Right and left-wing politicians may make the headlines worldwide, but Singapore’s Minister for Education Mr Ong Ye Kung believes more in centrist solutions to complex policy problems.
The middle ground – including tedious explanation, balancing of trade-offs, and difficult implementation work – is the best path to deliver long-term and consistent results, added Mr Ong on 22 November at the inaugural Festival of Ideas, organised by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS (LKY School).
The yielding of the political centre to the extremes is a result of the many challenges that governments face today, including the disruptions caused by technology, inequality, globalisation and climate change.
“Can we embrace free trade, but at the same time upgrade the competitiveness and productivity of industries and workforce, build up export capabilities of companies, so that they can benefit from free trade? Can we find and advocate a socially acceptable level of immigration, and enable local and foreign manpower to complement one another?” asked Mr Ong.
The politics of the middle
In solving these problems, centrist strategies are long-term and consistent. However, Mr Ong also admitted that “the middle is often boring and rarely appeals naturally to populism.”
He added, “It requires tedious explanation, balancing of trade-offs, and backbreaking implementation work. It is hard to boil down to a crisp rallying call, compared to the stirring rhetoric at the extremes”.
Mr Ong believes that the LKY School can contribute to developing the politics of the middle. “If we still believe in the politics of the middle, we need to give thought and voice in its rationality, its analysis of trade-offs and longer term perspectives. The LKY School can play a significant role in this by dedicating itself to research in public policy. It will probably cover the whole spectrum of policies, but I cannot imagine it not devoting significant resources to the middle,” he explained.
Singapore as a global reference point
Mr Ong also shared his hopes that Singapore can be established as a global reference point for the study of public policy, adding that this is a unique position that Singapore can occupy.
“As a small city state connected to the world, we are a microcosm of the world economy and the bellwether of global trends and developments. Not only do we feel the impact of long term trends earlier than others, we should respond faster too.”
Strengthening local research
One key way this objective can be reached is through developing a strong culture of curiosity and rigour in studying public policies. The academic culture of Singapore can play a role in this, said Mr Ong.
In that vein, the Ministry of Education and university leaders have been working together to take steps in strengthening the interest in local research, with the aim to develop a strong local core of Singaporean researchers.
For example, the government is beginning to make anonymised administrative data available to local researchers through joint research projects in the social sciences.
The LKY School Festival of Ideas took place from 20 to 23 November. It gathered more than 1,000 attendees and featured over 40 sessions discussing global policy challenges, and the need for a new trajectory of improved governance for sustained economic progress.