Prime Minister’s Speech @ the National Day Rally 2013.

by Patrick Liew on October 17, 2013

(These are my off-the-cuff thoughts after the rally. I like to read them again at some later date to see how my thoughts have evolved over time.)

Buckminster Fuller posited what he called the Law of Precession. In essence, it is ‘the intereffect of individually operating cosmic systems upon one another. Since Universe is an aggregate of individually operative systems, all of the intersystem effects of the Universe are precessional, and the 180-degree imposed forces usually result in redirectional resultants of 90 degrees.’

Now that I have impressed you. Let me give you a layman’s definition. Here goes:

Foe every force that is applied in one direction, it will give rise to a resulting force that runs 90-degree to that direction and it is more powerful than the initial force.

A commonly used example is a bee that is attracted to a flower because of the nectar. As a result of picking up the pollens and dropping them to the ground, it causes the growth of new trees and plants.

What has the Law of Precession got to do with the Prime Minister’s speech?

As mentioned in his speech, despite the strategic shifts or as a result of it, the ultimate destination and core purposes remains unchanged. We aspire to build a stronger and better Singapore.

In the past, the focus was to capitalise on every opportunity to grow the economy or some might say, to grow the economy at all costs.

There may be some negative side effects  if it is not implemented effectively and they are fairly obvious. Disparity of income, stretched infrastructure, runaway property prices, and a growing dissent for the ruling party.

Perhaps, it is not so obvious, at least to the ruling party. That’s probably one of the reasons why it lost more votes during the General Election 2011.

In the subsequent two by-elections, it ceded even more ground to the opposition. My kid will say, “You just don’t get it, do you?”

The wake up call or shall we call it a fire alarm might have cause it to jump up. It’s time to do everything possible to stop the political fire from raging on.

It’s strange but true that if you don’t think you will lose, you will never want to change. If you don’t think you will die, you will never transform yourself to retain and grow your power base.

Hence, the launch of Our Singapore Conversation.

Make no bones about it, it was not just a nation-building exercise, it was also very much a political initiative. A way, in the words of the PM, to get our politics right.

This is a strategic political shift to signal that, “PAPa doesn’t have all the answers. I’m listening. Tell me what you want our Singapore to become.”

The response that came back was not altogether the most inspiring to an economist. It was inward looking and some might even say, it smells too much like promoting an entitlement mentality for my comfort. Is there an overcast about our spirit of resilience?

Naysayers may even wonder if we will not go down the path of history like many great countries, kingdoms and civilisations. Will we become another artefact for future archaeologists?

Wait, please hold your judgement and faith just a little longer.

The last two NDR rally speeches might not have much to do with the economy but it has a lot to do with the economy.

The only difference is that it is not a choice of either building a more compassionate society or building a stronger economy. We need to develop a ‘both/and’ outcome.

Which reminds me of a quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.’ (F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up”, Esquire Magazine, February 1936)

We need to build a more compassionate society that is also economically vibrant and sustainable. They are symmetrical to one another and can act synergistically with each other.

I believe that Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, a politically  astute leader saw the dangers of having such a dichotomy and coined the term, compassionate meritocracy.

Mr Goh was quoted to have said: “Those of us who have benefited disproportionately from society’s investment in us owe the most to society, particularly to those who may not have had access to the same opportunities. We owe a debt to make lives better for all and not just for ourselves.”

He said the government will also have to continue to intervene through policies and programmes, benefiting those whose families have fallen behind economically.”

So, what has compassion got to do with meritocracy? How can a compassionate society also give rise to a strong economy?

The logic is simple.

As in any society, there will be a segment of the population that is upwardly mobile and are part of the higher end of of the socio-economic sector. If they are deemed to be elites and worst, if they do not lend a helping hands to the rest, fault lines will begin to form and that can lead to a cascading effect of negative outcomes.

On the other hand, if the rest of the population feel that they are being left out in the economic development process and if they think that the government does not listen and understand their angst and anxiety, they will eventually go beyond grumbling, grousing and griping.

They can do more than play havoc with the ballot boxes. Communities will fragment. Civil unrest will rise again…

Ok, ok, I’m taking an extreme position. You can say that this scenario is not probable but it is not impossible either.

It is only when the people feel a sense of belonging and that they are being valued that they will take stronger roots in our shining red dot. A strong and united people will have a strong sense of defending the country and fighting for its survival and growth.

