This is really for dialogue — about what fears are, what hopes are, and how these things frame Singapore’s growth narrative. The first part is about the existing condition, which to me seems to be fear-based; the second part is an exploration into hope.
I want to try taking a shot at what the general direction of Singapore’s governance is based on — sort of summary of how to think about why and how policies are made, and why certain policies are the way they are. I can’t be exhaustive and look at all the policies, so I’ll look at the ones that seem to have very big impacts.
I’ll start off by saying that the policies appeared to be opportunistic in the early years, and then they became based on fear. I’ll explain what I mean by all these, and I’ll have to be quite cursory. I’ll then end by saying that the undertone of fear remains in the strategy of keeping Singapore going, and that there are other productive ways of looking at policy making, both fear-based and not.
The lens of Fear
Singapore’s early policy in building the economy and defense — the two most important things — were opportunistic. Singapore started on an Export-Oriented Industrialisation under Dr Goh Keng Swee — how he started up Jurong as an industrial estate, making sure that companies could start quickly. The British withdrawal left behind potential assets that could be further used for the industrialisation process — the legacies are still around — Keppel’s shipbuilding is part of this legacy. The strategies worked. By the mid 1970s and the 1980s, Singapore’s economy was at full employment, and the beginnings of a modern military, with platforms such at the A-4 Skyhawks being gradually introduced.
Along the way, the labour movement had to be coopted into the political system, forming the Tripartite system — with active negotiations between businesses, government and labour. The key concerns remain: employment, and income. Employment appears to be the priority of the government and the labour. In very broad strokes, the key concern of the government remains largely about how to maintain Singapore as a platform for companies to come and stay in Singapore and provide jobs to Singaporeans. This concern appears to be the overriding concern of governance in Singapore. I suggest that this concern is one that is based on fear.
There certainly are grounds for fear. There is first, Singapore’s condition as a small island state with a declining birth rate and an aging population. The fear is that any loss of dynamism in any section of society will cause investments to go somewhere else. This line of thinking then arrives at the conclusion: Singapore — as a society, as a country — must do as much as it can to maintain its economic dynamism.
With this perspective in mind — this thinking about Singapore’s vulnerabilities, about the fear of economic irrelevance, — is a useful framework to think about how policies relate to that broader goal. For example, one reason why Singapore’s employment guidelines are relatively lax is because companies can then hire and fire easily, within some constraints. And even then, it is unclear of the constraints or rules are enforced; hence the claims of racism or national biases in the practices of some foreign companies. Will the state want to enforce employment laws more strongly? According to the fear of economic irrelevance, the answer is a “no.”
The issue of immigration makes the framework more visible. The fear of an aging population, and a declining native population makes the fear of economic irrelevance and stagnation loom very large. And it does seem that immigration is the only answer in for various time horizons. Without a dramatic change in the social and economic policies, immigration will be an important part of the answer. Immigration, with the accompanying increase in the supply of foreign workers, will make foreign companies stay in Singapore, and provide jobs for Singaporeans of all kinds. The issue here is very clear: allowing foreigners here to come and work will cause companies to stay here, and their stay here will cause Singaporeans to have some jobs. The relative amounts of jobs does not matter; only the amount of net jobs created for Singaporeans matters.
What then about the crowdedness? The response then, has been a large increase in the number of infrastructural projects, and with changes in land-use planning. The increase in the MRT lines has been one response, and by 2030, the number of MRT lines will have dramatically increased. Land-use change — such as the relocation of the Paya Lebar Airbase will have a huge impact in the development of the area. Effectively, residential density can increase markedly, as the height limits for that area will no longer apply. And there will be more development and redevelopment projects — such as when Tanjong Pagar Port moves to Tuas… These are not trivial projects. For land-scarce Singapore, these are major changes. By 2050, the skyline of Singapore will have changed again.
