Tagged: singapore

Fear/Hope-based notions of Policy in Singapore

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.

Every Singaporean a Talent: The Political Economy of Talent, Education, and Companies in Singapore

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.

What’s possible?

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.

What’s possible? 

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.


Power and Ideas

In the previous essay, I explained why an examination of politics, organisation and power was necessary in understanding how Singapore could respond to issues in the second half of the twenty-first century. In this second part, I’ll lay out the considerations behind looking at these three issues, and present scenarios based on the line of thought. There definitely are other ways to examine POP, but for my purposes here, I will examine two broad themes: 1. The flow of ideas and 2. The location of power. I find thinking about these two themes useful, although in future writings I might explore other themes. Again, because I’m looking at a large expanse of time (50 years – SG100), I can afford to play around with possibilities.

Scenario Planning Methodology

Scenario planning is a technique used by large organisations to tell stories about the future – about how events in the future could unfold in non-linear ways. Shell popularized the approach; the National Intelligence Council of the US publishes scenario reports every 4-5 years. This report, now in its 5th iteration spanning almost 25 years now, is watched closely. Of course every technique has its strengths and weaknesses, but the point here is to invite further discussions – make things accessible to a wide audience to have a good discussion. The things discussed here could certainly lead to conversations on other topics. The scenario analysis here will certainly not be exhaustive or comprehensive – it’s meant to be exploratory. I’m also bending the rules a bit with scenario planning. A formal use of the scenario process focuses on what is called, “contextual issues/trends” – trends for which there is little scope of influence. The discussion here focuses on social participation and politics, for which some limited influence by citizens is possible. However, because of the exploratory nature of this discussion, and from the individual perspective, these things could be considered ‘contextual’ – it is difficult for a single individual to influence these trends (unless the individual is highly influential, which most of us aren’t).

One way to think about the political-social interactions is to think in terms of the flow of ideas. How do ideas flow from society to politics? If the flow of ideas is restricted between different groups in society, I would characterise that configuration as ‘disciplined’. I consider to the current society to be ‘disciplined’ in this regard. If the flow of ideas is more un-restrained, then we approach an ‘open’ model, where ideas are more free from the restraints of censorship.

The other set of considerations, and similar to the first, is how will power be concentrated? Today, the truly important decisions, and the locus of decision, resides in the Cabinet, and with the Public Service. This is a very centralised form of decision-making. Information flows up and down within the hierarchy of the public service, and important pieces of information make their way to the Cabinet. And similarly, when it comes to planning. Social groups today often have to organise themselves to interact with the Public Service, although increasingly so they might have some access to the Cabinet, but in any case, the Cabinet almost always retains the final say, and charges the public service with the execution. In contrast to the current centralised system, a more distributed configuration of power structures would provide social groups with more autonomy in executing social goals, with minimal oversight from public agencies. One could envision more empowered town councils, and civil society groups charged with the execution and responsibility of certain policies, for instance. I admit in the current context today, this distributed-manner of power structures is difficult to foresee in the near future, but given the long stretch of time I’m considering, this might not seem so radical yet.

Taken together, I’ve laid out two axes and with this, I can consider a two-by-two matrix:

1. Whether the dissemination of information and ideas remains ‘disciplined’ and restricted, or if it becomes more open, or unrestrained;

2. Whether the distribution of decisions and influence remain limited to a central authority or if it is more distributed or diffused across multiple groups in society.


I’ve gone on to give short labels and descriptions of the separate scenarios:




Disciplined – Centralised

Status quo – centralisation through bureaucratic control; groups have to engage with the bureaucracy to gain legitimacy.

Smart Hegemony

Disciplined – Distributed

Smart Hegemony – political party participate actively in various groups in society and influence decision-making there.


Open – Distributed

Coalition politics; vibrant civic scene; characterised by local autonomy; possibly at the expense of global coordination; has high degree of resilience.


Open – Centralised

Alternating political pendulum. There is a certain predictability in what happens as political parties rotate in and out of power.

In Smart Hegemony, the party in power distributes power to social groups. This could take the form of MPs (regardless of political party) sitting on the board of directors of effective NGOs with a view of shaping their decisions. 

