Social Welfare Regime Series: 2 – Social Policy Reform in the UK

Isaac Chng Yong Lun | Public Policy and Global Affairs Year 3 | 12th October 2017

From Poor Laws System to Liberal Welfare Reforms: A brief history and Drivers of Social Policy Reform in the United Kingdom

~ Social changes do not happen out of thin air. It arises out of a confluence of an idea with permissive material realities.~ Isaac Chng, Nicholas Yeo (2017)

Blau and Abramovitz (2003), in their book of ‘Dynamics of Social Welfare Policy’, proposes that social policies are grounded in the following factors: the economy, politics and structure of government, ideology, social movements, and history. This essay borrows the first three factors from this framework to identify drivers of social policy reforms in the United Kingdom (UK) between the Poor Laws system and the modern Welfare-state.

The Poor Laws System

The Poor Laws System were draconian by today’s standards. It directed the state to house the impotent poor in an alms-house–dependent on the good-will of churches and secular charities; and the able-bodied poor to a workhouse–where life was deliberately harsh to deter frivolous dependence on the state. Debtors were imprisoned until they pay off the sum of debt, accrued interests, and costs of incarceration with whatever little income they earn through prison labor.

On the ideological aspect, England’s minimalistic and punitive social policies manifested from conservatism. Considering that Protestantism is the state-religion of England, this conservatism ideology could be motivated by the protestant work ethic–which espouses hard work, discipline, and frugality.

On the economic aspect, the economy was rooted in the household, where family members had highly differentiated roles based on gender and seniority, and are obligated to support each other without monetary exchange. This cooperation and risk-pooling helped most families to survive. Furthermore, the focus of the state was the economy. The early Poor Laws System legislation in the 14th century was concerned with making able-bodied people work to mitigate labor shortage after the Black Death – which policy objective is arguably reasonable given poor labor productivity at that time.

On the political aspect, despite parliamentary supremacy after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, representation was undemocratic until the Reform Act of 1832 (officially known as the Representation of the People Act 1832) and Parliamentary Act 1911. Formerly, the House of Lords -consisting of nobles and landowners- was superior both in theory and practice. The unchanging electoral boundaries over the centuries have led to pocket boroughs with small electorate susceptible to bribery by wealthy land-owners and nobles to elect a preferred candidate into the Commons. From a materialist-rational perspective, these entrenched elites would be primarily self-interested and pay little regard to inequalities and welfare of commoners.

Transition from Poor Laws into Welfare State Regime

After the 1906 general elections, the Liberal Party embarked on Liberal Welfare Reforms that marked the emergence of the modern welfare state that is far more generous than the preceding Poor Laws System. Like the Bismarck’s legislation of the 1880s in Germany, the reform guaranteed national healthcare insurance for poor workers and pension for elderlies above age 70. This paradigm shift can be explained by a series of ideological, economic, and political changes that underlies social policies.

On ideological changes, there was a shift from conservatism towards liberalism. Weber argued that the original ascetic nature of the Protestant Work Ethics gave way to the ‘Spirit of Capitalism’-which espouses the rational pursuit of economic gain. The shift towards Liberalism was sparked by the shift of economic activity from the household to the industry during the industrial revolution of the 19th century. Liberalism recognizes that working in the market economy exposes individuals and families to extraneous risks of dislocation – such as economic recession, company bankruptcies and retrenchment. Thus, Liberalism argues for state assistance to dislocated families.

On the economic aspect, the shift from the agrarian economy to the industrial economy caused unprecedented labor productivity. This alleviates the economic constraints of running generous welfare systems, thus absolving the original justification for the draconian Poor Laws System of solving labor shortages. Moreover, improvements in labor productivity resulting from industrialization created the economic resources needed to enable the welfare state.

On the political aspect. Amid the industrial revolution, the 1832 Reform Act abolished pocket boroughs that were exploited by powerful patrons to install candidates into the House of Commons. This distributed political power to the middle class, and created the need for political parties to gain wider appeal among the citizenry, setting the stage towards liberal policies. The Liberal Welfare Reforms was a political response to protect votes from the threat from the emerging Labor Party -that promotes Socialism-, and capitalize on the rising unpopularity of the conservative government.

In summary, the analysis identified the following changes that caused generous welfare provision in the UK: the ideological shift towards liberalism, shifting economic unit from the household to the industry, the enabling effects of improving labor productivity stemming from industrialization, and the democratization of political representation leading to political demand for more generous welfare provision.

