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