This year, our regular columnist Kishore Mahbubani has devoted his monthly columns in The Straits Times to new Big Ideas which will help Singapore succeed in the next 50 years.
His first Big Idea is for the country to have fewer cars. The second Big Idea is to make our public transportation No.1 in the world. Read The Straits Times this Saturday to find out his third Big Idea.
Professor Mahbubani, who heads the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, has been hailed by British current affairs magazine Prospect as one of this year’s top 50 world thinkers.
Jan 11, 2014
2014: The year of Big Ideas
The formulas behind Singapore’s success in the first 50 years of its post-independence history will not necessarily be appropriate for the next 50.
THIS year will be a transitional year in the history of Singapore. It will be a year of major preparations for the massive celebrations we will have in 2015 to mark the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence.
Several major events have already been pencilled into the calendar for next year. We will host the SEA Games, with many events taking place in the spectacular new stadium in Kallang.
The National Art Gallery is also set to open in 2015 and a team of Singaporeans will begin scaling Mount Everest to commemorate Singapore’s 50th anniversary. The year will also see the first Singaporean fly into outer space, symbolising the fact that the sky is the limit in the future aspirations for Singapore.
Yet even as Singapore prepares for these public celebrations, its citizens should also reflect privately on where they want Singapore to be in 2065, at the nation’s 100th anniversary celebration. Even though some netizens cannot stomach the idea, it is an undeniable fact that, since its independence in 1965, Singapore has been one of the most successful societies in human history.
TO ALL those who would like to challenge this assertion, I have only one simple question: Name me one other society which has developed as comprehensively and as rapidly as Singapore has in its first 50 years after independence.
So far, no one has been able to give me an answer to this question.
Hence, as Singaporeans reflect on the next 50 years, they should also try to understand the factors that have led to this extraordinary success. In my earlier writings, I have suggested several factors, including the political leadership of Singapore’s founding fathers, a fabulous set of public policies, and a remarkable ability to surf many conflicting geopolitical waves, taking advantage of each of them.
In this essay, I do not want to dwell on the past. I fervently believe that if Singapore continues ahead on autopilot and assumes that the formulas which carried it forward in the first 50 years will also carry it forward in the next 50 years, the country is headed for trouble. The biggest danger successful countries and companies face is to assume that success will be guaranteed. All those who assume this have come to grief.
When I grew up as a child, I could not imagine a world without Kodak. Neither could the managers of Kodak. As a result of this assumption, Kodak has become history.
WORKING on the assumption that the formulas of the past will not work for the future, I would like to focus my columns for The Straits Times this year in these pages on the new Big Ideas that Singapore will have to consider as it tries to achieve another successful 50 years. It is legitimate to question the need for new big ideas. Surely, if Singapore can lead a life of continued improvement, as suggested by the Japanese philosophy of kaizen, we can continue growing and improving.
Slow, continuous improvement is one way to march forward. However, we also now live in a more competitive environment, both regionally and globally. One measure of how well Singapore did in the first 50 years is to compare Singapore’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth in relation to its two big neighbours.
The chart shows clearly that the size of Singapore’s GDP grew much faster relative to that of its neighbours from 1965 to 2005. But from 2015, Singapore could be left behind as they surge ahead. As Singapore’s relative size shrinks in economic terms, the country could become less relevant and more vulnerable. It would be foolish to pretend that this could not occur. To keep Singapore looking truly special in the region and the world, we have to come up with bold new ideas.
Copying best practices
IN SOME ways, even though our founding fathers were exceptional, they had an easier time. Dr Goh Keng Swee, the key architect of Singapore’s economic miracle, used to say to me: “Kishore, no matter what problem we encounter, somebody, somewhere, has solved this problem. Let us study their solutions and adapt them intelligently to Singapore.”
This brilliant approach, which Dr Goh learnt from the remarkable Meiji reformers, worked well in the first 50 years. Now that Singapore’s per capita income is ranked in the top 10 (and some say in the top three) in the world, the country can no longer follow the easy path of copying other countries’ best practices. Singapore has to invent its own best practices.
