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.
The poem below, is a first draft, of perhaps a more polished piece.
I wrote it, putting together some ideas I’ve had for a long time. A rambling, almost a stream of consciousness, about some ideas I’ve had for a while. To go with hope, and not fear.
Singapore: hope, fear, faith, abundance.
I know the limits that SG has.
I know the constraints.
But the constraints have not defined us.
We have gone so far on the bases of fear.
How far more can we go on the basis of hope?
There is a vast expanse before us,
No matter the world, no matter the circumstance.
If only our hearts are big enough,
Our eyes bright enough,
Our minds open enough,
To chase rainbows,
To make them ourselves.
Even the dips and downs that come will not unsettle us.
A people with courage,
And the resourcefulness,
Will not flinch (or not for long)
and come back stronger,
More determined to be in the world,
For the world.
There is still so much to do.
To save, to create, to bless, to repair, to restore.
There is still so much of the world,
Still deprived of the blessings of modernity.
Le Guin’s Omelas is here and present,
But it is possible,
To free the child,
And still live with abundance.
This Faustian bargain,
I do not believe.
The things we use and wear,
Create jobs, though some foul.
The jobs that can fill stomachs, and give dignity –
this world is possible and can come,
If we will it to.
We do not need to move to more abundance per se,
because we are already rich.
We can share our abundance with others.
As we remember,
This world is not our own.
It was built by others, by pioneers,
And ours is the task,
To preserve and add to it,
so that others can come and do the same.
This is no mere naive,
of a world of sentimental kumbayas,
This is a matter of belief and hope.
That Singapore can be,
Far brighter, far greater,
As the dot the world looks to.
From a little something to something so great,
is no small feat.
And here we are,
Dithering about our next steps,
Looking inwardly at ourselves,
A little over much.
When the world beyond,
To make it kinder, fairer, greener, even richer,
Sure, the world is not ours alone,
And laughably so – not ours to save – alone.
But the world is also us.
At our best – we shall move the world.
Are we not already rich?
Are we not already abundant?
Consider what we have.
A people now endowed with much comforts, and abilities, and talents.
Yet surely there still are in our midst –
yes, needing assistance – and that we can.
People in acute need, of fault of their own, and not their own,
They can have grace,
to find their feet again.
No one chooses to fail,
though some may choose idleness,
though some may even have cause to.
But who truly knows?
And who can truly know their hearts?
And grace we still can yet give.
This abundance we have,
has to flow; amongst ourselves.
And we can still have much leftover,
to give to the world.
By our will we have –
created our reality of abundance.
And we can again do so,
Not from fear, but from hope, and from faith.
We have met Destiny
and we have in our grasp.
And we can choose to turn it, by our will.
Not just from fear, but from hope and faith.
By our will we can do so, if we choose so.
We are an audacious country,
to take the world on its terms,
and still prevail.
We shall be audacious again,
and now more so,
and now to move the world,
and again prevail.
Not about parties or manifestos,
but about us and all of us.
About we the people,
living not for ourselves,
but for the lives of others.
to uplift a country for those who are,
for those to come.
Us in service for Singapore,
Singapore in service for the world.
Yes, this comes from someone who has,
the privileges, the time and the space,
to think like this,
Yes, this privilege in part,
the same privilege to watch
dramas and games on end.
The moment we have data on the go,
that privilege is open, no longer closed.
And this is no condescension,
This is an invitation.
To choose with intention, to go.
Am I dreaming?
Too hopeful? Too naive?
So what, if they are so?
And are they truly so?
We are not defined by circumstances,
and neither by nature.
All we have been are due to our choices.
And these are choices we can choose.
To be a people of intention, of a largeness of heart,
In all things: the mundane, the ordinary, the everyday, the sacred, the exciting, the interesting.
And so we can choose,
How would a system that sustains hope look like? What kind of indicators should we have, and how should they be interpreted to allow a society to flourish on hope?
The previous blog explored how a society based on fear could have their indicators interpreted in ways and sustained. What I want to do now is to think about the reverse – how would indicators look like, and would be interpreted if we were serious talking about a Singapore based on hope.
Hope could be expressed in terms of giving people multiple chances of a decent life. That means accepting that people will fail, and to provide the opportunities to try again. That also means a restructuring of the economy – that the opportunities do not just refer to social mobility on a vertical scale, but also on horizontal scales. That means the expansion of the number sectors in society. That social mobility improves with the horizontal expansion of the economy comes from experience – that the industrialization of societies led to the creation of many niches for people to fill, giving people the opportunity to move into additional climbers for people to climb on. Unless economic sectors expand substantially, people will be stuck with existing hierarchies, and hierarchies tend to leave little space at the top.
The expansion of economic opportunities also means either the expansion of education domains, or removing the links between education and economy. Remove the signalling function of education and remove the disciplinary boundaries between education and industries; either action could lead to debates as to whether industries or the state is responsible for the matching between people’s skills and industry requirements. Mismatches happen when people are too committed into a discipline that might not offer “employable” attributes. At the same time, a porous skills market would allow people to pick up the skills for whatever industry that could be in vogue at any different time. Any of these things would mean very different approaches towards education and to how the economic structure. Giving people the flexibility to choose between skills would motivate employers to create non-financial incentives for prospective employees to stay.
There would be serious thought about how to provide Singaporeans with a temporary minimum guarantee that will allow them to learn from life’s stumbles and give them the strength to carry on. We would be encouraging them to try out new things, whether or not they would make money in the immediate short term. To have hope as a new rhetoric would mean thinking about the longer-term and not just about present needs.
A society based on hope would also have people who are self-assured of their current possessions, and be secure with their lives. That means that there should be a less intense rat-race, because people have little anxiety about how their lives are and how their children should compare with other kids. A society based on hope would give kids to enjoy their childhood and to expand the notions of learning far beyond the narrow focus on grades and performance and getting them to enjoy the essence of learning. They would also be imbued with a sense of character that would help them navigate around an ethically ambiguous world. In another way, a society based on hope would focus less on the hierarchies they are placed in, and more concerned with the connections between.
With this self-assuredness, the desire for more property or more material possessions falls away. Yet there remains enough to fuel the hopes of the next generation and the generations to come. Losing the desire for more material possessions does not mean becoming less productive or less driven; the work ethic is independent of material possessions, but should come from the drive to succeed and to take pride in one’s work. Excellence in the work can be its own reward, no? And this cannot come primarily from fear.
From hope we would ambivalent about pursuing investments from abroad, because the flourishing of entrepreneurship energy would also mean that Singaporeans are holding their own overseas. There would be less concern about competition because that would be just one facet in the range of relationships we would have with neighbours. Realism persists nonetheless; a single country cannot run on hope in its international affairs in a continually hostile environment.
If any of these things are difficult to do, it would be difficult not because they are really that difficult to implement, but because of the changes in values implicit behind the behavioural and indicator changes. The aim behind all of these changes remains the same – they are still about providing Singaporeans with hope for them to lead successful lives – however they define success, but certainly with less emphasis on material grounds.