The people factor

You have to hand it to the people.  You can have masterminds in government, but it is the “demos” – the common people, the populace – who ultimately decide how well a country or, at least, a democracy is run.

Consider what Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said about social safety nets.

Western countries piled up large debts in their rapid growth years, he said, while Singapore saved and built up reserves, which it can now spend on social and economic priorities. The implication was how clever Singapore has been.

But there could be another interpretation, too. Look at the timing.

Western nations built up their social safety nets after the Great Depression and the Second World War. They were built to overcome adversity.

Singapore, on the other hand, is strengthening social safety nets after the PAP won the 2011 elections by the lowest margin since independence.  The move follows a setback for the ruling party. So is it more politic than altruistic?

There can be no question as to who is dictating the changes.

Of course, it’s the people. That’s why the government is addressing housing, health care, education and other hot-button issues.

The government can afford to help the needy. It built up funds, as Mr Tharman said, while the West piled up debts. Well done, Singapore. Hooray for the government for good housekeeping.

No one can question the acumen of a man like Mr Tharman, who is not only Singapore’s Finance Minister but also the chairman of the International Monetary and Financial Committee of the International Monetary Fund.

But governments and leaders can only be as effective as their people will let them be.

Look at India, for example.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is a respected economist. Kaushik Basu, his former principal economic adviser, is now the World Bank’s chief economist. Raghuram Rajan, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India, formerly served as the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund.

Yet, India is an economic mess – the government unable to push through economic reforms in the face of opposition from other political parties and large sections of the people.

What does that tell you?

Not all the talent at the top can keep an economy shipshape if their policies are opposed by the people.

Good governance requires not only good leadership but also a supportive nation.

So who should you thank for the fat national nest egg the government wants to share with you?

Yourself — and all the others who allowed the government to pile up the money and didn’t ask for handouts.

Now the government is saying, “Thank you.” Could it be with an eye to the next election?

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