All of these things, are however, cold comfort to those of us living in the present, having to deal with the crowdedness and the difficulties today. But these are the assumptions that have been with us for a long time — these fear based orientations stemming from the scarcity-based mentalities, most of which are justified. But difficult questions remain with us: to what end, or at what line, do we say that we have to fence something off against this fear of economic irrelevance?
A lot of things had to give in the drive to maintain economic relevance. A lot of people with memories will still ask — did the old National Library had to go, to give way to the Fort Canning Tunnel to save a few minutes for the motorist? Did Bukit Brown had to go, to save a few more minutes? Or even Bidadari to house people? Does the Cross Regional Line really have to go through the Central Water Catchment? Some of theses things have to be accepted, others mourned. Can we build a Singapore identity that does not only include government-sanctioned infrastructure? Today the Singapore Botanic Gardens is now in the UNESCO list, but in the 1970s it was close to being removed to give way to development. Where will Singapore end up if this line of reasoning were to be continued?
There is of course, optimism that the significance of economic development is less strong than before, even though it probably it still is very important, if not the most important. For one, there is now greater attention on healthcare and in uplifting low-income groups. The former, in view of the aging population — is necessary. The latter, from the opportunity point of view is probably necessary as well. For Singapore to remain cohesive, the argument of social mobility remains important — that it does not matter where one starts; the important thing is how hard one works. Yes, there are strains with social mobility, but as long as people accept the core principles, and as long as it seems that the principle still applies, socio-economically — Singapore will remain a cohesive society. A more socio-economically mobile society however, still requires an economically-growing economy — and the growth here has to extend to all parts of the economy, and not focused on specific industries. I guess going with this logic, it is easy to see why identity and the environment get the short end of the stick in Singapore — it’s because a growing economy is necessary for a social compact to be preserved.
The government is also well aware that economic development alone cannot guarantee social mobility, and so has kept on launching initiatives in education, employment and social assistance. There are limits to the agenda of economic development, but it probably still remains the core consideration.
We’ve come a long way. We’ve seen how the fear-based mentality towards economic development is necessary for Singapore’s existence, and for a social compact. It also explains why in Singapore, things to do with heritage and the environment are lower in priority when compared to the economy.
Fear will still be necessary — this fear of economic irrelevancy. Again, the issues of aging, a low birth rate, and social mobility will be with us. For the support of the aging population and to maintain social mobility, economic growth — assisted by immigration will still be necessary. But if it was based on fear alone, Singapore will become an unpleasant place to be in — due to the fear that things such as the heritage and the arts and the environment will be severely degraded, or at least be converted into additional means of supporting economic development. The questions for this situation remain the same as those asked today: is there an idea of when does economic development go too far? What do we ring-fence as sacrosanct? What do we protect?
There is another way to look at Singapore and its circumstances. It comes from hope. The following sections will seem weird.
The lens of Hope
The narrative of Singapore’s history and its future(s) thus becomes upended. It will consider Goh Keng Swee’s optimism that Singapore could succeed, and Rajaratnam’s claims that Singapore could become a world city, connected to other cities — a statement that remains remarkably prescient reading today. This hope is not a Pollyanna optimism but a determination, that despite the circumstances of Singapore’s realities, Singapore has come so far. The social mobility that has happened so far is also one of hope — that Singaporeans eagerly took the opportunities on offer during Singapore’s development and made a better lives for themselves, and gave hope to the people around them.
The decades ahead then, can be framed in terms of hope — that Singaporeans can again, see the opportunities that lie in the future, and that given the skills and other resources out there on offer, they can be seized, and hope can again prevail. What might that look like? It starts with a reaffirmation that people are the only resource of this country, and that all of them must be given the resources to have a good shot at life. It looks at the economic competition around us, and realises that the way to remain economic vibrant is to explore niches to thrive in, and to deepen specialisations in the industries that are already here. It is a perspective that makes competition on price irrelevant — simply because competition on price alone will be deadly to Singapore’s economic vibrancy. This would require an even larger investment in education and training programmes of all kinds, and maybe current policies are taking on these positions.
