|Your future, my faith, our freedom: A democratic blueprint for Singapore|
Magazine Book Review
November 1, 2001
By Mark Wong
Your Future, My Faith, Our Freedom: A Democratic Blueprint For Singapore:
CHEE SOON JUAN (261 pgs, Open Singapore Centre)
PERHAPS in response to critics, who find him "opposing just for the sake of opposing," Chee Soon Juan has released Your Future, My Faith, Our Freedom, his fifth book. Subtitled "A Democratic Blueprint For Singapore," it covers the principles that the Singapore Democratic Party's new manifesto is built upon.
The local media constantly teaches us that no one can argue against the PAP's "proven track record." Amazing, then, that apart from the diatribes against media censorship and the askew political process that perpetuates the PAP's deliberate suppression of the opposition, among other things, Chee, a neuropsychologist by training, has the gall to denounce the PAP's economic practices as misinformed and detrimental to the long-term health of our economy.
Maybe what's even more amazing is that Chee actually does have a case.
With pedantic endeavour and a politician's fervour, Chee exposes the brittle roots of an economy powered by the twin forces of multinational corporations and government-linked companies. Singapore's "foreign capital addiction" began in the 1960s when the new nation found itself with an unemployment rate of 9 percent and bereft of natural resources.
Attracting MNCs seemed the best way out. Today, there are more than 7000 MNCs in Singapore, accounting for "more than 75 percent of investments in the manufacturing sector, 70 percent of the gross output in the manufacturing sector, more than 50 percent of employment, and 82 percent of direct exports."
Singapore boasts of a high GDP today, yet so did the USSR, circa 1960s. GDP growth depends on two factors: capital investment and worker efficiency. While both may contribute to increased productivity, "if GDP growth comes from mere increases in capital investment without a corresponding increase in worker efficiency, problems are sure to follow." Systemic failure finally destroyed the USSR in 1991 - what of Singapore?
Economist Alwyn Young observed: "The Singaporean government has... pursued the accumulation of physical capital via forced national savings and the solicitation of a veritable deluge of foreign investment... Singapore has one of the lowest returns to physical capital in the world. The days in which Singapore can continue to sustain accumulation driven growth are clearly numbered."
The government's zealous pursuit of MNCs has left Singapore's economy locked in a box, inextricably dependent on foreign capital. In order to sustain its bid to attract MNCs to our island, the government has no qualms about lowering worker wages so as to be able to compete with our neighbours like Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines. This "willingness to sacrifice the peoples' wages whenever economic conditions become unfavourable means that Singapore's workers are consigned to having to work harder and harder to maintain a standard of living that, contrary to government pronouncements, may not be all that it's made out to be."
On the other hand, any efforts to promote local small or medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are stymied by the predominance of GLCs. The more than 1000 GLCs make up for 70 percent of all Singaporean companies. In each, the government usually holds a quarter or more of the equity. Apart from the almost reckless investment boo boos made recently by firms such as DBS, GIC and SingTel, GLCs have the effect of "squeezing out" local SMEs. The latter are relegated to playing "subcontractor" to GLCs and MNCs.
In a bid to reach out to the pragmatic $ingaporean, Chee shrewdly emphasises on economic and bread-and-butter issues: the lack of accountability and transparency in the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (which invests the country's foreign reserves of $136 billion worldwide), the high cost of living, rising health-care costs (some $ingaporeans are travelling to Malaysia in order to purchase medicines priced exorbitantly here), the outright failure of the CPF system to sufficiently prepare $ingaporeans for retirement (the CPF, originally conceived to be a retirement savings plan, has become mainly an avenue for $ingaporeans to pay for overpriced HDB flats), the subjugation of local workers to "foreign talent" and the widening income gap.
Far from merely ranting, Chee offers what is mostly practical, constructive criticism. He calls for the introduction of a minimum wage. He asks for the reduction of costs of HDB flats, and then a reduction of CPF contributions. He wants to reform the stressful, overbearing education system that promotes social engineering.
Using the economy as a launching board, Chee reveals his main thrust of argument. Ultimately, what $ingaporeans must realise is that the economy does not exist in a vacuum. Mere economic reform (such as what the PAP focuses on) will not solve $ingapore's problems and can only bring $ingapore to the precipice of collapse. What is needed is a corresponding democratisation of the political process. As opposed to what the government would like its people to think, freedom does not equal anarchy. Freeing up the political system need not be detrimental to our "orderly (or 'ordered') society."
These are difficult times, and any book that can honestly address issues so pertinent to all $ingaporeans makes for an essential read for any discerning $ingaporean.