SG50 Governance: The Point of Equilibrium

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By Ching Ann Hui (15S03A), Michelle Zhu (15A01B), Daphne Tang (16S03M), and Ian Cheng (16S03M)

This article is a preview from the upcoming Issue #5 of the Rafflesian Times, slated for release this week.

Indranee Rajah, Senior Minister of State for Law and Education.

Having juggled a successful law career at Drew & Napier along with her duties as Member of Parliament (MP) for Tanjong Pagar GRC and the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Ms Indranee Rajah (RI, 1981) is perhaps one of the most eminent of the Rafflesian alumni involved in the governance of Singapore today.

Now Senior Minister of State for Law and Education, her career has been nothing short of illustrious, making partner at Drew & Napier within five years and Senior Counsel by 2003. In 2001, she joined politics and was elected as a member of Tanjong Pagar GRC, eventually switching over to full time politics in 2012 at Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s request.

A debater while she was in RI Pre-U, she fondly remembers her time in the school and credits debating as being ‘great training for a career in law and politics’. In addition, she also hailed from the school netball team, which helped her stay physically fit, and may explain how she still manages to fit gym trainings into her already overscheduled days. Ms Indranee shares with the Rafflesian Times some of her insights on the political scene in Singapore and key challenges faced with the changing political and social climate here as we celebrate our nation’s golden jubilee.

When asked about the key challenges facing Singapore in the next 50 years, she identifies three areas – the demographic challenge of an ageing population, social cohesion in view of the increasing diversity in our society, and maintaining economic growth for everyone in the face of global competition.

Social cohesion has been a perennial issue for Singaporeans, but one that has been amplified recently because of globalisation. With the myriad of people from different backgrounds and cultures that call Singapore home today, the government has in recent years solicited views from Singaporeans about their ideal Singapore through Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) and various more informal online platforms. For Ms Indranee, ‘OSC saw Singaporeans from all walks of life share their aspirations and visions for the future – there were many common aspirations, but many also heard contrasting views of fellow Singaporeans for the first time.’

She shares that the traditional community conversations have been overtaken by the pace of life and social media technologies, meaning that many Singaporeans were not aware of the differing views of fellow Singaporeans. She adds, ‘It is through engaging our people that we learn more about their concerns and needs, which in turn helps us to refine and formulate policy that is citizen-centric and genuinely benefits our people and our nation.’ Despite how the government increasingly and actively tries to understand the concerns on the ground, Ms Indranee is careful to point out that ‘any national policy must also be made with national interests in mind’, and that ‘this must be balanced with considerations that Singaporeans might not be aware of – for instance, security issues where decisions may have to be made based on sensitive information which cannot be made public.’

This pragmatic approach to policymaking in Singapore has not changed over the years, but the numerous challenges that the government faces have evolved and in some ways multiplied. The vocal and often vociferous online criticisms of Singapore’s stance towards foreigners may not be entirely justified, but it does reveal a grain of truth – shifting social demographics have made it much more challenging to cater to everyone’s needs in Singapore.

At first glance, the three key challenges that Ms Indranee outlines seem disparate. In reality, it becomes ever more difficult than ever to strike a balance between growth, demographics, and maintaining social cohesion in Singapore.

‘The question is how do we – year after year – continue to ensure that we can have good jobs for Singaporeans and that there is economic growth, so that everyone can benefit?’ says Ms Indranee. Her mention of everyone benefitting points to the complexity of Singapore’s situation. With a Gini coefficient of 0.464 in 2014 (before accounting for Government transfers and taxes, 0.412 after), the gap between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen amidst rising local affluence.

PM Lee’s comment on the ‘natural aristocracy’ 1 in Singapore angered many, but what is more dangerous to our social cohesion is the possibility of an artificial aristocracy – one that does not promote people on merit but simply by default of their privileged positions.

More recently, the fracas that Minister for Social and Family Development, Mr Tan Chuan-Jin’s Facebook post about karung gunis caused recently is testament to an unease about rising inequality in our society. While we laud Mr Tan’s attempt to speak to people on the ground, the fact remains, unfortunately, that inequality is higher than ever in Singapore, with growing numbers of a small elite entrenched from the previous successes of our meritocratic system.

Last year, Nominated Member of Parliament Eugene Tan described RI as ‘less of a beacon of hope for meritocratic Singapore’. This comment stems from the admittedly true observation that RI does not reflect the social and economic composition of Singapore as it did in his student days.

