Academics are not what they used to be

If you’re an economist and in the field of academia, there is the arduous task of translating what you know into both knowledge and action for the people who don’t.

Lim Chong Yah is one such name and his ideas, though controversial, were considered seriously by the Government. His contributions came in the form active leadership in the organisations that he helmed.

His is a household name that many A level economics students ought to be familiar with. After all, he had written the textbooks they’re supposed to study.

He was trusted by the Government to chair the newly formed National Wages Council (NWC) and helmed it for 20 years. The NWC went on to recommend and drive wage increases in a peaceful manner.

Lim was also the president of the Economic Society of Singapore and a member of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights for 20 years from 1992 to 2012.

When the CPF was to be reviewed, Lim was tasked to setup a CPF study group to analyse the CPF withdraws age. The group was formed after adverse public reaction to the government’s suggestion to raise the age for CPF withdraws from 55 to 60.

He recollected in his biography, ““When the report was ready, we were told not to publish it. This went against academic thinking and practice as traditionally academics are expected to make public their research work.”

Lim was no stranger to controversy. He advocated for a “wage shock therapy”. The components of this idea included an across-the-board three year wage freeze for top executives earning more than $1 million a year and to raise wages artificially for the very low-income workers.

The idea was considered seriously by the Government, although it was rejected.

“I appreciate his good intentions, I share his concerns over this group of workers. But I do not agree with his drastic approach because the only realistic way to move is step by step, with wages and productivity going up in fast as we can, as fast as it's possible”, said Prime Minister Lee.

Artificial wage increases was experimented with in the 80s, however with consequence. In 1985, when the economic winds changed, market conditions turned difficult. Singapore plunged into deep recession and wages had to be cut sharply, so that the economy could recover. This was clear proof that wage shock had consequences.

Lim’s approach was non-political, based on economic principals and constructive. And not to mention, hands-on.

I’m not sure if I see this in his modern day peers. Academia these days appear obsessed with politics and with keyboard criticisms.

Let’s take Donald Low for a quick example. His public advocacy is laden with mere critcism. “Erasing GST hike”, for example.

In another criticism on income inequality, he said thus, “Income inequality is not something that can be fixed by a subsidy here, a tweak there, a use of incentives, raising foreign worker levy somewhere else,” he said. “I think it’s a far deeper problem that is deeply rooted, not just in domestic policy but also in our political economy.” In translation, it merely says “what the government is doing is weak, something else needs to be done. I don’t know what, but it needs to be done”.

And he tears down what he said by later adding that “inequality is not a ‘uniquely Singapore’ problem”.

In 2013, he wants to “contain Singapore’s rich” and to “regulate” them. As an economist, he must understand the consequences of these comments, especially when it turns into action.

And we’re lucky that it hadn’t turned to action yet.

In an embarrassing criticism in 2017, he once said that “penalties for crime need to reflect public opinion”. This is fundamentally incorrect; it goes against the grain of jurisprudence that opinions of men form the basis of penalties. He apologised not just once, but twice for this mistake.

Can we have less of these academics and more of the ones of yesteryear? The ones that get involved, roll up their sleeves and get down and dirty to do the work? We can turn to social media if we need opinions and criticisms thank you very much.

Let’s bring back the likes of Lim. Although his ideas may not have been workable, they were at least considered by the administration. Lim’s report on the CPF and recommendations for the government not to raise the withdrawal age was rejected, but he had heard though the grapevine that then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew told members of the Cabinet to read the issue as “there were a lot of good ideas in the report”.

This is the kind of academia that Singapore needs.


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