This also means that the risk-averse culture Singapore has developed may have to be discarded. In the first 50 years, it was wise to ask: “Has any other country tried this solution?” For the next 50 years, it will be unwise to ask: “Has any other country tried this solution?” Singapore has reached a stage of development where it has to be bold enough to try experiments no other countries have tried.
Dealing with traffic jams
LET me suggest one example of a new Big Idea, which I hope to develop at greater length in my February 2014 column.
In the first 50 years, our leaders wisely understood that as the world’s only truly independent city-state, Singapore would strangle its economy if it allowed traffic jams like those of Bangkok and Jakarta to occur. Hence, the Government invested massively in building a road infrastructure that could carry thousands more cars while also restricting usage through electronic road pricing.
Our founding fathers wisely decided that they could not deprive the new middle-class Singaporeans the universal dream of car ownership. Indeed, they tried to build an ecosystem which could allow both greater car ownership and continuing traffic flow. To be fair, this formula has worked relatively well for the first 50 years (although the recent Marina Coastal Expressway episode demonstrates that adding $4 billion of road space can produce what the wags have affectionately called the “Most Congested Expressway”, instead of better traffic flow).
But this formula will not work in the next 50 years for a simple reason. Singapore can grow its population but it cannot grow the island much more (even though the country may well go down as the most physically expansionist state in the second half of the 20th century).
As a city-state, Singapore therefore faces a unique dilemma: It could run out of land.
Hence, every square metre allocated for road space is a square metre taken away from other uses. In the next 50 years, Singapore will have more painful trade-offs to make in deciding land use.
This is why Singapore should become the first society (let me stress, I use the word “society”, rather than “government”) to decide that car ownership is a nightmare, not a dream.
Hence, while every other society in the world, especially our Asian neighbours, continue to aspire to car ownership, we should start walking in the opposite direction.
THERE will never be a car-less Singapore. But it is possible to achieve a less-car Singapore. I hope my February column will explain how we can achieve this.
One point is worth emphasising here. Our founding fathers had often gone against conventional wisdom. In the 1960s and 1970s, most developing countries spurned foreign direct investment as it was perceived to be exploitative. Singapore took the opposite path.
Similarly, the Government created novel institutions, like the Economic Development Board, the Jurong Town Corporation, the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation and the Housing and Development Board, that had not been tried elsewhere.
To move forward in the next 50 years, Singapore will have to think of new equivalents. The country cannot live on the intellectual capital of the past forever.
My big challenge will be to find new Big Ideas for my future monthly columns. I would thus like to conclude this essay with a plea to readers. Please e-mail to me potential Big Ideas that I could write about in 2014.
The Big Ideas need not be original ideas. They could be old ideas which may be appropriate for our times. Some of them may feel outlandish at first glance. Yet if Singapore does not contemplate outlandish ideas as the country celebrates its successful 50th anniversary in 2015, it may well be condemning itself to a far less successful next 50 years.
I hope 2014 can become a year of new Big Ideas for Singapore.
Feb 08, 2014
Big Idea No. 1: A 'less-car' SingaporeSingaporeans should follow current trends in the West and give up the dream of car ownership
In my January 2014 column, I said that Singaporeans should use 2014 to think of new Big Ideas to guide us for the next 50 years. Here is Big Idea No.1 for debate and discussion.
Singapore will never be car-less, but it can and should have fewer cars. On reading this, the reader could be forgiven for thinking: ''Here goes Kishore again on his campaign to improve public transport in Singapore.''
However, this big idea is not about improving transportation. It is about improving the happiness of the Singapore population.
IT IS a well-known fact that the Singaporean population is not the happiest in the world. Singaporeans gripe, naturally and effortlessly. One good example of this was provided by a Straits Times article written after the Prime Minister had spoken to a group of students at the Nanyang Technological University on Jan 30. The article began with the following line: ''Nine out of 15 interviewed were concerned they won't be able to buy a flat and a car.''
The aspiration of the young for a flat is perfectly reasonable. But the aspiration of nine out of 15 for a car is not reasonable. Why not? The simple, direct and blunt answer is that if Singapore tries to squeeze the American dream - designed for a huge, almost boundless continent - into one of the tiniest countries in the world, it will effectively condemn its population to perpetual unhappiness.
