Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for inviting me to this luncheon today. The Foreign Correspondents Association has been here in Singapore even longer than I have and like my father has played a significant and historic role in the story of our region’s history. It is surely no less an historic moment for Singapore’s newest political party, The Reform Party to be given this exciting platform.
I am very proud to join the ranks of such prominent figures as our Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and from the opposition Jaswant Singh of India, Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim and so many other statesman, politicians and even Nobel Prize winners. Not least of these is my dear late father JBJ. I really do feel unworthy but then again, maybe July is a quiet month for the press.
You have asked me to discuss my hopes and visions for The Reform Party and how I see the current political situation in Singapore. However as an economist I shall insist on boring you with my views on the current economic situation and the economic future for Singapore.
I hope you won’t mind if I start by adding a bit of background to my emergence on the political scene. It seems to me that the ladies and gentleman of the press are in dire need of a bit more information about me. I say this because despite being Singaporean, I am always referred to in the press as ‘British-trained economist’, Kenneth Jeyaretnam. Hmm..I wonder why I have never read in the Singapore press, British-trained mathematician prime minister LHL or British trained-lawyer, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. Naturally I suspect that the MSM want to light up a subliminal marker in the people’s minds that a) I’m a foreigner and b) that my economics is suspiciously left-wing because it’s from a country associated with economic failure and the welfare state.
In actual fact I’m much less British than, my father, who spent many more years than I as a British subject. So I went to University in England but I was born here, I went to school here, excepting 2 years, and I completed National Service. And I always say that if I’m fit to die for my country then I’m fit to stand for it. I’m not ashamed of being a patriot. On the second point I have always believed by and large in free markets, though governments may need to intervene to prevent undesirable or suboptimal outcomes. Indeed at Cambridge, I often used to have economics discussions with our current Finance Minister, Mr Tharman, who was there doing a masters, and at that time he was far, far to the left of me on most economic policy issues. In addition to British- trained the other appendage to my name is usually “Son Of.”.. JBJ. That one is of course entirely true. I’m just grateful my father’s name wasn’t Sam!!!
There’s no arguing that the Reform Party and indeed the very notion of an active opposition, was my father’s legacy to Singapore. He always strove, at great personal cost, to get the people to realise they had the power to change things just by exercising their democratic rights – Hence his call at the inauguration dinner to the people to arise from their slumber. Unfortunately many here wear ear plugs when they slumber but luckily for me there’s nothing like a recession for waking people up.
My father named his new party The Reform Party for a reason. He believed that the way forward, for freeing the people of Singapore was through political Reform. It’s a legacy which I’m proud to continue but also to extend and adapt to the current needs of Singapore.
We have always been told that the current authoritarian framework has benefited us economically – I feel we’re victims of the approved version of history. In fact Singapore’s growth record is good but not spectacular. It hardly compares with nations such as Taiwan and South Korea -Nations that started considerably poorer and are now at comparable levels of per-capita real incomes. Nations which moved away from authoritarianism and are now much freer than Singapore – so that authoritarian framework is clearly no longer beneficial.
The task I have set myself for the Reform Party is to get across the message that the Faustian bargain the electorate thought they had struck in surrendering liberty for economic prosperity didn’t have to be so.
In some of my economic articles for the Party I have talked about an outmoded economic model which doesn’t really improve the welfare of the bulk of Singaporeans. While the GDP growth rate over the last few years looked impressive, fuelled globally by an unsustainable growth in US imports, the productivity of the workforce first stagnated and then fell sharply. Growth was built upon the addition of seemingly inexhaustible inputs of cheap labour from abroad with concomitant dire consequences for the real wages of those at the median and below. Domestic consumption has been driven down to a level that is on a par with China and countries at a much earlier stage of development. The savings rate rose to 47% in 2008 which given what little we hear about the decline in value of our external investments is manifestly excessive. Yet all we hear from the government is that we need to have more of the same policies of cutting business costs and just wait for the inevitable return of the US consumption binge.
So whilst the need for Reform in the field of democracy and civil rights is an integral part of the Party’s platform I believe that there are equally fundamental reforms that need to be made in the economic sphere. In essence The Reform Party has become the double Reform Party.
These are indeed exciting times for Democracy and the Opposition in Singapore. Given its record over the last few years it will be difficult for the government to continue its claim that it alone has a monopoly on good economic management. Or at least we hope to make it difficult for the government to go on claiming that monopoly.
Unfortunately it is also a very challenging time for the Opposition. After many years of conditioning, Singaporeans think very differently to those who have been brought up in a liberal western democracy. There’s little point, I’ve found, in talking about the European Convention on Human Rights to people who think that expressing an opinion will lead to mob rule and rioting. Or, as we were told often in the past, that foreign investment and MNCs would flee Singapore if there were significant numbers of Opposition MPs in Parliament.
The latest parliamentary changes proposed by the government don’t help promote democracy – amounting to no more than smoke and mirrors. It’s a cheap parlour trick that will have no impact at all on The Reform Party’s strategy – but clearly gives the government a legitimate excuse for changing constituency boundaries yet again.
The silent and peaceful protesters in Iran summed up our feelings best when they held up notices saying simply, “election not selection”.
Throughout all, I maintain my belief in the people of Singapore. We are its greatest resource. We are a uniquely talented and situated nation and we deserve prosperity and emancipation. In time we will come to the realisation that these are not mutually exclusive but actually are dependent one upon the other. I believe that The Reform Party is the party to bring that to the people of Singapore and my modest hope is that this will be achieved if not in the next five years than in my lifetime.