In the Pendulum arrangement, parties and their associated social groups rotate in and out of power. The policy emphases change as a result. What could happen in this instance is an inevitable cycling in and out of public servants in tandem with the political masters. We see a bit of this with Australia’s government, where a previous administration established a climate change-related unit, only for the unit to be removed under a different political party. Policies follow politics, not the only way around. 

And in the Mix-and-Match system, what happens could be said to resemble politics of conveniences – different parties and different civil society groups coalesce to form coalitions of convenience with no ideological emphasis. This situation could result greater local participation in politics possibly at the expense of coordination. However in this situation, there can also be much resilience when dealing with crisis.

How might these changes come about?

What about political changes, and how might they come about? Ho Kwon Ping has gone through this terrain quite thoroughly in his lecture on politics, and there is little to add here. From Ho Kwon Ping’s talk, there really are just a few possibilities: that the Opposition parties consolidate; or the PAP could split, although as Ho Kwon Ping himself said that the kinds of deeply divisive issues that could split the party is just not foreseeable.

How will power structures in society change? Current grassroots groups might eventually grow in influence, attract funding and become the organisational bases for formal political power. People might begin to realise that real change in their lives come about because of persistent work over a specific issue with the government. They could either join existing groups that are already effective and trusted by the bureaucracy, or they could undertake the difficult work of doing it for themselves. Current effective groups might become complacent and lose members to a rival or upstart groups. I am making a significant assumption here: that people will be willing to invest their time and effort in volunteering for causes. If this assumption does not work out, then the centralised way of information flows would apply, since that it also the best way to ensure that issues are being reviewed and acted on.

The different kinds of social and political arrangements will have many implications for us. Each of these socio-political arrangements requires different sets of skills to navigate around. As individuals, little actions can still accumulate to become large changes, but this process will take time. Those of us who are still impatient should take a step back and learn more about intra- and inter- organisational dynamics before stepping into the fray.

Power, Organisations and Politics

As an observer looking at the proceedings of the SG50 celebrations, I’m curious that there has not yet been any discussion about the future. There are understandable reasons for the absence of both the youth voice and discussions about the future, and I’ll definitely be interested in how those conversations will play out.

The  reason I think, is straightforward. The atmosphere around SG50 is in a reflective phase – one that looks back at the past and celebrates the efforts of the pioneers in building this country. Certainly there is much to celebrate about, and yes, the efforts of the pioneers need to be honoured. More than that, this past – of hard work and ruggedness, gives us – the present, their future – the symbolic resources we can draw on in times of difficulty. This history that we have gives us the confidence, that no matter how difficult the future can be, we have the ability to pull through and better yet flourish.

One of the ways there can be a serious discussion on the country’s future is to be educated about organisations, power and politics. Before we understand all the other issues, we have to understand the nature of politics in Singapore, who are the organisations involved, and how they wield their power. Knowing how power is used in Singapore gives us a starting point in thinking about how to wield it responsibly, and to use it to tackle all the other issues that will affect us in the second half of the twenty-first century. And there are many. Climate change will be one – it’s effects will be global, and it will affect other countries, which in turn, will affect us. Technological change will continue, bringing about large changes in our lives, and especially in the world of work and jobs. For Singapore to continue flourishing, what matters is how we will take on these changes – and for that understanding how power, organisations, and politics will matter.

We often don’t make an explicit connection among power, organisations and politics together. We do make connections between politics and power – the common-sense understanding is that politics is the exercise of power. We often make the connection between organizations and politics – in the sense of the common ‘office politics’ that happens. Sometimes we think of organizations as exercising power – how different organizations fight for influence. Maybe this is intuitive when we think of political parties as organizations, or when we think of companies fighting for market share – the companies with a dominant market share could be said to have a lot of power in the industry. It’s how we think of Wal-Mart, or the oligopolism that happens in many industries. 

Power is relational – it  does not make sense ‘on its own’ It requires at least two people – one acting on power, and the other being acted upon. It is neither good nor bad; it just is, and it can definitely be used in either way. With this we can discuss power relations in a family, in institutional settings, in community groups, in politics, and across different countries.

