Friday, December 11, 2009

What Exactly is Governance?

Singapore's Law Minister mentioned in a speech to Harvard Alumni that "Good Governance" had helped Singapore weather the economic storm and would provide for an optimistic future for Singapore. That got me thinking - what exactly did the Law Minister mean when he talked about good governance?

Say what you like about the Singapore government but it's exceedingly efficient and for the most part effective at doing it's job. You have to give credit where credit is due. Singapore is not just an economic miracle but a social one too. The streets are clean, the atmosphere is green and you can walk along streets that are mercifully free of beggars. Most of the population lives in decent accommodation and you can do very un-third world like things like drink from the tap. Singapore does not feel like the Isle of Weight with four million people - it feels more like a pleasant suburb of London or New York. Ironically, Singapore seems to be the only place I've lived in where the foreigners are happier than the locals. We, the local population are constantly grumbling about this and that. It's the foreigners who tell us that there's no reason to complain, life is pretty darn good here as compared to elsewhere - and I'm talking about Bangladeshi construction workers, highly paid senior executives from the US and Europe are the ones expressing these sentiments.

Infrastructure is not the only thing the government gets right. By and large, you can do a lot of government transactions online. You cannot just bribe officials and the government acts pretty quickly during crisis. During the SARS period, the government had an emergency plan, which it unfolded when H1N1 came into play. It was also quick to announce a host of measures to ensure the vulnerable were able to bear the worst of the economic crisis. I agree with the basic idea the government has when it comes to helping people - helping them help themselves rather than giving out right cash donations.

Having said all of that, I'm still wondering what exactly the Law Minister meant when he talked about governance. Yes, the government of the day runs exceedingly well, baring that incident of not having a basic window grill to keep number one terrorist in jail. However, one has to ask if he's implying that this government is going to be hanging around for all eternity?

Let's live in the real world here. The government of the day will only last as long as it's ministers and civil servants are somewhat capable. This will not be forever and although the system is seemingly so well designed to get people of a similar calibre into parliament, there is no guarantee that the governments of the future will be as capable as the one we have today. So the question remains, can Singapore deal with an "incompetent," let alone "rogue" government?

In this respect, the answer would have to be a depressing no. Singaporeans are dependent on government decisions to get moving. The civil service is a large employer as are the Temasek Linked companies. You get young Singaporeans like my favourite Young Politician who says,"You need the government to PLAN the economy." - He's not wrong. Singapore's government actually gets involved in selecting "economic winners" for the economy. The situation has been a case of so far so good. But what happens if the government were ever to make a mistake?

There is a frightening lack of checks on government power. The Elected President in theory has the ability to say no when it comes to unlocking the reserves but the theory falls short when the Elected President is a consistently unopposed government servant who does as he is told. Furthermore, the government always has the option of going to the people should the President say no (government has a machinery, the point of having the elected President is that he does not).

The less said about the press to act as an independent watch dog on government power, the better. Editors for the most part are political appointees and part of their function is "knowing" what is "acceptable" news about the powers that be.

Once again, this situation is acceptable as long as the government gets at least eighty percent of things right. But then again, is it getting as much of it right as we like to assume. I mean so far things work so why should complain right? I mean does it really affect me if the top terrorist in Singapore waltzes out of jail and the government's main holding company loses money in dubious investments?

Well, perhaps these things don't matter in as much as they have yet to hit the pocket of the average Joe? However, one has to look at the government's response to these events and if you look at them carefully, there are worrying signs of arrogance and complacency? During the Mas Selamat incident, there was actually a feeling that the Home Affairs Minister should have offered his resignation as a sign of accountability from the top. He didn't and funnily enough the tax paying and voting public got scolded for being complacent for expecting the government to do a job it was elected and paid to do. Then when it comes to the performance of our Soverign Wealth Funds, you find the Finance Minister coming up with spectacular accounting ideas on how the funds actually made money even though a primary school kid can calculate the value of the shares when the government bought into the companies and the shares today.

Surely as a member of the public I have every right to expect honest answers from the government that I help elect and pay for? If the government does not think that it has an obligation to be honest to it's voting public, what does that it say about the government - do they have something to hide and if they do have something to hide can it be a sign of competence? If this how the competent and honest government of the day behaves when it comes to accountability, who knows how future governments will behave, particularly they have the current role model.

Then you have the obvious fact that governments cannot control everything. This is the day and age of the internet. Technology has made top-down, we know it all systems obsolete. It was former Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Tony Tan who said it best, "Our choice was liberalise or die." Back in the 60, it was easy to build economic prosperity. All one had to do was to create the conditions for multinationals to set up shop and employ the masses.

But these days, Singapore is fighting in a different market. China will always be able to make things cheaper and India will always do the outsourcing work better. So what is there left for places like Singapore? Even the edge of physical infrastructure is not what it used to be. Cross to Causeway and you may find, contrary to what the Singapore media may tell you, a place that is fairly modern and slick too. I have never felt unsafe in Johor.

Is there a top-down solution to all of this? I think the best top-down approach is to prepare the people to think for themselves. Singaporeans live relatively well because there are decent enough paying jobs from the government and multinationals - all you have to do is to accept a foreigner as your superior. We accept foreigners here because they seem to have the skills we don't have. But then again, why don't we have the skills necessary for the modern economy? It's a question that good governance needs to answer for.

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