26 Dec 2011

The trick for any party long in power is to recognise that with power comes great responsibility. It must find ways to give away more power to the people, rather than take more power into itself.

The trick for any party long in power is to recognise that with power comes great responsibility. It must find ways to give away more power to the people, rather than take more power into itself.

The global economy has created a “new normal” based on a diversity of models, rather than a single, Western-influenced blueprint, and Singapore, which has struck the right balance between market competition, individual enterprise and collective investment, could teach the rest of the world valuable lessons, said former British Cabinet minister Peter Mandelson.

The former British secretary of state for business and European Union trade commissioner was in Singapore in September as the 32nd Lee Kuan Yew Exchange Fellow.

At a public lecture organised by the LKY School, Lord Mandelson said Singapore’s pragmatic response to globalisation and its ability to turn its constraints in the post-independence era into opportunities created a “new normal” in politics which could be applied universally. Lord Mandelson attributed the “new normal” to two factors. First, the economic crisis in the West has led to sluggish growth and leverage for banks when they borrow money, as well as higher oil prices and government borrowing costs.

Secondly, there has been a long-term shift in the balance of economic power from the West to the East, with China and Southeast Asia expected to contribute one-third of global gross domestic product growth in the next two decades.

“One thing we know is absolutely certain is that the new consensus will not be defi ned in Washington or London or Brussels. I suspect it will not be based on a single abstract model at all, but on a diversity of models, linked not by a common prescription, but by some common principles for success,” Lord Mandelson said.

He lauded Singapore for being an exemplary “mixed model”. Though it was not unique in its staunch belief in open trade, Singapore distinguished itself by its “pragmatic solutions to weaknesses in laissez-faire models”, Lord Mandelson said, citing the government’s implementation of the Central Provident Fund, which makes saving for retirement mandatory, as an effective safety net that did not burden the state in costly welfarism. One of Singapore’s success factors, according to Lord Mandelson, is its highly open and globally integrated economy and general disdain for protectionism. But openness is not a pre-requisite for growth or an end in itself, so governments have to put in place an environment conducive to making a liberalised market work well. In this regard, Singapore is well supported by an excellent education system, good infrastructure, strong investment in research and development and the rule of law. Secondly, the Singapore government has rightly, he argues, “stopped at the edge of the market” and stepped in only in situations where markets would under-invest if left to their own devices, in order to allow space for innovation and dynamism to flourish. Thirdly, Singapore’s emphasis on transparency and accountability has helped it cope with the ebbs and flows of globalisation. Lord Mandelson noted that the Singapore bureaucracy was powerful but at the same time highly competitive and non-corrupt. It is also “remarkably small” compared with some governments in the West.

Lord Mandelson said a society’s social contract had to be openly debated in a way that kept up with the expectations of its people. If anything, the “activist state” under the new normal had to be even more accountable to its populace, even if this was at times at the expense of efficiency.

As one of the chief architects of Britain’s New Labour movement, Lord Mandelson helped his party sweep to victory in the 1997 elections and remain in power for 13 years. But during his lecture, the veteran politician spoke candidly about Labour’s loss at the polls last year. It boiled down to emotional connection, Lord Mandelson concluded. “As a party, we had begun to drift, to misplace our New Labour identity … We lost what I can best describe as our emotional connection with our voters,” he said.

Lord Mandelson said he chose the word “emotional” deliberately because “policies are rational but politics is emotional”. People are driven in politics by emotional forces like passion, ambition and ideals, he added – a point that was bound to raise the question in the minds of the audience: will Singapore’s incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP) be able to continue to forge such emotional ties with voters after being more than 50 years in power?

He then drew parallels between his party and the PAP, which saw its share of vote during the May general election slip to 60.1 percent – its lowest level since independence.

After unveiling sweeping changes to his Cabinet after the elections, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said his ministers would have to make “not just policy judgments but political judgments” in crafting policies which are responsive to “real problems” faced by Singaporeans. This would entail appealing to the emotions of the citizenry.

Lord Mandelson noted: “The trick for any party long in power is to recognise that with power comes great responsibility. It must find ways to give away more power to the people, rather than take more power into itself.”

The way forward then for the PAP was to ensure it did not become complacent by becoming its own chief critic, he said, noting that the journey ahead was likely to become bumpier with the growing problems of immigration and an ageing population. The party had to communicate more effectively what it is doing and why, while replenishing its talent pool: “Exclude those who underperform while remembering that policy is the main driver of renewal, not cosmetic changes of faces at the top,” he said.

Indeed, the theme of forging deeper emotional connections between government and people has struck a chord with Singaporeans and focused the minds of politicians. Shortly after Lord Mandelson’s lecture, an extract of his speech appeared on the PAP’s website, igniting much discussion online about the disconnect between rulers and ruled.

When asked by LKY School Dean Professor Kishore Mahbubani what advice he had for politicians, Lord Mandelson’s reply was quick and succinct: “ Under-promise and over-deliver”, or the government “will face an excess of demand of expectations when in fact there is a limited supply of actions it can take.”

Benjamin Tan () – Editor of Global-is-Asian.