Reframing Policy and Political Debates in Singapore

Donald Low and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh

Singapore is in the midst of a profound economic and sociopolitical transition. This began around the turn of the century and accelerated after the 2011 General Election (GE 2011). A number of global and domestic forces are converging to create a different political and policy landscape in Singapore—a “new normal” in the words of Dr Tony Tan, Singapore’s president, just before his election in August 2011. These forces are changing the nature of governance and policymaking in Singapore in unpredictable ways, making it harder for the People’s Action Party (PAP) government to sustain good governance based on its current assumptions, beliefs, and worldviews.

In the last 20 years or so, globalisation and the rise of neoliberal market ideologies around the world have shaped and influenced policy making in Singapore far more so than in countries that are less open to global trade, ideas and immigration. The emergence of a number of large, newly liberalising economies in Asia has also heightened the sense of competition in Singapore, raising questions about how the city-state will stay relevant in a world likely to be dominated by economic giants. The primacy of growth, long embraced as government dogma, gained renewed urgency and saliency in the 2000s in the context of fast-growing emerging economies in Asia, more frequent macroeconomic shocks, and constant reminders of a global war for talent and investments.

Recent economic developments seem to bear out policymakers’ fear that unless Singapore maintains its long-standing emphasis on economic growth, it risks losing relevance in a more competitive, uncertain and volatile world. In the last 15 years, the economy experienced more externally induced shocks and slowdowns than in the 30 years prior. Much of this is due to Singapore’s increasing connectedness with the global economy, to volatile and fickle capital flows, and to rapid technological changes that shorten business cycles.

On the political front, the digital and telecommunication revolution of the last 30 years—particularly the near universal access Singaporeans now have to mobile telephony, the internet, and social media—has dramatically altered state-society relations in Singapore. It has challenged the long-standing notion that establishment elites in the country know best, and has provided highly accessible (and widely accessed) platforms on which citizens can question, scrutinise and criticise those in power. Government-controlled media channels have seen their influence wane in the face of a mushrooming blogosphere. Citizens’ views are spread and amplified through the densely connected networks of social media, producing information cascades and shaping mass perceptions far more quickly than traditional media channels can.

In this environment, it is hardly surprising that the authorities in Singapore sometimes bemoan the passing of an era when they were largely insulated from the criticisms on a wide range of issues they are subject to today. They warn also about the dangers of polarisation and populism, and raise the spectre of paralysis in government if Singaporeans cannot forge a consensus on the critical challenges confronting the country.

These political trends have interacted with socioeconomic forces—the ageing population, rising inequality, stagnating wages, decreasing social mobility, and a growing foreign population—to create stresses on social cohesion and Singapore’s political consensus; greater demands for democratic accountability, representation, and participation; and higher expectations for a more redistributive state.

In the new normal created by these forces and the elections of the last three years, the Singapore government’s space for manoeuvre has narrowed considerably. Its widely admired solutions in a number of areas—housing, education, healthcare, social security, transport and infrastructure—have come under greater public scrutiny and criticism in recent years. These have also become vastly more contested compared with just a decade ago.

Meanwhile, Singaporeans’ trust in the government’s ability to deliver can no longer be assumed. The hithero pristine “policy lab” that Singapore’s policymakers used to operate in is today being monitored by a more critical and sceptical public, and by a more diverse polity with potentially competing and conflicting interests.[1] Increasingly, Singapore’s policymakers have to make hard choiceswhere there are winners and losersand not just remind themselves of the hard truths that have enabled independent Singapore to succeed in its first 40 years. Indeed, as the essays in this book try to show, there is a wide range of credible policy and political alternatives that could and should be considered.

Maintaining good governance in this new normal is not impossible, but it will require significant institutional, democratic, and policy reforms on the part of the government. These reforms will be critical as Singaporeans debate and renegotiate the principles of governance that have, until recently, been largely taken for granted.

Principles of Governance Revisited

Many of the policy debates in Singapore in recent years reflect deeper, more fundamental disagreements over the normative beliefs, principles and desired outcomes that underpin Singapore’s public policies. The disagreements, say, over economic restructuring, social spending or population policy, are not just over how government should achieve its outcomes but the outcomes themselves. The principles and beliefs that public policies are founded on, as well as the meanings attached to those principles, are also increasingly being questioned and challenged.

