Singapore’s economic success masks some uncomfortable truths about life in this city-state. While per capita GDP has risen astronomically (by some estimates, it is the highest in the world today), Singapore is also one of the most unequal societies among developed economies. Incomes at the bottom are relatively low by rich country standards. Meanwhile for many Singaporeans, the country’s impressive material achievements have not necessarily translated into higher levels of happiness. In various surveys, Singaporeans are found to work some of the longest hours in the developed world, are described as one of the world’s least happy peoples, and more than half indicate they would emigrate if given the chance.

And perhaps for the first time in the country’s history, citizens have given political expression to their dissatisfaction. Singapore’s general and presidential elections in 2011 mark a significant turning point in the country’s political history. For many, it heralded the end of dominance by the only party—the People’s Action Party (PAP) —that Singaporeans have elected into office since the country gained self-government in 1959. Although it is still by far the largest party in parliament, the decade-long erosion of popular support for the PAP (it won 75.3 per cent of the vote in the 2001 general election compared with just 60.1 per cent in the 2011 election) suggests that the era of mostly unchallenged political dominance is over. The presidential election of August 2011, in which the PAP’s preferred candidate secured a plurality of just 35.2 per cent of the popular vote in a four-man contest, is further evidence of the party’s weakening grip on the Singapore polity.

The by-election defeats in 2012 (Hougang) and 2013 (Punggol East) cemented perceptions of the PAP losing ground ineluctably. More importantly, a number of highly contentious issues, both new and old, have emerged since the 2011 elections. Events in 2013 have provided establishment critics in Singapore with plenty of fodder: the widespread unhappiness over the government’s Population White Paper in January 2013, the adverse reactions to the government’s new rules on online news sites, questions about the sustainability of the country’s growth model and its high reliance on foreign labour, continuing frustration with the public transport system and its frequent breakdowns, and concerns over the government’s tendency to resort to hard-ball measures to deal with political opponents and dissenters. As this book was going to press, a riot on 8 December 2013 reportedly involving 400 foreign workers from South Asia shocked Singaporeans (and foreign observers) and raised deeper questions about the prosperous city-state’s relationship with its large contingent of foreign workers.

The PAP has sought to respond to these societal, economic, and political changes. It has mounted a serious effort to change, reform, and even abandon policies that are viewed as a source of public unhappiness. New social spending measures targeted at lower- and middle-income Singaporeans have been emphasised in the government’s recent budget statements. A year-long public consultation exercise (“Our Singapore Conversation”) resulted in a raft of measures in the areas of housing, education, and healthcare announced by the Prime Minister at the National Day Rally in August 2013. These measures, the government contends, mark an important shift in the way the Singapore state shares risks with citizens, and how the government builds an inclusive society.

At the same time, the reforms announced since the 2011 elections are noteworthy for what they do not include. Commentators have pointed to the dearth of reforms that would expand the democratic space in Singapore. Some, including contributors to this book, have also argued that the PAP’s old verities of vulnerability, meritocracy, elite governance, economic growth, and technocratic rationalism have remained mostly intact. That the changes announced so far have been entirely in the policy realm also suggests that the PAP remains much more concerned with shoring up its performance legitimacy than with expanding the state’s basis of legitimacy to include the liberal ideas of voice and representation, transparency, and political freedoms. It has probably assessed that Singaporeans care more about the material benefits of its rule, and that its hold on power still relies on the production of economic benefits for the majority of Singaporeans.

While the PAP’s strategy of focussing on material benefits may well be sufficient in slowing or even reversing the electoral slide in the near-term, we believe that it is ultimately a limited strategy because it underestimates how diverse, heterogeneous, and politically contested the Singaporean polity has become. The policy changes the government pursues will invariably produce winners and losers. Without a wider debate over the kind of society and economy Singapore should become in the future—and without an acceptance of the unavoidable contests of political values and ideologies that will increasingly characterise Singapore’s political future—a strategy of appeasing Singaporeans’ angst over bread-and-butter issues will always be a self-limiting one.

