To future-proof the country, build a wise citizenry

To future-proof the country, build a wise citizenry

Big Idea No. 9 is also a difficult one: "Future-Proof" Singapore. What does the phrase "Future-Proof" mean?

The best way to explain it is to use an analogy from the world of earthquakes. Earthquakes happen rarely. But they do happen. Hence, it is wise for a city like Tokyo, which is in an earthquake zone, to legislate that all buildings should be engineered to be earthquake-proof. They should be able to remain standing even if a major earthquake hits Tokyo. Of course, this makes the cost of buildings in Tokyo much more expensive, but it is a wise investment to make.

Discerning readers of my columns in The Straits Times where I highlight Big Ideas that would help Singapore navigate the next 50 years, would have picked up a rising concern of mine that Singapore's future will be challenging.

Indeed, even though the prospects are as remote as a major physical earthquake hitting Tokyo, we cannot rule out a major political earthquake hitting Singapore. Since we cannot rule out such a political earthquake, we should "future-proof" Singapore so that it can withstand one.

Inevitably, some of the more virulent voices in Singapore's social media will accuse me of scare-mongering. Hence, I need to explain why the statistical probability of political shocks is high. To explain this, I need to explain why Singapore's success so far has been a statistical aberration.

To put it simply, no other new nation-state has enjoyed 50 years of such peace and prosperity, as Singapore has. The first 50 years of Singapore's history after independence were therefore an "exceptional" performance. It took exceptional leadership, exceptional governance, and exceptional luck to create an "exceptional" performance.

Let me now state an obvious point: the word "exceptional" means "exceptional". It also means "not normal".

Since exceptional performances do not last forever, it will be perfectly normal for Singapore to experience the "normal" stresses and strains of other societies. And if you want to understand what "normal" means, just look at South Korea and Taiwan, Hong Kong and Thailand.

Since we have not experienced the "normal" instability that other societies have experienced, we may not be prepared to handle "normal" instability. The goal of this article is to suggest one major "stabiliser" we can build in Singapore to handle political shocks.

I should quickly add that we have wisely invested in a few stabilisers already.

Powerful stabilisers

Our strong civil service and excellent judiciary, to cite two examples, are powerful stabilisers. The quality of the people who serve in these institutions is remarkable. Hence, in the event of a political crisis, they are likely to perform well. Yet, it is also true that when a "populist" government is elected, it is more than likely to behave irresponsibly and either override or weaken these institutions.

And it would be unwise to rule out the possibility of a "populist" government emerging in Singapore.

It is rational for populations to vote in a government which promises them subsidies, such as the agricultural subsidies in Thailand or the petrol subsidies in Indonesia.

It would also be unwise to assume that this happens only in developing countries. Eminent American scholars have begun to warn that American democracy is becoming dysfunctional.

In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Dr Francis Fukuyama, one of America's leading political scientists, has said this: "And while democratic political systems theoretically have self-correcting mechanisms that allow them to reform, they also open themselves up to decay by legitimating the activities of powerful interest groups that can block needed change. This is precisely what has been happening in the United States in recent decades, as many of its political institutions have become increasingly dysfunctional."

If the powerful American Constitution and its system of checks and balances have failed to prevent dysfunctional governance in the US, we in Singapore should take heed and look for even stronger ways and means of preventing dysfunctional governance.

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