Consider meritocracy, perhaps the most crucial principle of governance, so vital and fundamental that it was one of the reasons Singapore separated from Malaysia. For the PAP government, meritocracy has an egalitarian streak: it gives everyone a fair shot at success and ensures that a person’s position in life will not be determined by his or her race, parentage or lineage, and social connections. Yet, in the context of rising inequality and concerns over declining social mobility, many Singaporeans now perceive the meritocratic system as being less fair and just than before. Rightly or wrongly, they view meritocracy as thinly-veiled justification for elitism, and the reason for the state’s indifference towards equality and redistribution.

Part of this dissatisfaction with meritocracy is a reaction to growing inequalities of income and more conspicuous displays of wealth in Singapore. But it is also driven by the government’s constant harping on how the talented should not be held back by policies, or shackled by onerous regulations, how they are the ones who create jobs and prosperity for the rest, and how if their taxes were raised, they would leave Singapore to the detriment of the greater good. With rising inequality and the perception that elitism is sanctioned by the state, it is hardly surprising that a defence of meritocracy on the grounds of trickle-down economics will grate on the nerves of many Singaporeans, including some who have benefited from the very meritocratic system they decry.

Or consider the critique of a second deeply-held principle of governance: vulnerability and elite governance. The political establishment in Singapore has largely defined the Singapore condition as one of inherent, permanent, and immutable vulnerability. Given Singapore’s vulnerabilities of size, geography, its neighbourhood, the country’s lack of natural resources and its ethnic make-up, it is commonly argued that the country’s survival depends on a strong, exceptional government composed of the best and brightest in the country (they are compensated at levels comparable to the highest incomes in the country). The vulnerabilities that Singapore is saddled with have also been used to justify a wide range of restraints on the democratic freedoms one normally finds in countries at similar levels of development and with similarly large middle classes.

One can, of course, question the correctness and validity of this vulnerability narrative. At a public lecture he delivered at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in 2011, Thomas Friedman, a columnist at The New York Times, was asked what he thought were Singapore’s key strengths. His reply: that it is small (and so can be very agile and flexible, and can forge political consensus more easily), and that it has no natural resources (and so will never suffer from the complacency or the resource curse that has blighted many resource-rich countries). Vulnerability is not necessarily an objective fact; it is just as much a matter of perspective, and may even be a social construct created by those in power.

Nonetheless, Singaporeans have largely accepted this vulnerability story for decades. They have also bought into the basic trade-off offered by the PAP government: if they want growth and rising living standards, they have to forgo some of their democratic rights and freedoms. Being exceptional in the Singapore government’s view does not simply mean achieving excellence or good governance. It also means accepting that Singapore is not normal, that citizens cannot enjoy the same rights and freedoms enjoyed by the citizens of normal democracies, or have the same levels of social protection. The term “new normal” should be contrasted not with the “old normal”, but with the “old abnormal”. For many decades, Singaporeans’ acceptance of the old abnormal reflected their grudging acceptance of a national ideology emphasising Singapore’s inherent vulnerabilities, and the constraints this imposed on democracy, civil liberties, and social protection.

In the post-2011 new normal, the previously unquestioned logic of vulnerability and exceptionalism is increasingly being challenged. At one level, what this means is that there is no longer the presumption that “the government knows best” or that trust in the government should be given by default or unquestioningly. Part of the growing disillusionment with the government is due to the policy failings of the last decade (in immigration and foreign worker policies, housing, transport etc.), but perhaps a larger part is the consequence of citizens’ greater global exposure, in turn made possible by rising educational attainment, the digital revolution, and the democratisation of information.

If this is correct, it suggests that the Singaporeans who are least likely to accept the ruling elite’s basic ideologies are also the most educated, the most globalised, and the most mobile of its citizens—indeed, the ones who have benefitted most from successful governance in Singapore. This is perhaps the main paradox of the new normal in Singapore: upper- and middle-class liberals who have benefitted the most from the PAP’s long hold on power are also the segment of society most likely to challenge and question its stories and ideologies.

A third long-cherished principle of governance that has come under greater scrutiny and criticism in recent years is the state’s reliance on economic incentives as the primary instrument of governance. A common gripe in Singapore is how everything the government does is framed and justified in narrow monetary terms. This is a government that takes the economist’s policy prescriptions —of getting incentives right, of using cost-benefit analysis—seriously.