High car ownership
ONE little known fact about Singapore is that it has one of the highest car ownership populations in the world for a city. (Repeat: For a city, and not for a country.)
Mr Charles Chow, who blogs on transportation issues, says the following: ''There are roughly 550,000 to 600,000 private vehicles in Singapore. Forty-five per cent of households in Singapore own at least one car. This implies that out of the approximate 1.25 million households in Singapore, about 560,000 households have at least one car. There are 200,000 private dwellings in Singapore and slightly more than one million Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats. My simple back-of-the-envelope calculation therefore shows that more than 300,000 HDB or public housing dwellings own at least one car. Since HDB dwellings are heavily subsidised, the fact that they are also given abundant and cheap residential HDB carparks represent a further subsidy.''
Mr Chow also notes the contrast between Singapore and other cities: ''From London to Hong Kong, only the top 10 to 20 per cent of household dwellings come with carparks. Without a carpark, residents just simply cannot buy a car. In Singapore, the Government has so generously provided abundant and cheap residential carparking in the HDB estates over the years. From New York to Tokyo, office buildings are deliberately built with few or no carparks.
''In Singapore, that is not the case. Even middle managers can drive their cars to work and park their cars in office building carparks for the whole day.''
Having lived in New York for 10 years, I can only agree with Mr Chow when he says: ''Anyone who has lived in New York or Tokyo would know that even managing directors of companies, senior bankers and lawyers take public transportation to work. In Singapore, even middle-level executives working in Raffles Place drive to work. Is the Singaporean middle-level executive better paid than a senior banker in New York?''
Car ownership encouraged
IN SHORT, in a country that has designed public policies to restrict car ownership (from the compulsory certificate of entitlement to high import taxes), Singapore has paradoxically ended up creating an environment that actually encourages rather than discourages car ownership. There are three ways in which Singapore encourages car ownership.
Firstly, as the world's only city state, the Singapore Government wisely decided in its early years that the country would strangle itself to death as an economy if it allowed Bangkok-style traffic jams to clog our streets. But while Singapore has succeeded in creating free-flowing traffic, this has paradoxically made it rational to own a car.
This is also why I own a car. I can get from my home in Siglap to my school in Bukit Timah in less than 20 minutes by driving. Any combination of public transport would take at least an hour each way. I save 80 minutes a day by driving. This provides a huge incentive to own a car. (My ultimate dream, however, is to forego owning a car. Instead, I would like to have a driverless electric vehicle - similar to the one the National University of Singapore is testing - appear at my home within 30 minutes of calling. As I learnt in Davos last month, I will be able to achieve this dream in my lifetime.)
Secondly, by ensuring that car prices are among the highest in the world, Singapore has made the car one of the most important status symbols in Singapore. This explains the attraction of European car brands in Singapore.
In most cases, a Japanese or Korean car can do the job of transportation equally well. But it will not enhance one's status. A European brand does. This is how we try to keep up with ''the Joneses'' in Singapore.
Thirdly, as Mr Chow says, our subsidy of carparks in HDB estates makes it much easier and cheaper to own and park a car than it would be in New York, London, Tokyo or Paris. Since this subsidy has become entrenched in our society, it cannot be taken away. Any government that tries to take back perks that a population has become accustomed to is a government that wants to commit political suicide. It would be unfair to ask any government to do this.
ALL this brings me to the most important point that I want to make in this article. Singapore has succeeded in its first 50 years because it had a government that thought carefully over the long term and crafted policies that would enhance the long-term interests of Singapore. This is why Singapore has free-flowing traffic. However, over the next 50 years, a new paradigm will be needed: What is needed now is a society where the people think carefully and advocate policies that are good for Singapore's long-term interests. In short, a bottom-up instead of a top-down approach is needed to solve the car problem of Singapore.
In the first 50 years, Singapore had a government designing various policies to temper the desire for Singaporeans to own cars. Now, society needs to decide that since Singapore is one of the tiniest countries in the world, people should gradually give up the desire to own cars. Most Singaporeans reading this article would scoff at this notion. Let me share some good news here. In most developed countries, people are already using cars less, not more.
