Leslie Koh, Straits Times, June 17 2012
TRY putting your finger on one current hot-button issue – whether foreigners, Nimby, transport or housing, and up pops the word – ‘trade-offs’.
It is almost a mantra now, used repeatedly by national leaders.
Most recently, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong laid out the trade-offs involved in opting for slower economic growth. He acknowledged that growing too fast causes ‘stresses and strains’ but warned that slow growth would mean fewer new investments and good jobs.
National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan too said the Government had made the ‘tough choice’ of bringing in more foreign workers in 2005 and 2006, to draw investments and create jobs, although this led to the current infrastructure crunch.
‘Sometimes we have to take a decision which has both negative as well as positive consequences. We have to weigh and make the trade-offs,’ he said.
Indeed, this concept of balancing ‘trade-offs’ appears to be the basis of how Singapore tackles these pressing issues.
Essentially, the process seems to work like this: The Government lays out the stark choices that Singapore faces; it then tries to arrive at a consensus with the citizenry on which option to take – or it persuades them that one is better than the other.
Naturally, the final answer will not always go down well. There will always be a group of people who will lose out or remain unconvinced.
As Mr Khaw said in a recent interview with The Straits Times, voters need ‘to understand the larger picture and accept the need for trade-offs’. On its part, the Government needs ‘to explain more, engage more, and earn the trust and confidence of the people’.
In speeches and dialogues, ministers have been explaining the tough choices that Singapore faces, and trying to convince their audience that the Government is taking the better path.
That seems to be a fair approach to ensuring consultation while avoiding the policy paralysis that would result from trying to please everyone, which some countries are experiencing.
But the approach does not seem to be working too well, as each attempt to explain the trade-offs seems to bring on a new wave of anger and criticism.
Some economists, for instance, argue that the fears of slow growth are misplaced. Others argue that economic growth does not require a growing population or more foreign workers. Yet others contend that welfare and high growth are not exclusive.
Why is this happening?
One could argue that if such dilemmas were assessed rationally, surely the majority of Singaporeans would be able to agree on a line of action to be taken, if all the trade-offs are taken into account.
Yet that does not always happen. Could it be that many Singaporeans are not so much rejecting the choices, but the decision process itself?
One possibility is that many ordinary citizens feel that they have no part to play in how the country arrives at a final decision on such matters.
Despite the numerous feedback sessions and dialogues, it might seem to some that the Government has already decided, and that while their concerns are ‘taken into account’, these have no bearing on the final decision.
For instance, sceptics will cite the authorities’ apparent insistence that Singapore has to keep growing its population, even though many worry over the overcrowding that will result.
Another possibility is that some question if the Government has framed an issue so as to skew decision-making in a particular direction.
In some issues, you could argue that it does ultimately come down to Option 1 or 2. If an eldercare centre needs to be built, the choices are pretty much mutually exclusive: If not in my backyard, then yours. But there are instances in which the trade-offs are debatable, or the choices not so conflicting.
For example, some economists have questioned the Government’s stand on the need for strong growth. They argue that a slower-growing economy can still be dynamic while allowing for better distribution of wealth.
There are other instances in which some of the basic assumptions made in laying out the tough choices have come under scrutiny. For instance, while the Government believes that immigration is a surer way of keeping Singapore’s population young, some academics are adamant that birth rates can be pushed back up, with the right policies to encourage couples to have more children.
Given the resistance that the Government seems to be facing in getting people to agree on which trade-off to accept or reject, perhaps the entire approach to obtaining consensus on such issues needs to be relooked.
Could some of these pressing questions be framed differently – and not as rigid choices that come with obvious warnings that one of them is plainly the bad one?
After all, it is not always the answers to the questions that raise the greatest unhappiness; it is also what the questions are.
Or could the thinking behind these issues be presented in greater detail, rather than boiling it down to simplistic, either-or options?
Perhaps the real challenge of making tough choices – if they indeed are – is not so much about getting consensus on the solution to a problem, but getting consensus on the understanding of the problem in the first place.
For the nation’s leaders, that could mean relooking the way national issues are presented and opened to debate, and the way decisions are finally made.
For when it does boil down to a few options – as many problems tend to – Singaporeans do want to have a real say in the final decision, and not be told that one of them is not really an option at all.
After all, the thing about tough choices is that no matter how tough they are, there is still a choice.