Organisations can be defined as groups of people acting together for a common purpose. They might be doing a whole bunch of different things, but those different things are largely in the pursuit of goals. These goals could be, as with the military – to be able to end a war quickly; to get individuals or families out of crises. Organisations are also concentrations of power – an organisation is more influential if it can achieve its goals and exert itself on other actors. As a result, most organisations are also involved in some kind of politics – be it within organisations or with other social actors. Of course, internally, people are participating in politics – going around trying to influence other people within the organisation to get their own goals accomplished, within the larger framework of the organisation’s goals. 

All that is clear – that politics and power is all around us. It’s better that we see it for what it is and learn to be responsible about it, so that we understand ourselves and our actions better. Understanding power, for example helps in understand the relationship dynamics within a couple, or a family, or within the office, and so on. This framework helps us understand the behaviour of some groups of people relative to others. The use of power is focused in organisations, and it is through organisations that people’s collective energies can be harnessed.

Power has a visible component – the influence and the behaviour. When geopolitical analysts measure military power, they usually take a look at the military hardware – the ships, the tanks, the planes, and so on. When political pundits look at how political leaders use their power, they look at how they influence lawmakers through speeches and negotiation – persuasion. Economic power can be visible when people start talking about funding, aid, market access, and so on.

Power also works through other means. One of the most difficult ways to identity power’s operations when it becomes part of our lives – when it becomes the default setting for how we live. When that happens, it becomes difficult to tell of power’s influence, yet it is there. Notions such as “way of life” allude to such influences. That the “way of life” is often taken for granted, and not thoroughly examined would be an example of how a collection of actors have shaped our lives. That is not to say that we are all puppets being manipulated – we remain free to choose how we want to live our lives, but that our options are constrained. Another example is the ‘choice’ of consumer products that we experience in supermarkets. The reality is that consumer companies are trying to manipulate our buying choices through visions of attractive people and what they wear/eat/use. Again, the logic here is that it’s not that people are being manipulated like puppets; its just that the bulk of our attention would fall on particular products and particular brands, and might be attracted to purchase specific products. 

If nothing else, the points above just aims to illustrate that there are obvious and non-obvious ways of how power operates, and we have to pay attention to both, or even pay close attention to the latter, since they are harder to call out. We want to pay attention to power because of the way it influences our lives, especially if we want to be aware of the choice and power that we have too, as citizens and consumers trying to do the right thing for ourselves and for others. 

All of us are choosing something, even if we appear to be doing nothing. In a way, living the default is to support existing power structures. This is why asking for a change in the power structures is tiring and difficult. When people are habitualised into supporting an existing power structure and ways of life, asking others to change it is almost the equivalent of changing a habit – and habits of course, are very difficult to change. Asking others to change the assumptions they don’t usually question is tiring – for both the person advocating for it, and for the person being asked to change it. 

Social change, as a result, is very difficult, and often doesn’t last. When people don’t have the patience or don’t see the point of doing something different, very often they fall back to what they knew before – and hence reversions do happen. When politicians advocate for change, and do so inspiringly, be cynical. I guess this is why Obama was so exciting and now, so disappointing. Promising change and acting on them are obviously two very different things, especially when the resistance to change can be so high. 

So dramatic changes don’t work, and can be dangerous. What works are, no surprise – small incremental steps, pursued consistently over time, or moderately sized changes pursued during crises and gradually maintained and added on. The difficulty with this is with sustaining the effort over time. That’s why crises are significant – they provide legitimacy for change-advocates to say that current directions don’t work, and people rally around the need for change, and willing to change their habits. What happens after the moment of crisis, is something else. 

I’ve introduced how organisations, power and politics are linked together, and I’ve shown how power is both obvious and non-obvious. I’ve also described a little about how power and politics relate to organisational change. Very broadly speaking, these notions of power are important in discussing how social and political changes might happen, how people might participate in power structure, and what to watch out for to tell if things are changing in any particular direction. All of these will help us to think more clearly about the dynamics that will shape Singapore’s future.

Happy 48th, Singapore! Many Happy Returns!

On National Day I cannot say that I unreservedly love the country. In my mind, I can easily provide counter-responses to the reasons why Singapore is worth loving. The to-and-fro as I imagine, would sound like this:

“Singapore is my home, where all my family and friends are!”

Retort: “If you are able, you can easily move your family to an Asian neighbourhood in a different country, and make new friends. You mean you cannot make new friends in other countries?”

“Singapore has low crime!”

