How to put things back on track | Sunday Observer

How to put things back on track

The current Sri Lankan regime faces a difficult task: of bringing painful discipline to public finances, reforming the economy while trying to recover its battered image for governance.

Some prudent but difficult steps have been taken but the public does not understand the necessity or importance of these measures. Thus, it is hardly surprising that they are very unpopular.

If the public are to be won over there is a need to communicate honestly, the depths of the problems that we face, the need for financial discipline and to be seen to be working with the ordinary people for their betterment. Credibility in the public eye must also be reestablished by consistency in policy and communications.

Lee Kuan Yew had an acute political sense and there are insights to be drawn from the approach to tackling problems Lee’s party, the PAP faced when first elected.

To put things in context, in 1959, newly independent Singapore had deep class divisions- between the English and Chinese educated and a threat of the communist revolution that was sweeping across South East Asia.

Communist armies had triumphed in China (1949) and China was supporting revolutionary wars all over Southeast Asia. North Korea was won by the revolutionaries in 1953 and they were still fighting in Vietnam and attempting to foment unrest all over Indochina and the Malay peninsular, including Singapore.

What follows are annotated excerpts from the chapter “Taking Charge” from The Singapore Story.

“It was a victory but I was not jubilant. I had begun to realise the weight of the problems that we were to face - unemployment, high expectations of rapid results, communist unrest, more subversion in the unions, schools and associations, more strikes, fewer investments more unemployment, more trouble.”

“We had never been able to get the English-educated to understand that deep social, economic and political grievances were driving the Chinese-educated to support the communists and to help them overthrow the existing order.”

Communicating a message was critical, best done by example – and clear symbols. To set the tone, they held a rally shortly after the election.

“We had 43-MPs elect on the stage, all dressed in white to symbolise clean government-there would be none of the corruption that had been rife in the past in Singapore and existed in many other new countries.”

Lee’s speech was a serious one, to temper and dampen hopes-and to prepare his defences to attacks by opponents.

“The good things of life do not fall from the skies. They can only come by hard work and over a long time.

The government cannot produce results unless the people support and sustain the work of government...There may be times when in the interests of the whole community we may have to take steps that are unpopular with a section of the community. On such occasions remember that the principle which guides our actions is that the paramount interest of the whole community must prevail.”

They intended to put a distance between themselves and the colonial government that preceded them.

To make a clean break from the past the seat of government was moved from the Empress Place Building which had housed the colonial Government offices to the more modest City Hall, the office of the municipal government.

The new government would then less likely to be seen as simply replacing the colonial one. The PAP had won the mayoralty two years before and had run programmes to receive public complaints and solve basic problems building roads, cleaning drains and sweeping streets.

The move of the national government to the municipal office would remind constituents of the PAP’s previous grassroots work and “give the underprivileged of Singapore the hope that the PAP government would have their interests at heart and would be honest in trying to advance them”.

“After we were sworn in, everyone was keen to get cracking, to get to grips with his job and earn as much credit for us before the euphoria wore off. We feared the communists would soon be busy eroding public support with Lim Chin Siong and Fong fomenting industrial and social unrest.”

“Finance was our most important ministry. Keng Swee assumed the finance porfolio and I allowed him to him to have his pick of government officers. Within a few days, Keng Swee reported that the last government had dipped into reserves and used up $200m. He foresaw a budget deficit of more than $14m for 1959.

Ministers should therefore be warned that there was absolutely no way to finance development schemes over and above what had already been allowed for, and even those had to be ruthlessly pruned. The steps necessary to balance the budget would prove to be unpopular but it was imperative that we did not end up in the red in our first year of government.”

“I agreed and told him that we had better take the unpopular measures early in our term. On 12 June [the PAP took office on 5th June] newspapers reported that the finance ministry had ordered that no further expenditure was to be incurred without the finance minister’s approval.”

“Keng Swee proposed that we cut our own ministerial salaries from $2600 to $2000 per month to set an example, and also to reduce the variable allowances to civil servants. Again, I agreed. The Government announced that allowances would be scaled down from 1st July but that it would receive representations on the subject from staff unions and associations.

It was a significant but not devastating pay cut and affected only 6000 of the 14000 government servants. All personnel drawing $220 and above would lose a part of their variable allowances but only 10% of them would suffer cuts of more than $250 per month, and only a handful the maximum $400.

The 8000 employees in the lower brackets would not be touched. We had to take action quickly if we were to set the tone for thrift and financial discipline right from the start”.

We wanted to show everyone, in Singapore, especially the Chinese-educated majority, that for the public good, the English-educated were prepared to make sacrifices, led by the ministers.

The annual saving would be $12m. Keng Swee refuted estimates by newspapers that it would be $20 or $25m and reminded them that for the remaining six months of 1959 it would only be $6m.

One problem I had anticipated was getting used to power. I had seen what happened with Ong Eng Guan in the city council, how the underdog had misused it when he became top dog. I warned my ministers, parliamentary secretaries and assemblymen who were assigned to help ministers deal with public complaints not to get drunk on power and not to abuse it. It was easier said than done and on many occasions we still antagonised civil servants.

We were determined to strike while the iron was hot and exploit our post-election popularity. We mounted a series of well-publicised campaigns to clean the streets of the city, clear the beaches of debris and cut the weeds on unkempt vacant land. It was a copycat exercise borrowed from the communists – ostentatious mobilisation of everyone including ministers to toil with their hands and soil their clothes in order to serve the people. One Sunday Ong Eng Guan would muster government servants to clean up Changi beach. On another I would take a broom to sweep the city streets with the community leaders.

Unemployed, frustrated people can create problems.

We organised a works brigade to take in unemployed young men and women, put them in semi-miltary uniform, house them in wooden barracks and teach them farming, road building, brick laying, and construction work-generally to put some discipline into them, and, most important, to get them off the streets.

But we also had to discipline those already in work, for we badly needed to establish a grip on the unions under communist control to stop their political strikes. We therefore set up an arbitration court with the help of the Australian government.

In the 1950s the Australians had good industrial relations thanks to compulsory arbitration procedures that kept tempers in check. Once referred, it was illegal for a union to continue the stoppage pending the outcome, and if it persisted would face de-registration. Before a strike moreover, there had to be a secret ballot, not just a show of hands at the end of a rabble rousing speech, which I had often seen.

When Lee made his first speech in the assembly as Prime Minister he understood the threats they faced and issued a stark warning:

“If the PAP government fails, it will not be the opposition that will be returned to power. They will be fleeing for their lives. Because behind us there is no alternative that is prepared to work the democratic system. In the last analysis, if we fail, brute force returns.”

The writer is a Fellow of the Advocata Institute, a free-market think tank based in Colombo.