The government tends to be an easy target for most of the problems, or the lack of solution towards them. In most cases, the lack of technical solutions tend not to be the barrier towards solving the problems. It is a matter of adoption. And people look towards the government to drive the uptake of solutions. The struggle today, in the market economy where there’s a multitude of technical solutions backed by various different economic interest, there’s some kind of gridlock towards having governments select solutions.
Historically, the popular beliefs, ideas and thoughts drive the directions of democratically elected government. Influence from businesses probably will contribute to some of that. But the options are limited (automobiles or horse carriages, internal combustion engines or electric engines, AC or DC transmission, etc.) and there are certain dimensions by which governments can justify their choices and move forward.
Today, it is less clear. Should we electrify homes completely or allow them to continue using gas, albeit having to encourage the development of renewable gases? Should the government be driving the choice of technologies used in homes or industries by enabling or making difficult the development of more biomethane for grid-injection? Or should they be encouraging full electrification not just of homes but also industries, and even heavy transport, redeveloping infrastructure to be able to deliver lots of electricity, enabling battery swapping or ultra-fast charging along highways?
What are the dimensions that the government should be optimising along, should they be taking positions to propagate certain solutions or standards? Are they in the position to make those choices? Yet some of these innovations and technological adoption can only move forward with enabling policies. The issue is that being in a standstill and not enacting any policy is in itself a choice for status quo, for the carbon-intense way of life, and dooming our system. Yet making a choice can mean excluding certain options or causing certain options to be more or less expensive than they otherwise would be, hence favouring one over another.
Taking policy positions and ultimately making some kind of technological choice implicitly is inevitable. So it is just a matter of what are the priorities.
The beauty of the market system emerges when there’s competition along the right dimensions just when we all need them. But competition doesn’t always require a market economy – there’s always limited resources, time and other constraints that requires us to somehow compete. There’s also reputation, attention of people and recognition that drives us to compete. In the 20th century, the space race during the cold war led to phenomenal technical and technological advances which powered the growth over the 21st century.
There was an alignment of political, and public interest. The economic interest was not entirely foreseen and only realised much later. But it seemed that entire economies of Europe, US and Soviet Union were engaged in this mission. It seemed like a conflict and perhaps competition of egos but eventually worked for the good of mankind.
As an energy transition consultant, I welcome this. As much as we might think the competition can result in duplicative efforts and inefficiency, it is what we need to align the incentives in the market with the interest of the overall society. Moreover, harnessing the public interest and pressure upon this topic through directing the workforce and human capital towards the low-carbon economy is much needed. The green race should hopefully create the necessary ecosystem we need to drive further changes and ensure the climate transition.
Open dialogues with investors are needed by management of companies emitting lots of carbon dioxide. The investors are pushing for companies to decarbonise, disclose their emissions, create long term roadmaps for decarbonising their businesses. But what about making sure executive compensation is aligned with those goals?
What about the amount of returns they are willing to sacrifice in the short term to build greener supply chains? Must it be quantified in terms of reputational risks and climated-related financial risks? Are we overemphasizing the financial KPIs at the expense of the environmental values we should truly be caring about. Is our people and planet really put before profits? After all, businesses would claim that profits keep them alive to drive the goals of people and planet?
Maybe it is about agreeing on a minimum viable return or profit to keep investors there. Perhaps anything beyond that minimum viable return should be directed towards greater climate ambitions. If we truly believe that the future unit of competition is making a contribution to green rather than profits, we need to start acting as such.
Continuing on the theme of business models, hacking the target audience in multiple dimensions, and also incentivisation by government for social objectives. More governments can learn from this but with the clear objective of advancing social good and making sure that the help they render to the populace lands in the right hands. And that people are behaving in the socially desirable direction.
This is different from the typical incentivisation that is driven by cost-benefit calculations of corporates, and enabling companies to cross certain cost hurdles to invest in certain activities in an economy. The sort of incentivisation that we are operating on here deals with longer term, more strategic directions that the government is driving at – not just trying to hit GDP growth targets or stimulating the aggregate demand of the economy.
And these strategies also gets at cultural shifts and change. Done properly, they create a new, better culture that treasures the future. That does not claim the present or the short term at the expense of the future. Parts of this incentivisation could be about a mixture of regulation that creates demand while subsidisation that buffers the costs of compliance. For example, applying a hefty carbon tax while subsidising decarbonisation technologies and programmes.