Trend towards fewer cars
AN ARTICLE from The Economist on Sept 22, 2012, provides some encouraging statistics. In the leading economies in the world (Japan, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States) ''total vehicle kilometres travelled began to plateau in 2004 and fall from 2007; measured per person, growth flatlined sooner, after 2000, and dropped after 2004 before recovering somewhat''.
According to World Bank data, passenger cars per 1,000 people in the US have been gradually declining since at least 2003, a trend which accelerated somewhat after the onset of the recession in 2008. Equally encouragingly, young people in the developed world are getting driver's licences later in life (or not at all).
This is good news for congestion because, according to a study conducted in the UK, people who learn to drive in their late 20s drive less than if they had learnt in their late teens.
Singaporeans are proud of the fact that the country has gone from ''Third World to First World'' faster than any other nation in human history. Now, for the next 50 years, Singapore has to catch up with the First World in terms of moving away from car ownership as a dream.
In my next article - Big Idea No.2 - I hope to demonstrate it is possible to make Singapore No.1 in the world when it comes to public transportation.
Mar 08, 2014
Singapore public transport: No. 1 in the world?Singapore can have the best public transport system in the world if it is prepared to act boldly.
BIG Idea No. 2 is a no-brainer: Make Singapore’s public transportation No. 1 in the world. Why is it a no-brainer? Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur as well as Bangkok and Manila face the danger of more or less permanent gridlock with massive traffic jams. I pray and hope it will not happen, but I am also prepared to take bets it will. But even if our neighbours strangle their cities in this way, their countries will continue.
Singapore does not have this option. If our city strangles itself to death with massive traffic jams, both the city and country will collapse. Good public transportation is therefore not an option. In Singapore it is a critical necessity.
FORTUNATELY, we have all the ingredients in place to create the world’s best public transportation system: money, meritocracy and motivation (the three Ms). We are one of the richest countries in the world in terms of financial reserves. We can pay for the best system. We also have one of the best civil services, if not the best, in the world. I know this well as several leading global scholars have asked me why Singapore does so well in public administration.
Few other governments in the world can match the quality of minds we have in our Administrative Service. And we also have the motivation. For us, good public transportation is a matter of life and death.
With all these assets in place, it was truly shocking to read in The Straits Times on Feb 13 that Singapore’s MRT system is average in the world in terms of system breakdowns.
According to Christopher Tan, senior transport correspondent for The Straits Times, “breakdowns on the 125-year-old, 340km, 24-hour New York City subway average one every 260,000km operated. Singapore’s 25-year-old, 180km network breaks down once every 120,000km”.
When I told a Harvard professor this fact, he was astounded. He asked me: “Should I be proud of New York or worried for Singapore?”
What happened? How did we go from being almost No. 1 in the world in MRT systems to falling behind ancient systems like that of New York?
What mistakes did we make? How did it go so badly wrong? And what can we do now to reverse this negative slide and move towards making Singapore truly No. 1 in the world in public transportation?
A 2012 PricewaterhouseCoopers survey found that Singapore’s public transport systems ranked behind those of Toronto, London, Stockholm, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo and Hong Kong.
Please let me stress one point here. I am not an expert on public transportation. I do not have enough data or information to explain what went wrong. All this requires a massive study.
However as an amateur analyst of Singapore’s public policies, I believe that I can point out three challenges Singapore will have to overcome to succeed in its goal of becoming No. 1. All three challenges begin with the letter C.
THE first challenge is conceptual. Public transportation is a public good, not a private good. However, when Singapore was at the height of its infatuation with the Reagan-Thatcher intellectual revolution, we believed that the private sector was better at delivering some public goods than the public sector. This may explain several critical mistakes.
My friends in the civil service have told me one of the biggest mistakes we made was to privatise the Public Works Department (PWD) and sell it off. In so doing, we lost both the engineering expertise and a storehouse of wisdom about the maintenance of public works. I hope that some day somebody will try to recreate the old PWD we used to have.
We may have also made a mistake in privatising the MRT system, handing over the operation to private companies rather than government departments.
In theory, private companies are more efficient than government departments in delivering services. Since they are concerned about the bottom line, they cut costs well.
However, private companies do not factor in “externalities”.
Hence when the private companies cut down on the maintenance of our MRT tracks to cut costs, they did not factor in the “cost” to the Government’s credibility when the system began to break down frequently. It will literally, not metaphorically, cost the Government billions of dollars to recover this lost credibility.
