Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Why Change?

Say what  you like about America, but the American people have an incredible ability to surprise. After eight-years of incompetence of the Bush Administration, the American public stood up and voted in a candidate who looks competent and determined to change a course of action that was obviously a disaster. Barak Obama, America's first "African-American" President-Elect was elected on a simple but powerful message -"Change, YES WE CAN." 

Mr Obama's election into the world's most powerful office has been electrifying. Nations that had once been mortified by Mr Bush's America are now celebrating the election of man who seems determined to tackle the world's problems. Mr Bush's "Old" Europe for one celebrates the election of a President who is a "Change" in more ways than one, while in Malaysia, my old friend, Vinod Shekar went as far as to hijack "Change, YES WE CAN," by pointing out that Malaysia had - "MALAYSIA BOLLEH," long before Mr Obama came onto the limelight.

While I believe Mr Obama will have to dissapoint many of his supporters, I believe the efficiency of his transition augers well - we have a signs of a President who will be competent, one who is not afriad to surround himself with people with perhaps bigger brand names and records for competence. He's already invited former rivals Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson to high profile cabinate post at the State and Commerce department's respectively.

Unfortunately, the powers that be in Singapore seem to have drawn tragically short sighted lessons from the Obama victory. A few weeks ago, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the nation that while the world was elated by the Obama victory, the two-party system was not appropriate for Singapore and that while change was an attractive slogan, it was not always beneficial. What was Mr Lee's rationale for his argument? It was simple, Singapore does not have the necessary political talent to field an "A" grade government and therefore could not afford to have a viable opposition.

It's easy to lambast Mr Lee for being myopic. His sentiments reflect a misunderstanding of the Obama victory, which in many ways were the very reasons why the party he leads has been so successful. Instead of focusing on the words of "Change" he should asked himself and his party why the words 'change' had been so attractive to the American electorate. 

The answer is simple - the reason why "Change" was such an attractive slogan was because most Americans felt that the current course the nation was on, was a disaster. Who can blame them? The nation that former British foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd once described as the "Most Benevolent Superpower in History," is in the worst economic slump in history and despite having the most advanced military mashine in history, the nation is stuck in two wars where victory is nowhere in sight. When placed in such a situation, most rational human beings would chose to change their situation. Yes, sometimes change may not be necessarily better in the initial stages but why stay on a course that is clearly a disaster.

For the PAP government, things are less bleak. While the Singapore economy is in a recession, most Singaporeans are as of writing not worrying about having their homes reposessed. Furthermore, the nation's sons remain far away from global conflicts. So what exactly does the Prime Minister have against the idea of "Change" 

One could argue that the Prime Minister is preparing for "snap" election before the global financial meltdown seriously affects Singapore. Then again, why does the Prime Minister need to bother warning Singaporeans against "Change" if he's preparing the nation for an election? Perhaps he's read a few too many postings on the internet where the great and good go to grumble. 

That would silly. Depsite their grumblings, Singaporeans like having the PAP in charge, and why not. In the 40 odd years we've an indepenent nation, we have only known peace, prosperity and PAP. Even in the down times, Singaporeans have trusted the PAP governments to lead them into better times, and the Prime Minister has already assured electorate that assistance will be provided for. Surely, stressing its record for delivering constant improvements to the value of lives is a better strategy than lecturing the electorate on not changing the status quo? 

The attractivness of change is very subjective. If one feels that ones situation could be better, they will want change but if one is by and large content, they will not want it. If anything, Singapore's capitalist economy should encourage people to want to change their lives for the better. People who are content with the status quo have no incentive to improve it. 

Then again, that might be precisely the point and if it is, Singapore needs an urgent cultural paradigm shift. Singapore is dangerously addicted to monopoly power. Start with the PAP as a political party. Why has it been successful? The reason is simple, it's managed to deliver a better life for most of its citizens and it has been right in most of its intellectual arguments. 

But what it has failed to realise is that the party is not entitled to rule in perpetuity. The electorate is entitled to chose and every time the PAP lambast the oppostition for having the audacity to fight for a bigger voice, it encourages the electorate to sympathise with the opposition. What makes opposition members of the house, Low Kah Khiang and Chiam See Tong electable - the answer is simple - they have have looked after their constituents despite the PAP's bribes and insistance that ONLY it can deliver for the people.

To be fair, the PAP does remember from time to time that it's success depends on the customer - the electorate. Other institutions in the nation seem to have forgotten this. Look at the media industry as an example. Prior to 2004, there was some form of competition in the media industry. Consumers had a choice of programms and advertisers had a choice of platforms. Unfortunately, the media houses could not make the money they thought they were entitled to and so, instead adapting to their customers - they ran to the government. 

What has been the result of this? Singapore has a media industry that is stunted and prone to arguing with itself over meaningless statistics. In the mean time, the industry players peddle the myth of the market being too small - oblivious to the fact that places like Hong Kong, which are no larger than Singapore have developed  media industries that generate untold benefits for the domestic economy in the form of export dollars.  

Media is just one example of how "Not Changing" is stunting Singapore. It's disturbing that the government seems content with dwarfism and even encourages it. Imagine if the Singaporeans of the 1950s had today's aversion to change? Then again, I suppose life in a fashing village is quite peaceful. 

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