It’s not about sticks or carrots but sticks and carrots.
Chanced upon Mariana Mazzucato’s The Big Con in the bookstore today and took the chance to read a bit of it. I first heard of the book from the media and my curiosity was piqued, not least because I’m a consultant myself. The firms highlighted by the book are the usual big consulting groups and Mariana’s main area of attack was on their work for governments enfeebling the public sector and exercising undue influence on the decision and politics of countries.
Being focused on the energy transition, I thought perhaps that my work is less implicated by Mariana’s attack but having been a public servant myself, I do wander if the government contracting out work to the consulting industry is a problem in itself. I think for Singapore, we can safely say that Mariana’s attacks don’t have teeth because the public sector in Singapore maintains a lot of the critical capabilities and information even whilst drawing upon consultants to help drive forward its work.
The Big Con then has in mind very specific governments as targets and in some sense, cherry-pick specific stories, case studies and situations to make its argument. Nevertheless, I still empathize with what the authors are driving at and the change they are hoping to make. Mariana Mazzucatto also wrote The Mission Economy and while I have not read it, I understand the underlying ideas and how The Big Con interacts with some of those fundamental notions. I do think that governments and more actors in the economy needs to get together to galvanise the economy and wider society to collectively embark on the joint mission for a future that is worth creating.
As Singapore steps into the prosperity of modern society, we recognise increasingly that our prosperity and success isn’t about us as individuals but something we need to develop as a society. And that is driving the whole Forward SG exercise: the idea around reworking our social compact. Prime Minister Wong declared, “Here I have a plea to all: For a new definition of success to become a reality, all of us – as consumers – must be willing to bear a higher cost for the goods and services we consume. We must recognise the important work that our fellow citizens undertake to keep our society going, and do our part to uplift and boost their wage prospects.”
For this plea to work, it is not just about consumers and cultural mindset changes, the whole economic engine of the government including our policies on trade and industry. Essentially, our government needs to develop new ways to think about inflation: that it may be part of the consequences of uplifting the wages of our fellow Singaporeans and tradesmen. And the mechanisms around public sector procurement might need to change too if the PM himself is suggesting that consumers must be willing to bear higher cost?
We all are consumers, taxpayers, employers or employees somehow; the whole economy works such that we have these overlapping roles and what we fail to spend through consumerism, can be spent by the government through taxation. If the government genuinely wants to uphold certain principles of social distribution, it would be really hard to do so by moral suasion and avoid damaging the pro-growth stance.
In 1819, when Sir Stamford Raffles came to strike a deal that made Singapore a British colony, the population of Singapore is approximately 150. 2 years later, in 1821, the population rose to 5000 mostly as a result of the establishment of the port, providing ready access to population from other centers.
By 1860, however, the resident population ballooned to around 80,800 comprising mainly of “temporary” immigrants coming from India, China as well as from the surrounding islands. In the 1870s, Singapore became the main hub for sorting and export of rubber, a major commodity for global economic development.
By the close of 19th Century, Singapore was a thriving hub in the region. The economy grew eightfold between 1873 and 1913. Before there was the Singapore we know today, the port city was already a major trading hub. This wasn’t purely luck nor a matter of domestic economic policy. So what happened through these years?
Just 5 years after the establishment of Singapore as a free port under British rule, in 1824, the English and the Dutch brokered a deal to exchange Bencoolen (or Bengkulu in Sumatra) for Malacca. This was particularly important; the other port that was controlled by the British in the region was Penang, which the English established since 1790; the location was not that popular since ships from the east will still have to pass through the Straits of Malacca before reaching Penang.
With Penang and Singapore under the control of the British, the rivalry between the English and the Dutch in the region meant that Dutch control of the Straits of Malacca through possession of Malacca was a significant bottleneck. The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 resolved the rivalry (somewhat) by allocating spheres of influence, opening up the entire chain of territories — Penang, Malacca and Singapore to British control and thus greater incentive for the Royal Navy to maintain the safety of the trading ships passing through the Straits of Malacca.