Yet Ms Indranee points out that ‘each successive generation of Singaporeans has become more affluent… and consequently it must therefore mean that there are fewer students from less privileged backgrounds in absolute numbers compared to the past’. While this is arguably true, it has to contend with the general social perception that top schools are increasingly closed to those from lower socio-economic classes.

While Ms Indranee agreed that ‘schools such as RI that educate some of our best and brightest in society have a special place in our education system’, she emphasies that this makes it even more important that these schools ‘resolutely guard against elitism’. She elucidates further that ‘RI must be careful to ensure that the way the school is run and the way RI students conduct themselves does not make it become closed to high-calibre students from less privileged backgrounds.’, and that ‘it must continue to be a shining beacon of hope for Singapore’s meritocratic ideals, reflecting progress with equity and inclusiveness.’ Nevertheless, RI alone can only do so much.

Ironically, while education is often seen as the great leveller, Singapore’s tuition industry is worth more than S$1 billion a year. Tuition providers often tout success stories of their clients entering brand schools, attempting to attract students from the tender age of 10 or earlier. It is difficult to continue to believe that ‘the hallmark of our education system is in providing equal opportunities for all’, if one sees an improvement in another’s examination results upon the inception of a tuition programme. This has turned tuition classes into a zero-sum game, where those privileged enough to enrol into tuition will always be seen as gaining an academic edge in school.

To this end, the government has put into place a ‘comprehensive suite’ of programmes such as supplementary and remedial lessons in school, in addition to the Collaborative Tuition Programme offered by CDAC, MENDAKI, and SINDA – but the gap remains. It does seem as though a meritocratic education system can only do so much to alleviate the inequality separating the entrenched elite from the person on the street.

Perhaps then, SkillsFuture, which came about from ASPIRE (Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review), can close the gaps, and play a part in changing Singaporeans’ mindset about success. And this, Ms Indranee feels, is crucial – how we see success needs to be changed, and the best way to do this, is through education – not just by the typical focus on academic success but instead by ensuring that students get real depth and acquire mastery of skills, along with portable skills like communication, leadership and resilience, so as to prime them for the future.

Ms Indranee seems particularly attuned to the intricacies and potential impact of policies. For her, policies affect a wide range of people and span many concerns, timeframes and levels of governance. People’s ‘diverse needs and wants’ constantly have to be reviewed in relation to each other. It is not a straightforward process, as Ms Indranee shares:

‘Take housing for example. Home buyers would want property prices to be low, so they can afford [homes] without too much financial strain. On the other hand, if you already own a property, you want the prices to be high as this is your asset, and you want a high price if you sell it. So if you implement policies that send housing prices down, you could devalue the homeowners’ assets overnight. If you have policies that send prices up, the homeowners will be happy, but young couples or new home buyers will be very unhappy… The challenge is how to get the balance right on a whole range of issues at constituency and ministry level.’

In her understanding of things, politics and policy-making in Singapore are all about balance. In a constituency, there is a whole range of people with diverse needs and wants – let alone across the country. As the leadership in Singapore changes, she points to the importance of the next generation of leaders upholding the hallmarks of our political leadership – leaders who are ‘honest, trustworthy, capable, care for Singaporeans and can address immediate issues and yet think and plan long term’.

In recent years, as the feminist movement in Singapore gains traction, many have pointed to the relative dearth of women in high political positions. As one of the small number of women who have achieved in political office, we ask Ms Indranee about whether women must sacrifice more to be successful in politics. She admits that ‘For the married women, especially those with children, there is the additional challenge of balancing family time and constituency work.’ She says there is definitely a place for women in Singapore politics.

Meritocracy, pragmatism and a good dose of honesty form the foundation of Singapore’s political system, and the validity of this system in turn hinges upon the soundness of Singapore’s education system; whether it can ensure that students some of whom may go on to be the nation’s leaders—will be gifted with sound moral values. Although the principles that have formed the bedrock of Singapore society have not changed significantly over the past 50 years, Ms Indranee pointed out that the challenges borne by Singapore’s political system are fast evolving. It is critical, then, that the government makes corresponding adjustments to achieve the balance that it seeks.

Natural Aristocracy:
1 Term used by Thomas Jefferson in his letter to John Adams on Governance – ‘I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talent. There is also an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents… The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society.’ (University of Chicago)

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