Social Welfare Regime Series: 1 – Conservatism vs Liberalism

Isaac Chng Yong Lun | Public Policy and Global Affairs Year 3 | 12th October 2017

Ideological debates of Conservatism vs Liberalism in relation to Social Justice

~ Conservatism or Liberalism, it does not hold consequential value in vacuum. An ideology is only as valuable as its internal logic and consistency with the common reality. ~ Isaac Chng (2017)

This essay analyses the key ideas and debates around social policy in relation to social justice. Defining social justice as a fair relation between the individual and society, we will first analyse the importance of social justice in sustaining political legitimacy of the government. Secondly, we explore the different analysis of fairness by different ideological perspectives, and finally, how these analysis leads to different social policy responses.

Social Justice as key element of political legitimacy

Social justice is critical to political legitimacy of the government, and governments sustain it through implementation of proper social policies. Political Philosopher Rawls posits that to live in a society where cooperation is possible, reasonable citizens would agree to abide to rules that are acceptable to all citizens. The possession of political power by the government arises concerns on the what, why, when, where, who, and how of implementing any social policies. Drawing upon Rawls’s argument, ideological perspectives proposed by political players and their resulting social policies must address these concerns in ways that appeal to the prevailing social conception of justice; on what constitutes a fair system of cooperation. Furthermore, Rawls argues that social conception of justice would always ascribe and prioritise the pursuance of socially accepted rights and liberties, and the ability of citizens to benefit from them. As different interpretations of social justice exist, some ideas may deviate and conflict with the prevailing political ideology. These conflicts in turn affect social policies.

Utilising Rawls’ framework, we will discuss the prominent contemporary ideological conflicts between Laissez-Faire Conservatism and Pragmatic Liberalism with respect to social justice, both of which hold similar assumptions about human abilities.

Laissez-faire conservatism: Assumptions of self-interest rationality in humans, and minimal welfare ideology.

Laissez-faire conservatism assumes that humans are rational, self-interested, and capable of choosing the optimal option to fulfil their needs, represented by committing one’s purchasing power to individual preferences. Since individuals are assumed capable of flourishing on their own merit, citizens should be free from restraint; only minimal taxes and policies that make cooperation possible – such as property rights – should be put in place. Conservatives would attribute poverty to individuals’ rational choices leading to shortfall of traits such as motivation, behavior, and ability. There is thus little justification for government intervention. Taxes and subsidies create economic distortions, and generous assistance schemes create a welfare trap: a condition where it is rational to stay poor to benefit from handouts. Thus, social assistance, and the taxes that fund it, should be limited and void of dignified treatment such that individuals, rational in their choices, would only seek help when there are truly no other alternatives. It is considered unfair to tax successful individuals’ who are believed to achieve success by their own merits. A socially just society is therefore one that allows individuals to enjoy the fruits of their merits, and flourish unrestrained by society apart from property rights and security that makes cooperation possible.

Pragmatic Liberalism – Same assumptions about human nature, but different conception of socio-economic context.

Pragmatic liberalism holds similar assumptions of human nature  with Laissez-faire conservatives except that people are subject to fetters of society. Liberalists point to empirical evidence that ascribed social status, such as race and socio-economic background of families also affects life chances of individuals, despite the same assumption that rational individuals are motivated for success. Negative externalities because of market failures (such as pollution) and exogenous economic factors (such as global economic crises) affect third parties against their will. On definition of need, pragmatic liberalism defines need as a socially-defined minimum instead of need as market preference; pointing to the absurd notion of poor people preferring less food and inferior education. A just society, in the liberalist view, is similar to conservatives in that individuals have the right to enjoy success arising out of their merits. However, considering that factors exogenous to the individual also affect life chances, liberalists argue for government to establish a basic standard of living, and to protect or compensate people for dislocations of no fault of their own – through eliminating systemic disadvantages for discriminated groups, people enjoy equal opportunities to succeed.

Conclusion – Ideologies are only as valid as the validity of assumptions.

In conclusion, different conceptions of social problems result in different social policy responses. Ideologies can only serve as a logical framework to identify problems and policy solutions in pursuance of social justice. Also, since political legitimacy hinges upon citizen perceptions, it may not translate into social utility. Ill-informed perceptions yield broad and harmful choices. Populist but unworkable policies collapse under their own contradictions, and are sometimes replaced by equally ineffective policies. Ultimately, assumptions about particular ideologies must be grounded in empirical evidence – in particular, the degree of exogenous factors affecting life chances, before suggested social policy objectives are adopted.