Perhaps a hope-based kind of framing will also see the elderly not as a challenge, but an opportunity. Greater investments and actions in preventive health could stave off the worst effects of debilitating chronic conditions, and would actually involve greater state intervention in mundane things: through the things we eat and drink. Maybe the elderly to come will have greater agency — will be healthier, will be more active, and more able to engage with others and with all sorts of activities. Will that happen? That will to some extent, be determined by how much agency that government and society is willing to give them. This isn’t just active aging, but to see that people are inherently abundant and have much to give to each other.
Then there is the question of social support and uplifting low-income communities. The research on scarcity has made it quite clear that the question on autonomy of personal choices is a much more complicated thing than previously thought. Rather than seeing only the potential of waste, there is at least some evidence to suggest that interventions in the social space will have to be quite drastic. Nonetheless, this could be justifiable for the purpose of enhancing social mobility, and yet does not erode the work ethic. Rhetorically, this commitment to social mobility from the bottom to the middle could make the work ethic even stronger.
What about the environment and heritage and the arts? Perhaps in a context where the economy is not the most important, perhaps these things can find spaces to thrive. Perhaps an expanded Park Connector Network together with less emphasis on cars and with compulsory shower facilities will see cycling become mainstream in Singapore; perhaps with less economic constraints, heritage can find its space and so can the arts. Poetry might yet become a necessity in a country full of beauty. But these are mere rhetoric — right now I can’t imagine yet what kinds of policies or acts in the community that could arise from a new context. Maybe more imaginative minds can.
And so I guess I come head to head with the biggest notion — that all of the things I talked about will entail large increases in spending, and thus require higher rates of taxation, which will erode Singapore’s competitiveness, cause companies to leave the country, and cause Singapore to become an economic backwater.
Yes, social spending will have to increase in many ways, and yes, rates of taxation will have to increase as a result, but look at what we might have then, at the end of the process — a more cohesive country where people believe in a work ethic and with social mobility; a country where people have a great range of skills and even be more creative and see how to rearrange existing ideas into new things; a country where old people are full of agency and can act for mutual need — I think it will be a great country, one where companies will want to come to invest in, and full of economic vibrancy, and certainly not an economic backwater.
Coming to the end still — a fear-based notion of policy has worked in Singapore. I’m just thinking that it won’t be enough, and I’m just exploring how a different orientation could change the way we look at our deepest concerns.
There is one more outrageous thing that I want to suggest: that with all these promise, with all these potential, Singaporeans can go on and be of greater service to the world and make the world a more liveable place. I want to unpack this at a later time, but for now this is enough.
*This piece will see updates as I add citations and so on.
I’m ready to be wrong on this. To improve it, give links for resources and other arguments.
Turns out just a few things are needed to explain why it is difficult develop enough deep technical talent to have the likes of disruptive companies in Singapore.
1. Domestic conditions. That will be the most difficult constraint to overcome. Any hope of overcoming this constraint will have to come from a deeper economic integration with the region — something that will take a long while more to overcome.
The small domestic market does not encourage the rise of large companies. The companies that have become successful and relatively large companies are either those that were started by the state for developmental purposes, or due to traditional trading skills. Domestic firms cannot pay enough to attract deep technical talent.
2. Large foreign firms. Large foreign firms are here due to Singapore’s policies. These large foreign firms supported economic growth, giving jobs and skills to Singaporeans. These firms, being well-resourced, are far more able in providing a higher wage. These companies can outdo local firms in attracting the same person with more pay. As a result, small local firms cannot attract the talent they need to expand and grow.
3. The presence of a relatively large banking and professional services industry. Talented people have other avenues other than the MNCs. They can also become consultants or bankers. These industries siphon off people who could have gone to MNCs to sharpen technical skills or to build local capabilities.
