It has been an interesting week of ‘radical’ policy changes. First, the Civil Service decision to permit public servants up to 2 non-consecutive days of sick leave without the need for medical certification was picked up by the media (Civil servants can call in sick without MC for 2 days- Today, April 13, 2013). Then the shocker of a S$10 million one year trial of free MRT rides before 7.45 am (Free MRT rides for early birds- Today, April 17 2013). Both these policy moves run totally counter to the deeply ingrained concerns around moral hazard and abuse of the system. Sick leave without medical endorsement had been discussed many times previously and rejected. So why these changes, and why now?
There are to me two critical observations. Firstly, that while it is popular to think of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) as a monolithic, right-wing capitalist party comprising scholar-elites, the truth is that the PAP is heterogeneous and actually made up of people with very different world views. There is a contest of ideas and likely one that is becoming more and more robust. And clearly, at this point, those somewhat to the left are being heard.
DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s interview with the Straits Times is insightful on this last point. Sharing his thoughts on the changes in the PAP since the 2011 General Election, the DPM said, “… have we shifted to the Left? Yes, we have. If I compare our thinking in Cabinet, or the weight of thinking in Cabinet, when I first entered politics about 11 years ago, I would say it was, the weight of thinking was centrist but there were two flanks on either side of it. There were some who were a little right-of-center, and there were some a little left-of-center. Now, I would say the weight of thinking is left-of-center. You still get diversity of views in Cabinet but the center of gravity is left of center.”
The second observation: Some things never change, at least not immediately or ‘Old dogs can learn new tricks, but not overnight’. The gingerly ‘one toe in the water’ approval of 2 days sick leave without need for medical certification and one-year trial of free MRT rides is so typical of the PAP government’s cautious approach, especially for issues it is not ideologically wholly convicted. Recall bar top dancing, Hong Lim Park Speakers’ Corner and so on- all are marked by a hesitant, “let’s test it in a very small way just in case we’re wrong” introduction. I am speculating, but the final policy may also simply be the consequence of a negotiated outcome between those in Cabinet strongly for and strongly against. Perhaps some wanted a more ‘radical’ shift, some were strongly against, and the final decision was a compromise.
When the government is certain of the ‘rightness’ of a decision but appreciates the need to politically cushion the decision, it takes a ‘break the psychological barrier’ approach and makes it clear that the first step is well, just the first step. Think GST (Goods and Services Tax) introduction in 1994 at a modest 3%, then 4% in 2003 (It was announced then that it would have been a straight jump to 5% were it not for the economic slow-down at that time), 5% in 2004 and 7% in 2007.
One more thing that has not changed is that this government is still dominated by economic thinking (which is not a bad thing in itself). The limiting of free rides to 16 MRT stations mainly around the Central Business District together with detailed explanation of the numbers (‘Today’ reported Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew’s comments that “almost 60,000 commuters in total exit the designated stations daily on weekdays between 8.30am and 9am. In comparison, about 30,000 exit between 7.45am and 8.15am, and 18,000 between 7.15am and 7.45am”) emphasize that the costs and benefits have been stacked up and deemed worthwhile. Perhaps better load balancing avoids additional stress to the system and risk of breakdowns. When everything is considered, maybe ‘free’ actually saves money. Would there be additional measures introduced to prevent ‘gaming’ where commuters passing through the designated stations exit and re-enter and hence save the fare for the first leg? Time will tell. I personally would not be surprised if the government adopts a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude intervening only if the numbers ‘gaming’ are large and lead to the very congestion the policy was designed to mitigate. It would be too embarrassing to tweak the trial before it even begins!
What then now for the people? I doubt anyone is totally sure how these two initiatives will pan out. But the government has demonstrated that it has the capacity to transform and discard, or at least suspend, long-held beliefs. The worst thing citizens could do now would be to criticize maliciously and allow destructive online comments to dominate. This would weaken the ‘reformers’ and only encourage the ‘hardliners’ to take an even harder stance, justifying it on the basis that “whatever we do, people will complain; so let’s just ignore the chatter and do what we know is right for Singapore!”. I watched the spontaneous outpouring of gratitude for Boston public officers- what would be the analogy here in Singapore as we discuss medical leave and free MRT rides? Somewhere in the massive edifice that is the public sector, a group of courageous policy makers and politicians have stuck their necks out and defied the conventional thinking which has held for over 4 decades. It would be nice to acknowledge this. Yes, we should demand rigorous analytics to demonstrate convincingly the success or failure of the pilots. Yes, we should insist on consultations.
One more ‘Yes’. Yes, we should show as a people the same open-mindedness we ask from our government and give their new ideas a chance.
Finally, it’s not just about sick leave or free train rides. Academics Gil and Low in “‘Free ride move’ frees state anti-free bias” (Straits Times, April 20 2013) gently suggest possible extrapolation to education, healthcare and long term care. Sick leave and free train rides are much more significant for what they represent and what they may be the harbinger of. Sick leave and free train rides are about the internal transformation of the PAP and the tussle between competing ideologies. The caterpillar metamorphoses to a beautiful butterfly; but the necessary intervening chrysalis stage is where it is most vulnerable…