Perhaps the clearest expression of how the Singaporean polity has changed is the erosion of the largely unquestioned trust that the PAP government enjoyed in decades past. The mostly benign political context allowed a technocratic government to think beyond the next election and craft policies that may have been unpopular in the short-term, but today it is confronted with a more rambunctious political landscape. In this political “new normal”, the government finds it much harder to set the terms of the debate, especially when many of its underlying beliefs and principles are no longer automatically accepted by the electorate. Whereas dissent and criticism were quite muted for much of Singapore’s history after the mid-1960s, a new generation of Singaporeans—empowered by the internet and social media—has emerged in the last decade to openly question many of the PAP’s long-held assumptions and beliefs.

At the heart of these political changes is a deeper and more profound shift. The debates in Singapore do not simply reflect technical disagreements over different policies and policy approaches. Rather, they also occur over the assumptions, values, beliefs, and ultimate goals that underpin policies. These debates suggest that the “Singapore consensus” that the PAP government constructed and maintained in the last five decades is fraying, partly because many perceive it to be outdated. The assumptions of Singapore exceptionalism—the argument that the country’s situation is so uniquely vulnerable that it has limited policy and political options, that good governance demands a degree of political consensus that ordinary democratic arrangements cannot produce, and that sustaining the country’s success requires a competitive meritocracy accompanied by relatively little income or wealth redistribution—are far more challenged and contested today.

These contests of ideas and ideologies will become increasingly important and, we believe, necessary as Singaporeans move beyond the old beliefs of vulnerability and exceptionalism. While a single collection of essays cannot provide all the policy and institutional answers (or even ask all the right questions) necessary for a far more contested Singapore, we hope it provides a sufficient range of alternatives. We argue that more than ever, Singapore’s success depends on the competition of policy and political ideas. Success can no longer come from a tiny, enlightened group of elites—if it ever did. Instead, it has to be grounded in the distributed intelligence of Singaporeans, and honed by the practices of democratic debate and deliberation. Historically, this has also been the experience of other small, developed countries. One thinks of Switzerland, the Nordic countries such as Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, and Israel as countries that over time have developed deeply democratic practices and institutions in spite of their challenging contexts. Consensus in these countries is usually the result of debate and compromise, mediated through the democratic process, rather than imposed from above by an all-powerful state.

That a democracy can become dysfunctional, get captured by interest groups, be corrupted by money, or degenerate into demagoguery and populism is neither surprising nor unusual. But in Singapore’s context, we believe that a more fruitful line of inquiry would be to ask how we can create the conditions for Singapore to become a healthy, thriving democracy that protects—institutionally—the contest of ideas and ideologies. In this spirit, the essays in this book do not just address the substance of government (i.e., policy alternatives), but also the system of governance (i.e., how the government makes decisions, encourages a wider range of ideas, and allows debate and dissent to flourish).

Many of the essays in this volume have been published on other publicly available platforms, either in the print media or online, in the last few years. Some readers may find the difference in styles across the essays jarring. We made a deliberate decision to retain the authors’ original styles and to edit the essays as lightly as possible. We felt that such an editorial approach would allow us to be true to the authors’ original intents and convey the crux of the arguments they made at the time the original essays were written. But we were also cognisant of the fact that the fast-changing policy and political context in Singapore might render some of their arguments less salient or relevant now than when the essays were first written. Hence, we have provided the dates and references of the original essays in the endnotes of each chapter.

We hope that a diverse collection of essays on the policy and political reforms Singapore needs, framed as alternatives to the Singapore consensus and the dominant beliefs of the PAP government, will provoke fresh insights and questions. At the heart of this is our belief that anyone invested in this country’s future should question the Singapore consensus—not only as a means of delivering progress, but also the very ends it seeks and the values it represents. Above all, we hope that this collection gives readers a deeper appreciation of the challenges that confront Singapore and of the real alternatives we should consider.

Donald Low and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh
23 December 2013


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


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