The Big Read

Fixing the world’s woes

Children playing in Brazil, one of the can-do countries spotlighted by Jonathan Tepperman in The Fix. The government gave money to mothers, who had to ensure their children stayed in school, in a programme known as Bolsa Familia.
Children playing in Brazil, one of the can-do countries spotlighted by Jonathan Tepperman in The Fix. The government gave money to mothers, who had to ensure their children stayed in school, in a programme known as Bolsa Familia.PHOTO: REUTERS

In his new book, Jonathan Tepperman, managing editor of US magazine Foreign Affairs, lists the world's 10 most "terrible" problems and suggests how to pursue effective remedies

What a roller-coaster ride the past fortnight has been, with still no end in sight, thanks to United States President Donald Trump.

Within two days last week, his barring of people, most among them Muslims, from seven countries, has thrown major airports into chaos and wiped at least US$4.9 billion (S$6.9 billion) off the value from global airlines stock.

By that time, he and his team had rowed with Mexico over building a wall along its border with the US; trotted out "alternative facts" about the trivial matter of the turnout for his Jan 20 inauguration; and cited publicly a massacre that never happened.

No wonder media outlets such as Germany's Der Spiegel (The Mirror) have since depicted Mr Trump as having beheaded the Statue of Liberty, a symbol of democracy.

  • The Fix: How Nations Survive And Thrive In A World In Decline

  • Children playing in Brazil, one of the can-do countries spotlighted by Jonathan Tepperman in The Fix. The government gave money to mothers, who had to ensure their children stayed in school, in a programme known as Bolsa Familia.By Jonathan Tepperman

    Tim Duggan Books, paperback/ 307 pages/$31.95 with GST from Books Kinokuniya or on loan from the National Library Board under the call number English 338.9 TEP -[BIZ]

It is, as journalist Jonathan Tepperman says, a time of "gathering darkness".

As his new book The Fix shows, however, it is not helpful just to wring one's hands or throw them up in despair.

Tepperman, who is the managing editor of American magazine Foreign Affairs, mounts a strong argument for pursuing counter-intuitive yet effective remedies, or "fixes", to even seemingly intractable quandaries. To his credit, he does stress that structural transformation, the sort that can improve one's quality of life, is necessarily slow.

He begins by listing what he calls the world's 10 most "terrible" problems: inequality, immigration, Islamic extremism, civil war, corruption, the resource curse, energy (or rather, the lack of it), the middle-income trap, countries gridlocked by too-proud politicians and political parties that oppose each other so fiercely that they paralyse the government entirely, such as in the US in 2014.

  • In a nutshell

  • THE FIX BY JONATHAN TEPPERMAN GOOD

    This is a solid, layered read and inspiring primer for effective policy-making, thanks to Tepperman's commitment to drilling down to the most telling details of how great leaders solve grave problems.

    BAD His highlighting just one solution or "fix" for each of his 10 identified global problems - including inequality, immigration and corruption - suggests that one size fits all. But in a world of such diversity, it would be uncanny if each fix worked for everyone, with no tweaks needed.

  • No quick fixes

    Senior writer Cheong Suk-Wai will discuss Jonathan Tepperman's The Fix on Feb 22 from 6.30pm in the Multi-Purpose Room, Central Public Library, B1 National Library Board headquarters at 100 Victoria Street.

    Sign up for the session at any NLB e-Kiosk or try your luck at the door.

Then, in a nimble narrative rich in detail yet light on numbers, the born storyteller gives the reader varied perspectives from those invested in each problem on the warp and weft of cracking it.

In doing so, Tepperman cast his net far and wide, doing the sort of fresh and deep legwork that rewards his readers with a good grasp of even the most complex issues, such as Botswana's resource curse, or how South Korea went from being poorer than Ghana in 1961 to being as rich as Italy today.

Among his scores of interviewees were pragmatic leaders such as Singapore's Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam, and astute experts such as economics don Barry Eichengreen, of the University of California at Berkeley, who is also sometime adviser to the Government of Singapore .

Tepperman then matches each problem to a country that has licked it. So, for example, Singapore is his star for combating corruption. In his thoroughly researched Chapter 5, he lauds founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's nous for human fallibility and steely law enforcement to stamp out what Tepperman calls once "ubiquitous" bribery in "Sin-galore", with Mr Lee saying that "the disinfecting must start from the top". Which was, the author notes, how his lieutenants Wee Toon Boon and Teh Cheang Wan fell from grace.

Other can-do countries spotlighted in The Fix include Canada, Rwanda and Brazil. Most Brazilians endured crushing poverty until their president Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva, known simply as Lula, introduced the Bolsa Familia programme in October 2003. The policy-makers among them gasped at first because Bolsa put hard cash into the pockets of Brazil's poorest. Wouldn't the latter just fritter it all away on wine, woman and song?

Not if the government put the cash in the hands of mothers, rather than fathers, Lula reasoned rightly. He had modelled Bolsa based on his own mother's hardscrabble life. As the president said when introducing Bolsa: "When millions can go to the supermarket to buy milk, to buy bread, the economy will work better."

  • Five questions this book answers

  • 1 How might you best foster trust among those whose interests differ from yours?

    2 What sort of leadership is needed most to transform a country for the better?

    3 Why do people tend to respect those who are harsh, rather than kindly, towards them?

    4 Why is it crucial to get under the skin of a system before you try to change it?

    5 Why is success really just the beginning of even greater challenges?

His further catch: Those who wanted to be on Bolsa had to ensure that their children stayed in school, instead of doing all sorts of jobs to help their families get by. Otherwise, Tepperman said, Lula would "bounce" them off the programme.

Today, Tepperman notes, Bolsa costs Brazilian taxpayers 0.5 per cent of their country's GDP of US$2.2 trillion, compared to 12 per cent of GDP to pay retirees their pensions.

All told, Tepperman stresses, there are five keys to unshackling the world from its woes:

• Always look outwards to how others tackle problems;

• See crises as once-in-a-lifetime chances to rewrite the rules for everyone's benefit;

• Use your power to bring people together in good ways;

• Welcome pragmatists, who get things done, and shun idealists, who only argue over how to get things done; and

• Focus on present issues when solving things, and don't bring up the past to put others down.

Mr Trump and his team might govern better with such keys.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 07, 2017, with the headline 'Fixing the world’s woes'. Print Edition | Subscribe