Are We Being Ruled By Politicians Or Number-Crunchers?

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Last of the Mohicans….

By: B Goode

I love reading about Lee Kuan Yew. Who wouldn’t? If you believed in what some of his critics had said about him, you too would be interested to know more about the most successful and admired dictator in modern history.

I read somewhere about this little golden nugget that adds to the intrigue of this controversial man.

Once when he was the Prime Minister, he came to know that PUB had been cutting the water, electricity and gas supplies to the homes of HDB dwellers who constantly defaulted on their utilities bills. PUB had thought that it was a logical decision based on economics. If you wanted something, then you ought to pay for it.

LKY called everyone whom he thought was responsible for that decision and told them to `stop it’. I like to imagine that those were not the only two words that were uttered. This is the legendary LKY we are talking about. The one who would jump out from his grave if he noticed something was wrong with this country.

His reasoning was brief and yet showed what a real politician he was.

He said that criminals incarcerated in prisons enjoyed 3 free meals a day with free water and electricity and a roof over their heads. Yet, law-abiding families who for one reason or another couldn’t afford to pay their utilities bills were deprived of their basic human rights. Needless to say, the utilities were re-installed and we didn’t hear anything more about families living in the dark and taking showers in HDB carparks. Well at least not when he was the Prime Minister.

This anecdote showed what a politician should be. Politicians are elected to manage every aspect of life in a country by trying to balance the conflicting interests of human needs and desires, economics, security and everything else that are vital for the functioning of a viable society. If you left everything to human desires, then the country would be anarchic and be ruled by the law of the jungle; survival of the fittest. Consequently, if you left everything to economics, then companies would not be compelled to pay taxes or institute costly, unprofitable measures to safe guard the well-being of the population and environtment.

And so you have politics acting as a gate-keeper, as an over-arching entity to ensure that everything falls in line with whatever that is acceptable to the society. Religion used to play a major role in this too but it had sadly lost its influence after decades of being challenged by liberalism, atheism, pop culturalism and economics. And politics being so over-arching that in some instances it gets abused.

And so in the above anecdote, LKY had put on his political hat and gave a middle finger to economics. Of course people would argue that he had taken the sides of other interests too but looking at his record, you would say that he was/is a politician first and other things second. Perhaps, too much of a politician.

Now look at some of the present Ministers. Look at some of their policies. For example, lets look at the recent public transport fare hike.

The fare hike is smacked of an economics decision through and through. The Public Transport Council (PTC) is headed by a retired judge. He is not a politician. And his decision was based on economics data and a number-crunching formula that has been agreed upon. He does not have the mandate to make a political decision.

That mandate falls squarely on the shoulders of the politician in-charged, the Minister of Transport, Lui Tuck Yew. And what did he do? He gave out a platitude of numbers to justify the fare increase in a world flushed with cheap oil. The only `political’ thing that he did was a frail attempt at sweetening it with `but 1.1 million people consisting of senior citizens, under-privileged and students will not be affected by this increase’. The problem with sugar-coating is that people will get sick of it. They will get diabetes. There is a limit to how much political mileage you can gain from a smokescreen.

And people could see through the smokescreen. That 1.1 million people are subsidised by the other group who have to pay for the increase. It is like Tom asking for $10/- from Dick to give to Harry to make Tom look good.

So what should a politician do? He would have said `Look. Considering the crash in oil prices and Singaporeans’ complaints of high cost of living, it will be dificult for us to justify the fare increase’. And he would then consider the possibility of an early election and the opportunity to obtain some political points and said: ‘let’s postpone the 2.8% fare increase and to include that in the fare review for next year.’

And how much would the transport companies stand to lose if the increase was postponed? Certainly they would have lost the opportunity to increase their revenue but chances are, they would still be profitable.

Whether Lui Tuck Yew could influence the PTC and convince the transport operators would depend on his political skills. Obviously he couldn’t and didn’t and decided to do what he does best; number-crunching. How much would that cost him in terms of political votes?A lot.

And he is not the only one. Just go through again some of the speeches by the Ministers in the recent parliamentary sitting. You will be hard-pressed to spot a politician amongst them.

Let’s look at some of the other Ministers. Tan Chuan Jin and V Balakrishnan. Politicians or number-crunchers?

Let’s look at others. S Shanmugam and Masagoes. Politicians or number-crunchers?

Finally let’s look at Chiam See Tong and Low Thia Khiang. Politicians or number crunchers? And you will realise why they are so popular.

As far as the fare increase is concerned, Lui Tuck Yew is very good at number-crunching. But as a politician, he has failed.

So for the government, if they wanted to regain some of their lost grounds, they would have to pay a closer attention to the politics of things and less on crunching numbers. They are elected as politicians. And people expect them to be politicians.

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