4 Magical Political Words

Because they can mean anything to anyone.

1. Affordability

This word is often used in the context of public service delivery, such as with housing, public transport, healthcare, and education. Then there is also things to do with costs of living as in, “Singapore is becoming less affordable”. Of course, the sharp-witted public will immediately point out that affordability depends on the who’s using the service, and who’s producing the service. And oftentimes, the range of people using a public service can be very wide, and so the term should be used for the lower-income deciles, where affordability of public services can be a make-or-break difference in how they can save enough for their family or to make a living. So instead of simply asking whether public services are ‘affordable’, people should be asking, “how much is the increment of service x, and how are the lower-income people shielded from the effects?” For the rest of us, the question of affordability should really be – is my income rising faster than the increments? If yes, ignore news, if no, then… well…

2. Sustainability

This term is so often used that its becoming an empty phrase. In popular use, sustainability is used in the environmental context (as I remembered it being used in the early 90s) – as a term to look at the longer-term viability of the natural environment and to preserve it for succeeding generations. In my recent memory, the term is being used to describe the financial viability of public finances and with economic growth, as with “sustainable economic growth” – as with China – which is confusing because it can describe both the environmental aspects and the viability of 7.5% and above GDP growth.

So I propose that sustainability should really just be replaced with “longer-term soundness (or viability)” – which is what most people are trying to get at. However, this only solves half of the problem; the other half is that people don’t seem to understand that longer-term viability depends on the flows of production, consumption and (re)cycling mechanisms – that’s why I guess it was used first in the environmental context, and now looking at financial contexts.

When I think of public schemes, I think of cash transfer and other such subsidies. In self-reliant Singapore, one question that pops is whether such transfers and subsidies are “sustainable or not?” That’s really quite simplistic, because such transfers or subsidies really assume a wider context of economic growth or some other stable condition. Without that linkage to income flows, questions of longer-term viability are just not worth addressing.

“But maybe increased transfers can make public finances less sound?” Well, *shrugs – that really is a political question, on how much people want to receive, and how much we believe that taking care of each other is important. As for soundness well, unless country X hired Y financial company to fiddle around public finances, I wouldn’t be too worried. I hope common sense prevails, of course, that people fundamentally understand that soundness basically just means spending within means and save something for the future.  Because there won’t be an external party to bail us out.

3. Engagement

This really is a representative of the various terms used to describe government-society relations. How much input should the public and civil society groups have in considering policies? What are the political considerations for the political parties taking part in these kinds of exercises? In SIngapore the second question of political parties is often ignored, but this might not always be the case. My attention is on the first question – and that has been addressed in one of the articles in Ethos magazine on the spectrum of engagement, ranging from inform, to consultation, to consensus-building, and then co-creation. In summary – there are many forms of communications, some of which cannot be told to the public, some of which requires feedback especially on technical affairs, others are more open and wide-ranging, when some others require the public to act first. All of these depends obviously on the context of the situation, and the outcomes to be achieved. Slapping “engagement” on every single government-society interaction dilutes the term of its meaning, and increases the cynicism and confusion when such events takes place.

4. Inclusiveness

First of all, if some spokesperson say that country X strives for inclusive growth, does that mean that country’s economic growth was exclusive to some people? Martin Luther King Jr’s civil rights movement was about political participation as it was about economic participation for ethnic minorities. The platform on which he gave his historic, “I have a dream” speech was the “March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs”. Most people would seem to have an intuitive sense of what inclusive growth means – that broad segments of the population can participate and enjoy the income growth that comes with a growing economy. But as the financial crisis revealed, growth can focus on very narrow sections of the working population, with some sectors enjoying nearly astronomical increases in their income. That in turn, can be attributed to political-structural issues; on the impact of the finance industry on politics; on the diminishing influence of labour and the continual pro-business and anti-welfare slant – all of which as happened in the US, and some of those have some resonance with what has happened elsewhere in the world.

The other facet of inclusiveness that’s also not often talked about but intuited at is the notion of socio-economic mobility and more egalitarian distribution of incomes. The other side of inclusive growth means upward economic mobility. Is that possible? Let’s think in terms of what happens when someone works in a large company. In the company, upward economic mobility depends on the size of the company, how many units and divisions and departments are there, and the complexity of the businesses it engages in. In a large company, there are many units and subunits, so there are more rungs in the ladder to climb. But as one goes higher, the rungs get fewer and fewer, and ultimately only one person can become the CEO or the president or managing director. So upward income mobility has limits. However, if the company becomes bigger through acquisition or expansion, then more people can join in and climb their own ladders. And so it is with the economy. The economy is composed of many companies and industries in interaction with each other and the world. If there isn’t much change in the size of the economy, then the number of rungs in the corporate ladders don’t change so much. It means that the opportunities for income mobility won’t change much as well – there will be limits in how high one can climb in the ladder. Of course there’s yearly increments, and I’m simplifying things. [Would definitely appreciate comments from economists/smarter people here. I’m prepared to change my mind on a lot of the things here.]

And that’s just in the economic sense. Inclusiveness also has other connotations, to do with people with disabilities, handling religious and ethnic diversities, and inter-generational differences. Singapore wasn’t always a kind place for people with disabilities and for older people and even today, it can be a far kinder place. There just seems to be gaps in the society’s culture that prevents us from experiencing and empathising with people who might actually have real difficulties in getting around and living a better life. It is always emotionally easier to deal with something far-off and in a stand-offish way in abstract terms, than to begin to try to understand the difficulties of those people and the people who love them. Recent efforts by Caritas in asking people to walk with the less privileged is definitely notable, but a lot of it also depends a lot on employers and managers to understand their needs and work alongside them. The question of social inclusiveness will also re-connect back to economic inclusiveness – by asking people to get along with others different from themselves, they too can get access to economic opportunities and live meaningful lives.

Another facet I want to get to about inclusiveness is that it also leaves many other questions about what gets left out, and if new social groups are included in some new scheme, why were they left out before? These questions are also, ultimately, political in nature – about political figures being accountable to the public on the delivery and intent of some of these policies, especially where strong attitudes/inclinations/stigmas/prejudices still exist. Again the topic of inclusiveness is about how expansive and embracing do people want to be.

Lastly, inclusiveness is also a question of identity and how secure people are with the identities thus constructed by politics and by culture. Who are we? Who do we choose to be? In my mind, and this may be arbitrary, but these questions are mainly cultural, and sculpted by political and social groups in contestations.

So here they are: 4 magical political words: which when used achieve the political objective of broadcasting favourable imageries into people’s minds and especially so, when not questioned.

 

And, Merry Christmas, and a happy 2014!

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