In recent months, I’ve read multiple pieces (particularly by George Yeo and Han Fook Kwang) on the direction that the Singapore government should take in the next phase of Singapore’s development. One of the most common opinions that I’ve received from these public intellectuals is that the government should take a step back from micromanaging the country. That sentiment piqued my interest and I would like to use a blog post to reflect on this particular issue of government’s size. This can be very incoherent as I have not figured out an opinion for this topic. I’m doing this as writing helps me with greater thought clarity. If anything, this should be seen as a prequel for a more complete post, like the previous one on terrorism.
It is not a secret that Singapore is a nanny state. In fact, our late founding father openly proclaimed that:
A nanny state is a product of paternalism, and paternalism is: “the policy or practice on the part of people in authority of restricting the freedom and responsibilities of those subordinate to or otherwise dependent on them in their supposed interest”. In other words, the Singapore government, at the very least, was a government that made multiple decisions for the people – so much so that it can be seen as invasive and authoritative.
Take the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) for instance, where the government, to some degree, decides who lives where based on an ethnic quota per HDB block. Another example would be the legal confinement of civil protest to a Speaker’s Corner in Hong Lim Park. Not to mention that the protests there can be subjected to government’s approval and intense legal scrutiny as exemplified through the legal case against the CPF protest helmed by Han Hui Hui (HHH) and Roy Ngerng.
To be fair to the government, these measures have good justifications as well: The EIP prevented ethnic enclave from forming, the restriction of civil protest to Hong Lim Park is a measure to prevent the protest from disrupting other’s lives and inflicting economic damages to the country, the case against HHH was also one of public nuisance.
However, many can also be quick to point out that these justifications are simply a smokescreen for more insidious purposes. EIP can serve as a way to ensure a Chinese majority in all voting districts. The disruption of lives, public nuisance and economic costs can also be an excuse to limit political activism against PAP.
As we can see from the last 2 paragraphs, the debate over the role of the government can easily devolve into toxic and politicised arguments centered around doubts and suspicion. It is therefore an issue that needs a satisfactory solution.
The following are viewpoints by public intellectuals that are attempting to provide a solution to this issue:
Borrowing an analogy from George Yeo, Singapore is a Banyan Tree. As shown above, a Banyan Tree casts a huge shadow over the ground. The tree itself is the Singapore government, which is apt as it is indeed a big, paternalistic government. However, the ground that is covered by shadow is the civil society. The civil society in Singapore is indeed underdeveloped. Hence, George Yeo suggests that we should prune the Banyan Tree, supposedly calling for the government to step back in some areas so that the civil society can grow.
However, he maintained that we should prune the Banyan Tree judiciously as Singapore still needs the Banyan Tree, meaning that Singapore still needs a reasonably strong government. Why? Singapore is a small, therefore reactive country in the global field of geopolitics and interconnectedness. To me, Singapore is like a small spaceship in a space full of space debris. The captain of the ship needs to have a good control over the ship to maneuver and avoid the debris. In other words, a strong government is needed for Singapore to adapt to a fast changing environment.
However, there is a separate point made by Professor Tommy Koh. He claimed that the Banyan Tree era belonged to the LKY era, which was over. During Goh Chok Tong’s era, the Banyan Tree already became much like a Tembusu Tree (as shown above). I supposed a pruned Banyan Tree can become a Tembusu Tree? I’m joking, but I hope you get what I mean.
I guess it would be more accurate to say that Singapore is much more like a Tembusu Tree than a Banyan Tree now. That’s because the government did take a step back when Mr Lee ended his term as Prime Minister. Free market principles were embraced to a larger degree in terms of public goods provision and several state activities were privatised (SOON,2017).
Even in recent years, there are efforts to introduce more competition especially in the transport sector. Uber and Grab were freely allowed in Singapore to disrupt the market and a contractual model is poised to be implemented for bus services.
