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The Politics of Policy Making in Singapore. (Book Reviews).

The Politics of Policy Making in Singapore


Singapore: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. xi, 258. Figures, Tables, Notes, Bibliography, Index.

This work is timely and a welcome addition to the international literature of public policy making, to which Singapore Studies has been slow to contribute. The author, Ho Khai Leong, is concerned with tracing the formation of policy making in Singapore, its political antecedents and its entry into the public sphere. Ho begins his book by noting that it has 'a modest objective' of providing a structure for analysis rather than supplying 'a set of definitive answers' (p. 2). It is his intention to start the ball rolling on the study of policy making in Singapore. This is certainly a worthy project. Whether Ho has provided an appropriate structure for analysis, however, can only be determined by further scholarship.

Two questions are posed by this work -- 1) 'What are the roles played by political institutions in policy-making?' 2) 'What are dynamics with the policy making process that would enhance an understanding of Singapore's politics?' (p. 1). The first of these questions is amply answered through an examination of institutions and elite participation. He begins with the transparent point that policy making is political, yet he conceives of 'political' in a narrow framework. Ho then turns to the role of elite policy makers and poses representation as the solution to bureaucracy. This is an interesting contention in the light of his argument that the high levels of bureaucracy in Singapore have led to a heightened politicization of bureaucracy. In many ways, the strength of this book lies in his discussion of the machinations of Singaporean bureaucracy; the research is also strongest in this area. It is institutional formations that fascinate Ho, rather than the perhaps more loaded question of policy implication and response.

What is fundamentally absent from this book is a discussion of policy outcomes; by focusing on policy objectives, Ho obscures rather than illuminates his subject. This is the cause of his failure to answer his second question. The dynamics of policy making must include outcomes -- our understanding of Singapore's politics is not enhanced by incomplete discussions. There are many missed opportunities for analysis in this work; Ho allows several critical issues to remain at the fringe of his study, perhaps inviting others to pick up the gauntlet. A case in point is the discussion of statutory boards. Ho argues that the creation of statutory boards has led to an increase in the scale of government -- an absorbing area for further comment. In a similar vein, Ho comes close to making a significant statement about the failure of the bureaucracy to allow people to voice grievances and seek redress, but hides it in comments about the role Members of Parliament play in representation and access to feed-back.

The Politics of Policy Making in Singapore reads more like a series of articles woven together than a discreet thesis. It is unclear at times who the intended audience is, as Ho vacillates between addressing a Singapore-savvy reader and a general international reader. There are several examples of repeated information whereas with a more directed approach the book would be more rewarding. Much of the work is devoted to charts, diagrams, tables and models -- an attempt to clarify the specifics of the Singaporean context. Ho seeks to devise a series of models to understand and predict policy making in Singapore; by doing so, he oversimplifies what is a highly complex and specific society and system. Despite these failings, The Politics of Policy Making in Singapore makes an important contribution and opens the way for further appraisal of Singapore Government policy.
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Author:Tarulevicz, Nicole
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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