4. Awkward labour. There are basically a few models of the labour dynamics from the political economy perspective. One of them is the antagonistic relationship in the US — with labour competing with capital over the conditions of work, with the government as a referee of sorts. In many parts of Europe, there are still elements of a labour system that is embedded with capital at various levels of operations. Labour in essence, makes a pact with capital on restraints, but only under conditions of shopfloor autonomy. Overall, this is undergirded by a cultural appreciation for blue-collared workers — which are highly trained and specialised in what they do.
5. Education as a filter. Then, there is the whole notion of ‘talent’ in the first place. What is a talent? How is it defined?
The current model of education is still meant to filter the top few percent as leaders for the administrative elite in the government of this country. This means that resources are concentrated at the top. Some of this is surely desirable; after all this country certainly requires excellent leadership, and starting from young is not a bad idea. Plus, elites occur in every country. However, education as a filter, together with the concentration of resources at the top, means that there is a underemphasis of the rest of the population. This has only changed more recently in the past few years with the revamp of the polytechnics and ITE, and even more recently with the ASPIRE committee.
However, a system of obsessive competition for limited slots for the elite path has been created. This system of obsessive competition creates a lot of waste, visible through the tuition mania. The notion of talent and meritocracy is still seen through the narrow lens of examinations and grades. Maybe an expansion of resources to more schools at all levels of performance might be required. This is not to say that schools should become homogenous — no, but MOE has to give more resources to allow teachers to teach better and to give students more opportunities for all-round development, including in academics.
Education cannot be a filter — it must be a moving escalator that gives and supports people the skills, training and retraining — cohort after cohort after cohort.
SkillsFuture and the ASPIRE committee together constitute attempts for Singapore’s political economy to move towards a German-lite model — creating a system where workers can find training for providers and go back to the shopfloor. The next piece of this transition could involve a more robust labour that will need to negotiate with companies on giving workers more assurances especially when they go for training.
Yet another piece will involve even greater resources to be expended to improve the quality of polytechnic education, inasmuch as they become the bastions for industry-related training. The universities will have to adjust in this, perhaps moving more strongly into basic research to differentiate their offerings from the polytechnics.
A big elephant here — on the continued emphases on international companies — will likely remain giving longstanding practices. With a labour force that has deeper technical skills, international companies might find it favourable to stay here. A greater pool of deep technical labour could even become the basis of world-beating local companies, though that will remain difficult still without a more deeply-integrated regional economy.
One can tell that its really difficult to talk about one single issue in isolation; I just pulled a thread on talent and the whole rug came out.
SkillsFuture and the ASPIRE committee together constitute attempts for Singapore’s political economy to move towards a German-lite model – creating a system where workers can find training for providers and go back to the shopfloor. The next piece of this transition could involve a more robust labour that will need to negotiate with companies on giving workers more assurances especially when they go for training.
Yet another piece will involve even greater resources to be expended to improve the quality of polytechnic education, inasmuch as they become the bastions for industry-related training. The universities will have to adjust in this, either moving more strongly into basic research to differentiate their offerings from the polytechnics.
A big elephant – on the continued emphases on international companies – will likely remain given longstanding practices. With a labour force that has deeper technical skills, international companies might find it favourable to stay here. A greater pool of deep technical labour could even become the basis of world-beating local companies, though that will remain difficult still without a more deeply-integrated regional economy.
One can tell that its really difficult to talk about one single issue in isolation; I just pulled a thread on talent and the whole rug came out.
Bits of the things here are definitely outdated. I don’t know if a ‘German model’ has been able to persist since the 1990s. Comments about the German model(s) on labour-capital relations are much appreciated.
I did not write about immigration policies here, because it is difficult, and it is not the emphasis. But a few things: immigration will be necessary, because even productivity will have limits. Diversity in international experiences/perspectives will still be an important thing to have. However, immigration cannot be the substitute for the difficult reforms for a more productive economy. I apologies for the motherhood statements here, and the model to arrive here is one where immigration policies are a supplement to economic growth, one where the numbers game is not the main consideration. There clearly is more to this, but that will be another essay.
Also, please don’t see this as an end. See this as a start of an journey to see how the different pieces come together. Once again, remember to post counter arguments and links to resources at the side.
