I thought quite a lot about what Chan Chun Sing (CCS) said on growth, and his "Don't Get Into "Average Is Sufficient" Mode" speech in his recent address to 900 people at the Public Sector Transformation Awards ceremony.
At the Awards ceremony, one of the prize-winning innovations was a public service app launched last week that performs various functions like "birth registrations, applying to the Baby Bonus scheme, searching for pre-schools and viewing child's immunisation records."
CCS said that he was encouraged by the innovation, and "it showed public servants putting themselves "in the shoes of the people we serve.""
Here comes the extract of his speech which mentioned about how depressing it would be if we are satisfied with 2 to 3 percent economic growth:-
"Many people say that we have reached a certain level of growth, that going forward, it will be 2 to 3 per cent growth on average. That sounds rather depressing. If it's 2 to 3 per cent growth on average, what does it mean for the economy, what does it mean for opportunities for our people? But the truth of it is that even if the average is 2 to 3 per cent, it does not mean that every sector, every industry is 2 to 3 per cent. What it means is that it's 2 to 3 per cent on average, but there is a plus 5 per cent for various sectors and there's a minus 5 per cent for other sectors."
CCS then said that settling for the average is not sufficient for Singaporeans. He warned about harbouring low expectations and embedding ourselves in comfort zones. He's advocating for higher growth.
Here is the aspirational goals he had set for the public/civil service:-
"Our job is to make sure that we keep creating the conditions for the 2 to 3 per cent (and higher). Our job is to make sure that those sectors that are minus 5 continue to be helped to adjust to get out of the minus 5. That is our job in the civil service. If each of us continues to aspire in our respective sectors to work on the plus 5 per cent, then actually there is no reason to believe that we will be always 2 to 3 per cent. I say this with a heavy heart because we should not get into a mode whereby we think that the average is sufficient."
Personally, I know where CCS is coming from. His heart is heavy because he is concerned that Singaporeans might just settle for mediocrity. That, to him, is depressing.
So, whichever way you look at it (that is, the spirit of what CCS is saying in the above extract), it is all about growth, measurable growth, higher growth.
Against the background of the Awards ceremony, it is growth in digital skills. Growth in learning and applying system thinking, "which is the practice of drawing up processes based on the end-users" experience". And growth in working with Singaporeans by "gathering ideas from the whole nation to tackle Singapore's problems."
These are all noble, worthwhile pursuits and I can relate to them in general.
But, and there is always a but here, if the sole yardstick is economic growth, that is, measurable economic growth, what does it translate into for the average working household? What can the average Singaporean expect since our technocratic and efficient government has been pursuing growth since Independence?
Can we expect a fairer distribution of the fruits of our collective labour as Singaporeans working together? Can we expect the social/income inequality gap to narrow within acceptable range over time and not widen even more?
Can we hope to see a discernible reduction in the stress and anxiety levels? Will we be able to enjoy the fruits of our labour and not work into the twilight years worrying about medical and daily living costs outpacing income and savings? Will the right moral values be pursued and nurtured? In other words, will we be happier, less materialistic, less consumerist-centered, and more contented with what we have?
More pointedly, will the majority of us have enough for our retirement and a home not in danger of losing its value? Will our children and their children be able to catch up with the high, or by then, even higher cost of living, with prices of basic necessities increasing as I write this and income not growing to match?
By focusing on growth that CCS insists we chase after, whether it is 5 per cent or even more, will he and his ministry be able to pause at some point to consider going beyond the GDP numbers towards a more people-centric, moral based direction? Because not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted, right?
And this direction is well captured in the words of MP Seah in his recent speech about the controversial teachers' parking.
"...But economic reasoning is empty without a moral foundation. Such foundations cannot and do not exist without a conversation about values. Not just what is cheap, but what is right. Not just about generating income, but about giving meaning."
Let's stop here for a bit and talk about value(s).
What conversation can we have with the government about value? Will such conversation be centered on maximizing shareholder value, which includes influential large multinational corporations invested here? Or, will it be values MP Seah refers to above, that is, moving from not just "generating income" to "giving meaning", from a strictly metric approach to growth to a more human-approach to growth?