There are various objections to the extensive reliance on incentives as a policy lever, but two are commonly highlighted. The first is it reduces citizens’ relations with the state to a purely monetary transaction. Rather than foster citizenship, commonality and identity, the relationship between state and citizens breeds a “what-the-state-owes-me” mentality. It reinforces the impression that the role of government in Singapore is to dispense patronage and secure people’s compliance through economic incentives.

The second objection is that the current approach is highly individualised rather than universal. Singapore’s social spending has become more narrowly targeted at lower-income citizens through means-testing. An individual’s income and socioeconomic status matter a great deal in determining the benefits he or she gets from the state. In contrast to the more universal approaches taken by the Singapore government in the past—in public housing, public healthcare and education, recent policy changes have tended to stress targeting, surgically directing financial aid to those who need it most.

While this approach makes sense from a fiscal and efficiency perspective, it also breeds a calculative, zero-sum, “your-gain-is-my-loss” mentality. It makes the Singapore system of taxes and transfers a potentially divisive and exclusionary one, rather than one that builds trust, solidarity, and a sense that “we’re all in this together”. When society was already becoming more unequal in the 2000s, the fiscal system increasingly emphasised individual entitlement, differentiation and targeting, instead of social protection and risk pooling, universalism, and solidarity.

The Resilience Imperative[2]

So how should a government respond to an operating environment in which many of its long-standing assumptions and beliefs are being challenged, often in unexpected and disruptive ways? In such a context, perhaps the most valuable asset a government can have is resilience. Resilience is the capacity of a system to bounce back, not necessarily to its original form, but to a state that allows the system to maintain its core purpose and integrity and to continue performing its key functions.

Resilience—whether of an ecological system, an organisation, the internet, or a species—is a function of two things. First, a resilient system is one that has been exposed to a variety of shocks. Each of these shocks is not large enough to destroy the system but over time force the system to adapt and develop diverse capabilities to respond to a wider range of shocks and stimuli. Conversely, systems that are fragile are those that have been insulated from external shocks or protected from competition for long periods. This is why, for example, the Galapagos Islands are so fragile ecologically, even if they are highly stable as long as they remain undisturbed in their current pristine state.

The US financial crisis of 2007–09 is another example of how a lack of diversity creates a fragile economic system. The health of banks became increasingly tied to the availability of cheap credit, rising house prices, and the willingness of home owners to continually refinance their mortgages. Financial institutions mostly pursued a strategy of originating and then securitising sub-prime mortgages. The result was too much mimicry and insufficient variety in the financial system. Such monoculture systems can exhibit long periods of stability but are also extremely vulnerable to specific shocks, no matter how slight. The collapse of Lehman Brothers had such far-reaching consequences, not because it was a particularly large investment bank, but because of its connectivity within the financial system. And because many other institutions were doing the same thing, there was a great deal of “interlocking fragility;”[3] such that when Lehman collapsed, the entire banking system became highly vulnerable.

The second essential ingredient of a resilient system is selection. Resilient systems all have some mechanism for “choosing” between competing, alternative strategies or designs. We normally think of the selection process as being undertaken by individuals or leaders. But selection by distributed, decentralised, and impersonal forces such as market competition is likely to be more reliable in the long run. Markets are resilient because they encourage variety and diversity, and because they provide strong signals for firms to select “fit” strategies or designs, and then replicate and scale them up. This is why the economist William Baumol describes markets as “innovation machines.”[4]

It is extremely tempting for the human mind to respond to uncertainty and complexity with a greater desire for control, harmony, and stability. But the reality is that the complete avoidance of shocks and failures is a utopian dream. More problematically, insulation from competition and shocks weakens the signals for the system to adapt, and breeds strategic brittleness and fragility. In the long run, such insulation leads to instability and the system’s eventual collapse.

This resilience perspective can also be applied to the study of governance. If we agree that what governments need most in the context of rapid and disruptive change is resilience, then we would also agree that they need to ensure sufficient diversity and variety, and develop selection processes that are not reliant on a few individuals making the right calls. A political system can also suffer from too much mimicry, and have too little diversity to allow for the experimentation and adaptation that is needed for long-term survival. Without sufficient diversity, a political system can become trapped by groupthink and ideological rigidity.

