Tagged: governance

Power and Ideas

In the previous essay, I explained why an examination of politics, organisation and power was necessary in understanding how Singapore could respond to issues in the second half of the twenty-first century. In this second part, I’ll lay out the considerations behind looking at these three issues, and present scenarios based on the line of thought. There definitely are other ways to examine POP, but for my purposes here, I will examine two broad themes: 1. The flow of ideas and 2. The location of power. I find thinking about these two themes useful, although in future writings I might explore other themes. Again, because I’m looking at a large expanse of time (50 years – SG100), I can afford to play around with possibilities.

Scenario Planning Methodology

Scenario planning is a technique used by large organisations to tell stories about the future – about how events in the future could unfold in non-linear ways. Shell popularized the approach; the National Intelligence Council of the US publishes scenario reports every 4-5 years. This report, now in its 5th iteration spanning almost 25 years now, is watched closely. Of course every technique has its strengths and weaknesses, but the point here is to invite further discussions – make things accessible to a wide audience to have a good discussion. The things discussed here could certainly lead to conversations on other topics. The scenario analysis here will certainly not be exhaustive or comprehensive – it’s meant to be exploratory. I’m also bending the rules a bit with scenario planning. A formal use of the scenario process focuses on what is called, “contextual issues/trends” – trends for which there is little scope of influence. The discussion here focuses on social participation and politics, for which some limited influence by citizens is possible. However, because of the exploratory nature of this discussion, and from the individual perspective, these things could be considered ‘contextual’ – it is difficult for a single individual to influence these trends (unless the individual is highly influential, which most of us aren’t).

One way to think about the political-social interactions is to think in terms of the flow of ideas. How do ideas flow from society to politics? If the flow of ideas is restricted between different groups in society, I would characterise that configuration as ‘disciplined’. I consider to the current society to be ‘disciplined’ in this regard. If the flow of ideas is more un-restrained, then we approach an ‘open’ model, where ideas are more free from the restraints of censorship.

The other set of considerations, and similar to the first, is how will power be concentrated? Today, the truly important decisions, and the locus of decision, resides in the Cabinet, and with the Public Service. This is a very centralised form of decision-making. Information flows up and down within the hierarchy of the public service, and important pieces of information make their way to the Cabinet. And similarly, when it comes to planning. Social groups today often have to organise themselves to interact with the Public Service, although increasingly so they might have some access to the Cabinet, but in any case, the Cabinet almost always retains the final say, and charges the public service with the execution. In contrast to the current centralised system, a more distributed configuration of power structures would provide social groups with more autonomy in executing social goals, with minimal oversight from public agencies. One could envision more empowered town councils, and civil society groups charged with the execution and responsibility of certain policies, for instance. I admit in the current context today, this distributed-manner of power structures is difficult to foresee in the near future, but given the long stretch of time I’m considering, this might not seem so radical yet.

Taken together, I’ve laid out two axes and with this, I can consider a two-by-two matrix:

1. Whether the dissemination of information and ideas remains ‘disciplined’ and restricted, or if it becomes more open, or unrestrained;

2. Whether the distribution of decisions and influence remain limited to a central authority or if it is more distributed or diffused across multiple groups in society.

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I’ve gone on to give short labels and descriptions of the separate scenarios:

Scenarios

Descriptions

Leviathan

Disciplined – Centralised

Status quo – centralisation through bureaucratic control; groups have to engage with the bureaucracy to gain legitimacy.

Smart Hegemony

Disciplined – Distributed

Smart Hegemony – political party participate actively in various groups in society and influence decision-making there.

Mix-and-Match

Open – Distributed

Coalition politics; vibrant civic scene; characterised by local autonomy; possibly at the expense of global coordination; has high degree of resilience.

Pendulum

Open – Centralised

Alternating political pendulum. There is a certain predictability in what happens as political parties rotate in and out of power.

In Smart Hegemony, the party in power distributes power to social groups. This could take the form of MPs (regardless of political party) sitting on the board of directors of effective NGOs with a view of shaping their decisions. 

In the Pendulum arrangement, parties and their associated social groups rotate in and out of power. The policy emphases change as a result. What could happen in this instance is an inevitable cycling in and out of public servants in tandem with the political masters. We see a bit of this with Australia’s government, where a previous administration established a climate change-related unit, only for the unit to be removed under a different political party. Policies follow politics, not the only way around. 

And in the Mix-and-Match system, what happens could be said to resemble politics of conveniences – different parties and different civil society groups coalesce to form coalitions of convenience with no ideological emphasis. This situation could result greater local participation in politics possibly at the expense of coordination. However in this situation, there can also be much resilience when dealing with crisis.

How might these changes come about?

What about political changes, and how might they come about? Ho Kwon Ping has gone through this terrain quite thoroughly in his lecture on politics, and there is little to add here. From Ho Kwon Ping’s talk, there really are just a few possibilities: that the Opposition parties consolidate; or the PAP could split, although as Ho Kwon Ping himself said that the kinds of deeply divisive issues that could split the party is just not foreseeable.

How will power structures in society change? Current grassroots groups might eventually grow in influence, attract funding and become the organisational bases for formal political power. People might begin to realise that real change in their lives come about because of persistent work over a specific issue with the government. They could either join existing groups that are already effective and trusted by the bureaucracy, or they could undertake the difficult work of doing it for themselves. Current effective groups might become complacent and lose members to a rival or upstart groups. I am making a significant assumption here: that people will be willing to invest their time and effort in volunteering for causes. If this assumption does not work out, then the centralised way of information flows would apply, since that it also the best way to ensure that issues are being reviewed and acted on.

The different kinds of social and political arrangements will have many implications for us. Each of these socio-political arrangements requires different sets of skills to navigate around. As individuals, little actions can still accumulate to become large changes, but this process will take time. Those of us who are still impatient should take a step back and learn more about intra- and inter- organisational dynamics before stepping into the fray.

Dependency and Ownership

Are people dependent on government for governance? Everytime there’s a problem that needs to be solved, the immediate attention is always to look to the government for what they could do. So the government ends up running our lives as we cede responsibility for the little things. Yet that’s only one way of looking at the dependency and governance. Yes, governance does touch many facets of our lives, from ensuring food safety to keeping the economy vibrant. Yet there are also domains such as culture and social dynamics where government cannot be a substitute for responsibility and ownership. And there are yet other things where government should take a facilitative role and step back afterwards. There are many subtle gradations in involvement and responsibility on individuals, communities and governance.

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The effectiveness of government’s actions has made it easy for people to ask, “what the government will do” in the various myriad issues. The overpowering leviathan of government power has also reduced the role of civil society organisations. Will the social and political environment encourage the growth of other civic organisations? Will people continue to join the efforts of CSOs in their respective causes or will it continue to be marginal in governance?