Adapting Swiss policies to needs of S'pore

Adapting Swiss policies to needs of S'pore
The most important lesson that Singapore can learn from Switzerland: how to integrate citizen preferences and insights into policymaking while still maintaining a long-term vision and strategy that best suits the Republic.

Switzerland has long served as a model for Singapore. In 1984, then Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong promised that Singaporeans would achieve a "Swiss standard of living" by 1999.

Indeed, the similarities between both countries have inspired Singapore to see Switzerland as a model of how to grow the economy and develop a world-class workforce.

Both countries are small, multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic, with one of the highest percentages of foreign inhabitants of any country in the world.

They are resource-poor, and have had to rely on ingenuity, talent and constant reinvention to remain at the top of their game.

Yet there are also pronounced differences between them and they have adopted different approaches to policymaking. To maximise space and scarce resources, Singapore has relied on a large degree of top-down central planning.

Political power in Switzerland, on the other hand, rises bottom up through local communities and the cantons; the writ of federal government is relatively restricted.

Through referendums, citizens may challenge any law voted by federal Parliament and, through a federal popular initiative, introduce amendments to the federal Constitution.

Eleven referendums were held last year, on issues ranging from spatial planning to executive pay and petrol kiosk opening hours.

Singapore's top-down solutions display the visionary foresight of government policymakers and help ensure predictability and long-term planning.

But in recent times, the consensus among policymakers has not translated to consensus between the political leadership and the citizenry.

One way to address this would be to learn from the Swiss and devolve some decision-making to the people.

Direct democracy, as practised in Switzerland, has a triple function.

First, it educates citizens on policy debates and endows them with the responsibility to choose.

Second, it aggregates and clarifies citizen preferences.

Third, it legitimises these preferences by holding policymakers accountable to whatever the citizenry has decided, thereby building trust between government and citizens.

In Switzerland, the concept of "national interest" cannot be separated from that of the "popular will", while in Singapore, the constant refrain has been that the "government knows best".

There are obvious downsides to the Swiss method of governing by plebiscite. They include creating unpredictability in policymaking, weakening legal and political institutions and not protecting the rights of minorities. But the argument is not that Singapore should replicate it.

Rather, it could study aspects of the system that can improve the government-citizen engagement process in the Singapore context.

Even if Swiss-style direct democracy is not immediately feasible for Singapore, it offers at least three important policy insights into how citizen preferences can inform policymaking. Both citizens and government have a part to play in this respect.

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