Now, returning to what MP Seah said:-
"For too long we’ve made decisions that is more on an economic compass, as if the use of one dollar is the moral equivalence of the loss of another...it is time we recognize that money is merely a proxy for value. And at times, a very bad one. We need regulations on responsible use of funds and fiscal prudence, good procurement but equally, we ought to be having a conversation about reciprocity, trust and relationships."
To me, CCS seems to have place too much emphasis on the growth mandate. I gather this from the way he rallied the civil service to work together to encourage more innovations in the face of intense global competition with this warning: "If we keep doing things the same way, we will do injustice to ourselves and our country. If we are not careful, we will be left behind in the dustbin of history." In other words, he doesn't want Singapore to be left behind in this all-defining growth race.
But this is where I get mixed signals from the government.
At one point, they are bent on building "reciprocity, trust and relationships" by attempting to close the income gap and encouraging mixing of different status groups with more organised outings and activities - its effectiveness notwithstanding. And at other times, I get the feeling that growing the economy in a tangible, GDP-ish way is their main preoccupation or their raison d’état.
At the risk of oversimplifying, one creates meaning and the other generates income.
But don't get me wrong, those two activities are not mutually exclusive. To some extent, they are complementary. They can run in parallel.
However, at some point, I believe the pursuit of growth risks outstripping or overshadowing the creation of meaning, or at least subordinating the latter (meaning) in favour of the former (growth) with less-than-satisfactory results.
In other words, at some point, I believe such pursuit tends to measure everything in dollar terms as MP Seah forewarned against. It also enriches some disproportionately at the expense of many. It further relegates, or even neutralises, values and meaning that bring more lasting satisfaction to the community.
And all that inevitably brings about the widening of the income and social gaps that is the root cause of most of our social ills today.
So, what is truly depressing may not be the 2 or 3 per cent growth that CCS cautioned us to work against (that is, not to rest on our laurels), but the very thing that he is advocating, that is, gunning for even higher growth (almost by way of a reflex response).
While I am not against measurable growth, I am however wary about growth that over-represents, misrepresents, or even exaggerates our economic and social well being giving us a false sense of existential contentment.
It is undeniable that we are a first world economy but if you ask around, just take a sample poll in the street, I believe many would not say that they feel that way. That is, they don't feel "first world" or "first class" but a groping class of people herded in a trance by the Pipe Piper's tune for exponential growth.
Somehow, something is just not registering in the hearts of Singaporeans when they look at what the government is telling them about growth and the economic and social struggles they are confronting at home and in the workplace.
This dissonance or disconnect is best captured in the words of the founder of the United States' first industrial union, Bill Haywood:-
"The barbarous gold barons - they did not find the gold, they did not mine the gold, they did not mill the gold, but by some weird alchemy all the gold belonged to them."
Likewise, I guess many of us are wondering why the rich amongst us are riding on the growth wave the government is promoting to become the direct beneficaries of largely unearned income (that is, economic rent), while the majority of us are working with no end in sight and yet still struggling to make ends meet.
Is this the result of unfair distribution? Is this the result of greater exploitation from the top? Is this the effect of government policies favouring the haves to have even more? Is this the hoarding power of the moneyed class in society? And are all these the symptoms of an aggressive growth policy that put money before meaning, profit before purpose and enriching the top at the expense of the community?
After all said, I think that CCS's rally call for more growth may require a deeper rethink when he challenged his 900-strong to "not get into a mode whereby we think that average is sufficient."
Maybe the true challenge should be one that is thrown back to our government to return to the drawing board to reevaluate and re-prioritise the values that are truly important and enduring for Singaporeans as a whole and in the long run.
That is, not just to pursue economic growth in higher percentage brackets, but to be able to admit to or acknowledge the dissonance/disconnect the people are feeling and give pause to consider these concluding words by MP Seah about the parking issue, which is also relevant here:-
"But some things still sits uncomfortably on this matter for me.
And I want to address this squarely. Not all government policy has a complete recourse to dollars and cents. We need within our current structures to make more room for the lexicon of morality, duty, relationships and trust.
This is not an appeal to populism, rather it is an appeal to the ideas of justice and community that have informed Singapore public policy making at the start of our journey 53 years ago."
Now, that is a speech that CCS ought to consider exploring in his next address, that is, not just about more growth, but more meaning in growth - even if it means freeing more resources to pursue activities that do not factor into our GDP metric. Cheerz.