Perhaps that’s why happiness comes before prosperity in the Singapore Pledge. If the people are not happy, they will be hard pressed to work towards prosperity.

To apply the Law of Precession, we must not only get our politics right. The government must strengthen its compact with the people and people must have confidence in the government otherwise the best intentioned policies will not be supported and implemented effectively..

We must get our political sector and our people, private and public sectors to work on the right policies and work on them in the right way. Then, to use the words of the better-be-forgotten (at least for awhile) Population White Paper, we will not only be a liveable city but also a city that is loved by one and all.

If only life is so easy.

The good new and the bad news, using a metaphor is that we have a good ship. Over the years, we have built a competitive economy, infrastructure, and range of resources. We have what it takes to sail well and even through stormy weathers to the right port of call.

The bad news is that we may become too big and clumsy and perhaps, have less moral courage than our founding fathers to rebuild the ship. We can’t change direction easily and head towards a different port of call without causing major upheavals and unhappiness.

Hence, one of the foci in the PM’s speech is about the three strategic shifts. In other words, we are not aiming to achieve quantum leaps but incremental leaps of changes and improvements.

Nothing wrong with that – as long as our competitors do not improve faster and leap frog over us. Can that happen?

If you have never asked that question, you have not experienced the vibrancy of some of the coastal cities in China. There are many other cities that can do many of the things we can do and can possibly do it  in a more effective and efficient way. For example, when Malaysia gets its act together, Iskandar will be breathing down our neck.

The first two of the three shifts are mainly about sharing the fruits of our past success. In the words of the PM, our forefathers planted the trees awhile ago so that we can enjoy the shade today. I wonder what should we plant today so that our future generations can enjoy a bigger and better shade? It is not just the responsibility of the government but all the people in Singapore.

The third shift is about investing in our children’s education and this is a good move but it is a long term investment. We need to not only have equal opportunities for them, we need to also ensure they have an equal platform to develop the essential values, knowledge and competence to capitalise on the opportunities. They must be able to travel on different tracks to cater to their unique potential, strengths and passion and at a pace that is appropriate for every individual, including the late developers. We must help every individual to
live a meaningful, productive and fulfilling life. In the words of any good soldier, we must never leave any of our men behind.

As a result of the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) and ssshhh! the recent elections, the government is clearing the choked arteries of our nation. What I like about the PAP government is that it has started to address the issues right from the beginning instead of waiting till it is closer to the next general election.

Is that a good thing? Will we increase the expectation level of the people? Will the opposition claim credit, after all you can’t go wrong if you keep submitting proposals to spend money without having to submit a blueprint on how to earn the money in the first place? How then can we generate more resources and allocate them in an equitable and effective way?

I digressed but I am also trying to make a point.

When I listened to the PM, I was excited about the goodies that he is dishing out to the people. In fact, I join the crowd in giving him a sanding ovation.

The question that begs to be answered is, Where are we going to get our money from?

By the way, money is the most expensive way to inspire people and resolve issues. And it will never be enough to make all the people happy all the time. So, how much is enough? I hope we will not be involved in a race to the bottom as some democracies have done and to be fair, some have done it unwittingly.

Looking after one of the fastest ageing population is important but it is not going to be a low cost exercise and in fact, you don’t need to be a genius to predict that the costs will continue to escalate.

Having a universal coverage is a compassionate… Sorry! I was wrong. Let me repeat again. It’s a VERY compassionate initiative but it is also a very costly one because you are also covering people who may not be normally  ‘insurable’ or who commands a higher premium.

To make every school a good school is a major move but it will also be a major expense item on our budget.

In my simple mind, the sums do not add up.

Many of our people want the government to slow down our economic engines and growth. At the same time, they want the government to spend more money to provide a better social safety net and living conditions.

Earn less, spend more. How does it work Mr Goh Ek Khoon, my dear Primary 1 mathematics teacher?

In the final analysis, the success of the best policies depends on how well they are implemented. Successful implementation does not only depend on the government, it is also a function of the support and participation of the people and private sectors.

I’m cautiously optimistic that we will leverage on this inflection point and take our shining red dot to another higher level of accomplishments. Yes, I’ll do my small little part. How about you?

Majulah Singapura!


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