2econdsight

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Japanese lessons for Singapore politics

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Shinzo (Abe) and (Lee) Hsien Loong should be able to instinctively understand each other. Both are “bon bon botchan” – Japanese colloquial for a man born with a silver spoon. Shinzo’s granddaddy was Nobusuke Kishi, two terms at the top job. We all know Hsien Loong’s own pedigree.

Their political parties; the Liberal Democratic Party and the PAP are also remarkably alike. Both were credited with economic success, with the PAP following the Japanese capital and labour intensive growth model. They have cosy relationships with business and the civil service. Both are socially conservative. Most of all both have the luxury of facing a disparate opposition.

Opposition Disunity

The LDP domination of Japanese politics ought to have ended by ineptitude and the inability to give up past economic sacred cows. That it did only in 2 terms is entirely the result of too many parties of various persuasions with factions splitting from the LDP forming yet more parties.

The LDP lost the majority in 1994 but the governing alliance of six parties fell because off infighting between the socialists and the conservatives. In 2009, the Democratic Party of Japan, more a coalition than a party, came to power. Despite widely regarded popular and progressive initiatives, the DPJ government fell after a term beset with internal conflicts among factions organised along old party allegiances.

Abe’s Three Arrows

Abe led the LDP comeback with a 2012 landslide election victory. Rightly focussing on ending deflation, he launched his “Abenomics” 3 arrows

– Quantitative easing by the Bank of Japan
– Government spending
– Structural Reforms
The trouble is; outside the circle of economic advisors, the LDP dinosaurs did not understand the first arrow, loved the second arrow (more pork for the vested interest) and hated the third arrow (reforms going against the vested interests). The first two arrows were fired but Abe failed on the third. As such, the benefits had mostly accrued to the big corporations and the rich.

Therefore the recent snap election was needed for a fresh mandate to shoot the 3rd arrow and push through unpopular constitutional and legislative changes. This point to the uncomfortable truth that LDP politics moved further right than the average Japanese voter wanted. 50% of voters did not like these changes but nevertheless kept faith with the economic program. That Abe received yet another landslide victory again spoke much of opposition disunity: no alternative party was anywhere big enough to contest every seat and yet the parties did not combine in a coalition to present an alternative to the LDP.

Et tu Singapore?

And you too, Singapore? Indeed.

– Contrary to ST editor Han Fook Kwang’s naive expectations, a dominant political party cannot renew itself easily. The failure of the 3rd arrow shows the LDP is still beholden to politics of old and its vested interests. The PAP has its own vested interest and reluctant to give up its own economic sacred cows, namely the same old capital and labour intensive model repackaged as Growth Maximisation.
– A disparate opposition landscape of so many parties is a gift to a dominant party like the LDP and the PAP. The crying shame in Singapore is that the PAP is so far right of centre that by necessity, unlike in Japan, there are not many political or philosophical differences that there should be up to 7-8 opposition parties.
– The LDP has shown that its dominance allowed it to govern as if the voters’ worries over constitutional changes do not matter. Likewise the PAP ruled as if the 40% opposition voters can be ignored. Therefore, the national interest is best served by competitive politics; there should be no more than 3 parties and they ought to agree to a coalition ahead of elections to put a viable alternative in front of voters. Without such an alternative it is an easy home run for the PAP, just like for the LDP. The DPJ is lesson that opposition parties need to combine to be relevant but also a warning that popular policies cannot survive party disunity.
– Economics and finance are the ultimate weapons of political battle. Liberal ideals of freedom and rights are highly laudable and essential but are by themselves not enough. As the Japanese election showed, it is the economic program that is paramount. There it meant ending deflation, in Singapore it is sharing the economic pie far more equitably than the PAP had done. In nearly every true democracy, it is the effect of tax, spend and investment policies on sharing the economic pie where the greatest battles are fought.
– Therefore it is essential that alternative budgets and spending plans are put in front of voters and they are informed of policy trade-offs and indeed different ways of achieving socio-economic objectives. The failure of sadly even the Parliamentary opposition like the Japanese opposition to present such a critical item in the political agenda is a dereliction of duty in the democratic process.
Because of the GRCs, the PAP cabinet is full not of real politicians but of technocratic elites who are not used to persuading and selling their policies. Such policies may be optimal for such a technocratic government but whether they are politically feasible is an entirely different issue. Therein lay the PAP weakness. Given the large number of generals and admirals in the cabinet, it is worthwhile to quote Helmuth Graf von Moltke the Elder, the military architect of the 19th century wars of German unification

“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

In order that the best laid PAP technocratic election plans do not survive contact with voter realities, the opposition first needs to buck up.

Chris K

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4 thoughts on “Japanese lessons for Singapore politics

  1. Both have perfected the practice of Amakudari.

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  2. In reality, the movement from civil service to private sector is common everywhere but in Japan, the job is promised to the senior civil servant before he retires thus setting up a juicy opportunity for collusion between the regulator and the regulated. In my view, LHL don’t need amakudari – the GLCs already gives him the means to move people between the civil service and the private sector.

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  3. /// the GLCs already gives him the means to move people between the civil service and the private sector. /// Doesn’t this fit the definition of Amakudari? We are talking about the same thing. The key word in GLC is the letter “G”.

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    • Thanks for your rejoinder. The German slang reply would be Jein which is Ja (Yes) and Nein (No). Amakudari translates into “descend from Heaven”. In confucian ethos, the civil servants are at the top of the pecking order – for a senior civil servant to accept a job in the private sector tantamount to coming down from Heaven like a deity or an angel. The kind of ethos does not quite exist in Singapore- it could that the PAP has completely blurred the divide between government and business. Nevertheless. this blurring betwen the two produces the more or less the same opportunity for collusion as it would be under Amakudari.

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