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Policies to please foreign investors or cater to citizens?

April 19, 2011
Singapore’s economic miracle has been built on foreign investors, rather than a more all rounded and organic growth of other Asian Tigers. Cheers to this rare piece of logical article by an editor of our state-controlled media. This article totally reflects how I feel about the way the Singapore economy should grow:
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A Singapore for Singaporeans or to please foreign investors?

By Ignatius Low, The Sunday Times Editor

AS SINGAPOREANS become more and more gripped by election fever, it’s easy to forget what this must all seem like to outsiders looking in. I got a reminder of that last week when I attended a contact lunch with two foreign private bankers working in Singapore.

There were six of us at the table, and after discussing investment issues of the day like the impact of inflation and how to use ultra-low borrowing rates to enhance yields, we drifted inevitably to local politics.

The tempo of the conversation suddenly quickened and soon, the four Singaporeans present (including me) were deep in discussion about PAP candidate Tin Pei Ling. We must have been engrossed in this for too long, because the Belgian banker, who had been listening in amusement, interrupted us.

‘Um, who is this woman and why is she important?’ he asked.

We explained that she was a very young and controversial candidate that some people had doubts about, and that these critics would be quite unhappy if she got elected into Parliament on the coattails of Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong in Marine Parade GRC. We went on to also explain the GRC concept.

‘Interesting!’ said the banker. ‘So you have to elect these people as a group?’

Yes, we said. And we are wondering if some voters could be so turned off by one candidate, they can’t bring themselves to vote for the whole group, no matter how good the other members might be.

‘Okay, I see,’ the banker intoned. There was a pause, then he said: ‘But the PAP will still win, right?’

The four Singaporeans looked at each other around the table. ‘Yes, they will probably still win in Marine Parade GRC.’

‘And the PAP will still win the election and form the Government. It’s more or less guaranteed, right?’

Yes, most likely, was our reply.

‘Ok then, that’s all I really need to know!’ he said, raising both hands animatedly.

Perhaps the Belgian is saying this because his own country is in political gridlock, unable to form a government for more than a year, but his reaction is typical of many expats I have met in the course of my work on the Money Desk of this newspaper. It does not matter where they come from – some are from wealthy economies like the United States and Europe, and others are from developing countries like India – but as long as they do business here, they love Singapore the way it is, and wouldn’t want to see anything change.

Some are so effusive with their praise that I find myself constantly amazed at how local Singaporeans and foreigners can view the same country and the same leadership so differently.

Later, the bankers asked us what we thought this election in 2011 was really about. We said that Singapore has reached a stage in its development where some citizens want to see a greater diversity of views. And because the PAP has been in power for so long, considerable angst over the lack of opposition in Parliament has built up.

‘Okay, so we’ll see more opposition MPs then?’ said the other banker, a Filipino.

Yes, we replied. If not this time, then maybe over the next few elections.

‘But wait,’ said the Belgian, sounding slightly concerned again. “Not so many opposition MPs that government policies won’t sail through right?’

Sigh, so much for higher-order ideals, I thought.

One question that arises from this exchange is whether we should be building a country that Singaporeans are happy with, or a country that foreign investors and talent are happy with.

My take is that in today’s globally connected and competitive world, Singapore certainly can’t afford to be inward-looking. Singapore is a small country that has built its success on the back of foreign investment. And like it or not, the PAP remains a key reason why the outside world adores Singapore and sees it as a prime destination to live and work in, and put money into.

But going forward, can we find a system of representation that better marries our loftier political ideals with more pragmatic economic considerations?

I think we can and we should, if Singapore’s success is to be sustainable over the long term. But lunch was a timely reminder that the outside world is closely watching our transition.

Conclusion: How is it possible that an editor can give a more holistic assessment of how the Singapore economy should grow in comparison to all that economics scholars within the civil service?

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Categories: Economics
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