG spoke v well. I am so glad that he decided to come back notwithstanding losing the elections at Aljunied in GE2011. (Watch the clip HERE.)

We finally saw CHEE SOON JUAN back on stage and he spoke well, but I consider him a demagogue without real ideas and without integrity. The Opposition, as usual, was very good at making people angry.

But there were also some pretty decent chaps like my two NUS colleagues, Paul and Daniel, who stood on the Opposition ticket.

 

My policy inclinations have always been mostly aligned with that of the PAP and I had dim views of the Opposition’s proposals of MINIMUM WAGE and cutting defence by 40% or changing the education system by dunno what through-train from Primary school, so there were no surprises here either.

That said, I would like to acknowledge the Opposition politicians for putting themselves out there for their country and for their convictions. That’s more than what most of us (whatever our political convictions) are personally willing to do.

The Opposition politicians, even if we don’t believe in their ideas, are v important to the democratic process and to the contest of ideas — and on that basis, I applaud them for their efforts and their fighting spirit in this latest GE. I actually also agree with them that the ruling party does not have the monopoly on good ideas. I hope that they won’t give up and will now work harder for another 5 years.

 

I would like to congratulate the PM and the PAP for the strong mandate and landslide victory, but I hope that the PAP and its supporters will not gloat or rest on their laurels. As GE2011 has shown, Singapore is actually a real democracy, unlike what the Western media seem to think.

That about sums up GE2015 for me. The question is: hitherto, where to?

 

ON GDP GROWTH

Many Opposition supporters have posted that they were planning to vote out the PAP so that we can have slower GDP growth and people will be happier. I really don’t think they know what they are saying.

I have explained the role of GDP growth in the economy to my students using the following analogy:

GDP is the total value of goods and services produced by a country. If Singapore is a factory, then you can think of GDP as the value of the goods produced by the factory in a given year.

 

Now, let’s do a quick thought experiment to see if people understand.

Suppose you have a factory that produces $20 million worth of shoes this year. If there is no growth, then next year the factory will produce $20 million worth of shoes. I have 2 questions:

(i) how many more workers will the factory hire next year?
(ii) how much of a raise will the workers get next year?

The answers should be obvious and the importance of GDP growth to a country should therefore be obvious.

 

Every year, we see new graduates joining the workforce. If there is no GDP growth, where are their jobs going to come from? Sure, if older workers retire, there will be vacancies, but people are working longer. Retirement age just GOT RAISED TO 67.

Minimally, GDP growth should match inflation at the macro level, or we’re in trouble. Simple as that.

I have good news for the anti-GDP-growth folks (and bad news for the rest of us), it is clear that the recession is just round the corner and the party will end soon. Whether our GDP can even continue to grow at a reasonable rate after the impending recession is a huge question mark in my mind.

 

CONTAINING THE COSTS OF LIVING

The failure of the Government over the past decade in my opinion was the failure to control the costs of living. The major mistake was made in the mismanagement of the housing supply in the years 2000 to 2010.

The Government has since glutted the market in order to bring the housing market under control and hopefully force the prices of property down. The damage that has already been done cannot be so easily undone.

It is very easy to raise prices. It is very much harder (perhaps impossible) to bring them down.

In fact, I have this impression that perhaps 10% of the population can no longer afford to live without Government subsidies and so while on paper, the GST vouchers and associated freebies were supposedly temporary, they will pretty much become permanent fixtures moving forward — or the PAP will pay at some future GE.

 

Let us recognize that it is nigh impossible for the lower income folks to keep up with the GDP growth and if inflation continues, we’re going to inflict ever larger long term welfare payments and social transfers on ourselves as a country.

On paper, it is possible to argue that we can balance the budget numbers — even in the long term, but the Government needs to put themselves in the shoes of these poor people: how would one feel if no matter how hard one works, it is impossible to get by without getting some handout from the Government?

We want our people to be able to live with dignity.

I hope that moving forward, the Government to put an equal emphasis on containing the costs of living and not focus solely on GDP growth and job creation (which I agree will continue to be important).

 

I think that renting out hawker stalls at a low rental is one good policy. Really no need to extract “market price” from everything. This will help preserve our hawker heritage and also make it attractive for Singaporeans to become hawkers.

On a related note, if there’s one thing that bothers me about the PAP during the elections, it’s the issue of upgrading. While pork barrel politics is the norm in other countries, there is no good reason why Singapore cannot be different.

I think it’s the responsibility of the Government to ensure that all constituencies and not just the PAP-held ones receive adequate subsidies for infrastructure and facility upgrading. Even in constituencies that it lost, the PAP did receive some 40+% of the votes.

I feel that upgrading and infrastructure should be taken off the election agenda for future GEs. I don’t believe that it really helps the PAP. It actually somewhat annoys people like me and I suspect that I am not alone.

In fact, I believe that Singapore is already reasonably well-developed and hardly needs too much more upgrading. Do we actually need air-conditioned interchanges or more suburban malls?

I am quite content eating at open-air hawker centres and I’m convinced that many of the so-called modern facilities contribute little, except to our rapidly rising costs of living.

 

PRODUCTIVITY & EMPLOYABILITY

We have an impending recession around the corner. All the economic indicators point to it. The housing market is also likely to tank in tandem.

The recession will be long overdue, so it is not unexpected, but it is clear from our past experience and from what we’re seeing in other countries that many of our middle-aged white collar workers are in trouble. They will lose their jobs and they will have a hard time finding a new one.