Birth, Natality and Renewal

Low Jun Hong | Public Policy and Global Affairs Year 2 | 7th May 2017

Nothing is as liberating as the idea of being born anew, whether literally or metaphorically; spiritually or psychologically.

The idea of an emergence, that is at least random, spontaneous and out of nothingness carries with it something special. In movies, you see the unexpected emergence of a hero – someone who like the rest of us, has been propelled into the apocalyptic mix of events that necessitate a transformation of your average Joe. The ordinary layman in the spur of the moment takes on new powers, finds his purpose and takes the responsibility of defending humanity.

A similar narrative is portrayed even in games. One of the recently acclaimed best role-playing game of 2017, Horizon Zero Dawn has aptly captured the idea of rebirth and natality. (Spoiler alert!)

The female protagonist, Aloy was a DNA clone of the original scientist Dr. Elizabeth Sobeck who has died approximately 1000 years ago. In Aloy’s world, human civilisation has reverted back to primeval times resembling a tribal society as a result of some calamity. Aloy, unlike the rest of the tribe members, was conceived through an artificial womb without a birth mother. As a result, she was casted out at birth and raised by an “outcast” living far from the tribe. Throughout her childhood, she was forsaken by the tribe and no one from the tribe was allowed to speak to her. 

However, when she grew up and was confronted with the same forces that wiped civilisation a thousand years ago, somehow out of necessity and spontaneity, she rose to the challenge. Something was born anew. In fact, it was a “bi-birth”. The first birth was when Aloy came into this world and the second, a spontaneous spiritual one was the moment she took on her spear and resolved to defend humanity.  [1]

The idea of birth embodies tremendous hope, change and spontaneity. If anything, it is in every nation, every creed, every society’s responsibility to honour birth and its extensional characteristics.

In a recent news article published by Straits Times, a LASALLE student had decorated a staircase near her flat with gold foil in the name of art. When interviewed, Ms Priyageetha explains that the flat which she resides in belonged to her grandma, who had previously relocated from the slums. In a meaningful way, the new home represented a new lease of life and she named her work “Staircase to Heaven”.

Despite receiving no complaints and even receiving an approving thumbs-up by an architect who lives near her flat, town council laws forbade her work of art and claimed that Ms Riyageetha had no formal authorisation by the town council. Sadly, she removed her art shortly. In response, she explained in her own words “I consider this work as art and not vandalism… My work does not seek to obliterate a public space; vandalism in all sense has no respect for another individual”.

In a way, Ms Priyageetha’s personal work of art expresses a birthing or renewal of experience by illuminating one of the many dull, grey staircases in her flat. One could imagine residents who are intrigued by the gold staircase as they see it and speak about it. Such work of art breaks the monotony, brings new insight to life for both contemplation and a sense of something new. In fact, the case of her story being published on Straits Times as a story of ‘spontaneous art or vandalism against the backdrop of legal regulation’ while initiating conversation is proof of the potential of art as spontaneous and liberating. If Ms Priyageetha’s art has merely resided in the recesses of her mind and not manifest itself in her work of spontaneity, there would simply be no conversation, no public discussion, simply nothing. [2]

In a similar vein, a family who recently moved to Kansas, United States, decided to make small Gnome houses around the Overland Park near their home. As an attempt to find meaning at their new home and to cope with the emotional turmoil that comes with a nomadic lifestyle; relocating frequently due to the father’s work demands, the family has decided to make small Gnome houses and place them in the forest. This act of spontaneity was well received by the families living there. In one incident, a family who has lost her 3-year-old daughter, Allie to brain cancer placed a small note in one of the Gnome houses as remembrance of their daughter. The note read “In memory of Allie Fisher, 10/16/09-6/13/13, Love you Little Owl”.

