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 think that one of the most important ways of how myths can inherited is through the stories and messages that our parents tell us. I posit that a thoughtful reflection of those stories and messages and how they led to the present will contribute to better decisions in the present.
What our parents told us shape very much who we are in our adult lives. I think that, by trying to reach into the context of our parents’ generation, we can better understand our present. To think of it, the decisions that our parents made are exactly the ones that led to our present. And by reflecting on the present, we should think about the shadows our present decisions will cast for the future. This is an understated point that gets both over- and under- emphasised. This reflection gets over-emphasised because a lot of times we can end up weighing the future too much and sacrifice too much in the present. This point also gets under-emphasised because the decisions we make can also take the present too much into account.
Back to the main point – of the legacies of our parents bequeathed by our parents. I wonder if the experience of poverty and the ascent to relative prosperity is a source of the many myths that we want – one of them being “get stuff done”. The many stories that we hear about – about being a doctor, lawyer, banker, professional engineer – I wonder if these are merely the result of our parents wanting to secure the legacies that they’ve built – legacies that they know are fragile, and didn’t take for granted. The intention to enter into those professions are the source of this anxieties in education – the rush for grades to get into the right courses.
South Korea goes into a standstill when national examinations happen. This once-a-year national examinations can still somewhat determine the fates of individuals – in deciding whether they can make it to the major universities. These universities can determine where these individuals end up – typically either the government bureaucracy, or some major state-affiliated corporation. In Korea, the chaebols determine the economic life to the country.
I pick our Korea because it’s a country where national education systems are premised on the view that only a certain number of good opportunities are available – because new job openings in the corporations are not indefinite. And so a lot of people fight for a few limited places – a zero-sum game in which some must win, and the rest can’t win as much.
Finland is a different example, where an egalitarian education is contrasted with an economy dominated by a single firm – Nokia (or used to be). In a country of about 5 million, a champion had emerged, only to pull the country down when it floundered.
The preceding parts about the economy are relevant – because the histories of our parents are in large part, economic histories – stories of how they were poor, then they were comfortable, and then maybe, they got really rich. I suspect for the generation of our parents in Singapore, politics was not strongly felt, perhaps because of the suppression of contrarian voices in a time when they were not tolerated as much. The stories they pass on for us were these – that if we worked hard, we can get somewhere in life. The stories also became, if we worked hard, you can earn a lot of money in life; be a banker or a lawyer or a doctor.
And so these stories got passed on – successive generation of parents tell their kids the same thing, that present suffering in the education system will lead to a better life – or at least a freedom of choice in the education system – you can get to decide which polytechnic course, or which JC you want to go to, and then later on, which university you want to enter into – and then to study even harder to have a free choice in the kind of career you want to get into – especially the careers that will give you a lot of money.
“The future will be ultimately better than the present” – that’s another deep myth that we decided to buy into. I don’t think its deliberate, but it’s what it is – it’s there. I don’t think that myth can sustain us for a long time still – I don’t think such promises can be kept.
What happens, when the future – however distant – cannot be better and better?
In Singapore we’re always told about how we’re a meritocratic society. There have been criticism about that, most notably, by Kenneth Paul Tan at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
I’m not going to repeat their powerful arguments, because I can’t, but what I would do is to think about the less-looked consequences of meritocracy.
As a starting point, Tharman Shanmugaratnam said that Singapore was an “exam-meritocracy” in contrast to the US’s “talent meritocracy” – this back in 2006 when Tharman was still the Education Minister. A lot of things have changed since then in Singapore. There has been a broader definition of excellence other than grades alone, but culturally, the obsession towards grades remains, attested to by the proliferation of increasing-sophisticated tuition centres.
To me, there could be another insidious way in which this examination/grades-based obsession impacts our culture. Here is the hypothesis:
The examination-based meritocracy creates a clear sense of “people who have made it, and people who don’t”. Our education system incentivises the people who can continuously jump through the hoops – constantly scoring distinctions and all. However – and this is the oft-neglected part – that the education structure disincentivises people who don’t make it at any stage. The end result, after a while is that people lose interest and stop participating fully in anything later on.
That’s the power of the incentive structure that we’ve set up in Singapore society. I suspect that the impact of the education system goes beyond the display of grades as signals to other institutions and companies. I suspect that there is also a neglected side in this discussion, in how the examination-obsession shapes our behaviour in subtle ways.
I think the incentive structure finds its way into the workplace – people who have jumped through hoops want to continue jumping through the various hoops – the everyday work assignments; the projects that they do, and who continue to do them in engaged, and enthusiastic ways. And then there are the people who drop out – people who have not cleared hoops and decide to drop out and refuse to participate beyond the necessary – as what happens when there are no more incentives to aim for in the education system – no more distinctions required, no “good stream” to enter into.
But life is not a serious of hoops to jump through. Life is a series of experiences, and it can be made into a process of continuous growth and possibility (just read The Art of Possibility by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander). Our exam-based meritocracy shapes our cultural ethos and behaviour in more ways than one, and we should acknowledge that influence before moving on to think about routes to change.