This explains why the Government has provided SMRT with $500 million to improve the maintenance of the MRT tracks. This, in turn, creates public confusion as taxpayers ask why their money should help the bottom line of private companies. There is a simple solution. We should consider making the Ministry of Finance the sole shareholder of all our public transport companies, just as it is the sole shareholder of many government-linked companies.
Fresh approach needed
THE second challenge is the culture of conservatism. Having invested billions of dollars in an extensive train and bus system, we have worked under the assumption that we can only “tinker” with an established system and not start from scratch.
This is a very dangerous and conservative assumption. If we work under this assumption, we will be reluctant to look for structural defects in our current system and be equally reluctant to explore bold and radical moves. If we are going to succeed in our goal of becoming No. 1 in the world in public transportation, we have to consider radical as well as conservative approaches.
Here is one radical suggestion: Organise a global competition to encourage universities, think- tanks and global companies all over the world to put forward a new blueprint for Singapore’s public transportation system.
There is a lot of expertise out there. A $10 million prize would be sufficient to attract a whole slew of new blueprints. And $10 million would be a small sum to spend considering the billions we have to put in to deal with systemic flaws. The winners of this global competition could be announced when we celebrate our 50th anniversary next year.
THE third C challenge we face is “comprehensiveness”. Public transportation can work well only if its planning is well integrated into existing urban planning policies. Each limb of our national planning must support other limbs. Let me cite a few examples.
First, we have to deal with the “car” problem. As I explained in my previous column, despite the many disincentives put in place to discourage car ownership and use, we have actually created an ecosystem which makes it more rational to drive a car than to take public transport. We now have to create a new ecosystem that discourages car ownership and use.
For a start, we should encourage new road experiments to change behaviour. In the year 2015, as part of our 50th anniversary celebration, we should exempt all taxis from paying Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) charges for one year. The goal of this social experiment is to see whether Singaporeans will make the rational decision to leave their cars at home and take taxis into the Central Business District to save on ERP charges.
At the same time, we will also discover whether this leads to a surge in the supply of taxis in the CBD. This increase in supply of taxis in the CBD could, over time, increase demand and use of taxis in the CBD.
I don’t know whether this will happen. Nobody knows whether it will happen. This is why we have to try out bold experiments. The financial cost of giving taxis exemption from ERP charges will be peanuts compared to the benefits we will get if people leave their cars at home.
A downtown HDB estate?
SECONDLY, we should consider the merits of building a massive HDB estate downtown. A lot of land will be freed up when the Marina Bay Golf Course lease ends. Why not build a big HDB estate there? The obvious response will be that the land is too expensive. But the land will not be as expensive as the land in Manhattan.
In October 2011, I visited Manhattan in my capacity as chairman of the nominating committee of the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize (New York subsequently won the prize in 2012). On this visit, the surprising thing I learnt was that Manhattan had a policy to ensure that it did not create an environment where only millionaires and billionaires could afford to live.
Hence, even though the mayor of New York City then was a billionaire, Mr Michael Bloomberg, his administration worked hard to set aside land in this expensive midtown and downtown area for workers to live.
Mayor Bloomberg’s New Housing Market Place Plan was designed to build and preserve 165,000 income-restricted units by June this year for 500,000 New Yorkers. It was the largest municipal affordable housing plan in American history.
To some extent, this is what we did when we built the Pinnacle in Tanjong Pagar. We should now replicate the Pinnacle experiment in our new CBD.
It is true that Singapore citizens who live in this CBD public housing will get a subsidy. However, if they use less public transportation to commute into the CBD, they will not be using the subsidies that are being given to every user of public transport. We will also enhance the social harmony of Singapore by giving less well-off Singaporeans a stake in the CBD.
The third social experiment we can try is to build shoe-box garages next to every MRT station.
The idea would be to allow us to walk out of an MRT station and rent a two-seater air-conditioned electric vehicle to take us across the last mile of our journey (and back).
Clearly, our hot and humid weather makes it difficult to walk the last mile to our destination. Hence we have to create ingenious solutions to encourage people to avoid driving and take public transport. And soon we may have driver-less vehicles which will be able to do this job too.