When the grief-stricken family came back to the same place where they left their note some time later, they were surprised to find a small Gnome house carved into a tree with a teal-coloured door which read “Little Owl”. For the grieving mother, this act of spontaneity from a stranger that came out of nowhere brought comfort and a moment of liberation from the emotional loss. Unfortunately, the Park authorities removed the Gnome houses because they did not receive the Park authorities’ approval. In one of the interviews with the director of Overland Park services, Greg Ruether said “That is my response to make sure we approve what goes into our parks”. [3]

Efforts to thwart spontaneous works, which harbour the potential to disrupt the monotony of life brings a sense of renewal and birth, eliminates essentially any human characteristic of kindness, hope and empathy. It is these small, spontaneous acts performed in the spur of the moment that expresses genuine creativity, kindness and a love for the community at large. In seeking legal authorisation and permission, the spirit of spontaneity is lost.

Very often, it is the uninhibited “Eureka!” moment that sparks anew creations worthy of public exhibition.



[1] B. Romero, “Horizon Zero Dawn: Story and Ending Explained,” TWINFINITE, 1 March 2017. [Online]. Available:
[2] A. Lim, “Gold stairs earn praise but are out of step with rules,” The Straits Times, 8 March 2017. [Online]. Available:
[3] S. Liese, Director, The Gnomist. [Film]. Herizon Productions, 2015. Available:





Politics First vs Policy First: The Sortition Solution [Part 2/2]

Isaac Chng Yong Lun | Public Policy and Global Affairs Year 2

Review of Part 1 – The Relative Merits of Politics First vs Policy First

In the previous article, I wrote about the problem of demagoguery, and how this exposes the conflict between politics first or policy first approach in governance. The article noted that in democracies, where all votes are counted equal, low-information voters, acting as cognitive misers, can yield broad and harmful choices. This is a problem that is common to all democracies, especially in countries where civic mindedness is deficient.

We must keep and strengthen our faith in Democracy. Work must be done.

On 11 November 1947, Winston S Churchill famously stated: “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…

I believe in the importance of Democracy. It allows a non-violent avenue for voters to ensure that governmental elites act for the people’s welfare, or at the very least, not turn rouge against the people’s interests. The degree to which this tool can be wielded effectively by citizens depends on their willingness to participate in politics, think critically and equip themselves with knowledge on current affairs.

When politics revolves around a politically active population subgroup, such as political parties and special interest groups, the common citizen feels alienated.

Alienation occurs when persons feels being isolated from a group or an activity to which one should belong or in which one should be involved, or in this case, the lopsided power relationships in favour of political elites.

This undermines citizens’ faith in democracy and its government. Without faith, there is no perceived legitimacy in the role of government as a guarantor of security, provider of welfare and symbol of national unity. The result is a nation-state where social groups and individuals takes matters into their own hands, greater exploitation by the economically powerful, and national disunity.

I will therefore double emphasize on the importance of faith in any governmental system and the following suggestion proposed serves not only to resolve the cognitive-miser problem in democracy, but also instil faith by institutionalizing greater involvement of the common citizen in the political process.

Introducing Sortition.

In governance, sortition refers to the random selection of representatives from the pool of eligible citizens. In many common-law jurisdictions, sortition is currently used to select jurors to hear court cases, and in some cases, to form political advisory units such as the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform in Canada.

In addition to elected career politicians representing the conscious choices of the people, Sortition yields representation through scientific sampling of “jurors” from the electorate. An citizens’ assembly of jurors selected by sortition will yield a more accurate representation of the electorate and their life circumstances, knowledges and values held. Suppose you have a tub of mixed fruit juice, and you scoop a spoonful of it, the taste of the mixed fruit juice in the spoon would taste the same as the juice in the tub. Sortition assures descriptive representation, where the body of representatives possesses the same descriptive characteristics of the population.

These jurors, who would advocate for themselves, and consequently advocate for persons of similar circumstances to their own, will participate directly in the political decision making process.

A Demarchy-Representative Democracy Hybrid – The Sortition Solution and harnessing the Science of Sampling

Singapore’s electorate population, as of the most recent general election in 2015, is 2,462,926. Suppose we are willing to accept a 5% margin of error and 95% confidence level of representativeness, we would need to allot 385 “legislative jurors” to the citizens’ assembly.

Stratified sampling can be performed to improve precision of representation, and to reduce nonresponse biases, or in this case, the different levels of willingness among different homogenous population subgroups to serve on the citizens’ assembly. The population can be divided into categories that represents different life circumstances such as age, income and wealth levels, gender and sex, race and religion, and place of residence.

The use of scientific sampling to select legislative jurors assures political inclusiveness, as it eliminates the role of educational and socio-economic privileges, political connections, and other political hurdles for citizens of all levels of society to participate directly in governance.