Amid rapid global and domestic transformations, this resilience perspective ought to replace the vulnerability and elite governance perspective that Singapore’s government and society at large have traditionally relied on. Rather than emphasise our vulnerability and how it imposes constraints on what Singapore can do or be, and why we need to rely on elites, resilience thinking broadens our discussion on governance. It invites us to think about what policy alternatives are available to us, what institutional shock absorbers we need in a more volatile world, and how we can achieve a better and more equitable allocation of risks between the state and citizens. It also encourages the government to explore how it can tap on the distributed intelligence of citizens, and how democratic practices and institutions can bolster Singaporeans’ trust in the government and their confidence in the country’s future.

A Greater Diversity of Ideas

The resilience perspective to governance and public policy is at the heart of this compilation of essays that aims to do two things. The first is to put together, in a single volume, a wide array of practical alternatives that have emerged in the country’s political discourse since GE 2011. As Singapore’s operating context becomes more complex and unpredictable, the variety of policy and institutional options that the government should consider has to increase correspondingly. A more complex, plural and heterogeneous polity demands a commensurate increase in the range, sophistication, and diversity of ideas that the country considers. Indeed, not only should there be a greater variety of ideas in the substantive sense, this diversity should also apply to the sources of ideas that the government draws from and the processes it relies on to generate options and alternatives.

The essays here are not intended to be exhaustive or comprehensive. Neither do they cover the entire range of contentious issues that have emerged in the post-2011 landscape. Instead, the essays were chosen to provide a broad sample of the alternatives that are widely discussed and debated outside establishment circles. They are intended to provide policymakers, analysts, students of the Singapore government, and the general public an understanding of the range of policy and institutional alternatives that are available if we are prepared to broaden our minds.

In so doing, we question the implicit but widely-held belief that Singapore has very few choices when it comes to politics, governance, and public policy. While the authors of the essays in this volume do not agree on every issue, one of the things they do agree on is that Singapore has many more viable and workable alternatives than the PAP government has presented; rather than the TINA (“there is no alternative”), we firmly believe in TARA (“there are real alternatives”).

Reframing our Debates

The second aim of this compilation of essays is to reframe policy, governance, and political debates in Singapore. More often than not, these debates in Singapore have been framed in ways designed to justify the status quo and discourage a deeper, more robust discussion of the possible alternatives. As cognitive psychologists have long observed, how an issue is framed to an audience—whether it is presented as a loss or a gain, whether it appeals to people’s tendency to focus narrowly on memorable or recent events, or whether it “anchors” people on the status quo and so increases the fear of regret and aversion to change—can be extremely consequential in determining how one responds.

One of the main contentions of this book is that policy and political debates in Singapore are stunted and held back by the government’s often narrow, stark, and binary framing of issues. Take for instance the notion that Singapore should not be a welfare state. The government typically frames the welfare state as a system that encourages collective sloth and dependence on the state, undermines the work ethic and individual and familial responsibility, and erodes national vigour and economic competitiveness. But a careful study of welfare states around the world does not support such a stark conclusion. There is little evidence to show that a country’s economic growth prospects or its competitiveness are influenced by the size of the welfare state or levels of social spending. Neither is there much evidence to suggest that innovation or productivity levels are lower in developed countries with higher welfare spending.

Much of the discourse surrounding “welfare” in Singapore reflects the PAP’s ideology rather than a comprehensive study of its adverse economic impacts in other countries. This is not to say that welfare systems cannot have any serious disincentive effects, only to point out that welfare states have often adapted and found ways of designing incentive-compatible policies that do not produce the perverse, undesired consequences commonly cited by the PAP government.

One way of reframing the debates is to embrace the resilience perspective discussed earlier in this introduction, and consciously ask ourselves what this might mean for public policies and institutions in Singapore. For instance, it is commonly asserted that given the country’s size, its limited talent pool and its inherent vulnerabilities, Singapore needs leaders of great ability and high integrity, individuals who will do what is right, not what is popular. While most Singaporeans probably accept these statements unquestioningly, applying a resilience frame—as opposed to just a vulnerability frame—changes the nature of the discussion. While Singaporeans might still say that good leadership matters, we are also now more likely to agree that good and durable institutions matter too, and probably matter more in the long run. This is partly because while leadership is highly context-dependent, good institutions work in a variety of contexts.

Just as importantly, the singular emphasis on good leadership goes against the grain of the earlier argument that what determines resilience is not a single wise man or a small group of knowledgeable elites. Rather, it is by ensuring sufficient variety and diversity in the system that a society or economy becomes more resilient. In the long run, we are better off relying on a system of distributed intelligence—with a diversity of competing ideas and options—than one that is critically dependent on a small group of people, no matter how intelligent they may be.

