Counsel of Compassion


Neil Irwin recently penned an article in New York Times’ Upshot blog which really made me think about the whole discipline and profession of economics though I must say that the article is as much about policymaking. Taking the perspective of policymakers then, is about what are the ‘evidence’ or research you can point to in order to justify your policy. The bulk of economic research especially in small-scale empirical-based policy evaluations actually works out the marginal effects of policy interventions and this gives policymakers the language and the tools to push through the interventions they hope to.

I have myself seen way too much policymaking at work and the influence of evidence goes as far as to justify rather than motivate a policy. Therefore, the role of disciplines like sociology or economics can only influence policymaking at any point of time through the ease by which these disciplines’ findings can help push through policy recommendations. Neil is right to say that:

If the White House Council of Social Advisers did exist, one of its great challenges would be to convert some of these findings into actual policy proposals that might help. Part of the ascendance of economics in the policy-making sphere comes from the fact that economists tend to spend more time looking at specific legislative or regulatory steps that could try to improve conditions.

And trying to solve social problems is a more complex undertaking than working to improve economic outcomes. It’s relatively clear how a change in tax policy or an adjustment to interest rates can make the economy grow faster or slower. It’s less obvious what, if anything, government can do to change forces that are driven by the human psyche.

But he concludes rather disappointingly by suggesting some vicious cycle at work and the onus is on government to ask for advice from the sociologist. I am from LSE, where there is a relatively strong culture of social activism in place with the school being founded on Fabian roots highlighting social justice. My training in economics at LSE grounds the systematic study of economics upon moving towards social justice rather than ‘mere’ prosperity. Overall, I think the UK does a whole lot better in incorporating a diversity of views in their policymaking – including a strong element of sociology. No one says it’s easy, but progress have been so starkly lacking in this area in America.

Singapore too, is at the cusp of change when it comes to thinking about policy. Budget 2017 came practically without any big surprise and isn’t anything more than honing our government’s belief in incrementalism. The expectations for more has created demand for greater social activism. The recent passion-filled speech in parliament by Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Kuik Shiao-Yin was both refreshing and courageous for its use of non-traditional indicators to justify policy actions and directions.


The disappointing conservatism that suppresses great ideas and creates ‘missed opportunities’ will only serve to generate frustration in policymaking (even within the civil service) that seeks new means of justifying what we already know we must do. Not only that, peering into sociology and other disciplines (alongside its other indicators) will allow us to refine, enrich and better tune our initiatives to serve the target rather than someone else’s political or economic agenda.

Precisely because Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat isn’t known for being radical, we now know we need more Kuik Shiao-Yin in Parliament. At the working level, many more civil servants will need a courage greater than hers to stand up to political office holders and say ‘social trust’ is more important than ‘value-add’ and the sense of being supported by a society and community that cares is more than ‘jobs added or transformed’. Having experienced decades of ‘mere prosperity’, it would be silly to continue striving for it mindlessly. From here, let’s start thinking about the harder problems of a prosperous Singapore that strives for greater social justice.

*Note that all opinions in this article is personal and do not reflect the views of any organisations I serve in.