Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Redefining success, Singapore style

Jun 22, 2011
By K. Kesavapany

ONE of the messages that came clearly through at the last general election was that Singapore is successful enough to be able to redefine the nature of success.

Let me explain this apparent paradox.

It is a hallmark of People's Action Party rule that the Government delivers. An action-oriented government turned Singapore into a byword for success in an astonishing range of areas - from the economy to defence, from public housing to education and social harmony. It is on the basis of this success that Singapore's leaders have sought to build a future-oriented nation from among the descendants of immigrants who differ from one another in race and religion.

The Shenton skyline, the Changi naval base and the HDB heartland are just three examples of a successful Singapore. To ignore these and other examples is to be wilfully blind. The fact is that without Singapore as it stands today, there would be no success to redefine.

However, success comes at a cost, and the true measure of success is to recognise and rectify those costs so that the success is sustainable. The 2011 General Election has drawn attention to these costs: the high cost of living in general, and in particular, for first-time buyers of public housing; growing income disparities that, left unchecked, could create a new Third World within First World Singapore; and fears of large-scale immigration degrading the living environment and possibly diluting the nascent sense of national identity as well.

Also palpable in the lead-up to the elections was the sense of empathy that middle-class Singaporeans, including the young, felt towards their poorer (and often older) fellow citizens. This cross-generational altruism, this solidarity that cut across classes, bodes well for Singapore as globalisation heightens disparities within nations as much as among them. Globalisation builds economies; it does not create nations.

A key issue now, therefore, is how to redefine success in order to sustain Singapore as a nation.

In that context, it is worth recalling that in 1989, the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas) published Management Of Success: The Moulding Of Modern Singapore, edited by Kernial Singh Sandhu and Paul Wheatley. It was soon regarded as a seminal volume because it explored the whole terrain of national life to show how far Singapore had come from its post-colonial origins as a poor and violent non-nation.

The keywords in the volume's title were 'management' and 'moulding' - words that focused on the agency of a radically interventionist state in transforming Singapore into a vibrant global city that would nevertheless be enough of a home for its citizens to want to defend it.

The world has changed since 1989. The implosion of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War and the spread of neo-liberalism as the default ideology of the economic elite of the new world order - all these events have reshaped both Singapore's external and internal environments.

Early last year, therefore, Iseas assessed the implications of those changes in a new volume, Management Of Success: Singapore Revisited. Edited by Terence Chong, a senior fellow at Iseas, the new volume brought together a group of prominent scholars and thinkers to review public policies that had taken shape since the early 1990s.

The volume analysed issues of leadership and policy, economic restructuring, societal transformation, foreign relations and national identity. It was clear from the volume that success would have to be redefined in the light of the generational and other changes that had taken place in the intervening two decades.

The general election has brought to the fore this fundamental questioning.

Going forward, it is essential to reiterate that Singapore's external circumstances, particularly those emanating from its immediate neighbourhood, will constrain policy choices. Without a strong economy and a strong defence, the Singapore success story will evaporate.

However, despite these external constraints, the political economy of Singapore will need to be restructured to answer the population's felt need to redefine success.

Policies relating to social equity will need to be reconfigured; this is urgent. It is possible to argue that the disquiet over high ministerial salaries was caused less by the salaries themselves - which are a small price to pay compared to Singapore's gross domestic product - and more by the difference between ministerial salaries and the median income of Singaporeans.

But no matter how far ministerial salaries are reduced, the key issue will remain equity in general and the interests of the poor, the sick and the elderly in particular. These interests will need to feature heavily in the new economic map that the general election has drawn.

Also, the political assertiveness of citizens will need to be recognised as an asset in the next phase of Singapore's development. Singaporeans have destroyed once and for all the myth that they are politically apathetic, that their compact with the state includes a hidden clause whereby they agree to trade political consciousness for creature comforts.

Instead, it is those comforts that are the basis on which they are making 'higher order' political demands. This is entirely natural. This is how mature economies become mature polities as well.

All in all, an exciting era has begun. A decade from now, the real success story of Singapore might well be defined by the extent to which it succeeds in redefining success.

The writer is director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Think-Tank is a weekly column rotated among eight leading figures in Singapore's tertiary and research institutions.

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