Innovation, and the Government

I’ve had a few heated up discussions with a particular friend because he didn’t believe that an idea I put forward was possible. There are a few things which I disagreed, of course, but I shall talk about my idea first.

My idea was created a long long time ago, and if it sounds very familiar, or you have read that the government may be doing something like it, it’s just a coincidence. Personally, I saw the potential of the GPS system that people have in their cars. When I thought about how to best reduce congestion and improve traffic flow, I thought that it is vital for other alternatives other than COE, as well as the ERP, an idea that does not take that much money from you, and hopefully not a single cent.

The thing is that, we have to look at other methods. Control obviously has some effect. But COE in itself is insufficient. Neither is the ERP the best method to reduce congestion. The best method to reduce congestion, is to move the congestion away, and split the congestion up. One of the methods to do so is the continual upgrade of our roads, our infrastructure. More well built and planned roads can shorten travel time. However, I was thinking in another way, that is, why not have the GPS system linked to a central database? Since our ERPs can actually tell road conditions, and even car speeds, we can link it to the GPS systems. The smart GPS can then take road conditions, analyse and present alternatives. Hence, we can learn about another road to take which can reduce our travelling time.

Another benefit would be that we’ll know when an accident takes place, and the particular road is jammed. Hence we take an alternative road. The first impact is that we save time, the second is that we do not contribute to extra congestion, hence the third, the congestion clears up faster than normal. This will mainly benefit people who are not very familiar with Singapore roads, and do not know alternative roads to take.

In my opinion, such innovation benefits the people, and seriously, who wouldn’t want to cut down on travelling time as much as possible and go home to a good warm meal? Or which company that deals with delivering would want their drivers to get stuck on roads. Unproductive work that is paid. A greater efficiency would increase the number of deliveries.

But my friend doesn’t believe in it, because he doesn’t see how profitable it could be. Personally I do not believe that everything in this world must be linked to profits. And even if we remove profits from things, we are not talking about volunteering either. Simply said, the government has to be able to provide certain public goods without profit. In fact, the government does provide public goods without profit, and that is paid by taxes. For example, street lamps. Are we selling those lights to anyone else who walks past? No. They are provided because we have intangible benefits. Street lights increase visibility and reduce accidents. No talk about profits.

My friend believes that the government will give you something, create a need, and then make people pay for it. I think that’s rather far-fetched. We cannot keep having the notion that the government is out to make money from the people, because it seems that it is an inherent bias against anything government related.

Anyway, back to the topic, there are many continual innovations around us that are happening which does not require a profit. For example, pushing for Singapore to be wireless. If eventually we are able to make Singapore totally wireless, then we would have a whole new infrastructure in place which we could utilize. We may end up just paying for the Wireless @SG, and not access the internet via the phone lines.

With wireless capabilities, people will find it easier to work on the go, increasing productivity and saving time. I believe we have to continue to think about intangible benefits. The government, whoever they may be, must always think ahead about what projects they can undertake. Not everything is about profitability.

We also clash on the topic of government. I believe that the government must not be afraid to take harsh measures, as long as it benefits society as a whole. In fact, certain policies may be unpopular with the masses, but if they have to be undertaken, then they have to do it. I’m sure that most of us are not very well versed with the going ons of the government, but we find it easy to criticize. I agree that criticism is needed for continual improvement of the government, and they have to take into account of people’s feelings. They also have to take into account of how many people will benefit and how many will be worse off. They also have to think about how to solve those problems that will arise if a certain policy is not going to be pushed through.

Take for example the current debate on the Advanced Medical Directive and Euthanasia. Personally I find that the Health Ministry has been doing a great job, and they are constantly challenging our so called morals and ethics, and trying to come out with a compromise that can solve problems. For example, the issue on organ trading and selective compensation.

Let me talk about CPF. My friend does not believe in the need for CPF. I understand. People feel that they are educated enough to take control of their money. But we have to also consider the other side, where about people who end up without sufficient savings, and in the end have to resort to public assistance. I agree with him that it is not right to force everyone to conform just for the sake of a few, but sometimes, we have to take the hard decision and do something. We have to ask ourselves, what problems will surface? What will happen when they come to me for help, asking for public assistance? We then have to find a balance between both sides, and come up with a good plan.

Talking about CPF, personally I do not see a big problem. I am very comfortable with CPF as long as my money doesn’t erode inside. Besides, I can always use the money to buy a house, so I can still touch the money. If one feels that saving on his own is no difference from saving via CPF, and hence CPF should be abolished, then I feel that there is nothing to talk about since there is no difference. However, the CPF system is not without faults. We have to consider faults and benefits and weigh everything objectively.

Anyway the bottom line is, the day the government stops producing public goods without profit, that is the day we all start counting down to the ultimate destruction of our society, and it is time to change a government. I still firmly believe continued innovation is good for the society, and there are chances that innovation can be pushed out without the need of profits. Profits can fuel private firms’ spirit for innovation, but some innovations is more beneficial when treated as a public good.