Government leaders have, in the recent past, often expressed concern about how increasing political polarisation might paralyse the government. The authors of the essays here are more worried about how the desire for control, order, and stability might weaken the already weak incentives in Singapore’s governance system to allow competing ideas to surface, and to subject these ideas to careful consideration and serious analysis. We are less worried about the risks of polarisation than we are about the effects of incumbency, the inertia of the status quo, and the tyranny of old ideas and unquestioned, unchallenged ideologies.

The Essays

This compilation has three parts. The first, “The Limits of Singapore Exceptionalism”, contains essays that question and interrogate many of the PAP government’s long-standing beliefs: Singapore’s inherent vulnerability, meritocracy, the primacy of growth, the indifference towards inequality, and the reflexive aversion to welfare. These beliefs are at the heart of what makes governance in Singapore exceptional; they also underpin many of Singapore’s public policies. We also argue that these beliefs are increasingly at odds with the PAP government’s own ambitions for the country and how Singapore society and its economy are changing.

For instance, the government’s aspirations for Singapore to be an entrepreneurial and innovation-driven economy collide with the institutions, policies, and practices in government that inhibit risk-taking, experimentation, collaboration, and the cultivation of egalitarian social norms—all of which are critical for a creative economy. The state’s prioritisation of growth over distribution and its aversion to welfare are also ill-suited for an ageing population, slower economic growth, rising income inequality and wage stagnation. Its global city ambitions bump up against an emerging Singaporean identity. Many of the beliefs that made Singapore’s governance exceptional—although mostly useful in the first 40 years since Independence— are increasingly out of sync with current and future realities and with the aspirations of Singaporeans.

The second part, “Policy Alternatives for Post-Consensus Singapore”, examines a wide range of policies that should be rethought and reformulated if one accepts the argument that the contradictions and limits of Singapore exceptionalism are holding the country back. In this section, we ask how policies in a few policy domains—specifically population, housing, and social security—should be reformed. Much of the government’s discourse after 2011 has centred on how its (essentially) sound policies need to be better communicated and explained to the populace. The essays in this section question the premise that these policies are still sound in light of changing economic, social, and political realities. These essays also try to reframe Singapore’s policy choices by examining many of the assumptions and ideologies that underpin current policies. Such a reframing suggests that Singapore has many more viable policy options than the PAP government has tended to present.

The third section, “Governance and Democracy: Past, Present, Future,” explores the historical narratives, ideological blinkers, and cognitive biases of the ruling party, and how these have narrowed the range of alternatives the government considers and shrunk the space for policy debates in Singapore. We conclude with thoughts on how the Singapore state might evolve in light of the significant economic and sociopolitical changes it is going through. We also present a liberal agenda for the Singapore state, and speculate how democratic change might occur in Singapore.

  1. Singapore’s Prime Minister once described the country’s civil servants as “practis[ing] public administration in laboratory conditions,” referring to the environment that supports “Singapore’s ability to take a longer view, pursue rational policies, put in place the fundamentals which the country needs, and systematically change policies that are outdated or obsolete. Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at 2005 Admin Service Dinner, 24 Mar. 2005,
  2. Many of our thoughts on complexity, change and resilience draw on the work of complexity scientists. For more in this field, we highly recommend Eric Beinhocker, The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity and the Radical Remaking of Economics (Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press, 2006); Duncan Watts, Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004); and Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back (New York: Free Press, 2012).
  3. In The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2007), Nassem Nicholas Taleb argues that “[g]lobalization creates interlocking fragility, while reducing volatility and giving the appearance of stability. In other words it creates devastating Black Swans. We have never lived before under the threat of a global collapse. Financial institutions have been merging into a smaller number of very large banks. Almost all banks are interrelated. So the financial ecology is swelling into gigantic, incestuous, bureaucratic banks—when one fails, they all fall. The increased concentration among banks seems to have the effect of making financial crisis less likely, but when they happen they are more global in scale and hit us very hard. We have moved from a diversified ecology of small banks, with varied lending policies, to a more homogeneous framework of firms that all resemble one another. True, we now have fewer failures, but when they occur … I shiver at the thought.”
  4. William Baumol, The Free Market Innovation Machine: Analyzing the Growth Miracle of Capitalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).


Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus Copyright © 2014 by Donald Low and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh. All Rights Reserved.


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