The Dutch Navy was implicitly given the same responsibility on the side of the straits closer to Indonesia. In fact, the Dutch greatly expanded their presence in the straits. Before that, piracy was extremely rampant along that straits and the numerous islands around provided safe bays for pirate ships. The informal security coordination in these waters gave way to higher flow of trading ships thus facilitating the boom of the port of Singapore.
Injection of Human Capital
By 1825, the population of Singapore went past the 10,000 mark. And in 1826, the British East India Company officially took on Singapore as a colony of the British Empire after John Crawfurd signed a second treaty with the Sultan of Johor and the Temenggong, which extended British control of Singapore over to the entire island instead of just the port.
The formation of the Straits Settlement consisting of Penang, Malacca and Singapore happened in the same year with Penang designated as the capital. In 1830, the capital was shifted to Singapore, further entrenching the important institutions of British governance in Singapore.
The decisions made by British to build up and enhance the value of Singapore and the injection of top civil servants and managerial talents into Singapore due to its designation as capital of the Straits Settlements (and subsequent establishment of the Straits Settlements as a crown colony in 1867) played an extremely important role in shaping the economic, political and administrative environment which proved extremely favourable to Singapore.
Why is this important to us as an individual?
At an individual level, this holds 2 key lessons for us in terms of thinking about jobs and careers:
You want to be very selective in the environment that you subject yourself to if you have enough choice and control. Put yourself in a safe environment where you surround yourself with a friendly support network.
You want to build up your capabilities and be proactive in growing your knowledge and skills relevant to the network you have built up.
Where you find yourself in a hostile or personally unfavourable environment, have no qualms about withdrawing yourself from it. There is no point in spending time and efforts fending off criticisms and attacks with limited resources you have. Better to find a new environment and context where you can be nurtured and grow. Success often begets success as the initial value you develop attracts others to contribute to your development. Just make sure you don’t get so addicted to it that you begin to fear failure.
This is part of a series of republished articles from my Medium page because I am worried about the platform ceasing to be. A previous version of this article was published in here a while back focusing only on the economic history aspects.
Exploring transitions of market sizes is something I’m keen to examine a bit more. The richness of capitalist market economy comes not so much from the price competition but competition along other dimensions. That actually is not that amenable to economic analysis despite all the support that traditional economic analysis had given weight to the beauty of the market economy and its efficiencies.
The innovations of the market economy actually requires dynamism rather than static equilibrium. And over the course of the so-called dynamic equilibria, there is actually some degree of disequilibria. More of our experiences are with the changing patterns such as prices, proliferation of new products and shifts in market messaging than with having clear repetitive routines.
There is to some extent a predictability around the fact that people will be fed and services will be provided without central coordination but these are just scarffolding of a much richer and vibrant structure.
So small markets becomes larger by growing in the demand base or demand groups, or when they merge into other broader base markets. These shifts reflect that even the basic fundamentals around our traditional analysis of markets should be oriented not necessarily based on demographics, a need or particular behaviours. The boundaries between markets are more fluid than we think. It takes broader thinking to be able to conquer markets from the perspective of business and to analyse them through the changing times.
I spent some time during my masters studying institutions and the economic effects that institutions have. By institutions, I mean established ‘laws and practices’ as much as governing rules, systems in place that organises economic activities. These rules and practices have huge impacts on economic development.
Acemoglu et al (2001) was a famous study on the long-lasting effects of institutions and on the economy. I thought it was interesting to take a bit more of a meta view on these topics and discover the forces that sometimes lurks in the background in ways we don’t realise.
Our state of the markets and the economy needs to be thought through the lenses of the institutions we have evolved, the incentives around them rather than just short-term fire-fighting. The shortest route to the near-term outcomes we want does not ensure the outcomes persist. And because these days we tend to think that we can monitor and dynamically ‘guide’ things to a desired outcome, the more we create unnecessary build-up of tensions as we choose to ignore the impact of current institutional structures we have laid down. These we must not ignore.
While the hearing remains inconclusive, there was little mistake that the US is entering yet another cycle of active state intervention into business. It is strange that issues being put across the table confused data privacy issues, responsibilities of a tech company management, geopolitics and business ownership.
Our institutions today are highly complex and sophisticated. Even the concept of ownership in a business is made so complicated by unbundling of the various rights that are traditionally attributed to owners, then dishing them out to various parties.
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