When Big Government gets even bigger

When Big Government gets even bigger

Get ready for Bigger Government. That's the message I am getting lately from an already Big G, including from the Prime Minister at his National Day Rally.

It will mean a government intervening more often than it used to, expanding the role and scope of the state. In the areas Mr Lee Hsien Loong touched on in his national address - housing, health care and education - expect a much more interventionist government using every available policy tool in its arsenal to plug the gaps.

He didn't quite put it that way, but the implications were clear when he assured Singaporeans that their needs would be taken care of: Don't worry, he stressed repeatedly. When a government tells the people not to worry, it usually means it is going to become bigger and more active. The thing though is that Singapore has been there before.

Big government, small government - it's a conundrum that many countries go through, swinging from one extreme to another. In the early years after independence, Big G was the mantra as the country developed its economy and infrastructure to provide the people with basic needs. No one argued with the dominant role of the state.

It knew best, could pick winners for the economy and deploy resources to meet national goals. Indeed, it would be cited as one reason for Singapore's rapid and extraordinary progress and transformation.

Then in the 1980s, the Reagan-Thatcher ideological revolution swept the world with its free market and small government approach. Singapore leaders, either seduced by the logic of the argument or already chastened by the limits of what Big G could achieve, followed suit. Those were the years when the free market ruled - government-owned companies were privatised, hospitals restructured, departments corporatised. The market triumphed because it knew how to allocate resources efficiently and priced everything correctly, so the new mantra went.

Perhaps no country could apply this new religion to its public policies as vigorously and extensively as the Government here, and with as much effect. You know what can happen in a small, tightly ruled place like Singapore - when the Government says jump, people ask: How high?

So tenders and market pricing and competitive bidding became the default mode for almost everything from certificates of entitlement to buy cars, to the pricing of Housing Board flats, and even the setting of ministerial salaries and the allocation of pre-school creches in HDB void decks.

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