Saturday, December 27, 2014

The End of Power in Singapore


PM Lee made headlines recently by declaring that ""The next GE is going to be a deadly serious fight" and that "It will be about whether we continue to have a First World Government". He was wrong, according to the theory of Moises Naim, Venezuelan politician-turned scholar and globalisation commentator that my Stanford class met recently at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Instead, Moises would probably tell PM, "welcome to the problems of First World Government."


In his book The End of Power, Moises Naim explains his observation that power is decaying worldwide, and discusses the implications in government, the media and various other industries. Even in a world where the rich are getting richer, he is quick to point out that it is difficult to translate that wealth into power and influence.


In the realm of politics, he makes several observations of American and global politics, which will certainly ring a bell for anyone who has been following the political scene in Singapore. In the section on The Dangers of Decay, he describes some of these problems.


With power decaying, it is becoming more difficult to govern decisively and effectively. At the same time, the proliferation of knowledge, opinions and critics has raised expectations and resulted in frustrations. We need to be careful of "terrible simplifiers". A certain CPF zealot comes to mind, and we should be wary of this in any upcoming debates or elections.


Does anyone actually believe the opposition can take over the government? Of course not. What is more likely to happen is that we may end up in a situation call "vetocracy", which makes the government even less effective. This has happened even in the USA, where there are to well-established parties. Welcome to First World Government.


Most foreign observers would say that Singapore is blessed with an effective, if authoritative government. So should we be hoping for a system with greater checks and balances? The answer is some, but not too much. We are trying to hit the sweet spot on an inverted U-curve, without falling off the slope on either side. But we we were forced to choose between two extremes, we might as ourselves is it better the devil we know, or the devil we don't?


The situation in Europe today provides a foretaste of what could happen if we hit the extreme of power decay, and whether the process can be reversed in times of extreme need. The answer, unfortunately, is no. The next time we have an Asian crisis, will our government be strong enough to get us out of it?


The challenge for the Singaporean citizen today is a difficult one. How can we ensure we have a government that has sufficient oversight and meets our raised expectations, without simultaneously hampering it? How can we reap the benefits of a First World Economy without succumbing to the problems of First World Government?

I've highlighted certain portions of the book that struck a chord with me reflecting on the situation Singapore is facing. Of course, you shouldn't take my views as the gospel truth. Buy his book and read it yourself!

The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be

Monday, December 22, 2014

Why Singaporeans Migrate to Vancouver

After a week taking in the tourist sights in Vancouver, the highlight of this trip has been conversations we had with an older Singaporean couple that kindly took us around for a day. They left very successful careers in Singapore to bring up their children here, and it was very interesting to view the culture and people of Vancouver through their eyes and accumulated experience.

 
There's an extra Christmas feel with the freezing temperatures and colourful lights all over Vancouver

The lasting impression I've formed of the people here is how friendly, polite, and helpful they are. In the elevators people say hello and strike up conversations; in Singapore they might close the door on you to avoid sharing the lift. On the roads, drivers cheerfully give way, which is extremely rare among big cities; in Singapore (and probably New York, London, San Francisco) you might get honked by cars behind if you are too kind.

We were told that if you ask for directions, the person won't just provide directions, they will offer to bring you there. And if you need to make a phone call, just ask any passer-by if you can borrow their mobile phone. We couldn't quite bring ourselves to borrow a mobile phone, but service staff were always happy to call a cab for us, and people definitely went the extra mile for directions.

Our friends told us how liberating it was to escape the rat race and 5C's of Singapore society. In Vancouver, status is not judged by the size of your house or car, and there is much less pressure to have any status at all. We could see first-hand how much they enjoyed living a no-frills life and driving a nondescript car. And they were so generous with their time, spending almost a day taking us around (in fact, this generous spirit was shared by all the other families we met). They had achieved wealth and "success" I could never dream of in Singapore, but they were happier here.

There is a much stronger social safety net, with assured quality healthcare for all residents, not just citizens. And when I asked how all this is funded, and if the system was going bankrupt like social security in the USA, the surprising remark was that in Vancouver the wealthy saw their wealth as a privilege and were very happy to pay their taxes, rather than evade or minimize them. They saw it as their duty to help support the less fortunate.

People in Vancouver are much less inclined to count pennies. At restaurants, it's common for them to give a complimentary dish on the house. When we asked for fresh milk for our kids, this was provided FOC. And we were told (though we did't try) that you could ask the sushi restaurant to swap toro for squid and they would do it without raising the price. It's nice to be in a place where making the customer happy is the priority, rather than maximising the profit on every transaction.

All kinds of delicious and affordable food (For most people, Vancouver is expensive, but of course Singapore is more expensive)

With such a welcoming culture, and rated as one of the best cities in the world to live in, it is no wonder that Vancouver has one of the highest rates of immigration in Canada. So I was curious how they prevent their culture from being diluted. Our friends shared a word of advice they were given by a local when they first arrived: "We welcome you to Vancouver. Leave your bad habits behind, and bring your good ones to make this place better." They happily left the kiasu and kiasi habits behind, and feel that Singaporeans do have good things to share too such as our tight-knit families and values.

Of course, Vancouver is not all paradise on earth. The cool weather is nice, but it has rained constantly every day since we got here. After the first 4 days, we just wanted to stay in the hotel. Wet + cold weather is no fun, and all the top family attractions are outdoors. There is a darker side to a very liberal and welcoming society too, and that is the embrace of all kinds of alternative lifestyles. One example of this is the drug culture, and everyone we met was quick to point out the skid row on East Hastings, not far from our hotel. The speed limit there is 30km/h, because may addicts shoot up and run across the road without looking. Homeless people were everywhere. These are the types of influences that would make a parent hesitate to bring their kids to a city like this. And this is one area that Singapore is still one of the best in the world.

The dark side of Vancouver

It's tempting  to run away from Singapore to find a place that seems better. What I have really been pondering since that conversation, is what would it take for Singapore become more like Vancouver? We can't do anything about our hot weather, unfortunately. In most other areas, we are very blessed, such as having a clean and safe city. But can we do anything about our society and culture, to make it more pleasant? Do we just need to treat each other better?

My personal view is that as a society, our busy-ness has made us as individuals too self absorbed. We are too caught up in our own lives to get involved with the people around us. Two generations ago, our ancestors lived in villages and walked anytime into each other's homes. Today we don't know our own neighbors, and have no time to care about strangers. As a nation, we are no longer fighting for survival, maybe we need to consider carefully if everything that keeps us busy is really necessary.

Can we be less busy, and spend more time looking out for others too? Can we learn the good habits of others, and discard some of our own?