The Current 5-Trick Pony

I realise that I keep using 5 frames/logics/lines of argument whenever I discuss issues to do with Singapore.

1. Spectrum: Everyone for him/herself or community of fate

I use this frame to go through the substance and the rhetoric of new policy moves. ‘Everyone for themselves’ is the usual rhetoric of self-reliance, and not to depend on the state (which assumes other things below). I picked up the notion of ‘community of fate’ from a Danish contributor to Ethos – the publication of the Civil Service College. The idea is that there is a collective good that every social actor is striving for, and compromises have to be made to aim for that. The whole article is here is called “The Danish Negotiated Economy.  Apparently, this also translates to the German notion of Gemeinschaft (an ‘ideal type’ in the early 20th century Germany sociology tradition).

I also apply this more broadly, in thinking about say, the acceptance of employers for the disabled, or the elderly. This really is applicable for all of us – in deciding how much we want to care about others, and how to care for others, instead of putting it in a zero-sum frame.

Edited 25 Nov 2015: I say this is a spectrum because individualism and the broader social collective view are ends on a spectrum, and that communities and polities are really deciding which point to move closer to. These are negotiated positions, and societies fall along this spectrum (as with many things).

2. An opinion: The ‘Race for Talent” is a shorthand for corporate laziness.

My own sense is that ‘talent’ is a shorthand for corporate laziness. I use the word ‘corporate’ in the broader sense of the term to indicate organizations, whether private or public (or people sector). I use this also in the context of ‘the race for talent’ – the notion that there are only a few brilliant people in the world, and that organizations have to race to grab them with high pay, privileges and responsibility. Reality is of course, much more nuanced, but I want to point out that there is obviously more than individual ability at work, and there’s a whole bunch of factors, such as the company’s willingness to train people, the culture of job-hopping, the organizational culture – if it is nurturing or not, and most importantly, whether there are capable supervisors in the organization. Just focusing on the ‘race for talent’ is misleading and unhelpful, when there’s so much more that could be done in ensuring there are capable supervisors, managers and leaders in the an organization, and to also improve the capabilities of existing staff.

As a starting point, Geoff Colvin’s article in 2008 emphasizing the importance of deliberate practice is very useful.

3. Myth: As social spending goes up, taxes must eventually go up, and as a result, our economy will suffer. 

This is in relation to spending, especially on what seems to be ‘costs’. Donald Low, in one of his Facebook notes/updates (here) already note the fallacy of this framing – all spending is costs anyway, and it really is normative in how people define social returns.

So yes, more spending means at some point, higher taxes will probably be necessary. I guess I’m also constructing a straw-man, but the notion of increasing taxes seems to trigger a large reaction, and the usual fear from increasing taxes is the erosion of competitiveness.

At this point, I’m scratching my head because:

  1. Competitiveness is really a collection of a bunch of indicators;
  2. If the economy is dependent on one indicator (taxation rates) to be economically viable, then that economy is in a bad shape. Besides, as this guy has pointed here, the sky-high taxation rates in other countries are not really that high in practice.

4. An opinion: Between the state and individual there are organizations and associations.

This is in response to a Margaret Thatcher quote, who reportedly said the following:

‘I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first… There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.’ (emphasis mine; quote taken from here)

This is a wonderful quote, with the highlighted section the oft-quoted section. The rest of it is also nice too, and many people subscribe to this view. This is a powerful reflection of the notion of self-reliance and individual empowerment, although there is also a little flaw with this view, as described below.

Where this applies to: associations and civil society

In Singapore we are very used to thinking in terms of self and the state and society. We fail to consider that that between self, society and state, there are all kinds of organizations and associations for people to come together and discuss all sorts of things. Some of them are nice, some of them are not-so-nice, and all of them are avenues through which individuals can exercise their influence. Just as with the economy we talk about expanding the pie and then think about distribution, surely the same can be said that the socio-political arena is one where we can expand the common space for social discussions, and then negotiate compromises for the greater good.

25 Nov 2015 update: Margaret Thatcher should have considered organisations in between family and the state.

5. An opinion: Not everything is about individual choice. Culture also shapes behavior.

Self-reliance and individual choices are not the only source of social outcomes. I mean, just look at rush-hour traffic. If everyone had real choice, everyone would avoid going out at the same time, right? Rush-hour is a half-absurd example, but surely the traditions and norms shape the way we make decisions too.

Where this applies to: thinking about poverty

People hardly have choice in growing up in poverty or in privileged backgrounds. People are almost not poor by their own choices, and everyone makes mistakes too, its just that some mistakes are more irrevocable than others. To paint broad-brushstrokes of poor people as deserving of their situation also fails to see how people are also trying to struggle out of their situation, and obscures institutional shortcomings. Besides, being poor can be a tax on mental capacities.


So there you go, my 5 ‘tricks’. If there are serious flaws, let me know, and I’ll think about if I need to change my mind.


One comment

  1. Audra King

    Howdy! This blog post couldn’t be written much better!
    Looking through this article reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He continually kept talking about this. I most certainly will send this article to him.

    Fairly certain he’ll have a great read. Thanks for sharing!

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