Retort: “Just find a safe neighbourhood, or live in a gated community.”

“Singapore is multicultural!”

Retort: “You haven’t been to NY, London ah?”

… And on and on.

Ultimately, the basis for our patriotism is emotional. There’s just this emotional connection that we feel, and when we celebrate National Day, we celebrate this emotional connection. No country is perfect, and Singapore is no more or less imperfect than other country. By sheer choice of deciding where we want to belong, individual and national identities co-mingle, and it’s on that basis individual Singaporeans come together and decide to celebrate National Day.

I don’t want to overstate how good or bad Singapore is, but to state some of the facts: material growth contrasts with growing inequality; education anxiety is as high as ever with more tuition centres; I don’t know if the the structural unemployment is more or less of a problem; our transportation system is expanding – the “step” improvements in capacity contrasts against the creeping increase in population.

And here I speculate: I wonder if the physical constraints lend themselves to a zero-sum sense of the world. I would think so, and as I read Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, I come to terms with how the impulses for environmental and historical preservation can be opposed to the need for development, and to keep housing affordable. Supposing if, one day the pretty shophouses at Katong have to make way for more high-rises for an increasing population to keep housing costs affordable – what then? Despite the genius of Singapore’s urban planners, there still is only so much that can be done, and very difficult choices have to be made. Today one of the choices is already before us: that the Cross-Regional Line will be cutting through the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, and the Nature Society has already provided a report and alternatives about the routes that the line could take. If the land transport agrees to the alternatives, it can be seen as having compromised to environmental interests. Yet in another way, Singaporeans and future passengers of the CRL would also have won – to be able to both enjoy nature, and to enjoy cheap and quick transits across the island. In a physical sense, some of the choices are indeed zero-sum.

In policy and national issues, the central frame can appear to be zero-summed – that the gains of someone must mean the loss of another. The rat-races in education and materialism (5Cs) also demonstrate the zero-sumness frame – that the achievements of someone means someone else’s loss, or even my loss. Rankings tend to have this framing – everyone has ‘their place’, and one can only progress at the expense of another. If Singapore should thrive in an uncertain future, then we’ll all have to progress together.

People live in families, in communities, and in societies. No one truly lives alone, and no one is truly independent of another, or totally self-reliant. Being reliant on others isn’t so much a personal fault as it is a necessity: how can we live relying only on ourselves?

My own thoughts are that Singapore’s future progress will come from what Singaporeans will give to each other, particularly those who have been marginalised, and neglected. Some of them might not even be Singaporeans, and we’ll still give all the same.

This spirit of giving, of accepting compromise and to do so in amicable ways, could define the way the big G deals with people, communities and organisations and shape the future to come.

Here’s to many happy returns.  Happy 48th.

Edit: There won’t be a post over the weekend! Happy Long Weekend, Singapore!

Identity, and Materialism


I’ve been wondering about the relationships between materialism, personal security and self identity, and the cultural attitudes in society. How firmly do people believe that material possessions are an important source of identity? Where do we get the sense of attachment from? And how does that relate to how we interact with other people? Do we believe more in closed zero-sum interactions (as being Kiasu could imply), or in more open, non-zero sum interactions?

Singaporeans are surrounded by material abundance, but to as phrased by Laurence Lien, we could be in a “social recession”. How is this possible? I don’t know. How is that the material abundance we have is not clearly evidenced in the abundance of compassion and spirit?


Dependency and Ownership

Are people dependent on government for governance? Everytime there’s a problem that needs to be solved, the immediate attention is always to look to the government for what they could do. So the government ends up running our lives as we cede responsibility for the little things. Yet that’s only one way of looking at the dependency and governance. Yes, governance does touch many facets of our lives, from ensuring food safety to keeping the economy vibrant. Yet there are also domains such as culture and social dynamics where government cannot be a substitute for responsibility and ownership. And there are yet other things where government should take a facilitative role and step back afterwards. There are many subtle gradations in involvement and responsibility on individuals, communities and governance.



The effectiveness of government’s actions has made it easy for people to ask, “what the government will do” in the various myriad issues. The overpowering leviathan of government power has also reduced the role of civil society organisations. Will the social and political environment encourage the growth of other civic organisations? Will people continue to join the efforts of CSOs in their respective causes or will it continue to be marginal in governance?