Friday, May 22, 2009

Policy Schizophrenia

A few days ago, my colleagues and I headed out to lunch. Our workplace sits within one of the universities, and for whatever reason, campus was filled with China Chinese students that day, so we had to squeeze with a whole busload of them on the shuttle.

One of my colleagues raised the question of whether Singapore "needed" so may foreigners to support our economy, and a few of us basically ran through the rash of (not exactly fresh) arguments on why we did or did not need foreigners, why the situation isn't exactly ideal, and what are possible ways to alleviate problems that arise.

That got me thinking. Not about the foreign talent issue per se, but something which I've mulled about in the past, and that has to do with how schizophrenic some of our government policies are. (See a previous post of mine that is related, well somewhat, to this. You'll have to dig to the relevant section for this).

Take the foreign talent issue. Presumably, we need foreigners to help our economy grow, and the underlying assumption is that we want the economy to grow because it improves the quality of life for Singaporeans. Yet it has become increasingly obvious that growth in the past several years has resulted in considerable income inequality, rising inflation (particularly in real estate), crowded living spaces and public amenities, and depressed wages for the lowest income earners. Native Singaporeans are also increasingly expressing disquietude about so many foreigners living amongst us, in particular in areas such as employment competition. It calls into question why we are letting so many foreigners into the country when it does not unequivocally improve quality of life for all Singaporeans.

This isn't the only schizophrenic policy.

We encourage home ownership, but apartments (you can forget houses) are incredibly expensive in Singapore, and practically all but unaffordable if you are unmarried (since singles are barred from owning public housing). The reason behind high home prices is scarce land. You would think that this would curtail immigration, but no, our government has a pro-immigration policy.

Similarly, we encourage work-life balance and having kids. Especially having kids, since we are producing way below the replacement rate of 2.1. Yet we stress to Singaporeans that we have to remain 'hungry', that we should learn from the industrious China Chinese and India Indians. Translation: by all means balance life and work and have lots of kids, just continue to put in 12 hours at work everyday, keep your nose to the grindstone and wages competitive to avoid your job getting oursourced to China and India, and purchase HDB flats that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and years in crippling mortgage payments. Yeah, real conducive to work-life balance. 

As an open export-dependent economy, we are told that the government can't do much in the face of a collapse in external demand. Yet instead of working to reduce our dependency on such a cyclical economic model, we do the opposite. We have gigantic government-owned companies, welcome massive amounts of foreign direct investment, neglect our local SMEs, and push the idea that a rising tide of >5% GDP growth lifts all boats, when in fact growth is felt unequally at different income levels. You would think that the government would want to attenuate the effects that come from depending too heavily on exports and a globalised economy; instead we seem determined to accentuate the pro-cyclical nature of such an economic model. Always either a feast or famine...

We stress the importance of Singaporeans remaining loyal to their country, but it wasn't so long ago that the highly polarizing, accusatory, and frankly bad PR, if-you're-not-with-us-you're-against-us phrase of "stayers vs quitters" was uttered by a prominent minister. Ditto the large slate of privileges that permanent residents and in some cases foreigners (such as student scholars) receive vis-a-vis Singapore citizens (who have obligations that foreigners do not have). It is not the lack of entitlements for Singaporeans but rather the disparity of treatment (and concomitant cold brush-off or dismissal as whining) that rankles Singaporeans.

These are just a few of the schizophrenic policies that we have, but the point is the same. Why can't we have policies that send consistent messages and that don't lead to frustration on the part of Singaporeans? And in some cases, a little honesty would be refreshing (if politically unwise).


Ponder Stibbons said...

I'm guessing that you already know that these policies are schizophrenic only on the surface, and it's just because Singaporeans aren't reflective enough that the justifications provided can even be halfway accepted. The sad fact is that the 'frustated' people who actually see the contradictions are a minority; most people prefer to concentrate their cognitive efforts on the treadmill of daily life.

Foreign talent: The real reason for it is obviously to increase GDP, with little regard for actually improving quality of life. Certain powerful people's salaries are tied to increases in GDP.

Home ownership is encouraged because a mortgage ties you down to Singapore and makes it harder for you to emigrate. Also, in general renters are harder to socially control; the social dynamic of a renter-dominated neighborhood tends to be much more 'bohemian' and less staid than a home owner-dominated neighborhood. Overall, 'owning' (if we can call 99 year leases ownership) a home decreases adventurousness because home owners have a lot more to lose than renters do. So given that home ownership plays an important social role in making the populace less adventurous as a whole, making homes expensive actually enhances this role, since people who invest in homes now have even more to lose than before, so they become even more risk averse than they would be if they didn't have to invest so much in their homes.

I actually haven't seen that much explicit encouragement of work-life balance. But yes, on the kids issue the government is trying to have its cake and eat it.

mjuse said...

in a way, i guess on some level i still 'hope' that the government's schizophrenic policies are merely a symptom of overgrown bureaucracy and cognitive tunneling. it's not too pleasant to think that the government has a more nefarious agenda behind its policy goals.

but that said, given how hyperefficient our government is in all spheres of public life, i suppose you could contend that it's delusional to admit any possibility of anything other than policy machinations in favor of a continuation of the ruling class' privileges. i prefer not to think 'too' deeply on this purely because it can get a little too depressing (and negative).

of course, i still try to read between policy lines so i can discern how best to hedge against outcomes detrimental to my own life. and i think even the most sheep-like of Singaporeans do so unconsciously, to varying levels of competence. learning how to game the system is, after all, one of our national pastimes.

Ponder Stibbons said...

i suppose you could contend that it's delusional to admit any possibility of anything other than policy machinations in favor of a continuation of the ruling class' privilegesThe problem, I suppose is that increasing the quality of life of ordinary Singaporeans does aid that continuation to some extent. That is, it's a problem for determining the government's 'true intentions', since it's not that easy to tell when such attention to quality of life is incidental to a another goal, and when it's wanted for it's own sake.