With descriptive representativeness assured, the next step is for the state to invest quality resources to ensure that all legislative jurors are equipped with relevant knowledge for the day and critical thinking skills.

To ensure that legislative jurors learn the relevant knowledge and critical thinking skills for the discharge of their duties, I suggest that they be selected in advance and be trained in the 1 year before taking office. To establish continuity of the citizens’ assembly, legislative jurors will serve for 5 year terms and be selected annually in equally sized batches. This allows newer legislative jurors to learn from the more experienced ones.

Roles of Legislative Jurors

I propose 3 main roles for Legislative Jurors.

Firstly, on issues not well-managed by self-interested politicians. Legislative jurors can decide on issues that involves conflict of interest among elected politicians. These issues include electoral law, redistricting, campaign finance law, the regulation of political speech, anti-corruption, ministerial pay, and organic law. One reason dominant political parties’ foothold in politics seems unshakeable is due to their power to decide on the terms and conduct of the elections. In the US, electoral boundaries in states are often decided by the elected legislature. While gerrymandering along racial lines has been rules unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, partisan gerrymandering is still permissible. First Past the Post system, coupled with politically motivated gerrymandering, has entrenched Republicans and Democrats powers across federal, state and city level of government. In Singapore, the GRC system has also benefited the People’s Action Party at the expense of smaller opposition parties. These controversies cannot be well-managed by self-interested politicians, and since Legislative Jurors are mostly laypersons who does not enjoy opportunities for re-election, such issues can be decided in an impartial manner.

Secondly, on oversight roles. Where the citizens’ assembly finds that national issues are not well-resolved by the elected politicians, legislative jurors may act to participate in the decision-making process for that issue to forge a more acceptable consensus, otherwise, the citizens’ assembly may veto the relevant bills from the elected house of parliament.

Third, advisory roles. During non-election periods, legislative jurors may hold a political advisory role, combining their knowledge of circumstances faced by individuals within their own social strata, and knowledge gained from the discharge of their political duties, to advise elected politicians on the best course of action, based on the collective personal conscience of the legislative jurors. In addition, during the election season, the citizens’ assembly, and individual legislative jurors, representing the diversity of values, social groups, and life circumstances in the nation, could advise the electorate on the best candidates or political parties to vote in an election.

Limits of Sortition and the need to retain Elected Representatives

With the inherent advantages of sortition, coupled with its potential to strengthen faith in democracy, one would ask: should we replace elections entirely with sortition? Nope. I believe that this would be unwise. There are several reasons.

First, the nature of sortition is such that as batches of legislative jurors are randomly selected at every term, it is difficult for the citizens’ assembly as a body to exercise strong expertise in governance, and to translate public values into sound policies.

Second, legislative jurors lack of enthusiasm present in career politicians means that long hours of policy deliberations can lead to burn out, and lacklustre policies.

It is thus evident that elected politicians still play an important role in governance. Sortition should thus serve as a complement, rather than replacement of electoral democracy.

Beyond institutional reforms. Change begins within you.

            While sortition can translate public values into sound policies with greater precision and thus strengthen faith in democracies, it does not on its own solve the problem of cognitive misers in democracies. Institutional reforms may help to mobilize the potential within the society, but change begins from the individual. A country of citizens who continue to cling on to dogmas and reject facts can never stomach sound policies in the face of emotionally appealing but unsound policies. Furthermore, it will be an uphill effort for the sortition proposal to be adopted, given its political implications to political elites.

As we adopt a culture of critical thinking, with respect to facts, with compassion and kindness, and without undue influence by hatred and ego, we can look forward to a more equitable, just and utilitarian society.

See also: Politics First vs Policy First: The Relative Merits [Part 1/2]

Politics First vs Policy First: The Relative Merits [Part 1/2]

Isaac Chng Yong Lun | Public Policy and Global Affairs Year 2

The rise of demagoguery

Demagoguery politics is a manipulative approach that appeals to people’s emotions and prejudices rather than on their rational side. Demagoguery politics favours knee-jerk policy preferences that embraces short term emotional relief at the expense of rational, evidence-based policies that would better advance the long-term welfare of the nation-state.

