Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values. One of the ways to reduce dissonance is to ignore or deny any information that conflicts with existing beliefs.
So, in a political environment inhabited by yes-men, a subservient media and a lack of competition from alternatives, the PAP elites had indeed follow this path of least resistance in dealing with their own cognitive dissonance. They prefer to ignore or deny any conflicting information than to examine and to test their ideological beliefs.
Lee Hsien Loong’s Economic Record
No one should be surprised the Prime Minister in his speech at the Asia Public Lecture Series on 30th June 2015(http://www.pmo.gov.sg/mediacentre/transcript-prime-minister-lee-hsien-loongs-speech-ho-rih-hwa-leadership-asia-public) spoke of the great economic achievements. Real GDP per capita grew 13 times and sustained high growth year by year. Singaporeans lived in better homes and have more choices. Certainly not a bit of praise for having managed to grow the economy despite the global financial crisis, by having “our population topped by foreign workers”.
Mr. Lee is no doubt sincere in what he said. The trouble comes from his unchanged belief in the strategy of pushing economic growth at all costs. The same strategy of his father even if the nation had changed profoundly.
Nowhere in his speech did he note the consequences of such a singular, myopic approach to managing the economy. He did not say it is same intensive use of labour which uses a lot of foreign workers now that the local work force has been exhausted and of capital by holding down the rate of return on savings.
Not a single word the fiscal “prudence” that underpins the macro-economic policies had depleted household savings in favour of the government due to low returns on savings and to the sale of public housing at elevated prices, a consequence of those foreign workers flooding into the economy as a result of those very same strategies. Barely an acknowledgment of the significant inequality resulting from economic outcomes disproportionately tilted against wage earners by his strategies.
He spoke of the sharp declines in the Total Fertility Rate as if it is isolated from everything else. He did not say those long working hours demanded of the population, those lack of social transfers and those fiscal policies caused stress, risks and uncertainties which result in the TFR to plummet.
The preceding segment said enough of Mr. Lee taking the path of least resistance when confronted by the cognitive dissonance of his macro-economic policies and their consequences. Separately, he would claim the PAP “have Singaporean’s interests at heart when taking in FTs”. Whether that statement is true or not depends on Singaporeans’ perception and experience of the FT influx, not Mr. Lee’s own. What can one think when that influx meant wages are held down, infrastructure is stressed, house prices soared and unfair competition for jobs? In a classic example of dissonance reduction by path of least resistance, Mr. Lee chose to believe the economic interest of his FT policy is the same economic interests of wage-earning Singaporeans.
Khaw Boon Wan’s Speculation and Tan Chuan-Jin’s Elderly Independence
Think the Prime Minister is the only one susceptible to cognitive problems? Let us skip Khaw Boon Wan, the Minister for National Development who chose to believe there is no speculation involved in the high prices paid for coffeeshops than to consider, as any GCE “A” Level economics student would, that the accumulation of coffeeshops by investor groups remove fair competition leading to higher food prices.
For cognitive dissonance, perhaps even delusion, Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin might arguably have outdone his boss but not by much. Instead of confronting the reality that the elderly cardboard collectors were so impoverished that they have to eke out a living on $10 a day, Mr. Tan rather preferred to believe that some treat it as a form of exercise and they remain independent, not having to ask their families for help.
Those elderly card collectors may have no wish to hand their impoverishment from their generation to the next. In their quiet ways, these elderly have denigrated the PAP’s belief in self-reliance, a cornerstone of its governing ideology which eschew social spending and which forces families to further deplete their already weak household savings to take care of the elderly when the state ought to step in. That is not even considering such inter-generation inequities works against social mobility. Instead of confronting the moral bankruptcy of the beliefs systems to which he adhered, Mr. Tan choose to delude himself by assuming self-reliance works because these elderly cardboard collectors remained independent.
Communism too had its own belief systems, the “historical and scientific truth” of its Marxist-Leninist ideology. The Politburo even had the Chief Theoretician to guide policy making within the ideological markers. If these beliefs conflicted with realities, well the realities would have to be altered to conform to the beliefs. Absolute power allowed them to do so.
Similarly, the PAP’s ideological beliefs cannot be altered, it seems, by realities. In a political system in which they too hold absolute power, the elites rather too easily prefer to shape realities to those beliefs than the more necessary resolution of their cognitive problems by challenging those beliefs. The best however is to prevent anyone from absolute power.