In terms of activism, there is some loosening of grip as civil activism such as the Pink Dot Campaigns are tolerated. However, the extent of which this area has been “pruned” is perceived to be modest at best. For social activism, by using the Pink Dot Campaign as a case-in-point, the government recently told Cathay to remove a tagline on the campaign’s ads to preserve family values.
For political activism, the government is even less tolerable. This is because political dissidents such as Han Hui Hui, Roy Ngerng and Amos Yee were all legally charged (for justified formal reasons, but many will remain sceptical as this is a curse that all governments cannot shake off), almost as though the government wants to set examples to intimidate the rest.
Another call for “pruning” came from Han Fook Kwang. He pointed out that Singapore lacked social capital, or a community spirit seen in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and Israel. These people are often plagued by a weak government coupled with tough circumstances (Israel and Japan has to deal with warfare and natural disaster respectively). There is seemingly an inverse relation between the strength/size of government and the social capital among the citizens. If the government can’t be relied upon, then the people have to help each other. Singapore lacked this, supposedly because of a strong and paternalistic government.
I am also intrigued by how Yuval Noah Harari sees governments. Essentially, governments can be seen as RAMs in computers (This is an analogy that I inferred). RAM determines the size of the working memory, thus determining how much the computer can multitask. The government is the same: before writing was invented, civilisations could only exist as city-states. Only after writings were invented by the Sumerians then the bureaucracy of the government was able to expand further, paving way for kingdoms and empires to be formed as taxes can be collected more efficiently and the imagined community can be better maintained. As technology advances, the bureaucracies of governments become more efficient. A more efficient bureaucracy is like a higher RAM in a computer. That means that for different technological stages, there could be an optimal size for governments to maximize their bureaucracy. Optimality, of course, rests on the maximization of land without compromising effiiciency – which can be represented in the economic idea of Economies of Scale. Since Singapore’s small size is fixed, a strong central government can still govern with maximum efficiency. Indeed, one can posit that, as E. F. Schumacher had put it, Small is Beautiful.
In another book on Liveability in Singapore, one of the speakers called for the government to take the first step by allowing the citizens to take charge of stuffs that are of low stakes. I can only think of the community garden with regards to this, but even this seemingly simple act of delegation is fraught with problems as seen by the recent news reports of turf wars between and prescription of herbs that may be harmful from the community gardeners. Another speaker who was quoted in the book was right to point out that it may indeed be true that the government wants to let go and build the civil society, but it doesn’t know how. Will the citizens be worse off? If so, PAP’s legitimacy, which is banked on its competency, will be compromised when a misstep occurs.
It is my hope that I will have an answer for how the government can relinquish some control in low-stake areas, and thus determine the feasibility and whether the government should let go after all, all before I return with a full blog post. For now, all of the above sums up my thoughts on this issue of the government’s role and size.
Chan, D. (n.d.). Liveability in Singapore.
Han, F. (2016). Singapore in transition. Singapore: Straits Times Press Pte Ltd.
Harari, Y. (n.d.). Sapiens.
SOON, C. (2017). CIVIL SOCIETY AND THE STATE IN SINGAPORE. SINGAPORE: WORLD SCIENTIFIC.
Han Hui Hui’s Wanna Sue Me?: http://mothership.sg/2014/10/polite-spore-police-returns-notebook-to-cpf-protest-co-leader-han-hui-hui-without-a-struggle/
Ban Yan Tree : https://www.dolphinsandyou.com/blog/banyan-trees-in-hawaii-you-dont-want-to-miss-these/
Tembusu Tree: https://www.nparks.gov.sg/activities/family-time-with-nature/recommended-activities/know-10-trees/6-tembusu
Pink Dot Ads: http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/cathay-told-to-remove-tagline-on-pink-dot-ads
MRT silent protest: https://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2017/06/04/activists-protest-on-mrt-to-show-solidarity-for-isa-detainees/
Han Fook Kwang: http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/dont-wait-for-instructions-from-the-top
Community Garden: http://blog.nus.edu.sg/plantifulbounty/category/community-garden/