A lesson from America | Why Like Dat?
Jun 8, 2017

Photo: Today Online

Can Singapore learn from America?

Let’s ignore Donald Trump for a moment. Instead, let’s focus on the important side show that is taking place in the aftermath of the US pullout from the climate change pact. A number of prominent Americans have drawn the line in the sand by not just disagreeing with the US President’s decision but saying that they will continue on the path of reducing carbon emissions.

Billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg put his mouth where his money is by committing US15 million that the UN is expected to lose from the Trump pullout. “Americans will honour and fulfil the Paris agreement by leading from the bottom up – and there isn’t anything Washington can do to stop us,” Bloomberg thundered. Even some Trump advisors like electric car entrepreneur Elon Musk and Disney boss Robert Iger walked out of the President’s team. Musk said climate change is real while Iger said he was leaving as a matter of principle.

However messed up the American system has become, it has people who will stand up to right a wrong even if it means going against the strongest man in the country.

This brings me to Singapore and makes me ask the rhetorical question: Will our people stand up and be counted if the government makes a big, bad decision? Singapore has been fortunate that over the last 50 years our leaders have been generally on the right track delivering a stable, secure and prosperous system that even many foreigners praise. Singapore stands out as an oasis of stability in a world riven by terrorism with the public giving its support at the ballot box since Independence in 1965.

This has given many a false sense of belief that the PAP government is infallible.

History tells us just the opposite with the government making policy mistakes like giving graduate mothers priority in getting school admissions for their children, allowing an unchecked flow of immigrants, creating an acute shortage of hospital beds, choosing a wrong person to head SMRT leading to the all the problems that our trains now face, relying too much on cheap foreign labour as a short cut to delivering economic growth and not training our manpower fast enough to face the new harsh world of disruption and being slow in changing an outdated education policy that is clearly not going to help Singapore even as it is told to fight for other people’s lunch.

Well, how many of us stood up to voice our disagreements with these policies?

The graduate mothers policy was changed after voters showed their displeasure during the elections in 1984. The immigration policy was toned down after the 2011 election. Waiting for the ballot box to signal displeasure over misplaced policies might not be the best route to take as the damage could be difficult to unravel. The MRT disruptions are continuing to play it out by inconveniencing the everyday lives of so many people… If only the appointment of Saw Phaik Hwa in 2002 was questioned robustly, maybe, just maybe, the train crisis could have been avoided. Her expertise was in retail, not in engineering, and she just didn’t grasp the need to spend money to maintain the rail system. We are paying a heavy price for that policy mistake as nobody inside the organisation or outside of it questioned her decisions.

Singapore needs more academics, professionals and businessmen to scrutinise government decisions carefully and give their honest feedback responsibly and forcefully.

The PAP has always maintained that it has sufficient checks and balances inside the system to make sure the country continues to do well. As past slip-ups show, the checks must also rest outside the government to be meaningful and purposeful. There is no guarantee that a Donald Trump-type character won’t appear in Singapore and convince Singaporeans to take a populist route. The Americans have enough institutions and personalities to raise the red flag and make sure the damage such a personality can inflict on the US can be contained. Singapore doesn’t have that luxury, at least not for now.



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