Thursday, March 31, 2011

Social Capital & Integration

Mar 31, 2011

S'pore can't afford to stop building social capital

By Li Xueying, Political Correspondent

SINGAPORE'S policy of ethnic quotas in public housing is a 'textbook example' of trying to build social cohesion and trust across different community groups, says the man who has written the seminal textbooks on social capital.

Professor Robert Putnam is quick to add wryly: 'I'm perfectly aware that just because you put Malays and Chinese in the same physical building doesn't mean that they spend a lot of time having tea together - or go bowling together.' But, in its conception at least, the policy is a 'well thought-out idea', he says.

The Harvard University academic and former dean of its Kennedy School of Government has been in town for a month-long spell as the Li Ka Shing Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

Ruddy-faced with a distinctive beard and an equally marked sense of humour, the 70-year-old, who leaves tomorrow, is known for his pioneering work on social capital, including the best-selling Bowling Alone. He pins social capital down as the value that arises when individuals learn to trust one another, make credible commitments, and engage in cooperative activities, such as giving to charity, joining civic and political groups - and yes, bowling together.

When such connections are forged, members of the community will enjoy low crime rates, longer life expectancies - and those coveted job references. So far, nothing so controversial. But to the glee of those on the far right - including the Ku Klux Klan - Prof Putnam also found that immigration and ethnic diversity reduce social capital. The higher the diversity in a neighbourhood, the lower the levels of trust, political participation and happiness between and within the ethnic groups, he discovered.

Residents 'hunker down' - unhappily - in front of the television set. Not very good news for a place such as Singapore. But happily, Prof Putnam has also diagnosed this as a short-term problem that can be overcome with 'bridging social capital' - or the idea of fostering social capital across different groups. And this is where Singapore's policy of ethnic quotas in Housing Board blocks comes in - to 'bridge' the different ethnic groups.

Asked for his assessment of Singapore's progress in building social capital, the academic - who has been consultant to three American presidents, three British prime ministers and one Libyan dictator - adds the caveat that he does not have 'a very good answer because I'm a little bit like a doctor who's seeing the patient for the first time'.

That said, he tries.

Having met academics, students and Cabinet ministers including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in his past month here, his sense is that the struggle for independence in Singapore's early years 'probably had the effect of creating a strong sense of solidarity', with the help of organisations such as the traditional Chinese clans.

Meanwhile, the Government tried different ways of building social capital in the fledging nation - although 'some of them may not have worked exactly as well as people hoped', observed Prof Putnam.

One policy that did work was an education system that brought students from different backgrounds together. Another successful example - 'the most important' - is national service. But looking ahead, Prof Putnam sounds the alarm bells. 'I think the world moves on and just because you've solved the social capital problems in one epoch, doesn't mean you solve them forever,' he warns.

Ironically, Singapore's economic success over the past four decades has created new challenges for social capital in two respects, he observes. First is the 'general emphasis on individualism, on the marketplace and on social isolation in individuals'. This has meant that many of the bonds formed at the grassroots level may 'no longer have the same vitality as they did'.

Meanwhile, new forms of social capital have not been formed to replace fading ones. The second challenge is economic segregation as a result of inequality. As the income gap widens, people lead lives in parallel universes - in terms of where they live, the schools their children attend, the people they mix with. Opportunities for 'bridging social capital' are thus lost.

In the United States, there are increasingly 'two separate societies - the well-off and the less well-off', he says, adding: 'I'm not certain but I think it might be a serious problem here too.'

Little research has been done to measure Singapore's social capital, whereas in looking at the US, Prof Putnam uses up to 30 indicators ranging from frequency of volunteering, to inter-racial marriages, to political participation. But a 2006 comparative survey by the Taiwan-based East Asian Barometer provides some indication (the Singapore survey was co-coordinated by sociologist Tan Ern Ser).

For instance, just 10 per cent of Singaporeans belong to an organisation, as opposed to 29 per cent of Taiwanese. Meanwhile, 70 per cent say that one must be 'very careful in dealing with others', compared with 63 per cent in Taiwan.

Without in-depth study, Prof Putnam is cautious about offering specific advice on how a diverse society such as Singapore can move along in the process, but makes it clear that the homogeneity model in countries such as Britain 'where one has to choose - be Muslim or be British' would not work. 'It's important that people be able to have special ties with other people like them. That's completely normal.'

This is why he thinks that there continues to be a role for Singapore's self-help community groups organised along ethnic lines, such as the Chinese Development Assistance Council, the Muslim community self-help group Mendaki and the Singapore Indian Development Association, even though detractors argue that they exacerbate ethnic differences.

'The way you achieve a successfully diverse society is not to make everybody homogenous,' he says. Rather, there should be a national identity that is dynamic and 'more encompassing', not one that is fixed and immutable.

That is why Prof Putnam is leery of Singapore's practice of imprinting identity cards with one's race. 'I am a little suspicious about it because that implies that your identity is fixed and that your identity says Indian or Chinese or Malay or whatever.'

The next phase of Prof Putnam's work is to look at the link between social capital and economic equality. Much of the existing research thus far has focused on the ill effects of inequality on social capital. But he argues for a causal relationship in the other direction. It was the downward spiral in social capital in the US after World War II which led to increasing economic inequality, he says. When communities are less cohesive and their members care less for one another, they tend to be more unequal. 'It is a big, big deal,' he says simply.

Q and A with Robert Putnam

What are your thoughts on how Singapore can build social cohesion and trust?

I don't know whether the ethnic and religious differences here are a problem or not, and frankly, as I talk to people in Singapore, I get mixed messages. Some are very worried about growing separation, say, between Muslims and others; others are not. MM (Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew) has expressed both sides. He said he was worried and then he said he stood corrected, so I don't know what the right answer is. But if I were a citizen here, I would not be framing that question in terms of blaming any ethnic minority group for the problem.

Let's take Britain where many say it's the fault of Muslim immigrants - they are separating themselves. I do think there's segregation, but I don't think it's because they chose to be outside British society - I think British society has not made sufficient effort to bring them in too.

In my view, the way you achieve a successfully diverse society is not to make everybody homogenous. The challenge is not to make them like us; it is to have a new 'us'.

You say that less social cohesion has led to less equality in the US. But could other factors such as globalisation have played a role in the growing inequality?

Maybe, but the time is wrong because globalisation in America didn't become a serious phenomenon until the 1980s. I do not want to get into a debate with the Singapore Government (about the role of globalisation in inequality).

But I do think that, at least in other countries, many things have contributed to the rise in inequality in addition to purely economic factors - the growth of individualism and a certain kind of materialism has been an independent cause of the growth of inequality.

What are the implications of this causal link? Why does it matter?

Independent of globalisation or changing skill premiums or all the other things that are said to be causes of inequality, I think norms of fairness have an independent effect on both public policy - tax and spending - and private wage-setting behaviour.

Now, my norms of fairness may differ from your norms of fairness. Indeed my norms of fairness differ from my children's norms of fairness. I love my children but they think it's fair if people who've worked harder are entitled to their money. And I don't think that's quite so fair because I think someone who had some bad luck shouldn't (suffer that) - he or she is part of us.

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