Taking an enlightened approach towards progress

Singapore Democrats

SDP Secretary-General Chee Soon Juan called on Liberals and Democrats in Asia and Europe to focus on the well-being of the people instead of power and greed. He was speaking at the 6th ALDE-CALD Meeting recently held in Manila.$CUT$

The event also marked the 20th anniversary of CALD. (Photo, from left, SDP representatives at the conference: Yeo Poh Hong, Chee Soon Juan, Jaslyn Go, Jufri Salim.)

Sir Graham Watson, Leader of the Alliance for Liberal Democrats in Europe (ALDE),

The Hon Sam Rainsy, Chairman, Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD),

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

It is with much interest that Ifollowed today’s proceedings which discussed the present and futurerelations between Asia and Europe. And as with many of you, I wouldlike to credit the speakers for their keen insight on the subject.

I would like to zero in, however, onone of the themes of today’s programme which is the anticipated shift of power to Asia asmany countries in this region rise to become powerful global players.

Expectedly, much of the discussioncentred on economic power. This is understandable because it is theincrease of economic power that willdetermine the country’s political and military might, and ultimatelyprovide the power holders global hegemony.

Focus on need not greed

But here is where we need to pause. Inour rush to become economic powerhouses, we, inadvertently orotherwise, fuel humankind’s fatal weakness – greed.

What we often fail to realise is that the GDP, often used as a measure of economic growth, is not a good indicator of a nation’s well-being. It is merely anaggregate of the amount of goods we produce and services we render.The more of these goods and services we offer, the greater the GDP.

This indicator does not, however, tellus anything about the well-being of the people working to producethat GDP growth. The person who formulated the GDP, Simon Kuznets,had specifically warned against using the index as an indicator of aneconomy’s health.

In fact, there is an argument to bemade that beyond a certain point, GDP expansion results in theimpoverishment of the people and our quality of life.

Think about it. A company that payshandsome bonuses to its directors and another that doles out painfulretrenchment benefits to its workers both do their part in boostingthe GDP. But while one group gets increasingly richer, the other isout of a job.

When a father stays home to be with his son or takes him out to the park, it does not contribute to GDP growth. But when he stays outlate and drinks with his beer buddies, he helps too increasethe GDP.

When trees stay rooted and produce oxygen and reduces carbondioxide, no GDP growth takes place. But when they are cut down tomake paper and furniture, the GDP is bumped up.

It is important that we make thisimportant note that GDP growth does not equal a better quality of life. We must not lead our peoples into this false notionthat achieving GDP growth makes us all wealthier, healthier andhappier.

Think about China. Even though theeconomy has been growing at breakneck pace, the environmentaldegradation has resulted in the “cancer villages” sprouting upall over the country – villages where incidents of cancer andcancer-related illnesses have increased dramatically due to thepollution of the air and waterways.

Then there is Singaporewhose economic growth is the stuff of legends. At $65,000 our GDP percapita is one of the highest in the world. And yet, Singaporeans haveseen their real wages decline over the years even as the GDP hitrecord highs.

The focus on creating ever higher GDPgrowth rates have also resulted in the generation of greater poverty.Sir Graham Watson this morning lamented about the dire situationEurope finds itself. Not long ago the US found itself in an even moreapocalyptical situation during the financial meltdown. China’seconomic growth masks a dangerous bubble that when burst will wreakeconomic and financial havoc throughout the world.

Such monumental disasters can bedistilled into one word – greed. While the world’s richest 1percent own nearly half of the planet’s wealth, hundreds of millionsare mired in hunger and poverty. Such an arrangement is unsustainableand is the single biggest threat to modern life as we know it.

And it is the obsession with the GDPthat has driven economies to absurd contradictions. Take again, Singapore. As quickly as our GDP has risen, we have a Ginicoefficient – a measure of income inequality – that is thebiggest among advanced economies.

What about happiness? While Singapore boasts of the highest number ofmillionaires per capita globally, a Gallup poll recently surveyedpeoples in 148 countries and found that Singaporeans ranked as theunhappiest people in the world.

A fool’s errand

If all we do is talk about whetherEurope or Asia is richer and hence more powerful, and focus on themindless pursuit of GDP growth without regard as to how that growthis generated and how it affects our well-being, can we say, hand onheart, that we are leading our peoples in the right direction? Or arewe ultimately running a fool’s errand?

No, there must be somethingelse other that GDP growth that will ultimately bring contentment tothe people.

How much more can we mine, how much deeper can we drill and how many more trees can we logbefore we irrevocably denude our earth of the very resources thatsustain life itself?

But there is no decree from on highthat we have to pursue GDP growth at all cost. There arealternatives. In its place, why don’t we compare happiness? There arealternative indices such as the Genuine Progress Index that allows us to assess the level of production of goods and services while taking into account the social, political and environmental costs that gointo generating the GDP.

Such a measure actively takes intoconsideration the happiness and quality of life – which is not thesame thing as standard of living – of the people. Why don’t weevaluate the competence and relevance of governments through suchindices?

In addition, research has shown that genuine participatorydemocracy allows people to achieve greatersatisfaction and well-being. Should we not focus on competing witheach other on who can be more democratic even as we rank ourselves onthe size of our GDPs?

Perhaps ALDE and CALD could promote the practice of comparing howresponsive political leaders are to the real needs of our peoplesinstead of continuing the exclusive focus of chasing GDP growth?

There is no more receptive audiencethan a roomful of progressive minds, such as the ones presentlyassembled, to discuss tackling the ultimately futile effort ofoutdoing each other in power and greed, and to think of a moreenlightened approach towards achieving progress – real progress –for humankind.

Thank you.

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