There are many ways we can make Singapore’s public transportation No. 1 in the world. If there is one country in the world that has the means and motivation to achieve this goal, it is Singapore.
So why don’t we just get started?
Apr 12, 2014
Three stories to strengthen the Singapore spirit
The stories of Singapore’s success, racial harmony and care deserve to be told and retold.
By Kishore Mahbubani, For The Straits Times
My Big Idea No. 3 for Singapore is a simple one: strengthen the Singapore spirit.
Why? If our young men ever go to war to defend Singapore, they will not lay down their lives to defend the physical infrastructure of Singapore. They will do so to save the lives of people who are the strangers they meet in MRT trains or buses. Clearly they feel some kind of spiritual bond with these strangers only because they believe that they are fellow Singaporeans. This is what the Singapore spirit is all about.
Since Independence in 1965, Singapore has spent a lot of time and effort in “nation-building”. And, by any standards, we have been very successful in building a strong, peaceful and prosperous nation. We have done an exceptional job in “building” our physical infrastructure. This is why we can boast of having the world’s best airport, port, public housing, water supply, just to name a few areas in which other nations envy our success in nation-building.
However, I do not know of any nation that envies our Singapore spirit as much as they admire our physical infrastructure.
Yet it is this invisible Singapore spirit that holds us together as a nation, not the physical infrastructure. Unfortunately, no one has written a textbook on how to bind a nation together with invisible spiritual bonds. Most of the time the process takes place slowly and organically.
Hence, when Europeans arrived in the United States in the 19th century, they saw themselves first as English or Irish, Polish or Swedish, German or Greek. Yet within a generation or two, they were able to shed their national identities and forge a new one as “American”.
This strong sense of American national identity is an amazing success story as these immigrants had to shed deep, not shallow, national identities. This is why Americans can recognise each other easily when they hear fellow Americans talk in foreign lands. And they have no hesitation to die for each other.
Singaporeans have a long way to go before we can reach the same level of national identity that Americans feel about themselves. But we can expedite the process instead of allowing it to develop slowly and organically over time.
And how do we do this?
The simple answer is that nations are built through story-telling. Yes, story-telling! What binds Americans together is a common set of stories rooted in a common value system. More accurately, they should be called “myths” but people sometimes mistakenly assume “myths” to be fictional.
Most national myths are a mixture of fact and fiction. This is why Americans revere their founding fathers even though they were mere mortals. Hence, in the same way, we have to create sets of stories that will bind our hearts together as fellow Singaporeans. Let me suggest three national narratives we can build on to strengthen the invisible Singapore spirit.
The success narrative
THE first narrative is the most obvious one: the success narrative. Few other nations have gone from Third World to First World in one lifetime. Indeed, I sometimes argue that not since human history began has any nation lifted its people’s living standards as quickly and as comprehensively as Singapore has done. If my claim is true - and no one has refuted it convincingly so far - this gives us a truly unique story to tell about ourselves.
Indeed, this is the story about Singapore that other nations envy the most. I know this from my 10 years as Singapore’s Ambassador to the United Nations, when I experienced how virtually every nation in the world admired Singapore’s extraordinary track record in economic and social development.
This success narrative has also been well-documented. Mr Lee Kuan Yew has written at great length about Singapore’s extraordinary record in this area. Mr Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary-general, paid Mr Lee’s book an extraordinary compliment/tribute and said: “The title of this book, From Third World to First, expresses an aspiration of all developing countries but so far, alas, an achievement of very few. Singapore is one of those few.”
Other books have surfaced to complement Mr Lee’s narratives. Tan Siok Sun has written a wonderful book about Dr Goh Keng Swee, the architect of Singapore’s economic miracle. Former president S R Nathan has also told his remarkable story of how his life went from truly Third World to truly First World in his autobiography called An Unexpected Journey.
There are more than enough materials and historical records available to document this success narrative of Singapore.
This makes it all the more puzzling that there are no good history books that tell the story of post-independence Singapore.
When I ask historians why no such book has appeared, I am told that they are still reluctant to touch upon some of the more sensitive chapters of Singapore’s history, like Operation Coldstore in the 1960s and the Marxist arrests in the 1980s.