Common methods employed by demagogues include: (1) dividing the population into an in-group and out-group, and blaming the out-group for social troubles; (2) fear mongering and intimidation; (3) lying; (4) exploiting humans’ inherent cognitive biases with logical fallacies and gross simplification; (5) promising the impossible.

Demagoguery politics has caused problems to democracies. Consider the consequences of the rule of high-profile demagogues such as Hitler’s ethnic cleansing policies, or the Chinese Cultural Revolution that was launched upon Mao call to purge bourgeois elements in society.

With the recent Brexit Vote and Donald Trump’s US presidential election victory, and several parallels in the methodology employed by involved politicians, it has showed how better policies can be side-lined by political manoeuvres. Good policies require political support to be effective. We cannot have policy reversals every other election cycle. However, the problem remains that politicians are primarily interested in attaining power, with political ethics taking a backseat. Thus, I find it timely to discuss the dichotomy of politics first vs policy first approach in governance.

On the importance of politics and the limitations of policy pragmatism

Politics involves the distribution of power and resources within a given community as well as the interrelationship(s) between communities, which in turn shapes the process which decisions are made. In democracies, politicians are primarily interested in winning elections. Without winning elections, they would not have formal powers to effect policies or to advance their agenda.

Governance is about more than just rational policy. If we live in an idealized world isolated from economic interests, political ambitions, and ideologies, then we can afford the luxury of a more rational approach to policy making. We are not. In fact, humans are not perfectly rational creatures. We face cognitive limitations. Humans are subject to numerous cognitive biases such as confirmation bias, attribution errors, self-serving bias, etc., and are susceptible to committing logical fallacies. It is impossible to expect humans to consider all policies rationally, instead, people rely on cognitive shortcuts such as dependence on emotions and dogmatism. This results in value-conflicts that are difficult to resolve and prevalent inconsideration of facts. In democracies, where all votes are counted equal, low-information voters, acting as cognitive misers, can yield broad and harmful choices.

Taking the example of the removal of fuel subsidies in Nigeria. The removal of fuel subsidies makes good economic sense, however, a protest movement called ‘Occupy Nigeria’ occurred. The government then had to commence new mass transit schemes to cushion the pain felt by affected groups.

So, good politics are necessary to resolve value and interest conflicts. It makes a lot of sense to anticipate the legitimate objections of opponents and find ways to give them some recognition in proposed policy solutions. Successful policies require acceptance across a broad spectrum of opinion and circumstances. If policies are perceived as simply the narrow special interests of the current political majority, they are unlikely to be effective or long-lasting.

The stories politicians tell

The nature of politics is such that the making and execution of good policies requires citizens’ faith in the government. However, relying on “pure politics” to make public policy carries equal risks.

Politicians often tell stories to shape people’s perceptions, facts and scientific evidences being secondary in importance. They rely on anecdotes and selected pieces of statistics to frame the perception of voters. Policy stories are like fairy tales, with universal themes.

For instance, the story of decline often goes like this: “things have gotten worse, that things were once better than they are now, that the current trend of affairs is insufferable. Unless this potential crisis is addressed, inevitable doom will occur”. The story of decline aims to paint a negative trend of affairs to motivate people to seize control. Here, facts are of secondary importance and perception of needs in society can be manufactured. Think of the way Apple market its products.

Politicians then tell stories of taking back control, where they pose as the heroes in the story. They offer to solve the problems that the people now perceive to exist. It goes like this: “Things are not hopeless. Let me show you how we can control and solve the situation. You have a choice and by supporting me, you are taking control of this mess.”

This pattern of political narratives exists in many countries.

In the recent U.S. presidential elections, we hear of unsubstantial claims by Donald Trump that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations are redundant and hurting businesses, that “what they are doing is a disgrace” and therefore EPA regulations should be scrapped.

In the events leading up to Brexit, we hear of deceptive claims by Nigel Farage that the UK “sends the EU £350 million a week”, this money could be used to “fund our NHS instead”. Farage later admitted that what he said was a mistake and blamed it on other Leave Campaigners.

Limitations of politics first approach

By now, it is clear that politics on its own cannot generate solutions. In a democracy, politicians main goal is to win elections, and in a political environment, there are some actors that are more influential than the others. This often leads to politicians pandering to powerful interests. An excellent example would be in the US, where campaign financing rules entrenches the influence of the rich in politics, and winner takes all system in the electoral college system led presidential candidates to focus on swing states, or congressional representatives engaging in pork barrel politics. Furthermore, politicians engaging in bad politics could exploit the cognitive biases of people prejudices, dogmatism, and short-sightedness, and informational asymmetries between the laypeople and the elites towards their political goals. Thus, creating policies that are equally bad.