There is actually this recent policy that few people paid attention to that I thought was in the right direction. Basically for these workers, Government will subsidize a few months of salary. This means that employers are incentivized to ‘take a chance’ on these older workers.

But such policies do not and cannot go far enough. The reason is that the problem is structural — we now have too many jobs that so-called require a degree that don’t actually need one(!).

Again, we are not unique. This is already common in other countries where they have college graduates serving as waiters, baristas or packing supermarket shelves.

I would encourage people to do a quick self-assessment: do you really need to have gone to university to do your current job?

 

The funny story is that 15 years ago, I joined the civil service after getting a degree in Electrical Engineering. I knew my Fourier transforms, Laplace transforms, and Z transforms at the back of my hand. I have since returned them back to teacher — but that’s another story.

I was in charge of Discipline and managing HR for the Singapore Legal Service. How many of these transforms do we think I needed to do on a daily basis? I realized not too long after I started work that I could probably have done the job without going to college.

I don’t think my experience was unique. It is appalling that we need to get people to go to college to prove to us that ‘they not stupid’ before we will hire them.

 

I currently teach at the university and I do honestly believe that there’s some value to going to college even if what people study is completely irrelevant to their jobs — but we better be mindful about the sort of ‘arms race’ that the society at large has created.

I would hazard a guess that the majority of jobs in our current economy do not actually require a college degree and that the job market is actually somewhat independent of the universities. If the jobs are there, then the people will get hired.

Just because we generate a lot of graduates doesn’t mean that the economy will automatically create graduate-level jobs. In fact, what we’re seeing worldwide is the widespread destruction of white collar jobs because of technological advancement. I fear that SkillsFuture will not go far enough, fast enough.

I suspect that part of the structural problems with the labour market has to do with having too many workers as a proportion of the population. I think this country needs to increase the proportion of self-employed and the business-owning class, and reduce the proportion of workers.

I’m not talking about startups. I am referring to small businesses that will not likely grow into the next Google, Facebook or Uber.

The economy is going to become so much more complex that I’m not convinced that the Government will be able to solve all our problems with some magic policies. How well we do for the next 2 decades as a nation will likely be a function of the quality of our workforce.

And the reason why I think we need more self-employed people is that I believe that these folks are much better able to adapt to the changing economy that we will see in the next 2 decades, compared to folks who are workers most of their lives.

I believe that people get a lot smarter faster when forced to worry about revenues and to deal with payroll, instead of collecting a steady pay cheque every month.

 

FAITH IN OUR FUTURE

To conclude, I must say that the results of this GE reinforces my faith in our people.

I was moved by the acts of kindness shown by our people at the funeral of the late Mr Lee. There were also acts of kindness by our countrymen during the massive breakdown of both the NS and EW lines.

Singapore is one of the few countries in the world where if one drops a couple of hundred thousand dollars on the road, there is actually a good chance that the money will be returned intact. All in all, we are a good and honest people.

And I also want to take this opportunity to show my middle finger to the Western media and the loudmouths who claim that Singapore has no democracy simply because the PAP won a landslide.

 

The way I saw it, the PAP was really scared of losing more seats this GE. Many of the MPs (some of whom I know personally) have worked tirelessly over the past 4 years. Occasionally, I worry for their health. If indeed, there was no democracy, there would not have been a need to work so hard.

To explain what happened at the latest GE, in addition to being generally kind and hospitable, we also have this innate sense of justice and fairness.

With hindsight, it is now clear crystal clear that Singaporeans don’t need the Opposition to check on the Government. The real check on the Government is really the people themselves.

 

The people punished the PAP in GE2011 for their many policy mis-steps; similarly, at this latest GE, the people have rewarded the PAP for their work these last 4 years (even if not all the problems, including the trains, have been fixed).

Notwithstanding the many complaints both online and offline, I appreciate our pragmatism. I would have to admit that I was really concerned by all the populist crap spouted by the Opposition. Everything also free. Cut defence spending. Raid the reserves.

I am pleased to note that our people is not easily won over by the rhetoric of free this and free that. Democracy fails in many countries because the people simple do not understand this principle of no free lunch, thereby forcing the politicians down the populist path to get elected to long-term detriment of the country.

This country has to stick with some of the unpopular policies. They are like good medicine.

 

Many have claimed that given the strong mandate, the PAP will go back to their heavy-handed ways. Really? Do people think that the PAP’s memory of GE2011 is so short?

What’s definitely true however is that we are entering into a new phase of economic development, and we are facing the serious risk of economic stagnation over the next 2 decades.

Many countries have gone there before us and to the best of my understanding, few (none?) of them have succeeded in evolving to the next stage in good shape. Germany, arguably has done quite well, but they are not perfect also. Japan is the poster boy for slow death.

Most (all?) are now in the state of decline. Some, like Greece, have self-combusted. Among the 4 Asian dragons, Singapore is perhaps the only one left standing.

 

This is SG50. We have come very far, and we have much to be proud of as a country. But the future is less than rosy and it will take the collective will of this country to bring us to SG100.

The dust of this GE has settled — and regardless of people’s political affiliations (whether pro-PAP or pro-Opposition), I hope that we can set our differences aside at least for the next 5 years and work together to make this country even better than it was.

Not just for us, but for our children and our children’s children. :-)

Majulah Singapura.

 

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