In the contradictions of the S'pore Story, S'poreans need to decide how to redefine success

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | November 18, 2018, 12:30 PM

In 2015, Donald Low & Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh wrote an essay titled “The end of the Singapore consensus”, highlighting the competing societal and political visions facing Singapore.

The essay was originally published in the book Singapore: 2065, a thought-provoking collection of perspectives on the future of Singapore.

Singapore: 2065 is published by World Scientific.

Their essay is reproduced in full here:


By Donald Low & Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh

These are the best of times and the worst of times in Singapore, the world’s only global city without a natural hinterland, whose prosperity and good governance are the envy of much of the world, and a model for others to follow.

But while the city-state remains an alluring success story to much of the outside world, Singaporeans themselves are starting to question the long-term viability of their longstanding adherence to elite governance, meritocracy, the primacy of growth and state paternalism.

The “Singapore consensus” that the People’s Action Party (PAP) government constructed and maintained in the last five decades is fraying, partly because many citizens perceive it to be outdated.

The Singapore consensus: Singapore is vulnerable

The Singapore consensus has been underpinned by the idea of vulnerability — that because of its small size, lack of natural resources, ethnic and religious diversity, and geographic location in a potentially volatile region, the city-sized nation is inherently and immutably vulnerable.

From this existentially anguished reality, a developmental belief system emerged.

Its tenets include —

  • a strict academic meritocracy as the best way to sort talent;
  • elite governance insulated from the short-termism and myopia of ordinary democratic pressures;
  • the primacy of growth, delivered through export-led industrialisation and a heavy dependence on foreign capital and labour;
  • an acceptance of the need to equalise opportunities but not outcomes; and
  • an indifference to inequality, as reflected in the state’s aversion to welfare.

The Singapore consensus made possible impressive socioeconomic development for much of the first 50 years, when demographic and domestic political conditions were far more favourable.

Yet today, many Singaporeans are contesting the consensus.

At first glance this might seem odd: Singapore has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. But its economic success masks some uncomfortable truths about life in this city-state.

Time for some uncomfortable truths

Income and wealth inequalities in Singapore are among the highest in the developed world.

For many of its residents, the country’s impressive material achievements have not translated into higher levels of happiness or well-being.

In various surveys, Singaporeans are found to work some of the longest hours in the developed world and are described as one of the world’s least happy peoples.

Almost three-quarters are afraid to get sick because of perceived high healthcare costs while more than half indicate they would emigrate if given the chance.

The stigmatisation of menial work, rise of racism & xenophobia

In December 2013, Singapore had its first riot in 50 years — reflecting its inability (and possibly, unwillingness) to accommodate the more than one million low-skilled foreign workers in Singapore.

Yet its economic model is still highly dependent on taking in increasing numbers of such workers as Singaporeans continue to shun and stigmatise menial jobs.

In December 2012, low-wage mainland Chinese bus drivers, bereft of bargaining power, instigated Singapore’s first labour strike in 26 years.

Meanwhile, economic pressures coupled with the lack of efforts at fostering integration have led to an uptick in racism and xenophobia, tarnishing Singapore’s reputation for openness and tolerance.

A country long admired for its stability and openness to foreign nationals and ideas is now witnessing pent-up tensions bubbling over from time to time.

S'pore's ageing population & the integrity of existing public policies

Domestically, the rapid ageing of the population is likely to put a number of cherished public policies and institutions to much higher levels of scrutiny.

Already, Singaporeans are beginning to question the adequacy of the Central Provident Fund (CPF) — the country’s 60-year retirement savings system that is usually lauded as being fully funded and sustainable in the face of demographic change.

To the surprise and chagrin of Singapore’s leaders, segments of the population even raised questions over the system’s integrity.

Housing policy represents another area where changing demographics and socioeconomic realities demand not just policy tweaks, but quite a fundamental rethinking of the primary purpose of public policies.

Contradictions emerging from the S'pore story

In many ways, Singapore is a victim of its own success.

From the 1970s to 1990s, it developed from a trading and manufacturing hub to a highly globalised service and knowledge economy.

In the process, a nascent, post-colonial city-state evolved into one of the world’s most well-governed states and dynamic economies.

This rapid transformation, largely driven and engineered by the state, outpaced the ability of entrenched ideologies, policies and institutions to keep up.

At the same time, contradictions in the Singapore story are beginning to emerge.

For instance, the government’s aspirations for Singapore to be an entrepreneurial and innovation-driven economy collide with the institutions, policies and practices that inhibit risk-taking, experimentation, collaboration, and egalitarian norms — all of which are critical for a creative economy.

Singapore’s global city ambitions bump up against an emerging national identity.

The nation also faces a quandary: Singaporeans question whether the country’s strict academic meritocracy and the belief in the necessity of elite governance have also bred a narrow administrative and political elite that is increasingly out of touch with ordinary citizens.

This has happened precisely as the electorate, increasingly weary of a sycophantic government-controlled national media, is seeking more mature engagement and debate about Singapore’s future.

Need to forge new consensus

By failing to adapt to these new socioeconomic and political realities, Singapore has set the scene for a fierce clash between competing societal and political visions.

The big question is how to forge a new consensus — which we believe will involve, among other things, greater welfare and lower immigration — without swinging too far in the other direction, and without undermining the very efficiency, market orientation and openness that made Singapore so successful in the first place.

At the same time, an increasingly plural and contested political scene is likely to offer voters greater choice about the balance they want to strike.

Transition to full democracy? The cases of South Korea & Taiwan

In this regard, a brief analysis of how South Korea and Taiwan democratised and developed more redistributive policies and institutions is instructive.

In both countries, the transition to full democracy was, initially at least, wrenching, socially divisive and politically destabilising.

But both countries managed eventually to amble towards stable, rule-based and competitive democratic systems.

This, in turn, paved the way for the emergence of properly organised, collectively financed welfare states that enabled both countries to balance economic growth with social investments in areas such as healthcare, old age security and unemployment protection.

It'll be a different story for S'pore

Singapore’s transition is likely to be much less wrenching and destabilising.

First, the city-state is nowhere near as repressive as the dictatorships in South Korea and Taiwan that ruled until the 1980s.

Equally important is the fact that the vast majority of Singaporeans are homeowners. A home-owning society is far less likely to upset the apple cart of stability and prosperity.

For these and other reasons, we are sanguine about Singapore’s transition to a liberal democracy with a far more redistributive state.

Our optimism stands in stark contrast to the government’s fears about how increased democratic pressures here will make Singapore less governable, impede quick and enlightened decision making by elites who know better, and increase the likelihood of policies being made for short-term or populist reasons.

We argue that such fears are mostly misplaced.

Can the state evolve to serve a new society? Can S'poreans redefine success?

The contest in Singapore is not primarily one over basic political rights and freedoms. But neither is it just over “bread and butter” issues.

Rather, it is a debate over how a developmental state that has been so vital to Singapore’s modernisation would have to adapt to a society that is becoming less compliant and conformist, less enamoured of the country’s governing elite and its penchant for paternalism, and less willing to trust the government by default.

It is also a debate over the people’s ability to determine what constitutes success and wellbeing.

While a narrow focus on GDP growth, academic achievement and material prosperity helped to raise living standards early on, they have also proven to be incomplete barometers of success for Singaporeans.

For businesses and policymakers in Singapore, the days of easy political consensus, stability and insulation from short-term electoral demands are over.

Having sacrificed two generations to attain modernity and prosperity, Singaporeans are now wrestling with a post-modern future.

Top photo from Shutterstock & Flickr user Dushan Hanuska