I owe intellectual debts to Hall and Soskice — on the LME and CME frameworks.
I know I haven’t been blogging as often as I should, and part of the reason is that I’ve been looking for issues to solve. So naturally, took a bit of time to look for issues, and to think of the right format to communicate them. And so, I’m presenting a few diagrams to start things off, and hope they will spark conversations. They were done in Powerpoint; I’ll post these images first, and explain subsequently.
Thanks for friends who helped in this discussion!
*Update: Oops, a friend pointed out several flaws in the more complex one, so I took it out. My bad.
I had the opportunity to join in an in-depth discussion of Singapore issues at the National University of University. Was nice to be back in University Town to be back with USP friends. The discussions was rushed but still robust. And during the discussion, a particular thought came up, that “in Singapore, things get done“.
In a presentation later, the notion dawned upon me that for various reasons, GSD isn’t just a productivity geek culture getting things done in a distraction-rich world. GSD – Getting Stuff/Sh*t Done – has been ingrained in us for a while now – 2 generations and counting. We have demonstrated over the decades, that we have been able to get initiatives going, get mega-projects done, pull through from crisis, and doing a really good job of accomplishing the goals we set for ourselves. In Singapore, things get done, and we aren’t too shabby at it.
I used the “we” in a collective sense – for the people who have made visions realized – from the politicians through to the construction workers who have built the projects. Yet I also know clearly that this national obsession with GSD also has all kinds of unintended side effects. I’m wondering if our obsession for ‘deliverables’ has got anything to do with it. In previous occasions, I used to think that it was clearly for accountability, in the ‘what do you have to show for it’, but I’m also beginning to wonder now that part of this has to do with the expectation that whatever we do will have an applicability component to it – “it will be useful, and this is how it will be useful”. Even in the OSC, the demands that something ‘tangible’ to show for the process was initially attributed to just general impatience, but after this framing, it’s also because Singaporeans also like things to get done. Clearly for somethings, the process is genuinely useful as a way to get in touch with other Singaporeans, and to see their point of view. The discussion content merely comes out of that sharing of perspectives.
There are also more serious side effects, such as how we might have ignored all kinds of sensitivities – in the enthusiasm and rush to get things done, emotions are brushed aside as ‘subjective’, policies can become inaccessible and cumbersome to navigate, and people have to put up with all kinds of temporary inconveniences for some abstract greater good. Perhaps the clampdown on political expression in previous times was also an expression of GSD as quickly as possible, without having to do with political contests.
There are other things that GSD has no comment on. I’m not sure what the appropriate rationalisation is for GSD to comment on the things of skewed income distribution, the tuition-obsession, the refusal for a more substantial social welfare system. GSD is only one part of a larger system of values that we embody, and there are several others.
Maybe this is also the reason why there’s always a bit of doubt about the purpose of subjects such as history, literature or philosophy, wherever they are thought. It’s not just because these subjects are difficult to ‘score’ in, but that they are about things that are not objective oriented – they are not about getting things done – in that sense. These subjects are about explorations for their own sake, in learning about the crafting of words as with literature, or learning about how our narratives are created, as with history. And maybe ‘worst’ of all – philosophy – thinking about thinking. In this sense, Alfian Sa’at’s repsonse to this national aversion to literature in sceondary/high school is brilliant, and to quote it in full”
“A question I was asked: What more can be done to arrest the trend of dropping Lit candidature? Do you think it is an inevitable trend?
My answer: Yes, I think it is an inevitable trend. And I don’t think it’s necessary to arrest it at all. Look at the speeches in parliament, or even the columns and editorials in our mainstream papers. There’s hardly anything literary about them, and yet they get their points across. I think we should stop measuring ourselves against other countries that have deeper cultures and traditions and accept the fact that we are this mercantile, pragmatic, tough-minded city-state that has no time nor inclination for the effete humanities. I think it’s perfectly fine if our main cultural diet consists of Channel 8, Jack Neo movies, anthologies of ghost stories and self-help books. As a people we are kiasu and crass and ungracious. But why should there be shame in any of that? We’re already a First World country, and cultural capital had no role in determining this particular achievement. One of the indices of ‘first world’ human development is literacy, not literature. This anxiety to acquire ‘high culture’ is actually part of an aspirational third world mentality, and we should feel secure with our own brand of smug philistinism.”