However, books have already been published on these sensitive episodes. It is a fact that no nation is perfect. Every nation, like every individual, has its warts. And for a good history book to be convincing, it must tell the stories of failures and successes together.
Indeed, the best way to escape the grip of history is to write about it openly. This is how America liberated itself from its atrocious record of slavery. Movies like 12 Years a Slave also help cleanse the national soul of past wrong-doings. The Japanese do themselves a disfavour by trying to bury history and the Americans do themselves a favour by digging up history. We should emulate the Americans, not the Japanese.
Hence, for 2015, when we celebrate our 50th anniversary, I hope that one of Singapore’s philanthropists will award a $500,000 prize for the best history book written on Singapore. A good history book can do much to strengthen the Singapore spirit.
The harmony narrative
ONE unique narrative that we can construct about Singapore centres on our harmony.
Here too we are truly a historical exception. When the British decolonised, they left behind a number of small multi-racial colonies in all corners of the world: Guyana in South America; Cyprus in Europe; Sri Lanka in South Asia; Singapore in South-east Asia; Fiji in the South Pacific. All the other former multi-racial British colonies suffered ethnic strife. Only Singapore did not. This makes our record unique.
This story of Singapore’s racial harmony is one I lived through.
My parents were Hindu Sindhis who grew up in Hyderabad, which is now part of Pakistan. When the partition of India and Pakistan took place in 1947, they and their siblings left Hyderabad and went all over the world. This is how I came to be born in Singapore in 1948.
And I now have first cousins living all over the world: in Paramaribo (Suriname), Georgetown (Guyana), Boca Raton (Florida), Lagos (Nigeria), Mumbai (India), Hong Kong (China), Tokyo (Japan), and this list is not complete. I am in touch with many of them. With this global network of peers to compare against, I can confidently say that I have become more deeply integrated into the nation that I was born in than many (but not all) of my first cousins.
What makes my integration into Singapore even more unique is that I belong to a minority within a minority. Out of Singapore’s 3.3 million citizens, 9.2 percent or 300,000 are Indians. Most of the Indians come from the South, from Tamil Nadu and Kerala. There are barely 10,000 Sindhis in Singapore. Yet we have become fully integrated into Singapore society.
This may explain why my best friend since childhood, the best man at my wedding and two godmothers of my children are Chinese Singaporeans. We have done a truly extraordinary job of overcoming our racial identity and identifying with Singapore society in one generation.
Sadly, unlike the success narrative, this racial harmony story has not been as well told. This job cannot be done by historians; it has to be done by our poets, playwrights and novelists. And we have to get more plays like Cook A Pot Of Curry by Alfian Sa’at to tell us why all Singaporeans feel comfortable with different cuisines and feel that they are part of their soul.
The caring narrative
AS A student of philosophy, I studied deeply Karl Marx and John Rawls. Both cared deeply about the people at the bottom of their societies. Indeed John Rawls suggested (and I may do injustice to his complex ideas) that the most just society was not the most equal society but the society where the least well off were better off than other societies’ least well off. In short, how a society takes care of the people at the bottom determines how truly caring a society is.
Singapore is not number one in the world in this area. The Scandinavian societies are. This is why they have a well-deserved reputation of being the most caring societies in the world. We went through a phase of scorning them.
At the height of the Reagan- Thatcher revolution, we warned our population of the danger of becoming an unsustainable welfare state. These warnings were justified. Yet, remarkably, the Scandinavian states have proven that they can remain both economically competitive and socially caring.
Paradoxically, even though we scorned them for a while, we have come closest to matching this unique Scandinavian track record than any other state in the world. The actual level of transfer to the people at the bottom of our society is massive and we are clearly transferring more and more. The recent $8 billion package for the pioneer generation (including me) is extraordinarily generous.
Indeed, if John Rawls were alive today and if he travelled around the world to study the least well off in all societies around the world, he could have well placed Singapore among the top 10 in the world in the list of most caring societies.
In short, even though we are a very young nation, we have at least three compelling narratives we can tell about ourselves to strengthen our Singapore spirit. And we need to expedite this process.
Why? My Big Idea No. 4 for my next column is: Prepare for a political crisis.