Over the long run, populist but unworkable policies collapse under their own contradictions, sometimes replaced by equally ineffective policies. This precipitates further political upheavals, culminating in a wicked cycle.

Importance of policy pragmatism

Policy is what the elected politicians, analysts, and administrators are supposed to accomplish on a day to day basis as part of their jobs to maximize welfare for their people. A strong framework for rational policy making that is logical and evidence-based is required to produce good, rational, policies that maximizes the greatest good for the greatest number of people over the long term.

As I would believe, short term popularity does not equate to long term popularity. It takes time for citizens to realize the long-term benefits of policies that may be unpopular in the short run. Making good policies with a long-term view sometimes requires the political will to push through unpopular policies. Despite that, good policies could still yield good political returns over the long run.

Take Singapore for example. The government had transited the language medium in all public schools to English. This had proven unpopular with the Chinese-educated. However, today, Singaporeans English proficiency had minimized barriers for Singaporeans to participate in the global economy.

In overall, politics and policies needs to work together. With politics playing the role of maintaining faith of people in policies and good policies translating political goals into effective action.

See also: Politics First vs Policy First: The Sortition Solution [Part 2/2]

The Ghost of Christmas Past

24 January 2017

Author: Kun Yang | English Year 1

In light of recent world events, I thought it might be interesting to look at certain historical parallels with our present time …

1914: The German Empire is the rising power that seeks to displace the dominant power of the time, the UK, investing heavily in naval armaments to challenge the might of the British navy, then the best in the world, spurring an arms race. Diplomatically, it formed an alliance of what would become the Central Powers against the Western Allies, including the UK, France and later the US. World War 1 erupts with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by the Bosnian Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip.

A poster from the period that reflects the reality of the naval arms race as a risky game of cards.


1939: A resurgent Germany seeks to recreate the German Reich, or empire, bringing it into conflict with the UK and eventually the United States, taking advantage of the US retreat into isolationism. With Germany hungry for lebensraum, or living space, and natural resources, and seeking to avenge the humiliation of the treaty of Versailles, it joins hands with Japan, and Italy, which share the same concerns to form the Axis. World War 2 erupts with the invasion of Poland by Germany, triggering a French and British declaration of war.

An illustration of how Germany felt threatened and vulnerable after the humiliation of Versailles, which limited its army to 100,000 men.


2016: A rising China seeks to challenge American global dominance, investing heavily in regions like Southeast Asia and Africa, and even in Latin America, where the Monroe Doctrine (enshrining US dominance and resistance to outside intervention in the Americas since 1823) is losing relevance as America turns inward. China seeks to dominate the strategic shipping lanes of the South China Sea, with regional players like Duterte’s Philippines openly pivoting towards China, upending the long-standing alliance between the Philippines and the United States.

From Singaporean cartoonist Heng Kim Song, published in the New York Times.


Russia seeks to reassert itself on the global stage, to regain some of the ‘greatness’ of the Soviet Union. In Vladimir Putin’s own words, the breakup of the Soviet Union was ‘the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century’. To that end, it is intervening directly and indirectly in Syria, the Baltics, and Ukraine, taking advantage of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) with a US that is retreating into isolationism. Russian maneuvering in the Baltics, which are NATO members, ratchets up tensions to levels not seen since the Cold War, increasing the risk of a spark that could lead to global war, as an attack on one member of NATO will be treated as an attack on all.

The Russian bear turns towards the Baltic states. Interestingly, the tank that is supposed to demonstrate NATO protection is merely a picture with civilians cowering behind it.

With liberal democracy in retreat in most of the Western world this year, as demonstrated by Brexit, the shock election of Donald Trump, and perhaps the election of Marine Le Pen, leader of the ultraconservative Front National in France, the era of the ‘end of history’ and the triumph of liberalism as described by the noted scholar Francis Fukuyama after the Cold War seems to be coming to an end. Indeed, it seems to be a redux of the 1930s prior to World War 2, where far-right parties captured power in Spain, Italy, Germany, and Japan. The potent combination of old powers seeking a return to the limelight, and new powers seeking to displace the old, shows how ‘history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes’. (Mark Twain)