Another issue with “GSD” as an ethos is simply that GSD has no stand over the content of the stuff that gets done. And GSD also doesn’t fully explain this national impatience about needing things to be done quickly.
I guess the GSD ethos only assumes that small fixes get done – after all, for various reasons, Singaporeans only care about what gets done in the here and now – fixing the MRT delays; reducing property prices; meanwhile the longer-term horizon becomes hostage to short-term exigencies. What then, what next, what else?
This is a stab at applying assumptions and indicators to Singapore society.
From fear we have reached a few pinnacles. By some standards we have one of the best education system in the world. We have a prosperous society with one of the highest material standards of living. Despite the glitches in transport systems these still pale in comparison to the outcomes in other developed societies. From fear we have developed an impressive indigenous defence capability that cannot be trifled with.
Yet from fear we have created demands that cannot be fulfilled. From fear we have developed a society of selfishness. We have established a society where the gains seem increasingly zero-sum – one’s gains is seen as another’s loss. We have created hierarchies upon hierarchies – schools better than one another; JCs better than Polys, courses better than others, occupations better than others, where having a scholarship remains the best thing to have.
We have chosen implicitly to privilege the young heterosexual nuclear family at the neglect of those with different sexualities who still are filial and serve their parents. From fear of financial insufficiency, systems established put the burden of healthcare on the individuals. From the fear of dependence, a social safety net is constructed albeit a tenuous construct, leaving holes that some fall through, leaving people to protect themselves from life’s storms. Of course, there definitely is dignity in this, but sometimes the storms can be so great that the individual and the family alone cannot withstand them, and the state might be too far-off to intervene. Not that the state is deliberately aloof, but a fear of dependence drives the style of processes that can deter people from signing up, or from going through the whole process of being assisted.
From fear, the state can sometimes seen to be privileging MNCs than SMEs. Large corporations rooted in other countries and span continents might seem to provide a sure bet for jobs, and be a hub for technology transfer, but it also means being vulnerable to their relocation or collapse. From fear we have tried to reduce risk, and inadvertently created a culture of inaction. To call subsequent generations weak or not hungry begs the question of how they were brought up . From fear we have lost courage.
The indicators we have devised stem from fears, and certain kinds of it. We fear for our survival – and that’s the right thing, because Singapore’s existence cannot be taken for granted. A red vulnerable dot cannot hope to expect assistance from other people. The reasoning is clear, and hard to argue against. From this vulnerability we become fearful for our own future, and struggled in the early years of independence to make things work. And they have worked wonderfully. The fears remain nonetheless. The fear that all that we have can quickly vanish overnight, or in a few years. And now the fear has worked its way through generations, and the fear sustains itself.
SG is still vulnerable, but its vulnerability is the fear it has used to sustain itself. In an uncertain world, the fear only grows. Things have worked now, and in some senses, the fear from vulnerability has worked. We have only known fear; we don’t know as clear what hope, courage and risk-taking means. People hold on to what they know and familiar with, and not yet open to the possibilities that await. As others have put it, people would prefer the suffering they know than the goodness they don’t.
*From fear we relied on ourselves and become self-centred. From fear we have relied on transactional relationships instead of trusting on the goodwill of others. From fear perhaps we don’t even think about extending goodwill. Perhaps in a society such as ours, unconditional love remains an alien concept.
The idea that SG has to make her own way in the world is not yet a clear one. There are no examples to follow, no case studies to learn from. Whereas what we used to be able to look at others’ experiments, we have now become our own experiment of how long fear can be use to drive a people/nation onward.
*added on 3 March 14:48