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Make the language of morality our vernacular in policy matters

In his speech on the debate on the President’s Address, Member of Parliament for Marine Parade GRC Seah Kian Peng touched on a topic that had Singapore buzzing recently — the decision to charge teachers for parking. This is an edited version of his speech, which was delivered on Friday (May 18):

Marine Parade GRC MP Seah Kian Peng says the Government needs to rethink the role of the market and of economic reasoning.

Marine Parade GRC MP Seah Kian Peng says the Government needs to rethink the role of the market and of economic reasoning.

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In his speech on the debate on the President’s Address, Member of Parliament for Marine Parade GRC Seah Kian Peng touched on a topic that had Singapore buzzing recently the decision to charge teachers for parking. This is an edited version of his speech, which was delivered on Friday (May 18):

The call for bold ideas by the President has received widespread response. In a sense, this is not surprising – good ideas are the product of long reflection and examination, but they are also, sometimes, the result of an urgently felt need, some local knowledge from ground experience, or even strong emotional responses.

As we have seen in the past few days, bold ideas are not in short supply, but sieving the good from the not so practical, the strong from the popular, and perhaps even more difficult, implementing these ideas – if not flawlessly, then at least successfully – is far more difficult.

It is far easier to write a policy paper than to actually make the policy happen. I say this not to belittle the role of bold ideas, but to argue their limitations. We ought not let ideas be our masters, but think more deeply about their weight and impact. That is, we should worry less about why we do than why we do it.

Today, Mr Speaker, I argue one simple idea – which is to rethink the way we evaluate ideas.

We need to rethink the role of the market and of economic reasoning. For a long time, the economic reasoning that our government applied to public policies has stood us in good stead. Whether in health care, in housing or in the management of much of our social policy, such reasoning has allowed us to make good use of our resources.

The magic words in any policy were whether it was “sustainable”, that is, whether it would “pay for itself”. A long-term reliance on government funding is sometimes the kiss of death for a good idea. For if the idea was good, surely money could be found from the market.

But economic reasoning is empty without a moral foundation; such foundations cannot and do not exist without a conversation about values. Not just what is cheap, but what is right, not just about generating income, but about giving meaning. For too long, we have made decisions based more on an economic compass, as if the use of one dollar has the moral equivalence of the loss of another.

Sir, it is time we recognise that money is merely a proxy for value, and at times, a very bad one.

We need regulations on responsible use of funds, on fiscal prudence, good procurement, but equally, we ought to be having a conversation about reciprocity, trust and relationships.

Teachers know this. They know the magic of little gestures of a sticker with a thumbs-up stuck on an untidy worksheet for encouragement – for a child who handed in his homework despite family difficulties; a treat of a small snack; a lift to school for a pupil who otherwise would not want to go.

Teachers have all these years paid for all forms of Children’s Day treats and surprises for our children – all these things which cost them no small amount of money, and yet whose value transcends price.

Teachers who have bought their own red pens to mark the test papers of all our children – they do not think, ‘the MOE doesn’t pay for red pens. Let me use instead the whiteboard markers which it does pay for’. They don’t think, ‘I should means test the kids, and give treats only to those who cannot afford it’.

It is laughable and an insult to think that they do this in exchange for free parking, so of course, the withdrawal of free parking would not make teachers any less likely to do the many incredible, unpriced things they do. Rather, it is a reciprocity and a form of give and take which I feel we have lost by insisting on this strict calculus of benefits.

Using a clean wage argument implies that all the years of free parking had tarred teachers with an “unclean” wage. Sir, I do not want to belabour parking any further – teachers, I think, have accepted this and have moved on – but something still sits uncomfortably on this matter for me.

And I want to address this squarely: Not all government policy has a complete recourse to dollars and cents. We need, within our current structures, to make more room from the lexicon of morality, duty, relationships and trust. This is not an appeal to populism, rather, it is an appeal to the ideas of justice and community that have informed Singapore policymaking at the start of our journey 53 years ago.

The first practical implication of my idea: This reform must start at the Ministry of Finance, responsible for so many of our policy levers – reform that requires an explicit recognition of the limits of price, cost and expenditure as a proxy for value, and to allow for greater use of discretion by public officers in recognising moral reasoning as a legitimate form of argumentation.

Sir, I use the decision to charge for parking to illustrate the kinds of conversations that we ought to be having. Thinking about the issue using a pure economic lens is, I argue, a mistake, as is the reduction of “clean wage” - surely a moral idea - to a mere tableau of taxable benefits.

Sir, mine is a simple idea. We need to insert and steer our values into the national conversation about prosperity and growth. We need to balance the economic reasoning with moral reasoning. We need to make what is cheap, efficient and quick to what is fair, just and right.

It may be that there is no one policy – no matter how bold – that will address the most pressing problems of our times. It may be that Singapore today is a problem for the foxes rather than hedgehogs, but we will need first to recognise that foxes speak the multi-tonal language of values, rather than the universal language of money. We must therefore make the language of morality our vernacular in policy matters.

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