Sunday 23 October 2016

We need to explore the sort of society we leave to our children and grandchildren

Frances Ruane

Published 08/05/2015 | 02:30

Is it not time to consider how we weigh up the common good relative to the individual’s rights?
Is it not time to consider how we weigh up the common good relative to the individual’s rights?

Earlier this year there was very wide coverage in the Irish and international media of the death of Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister and 'Founding Father' of Singapore. The media focused on his success in building the economy of Singapore - causing it to grow at a pace many times faster than other economies in the region.

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Today, many countries in Asia and elsewhere recognise the success of the 'Singapore model'.

Not all of the commentary has been favourable - some have argued that the cost of delivering a strongly rational economy with high average living standards involved the curtailment of personal freedoms. Inequality has grown rapidly in the past decade and the treatment of immigrants on temporary work permits has been widely criticised.

Arguably, Singapore's achievement of consistent policies has been facilitated by the People's Action Party being in power since the state was established in 1965.

For Ireland, there are some aspects to Singapore that bear some reflection as we work our way through our 'decade of centenaries'. Ireland and Singapore were almost unique in the 1960s in opening up their economies to international trade and foreign direct investment. In both cases, this policy was driven by the desire to create sustainable employment at a time of major sectoral restructuring - Ireland was facing a major decline in agricultural jobs while Singapore was facing a major decline in jobs linked to British trade.

Both economies promoted inward investment by extensive use of tax and financial incentives at a time when most other countries had set up barriers to such investment. As small countries with few natural resources and a small domestic market, both sought investment in products that could be readily traded - products that have a high value to volume ratio. This gave both an early mover advantage in the information technology and pharmaceutical sectors, which have grown more rapidly than most others in the past three decades.

It is not surprising that Ireland and Singapore have been at the top or close to the top of the globalisation and competitiveness indices for many years.

While Ireland would not have thought to look at Singapore in the 1970s and 1980s, its success in achieving full employment and in taking the development model further than Ireland had done brought it into the Irish policy radar in the late 1980s. Irish ministers and public servants have visited Singapore, seeking to understand its success factors.

Policy emulation can be a dangerous game - but looking at other countries to challenge our own policies and standards can be very valuable. And while our economic development policies are still quite similar, there are many aspects to Singapore that provide a challenge to Ireland today.

As a city state it provides a lesson in how to design urban areas with people's well-being in mind - one can only imagine what a Singaporean planner would make of Dublin's traffic, its housing shortages and the dereliction in the inner city. Singapore promotes excellence in education and research without apology - it spreads resources at second level to ensure the school system is strong and it concentrates resources in higher education so that it has world class research.

Its public servants are well paid, so that talent is attracted into public employment and a first-class performance is expected - the salary structures are designed to reward individual as well as group efforts. It facilitates movement between public and private sectors.

Singapore has a strong sense of itself as a nation, as evident in the huge response to Lee Kuan Yew's death. Singaporeans have been conscious of the passing of what they call the 'Pioneer Generation', which set the values of Singapore for its first half-century. This year it celebrates the 50th anniversary of its independence and there is a strong public discourse centred on examining the country's direction and focus in the next half-century.

This anniversary is seen as an important occasion to look forward. Among the events is a series of lectures in honour of SR Nathan, Singapore's 6th President. These lectures cover politics and governance; economy and business; security and sustainability; demography and family; and society and identity. They ask: over the next 50 years, what are the big challenges facing Singapore in these areas?

Perhaps unusually for what people might expect of Singapore, the lectures identify the 'elephants in the room', such as inequality, immigration, low fertility, pension funding and the future of democracy - how the one-party state model might be replaced.

From an Irish perspective, what stands out is that while we did change our economic policy radically around the time of the 50th anniversary of the State (including ending economic protectionism and joining the EEC), we did not have any broad discussion about our values or about the range of issues that Singapore is addressing at a similar stage of its history.

As Ireland progresses through the 'decade of centenaries', there is surely something in what Singapore is doing that we might usefully consider? Is it not time to consider our societal values - how we weigh up the common good relative to the individual's rights - as we explore the long-run challenges we face? As growth returns, we should have the confidence to explore the larger questions about the society and economy we are leaving for our children and grandchildren.

Professor Frances Ruane is Director of the Economic and Social Research Institute

Irish Independent

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