Sunday, 11 March 2018

Kuik Siao-Yin's Big Picture.

Are we generally proud of PAP so far and its recent budget? Hold that thought first...

Let's talk about the big picture, that is, the meaning of all that economic pursuit for Singapore.

Here is where NMP Kuik Shiao-Yin comes in. 

Yesterday, she raised just one theme (or ring) to bind them all. 

She asked: "Well, what is the meaning we care to make with all our money in the first place?"

Well, if you are a billionaire, with accumulated wealth locked up in vaults (or under the home mattresses), earned through all means conceivable or inconceivable, hard work or otherwise, then so be it. 

You can do as you please without compunction with your wealth or reserves. 

But if you are a government, a charity, or even a megachurch, where you are storing up the people's money, how much is enough then?

The context of that question is the IMF's comment about our national reserves. It says: "Their assessment is that we are excessively prudent." 

Underscore "excessively".

In IMF's opinion, "a good enough amount of reserves would be 27 per cent of our GDP or $113 billion."

However, Shiao-Yin wrote in the papers today that "MAS' foreign exchange reserves alone as of January 2018 are around $369 billion or 88 per cent of GDP."

While she is not taking IMF's opinion as "gospel truth", or saying that IMF is right, her very nuanced approach is captured in this remark:-

"I admire the Government's devotion to long-term strategic overplanning and I get the deep fears around under-planning. I appreciate we cannot afford to get the maths wrong. But we cannot afford to get the meaning under the maths wrong either."

Alas, it all boils down to meaning, the reason for our striving, the hope for our people today and tomorrow, and the right balance between our pressing needs now and our anxieties for the future. 

One is reality and the other is imagined, but no less justified to some extent.

To Shiao-Yin, this is the real First World problem:-

"Should we spend more to help the people we have with us today or store more so we can help the people of tomorrow?"

And if we are saving for a rainy day, then considering the size of our current reserves, we'd better expect a geostorm or such apocalyptic weather in the likes of the end of days.

The Finance Minister recently said that "a strong economy is not an end in itself; it is a means to build a better home and provide a better quality of life for all people." 

But, is our government practising what it preaches? 

Ultimately, what does he mean by a "better quality of life for all people"? What does he mean by "better" and "for all people"? 

A utilitarian would jump in and say it's for the greatest good for the greatest number. A communist or socialist would want to leave no one out. An economist would rather we stick to the stats and facts. And a capitalist would just let the market and her invisible hand decide. 

But what does meaning mean to a prudent, all inclusive government like ours, like PAP (so claimed)? 

Are we sending mixed signals to our young fresh from the pressure-cooker of schools and spilling over into the reality of life (as they join the workforce, start their family, earn for them)? 

Shiao-Yin wrote:-

"Yet, as each young student ages into a young working professional, many feel their idealism for themselves and for the country being challenged. Along the line, we sense the Singapore way is more like a tense high-wire act where we must learn to calibrate our ideals of communitarianism, democracy and egalitarianism with the realities of individualism, authoritarianism and elitism."

In the end, we need an MP who ask all the right questions without provoking, belittling and denouncing, and I have found one in Shiao-Yin. She doesn't just put her money where her mouth is, she puts it where her heart is.

She asked at the conclusion: "Are we pursuing growth of our reserves for growth's sake?"

(If you think about it, as an aside, this same question can be asked of some of the largest, richest and most crowded megachurches here and all over the world - are we pursuing growth for growth's sake?)

Lesson? With points articulated so well, Shiao-Yin has left little that needs to be said. 

She however makes this point which I find captures the essence of her speech in Parliament:-

"Every tilt towards the side of pragmatism is simultaneously a tilt away from the side of our ideals."

Well, there is nothing wrong (as she'd said) about pragmatism and idealism. The key word is "tilt" and "trade off". And the word to be very cautious of is "excessive" - because it is an unknowing danger. 

And we should never forget that apart from preaching one thing and doing quite another, that is, making a strong economy an end in itself by unintended autopiloting, we have to be cautious of initial ideals mutating into entrenched entitlement in the name of ruthless pragmatism. 

I am talking about meritocracy. 

Like multiculturalism, meritocracy is the cornerstone of our nation building, government philosophy and our sacred national pledge. 

But along the way, meritocracy grew up to become a force to be reckoned with. It grew bigger than we can handle, breeding elitism, threatening class divide and nurturing runaway social and economic inequality. 

Another NMP Kok Heng Leun in Parliament observed this:-

"We have been inculcated with the values of meritocracy - hard work will be rewarded, self-reliance and personal achievement is key to our success...Have we also then made those who have failed to achieve believe in the narrative that it was because of personal failing that one cannot do better and accept the narrative that it is not a dignified existence?"

He added: "More importantly, how can we provide assistance without making those who need help feel that they have to prove that they have worked hard but not achieved enough and hence is worthy of support? Without feeling that they have no more dignity left?"

Alas, apart from the class divide and the inequality gap caused mostly by blinded excesses of meritocracy, we also have what I call the dignity gap. 

It is gap that divides the soul of the society not just between the have and have-not, or the class and the classless. 

It also divides those who feel entitled and those who are perpetually deprived, those who think success is hard work and those who struggle with two jobs, a broken family, and worrying about how to pay her kids' pocket money for the next week, and most of all, those who live in a rarefied and dignified existence up there padded with privileges and wealth, and those who are at the bottom of the food chain making ends meet and feeling that their existence is largely meaningless. 

How do we then bridge that gap, the dignity gap, the gap for the soul of Singaporeans?

So, let's go back to the question I posed at the start of this post:-

"Are we generally proud of PAP so far and its recent budget?" 

Well, we should be - at least for those who had voted for the PAP. 

For aren't we a clean and green city state with many main attractions like the Singapore Flyer, Marina Bay and the internationally renowned casinos? 

And, aren't we not corruption free (as in the absence of systemic corruption) and aren't our ministers (4G leaders) the cream of the crop, the best of the best?

But I guess there may just be something far more troubling than a corruption free is a leadership that is unknowingly detached from the soul of society by the blinded pursuit of that which is dubiously meaningful, and against that mindset, I think the search for enduring and true meaning that underscores what we do for growth (and benefit for all people) ought to be our government's next re-charted course. Cheerz.

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