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Hard Choices

Challenging the Singapore Consensus

Donald Low and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh

Publication Year: 2014

The Singapore polity is changing – profoundly and probably irrevocably. The consensus that the PAP government constructed and maintained over five decades is fraying. The assumptions that underpin Singaporean exceptionalism are no longer accepted as easily and readily as before. Among these are the ideas that the country is uniquely vulnerable, that this vulnerability limits its policy and political options, that good governance demands a degree of political consensus that ordinary democratic arrangements cannot ensure, and that the country’s success requires a competitive meritocracy accompanied by relatively little income or wealth redistribution. But the policy and political conundrums that Singapore faces today are complex and defy easy answers. Confronted with a more critical and sceptical public and a political landscape that is likely to become more contested, how will politics and policymaking in Singapore evolve? What reforms should the government pursue? This collection of essays suggests that a far-reaching and radical rethinking of the country's policies and institutions is necessary, even if it weakens the very consensus that enabled Singapore to succeed in its first 50 years.

Published by: NUS Press Pte Ltd

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiii

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...

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pp. xiv-xv

This book would not have been possible without a great deal of help from many people. Most importantly, we would like to thank Linda Lim and Thum Ping Tjin for their contributions. Their essays add immeasurably to the diversity of this book and expanded significantly the range of expert opinion represented here. Peter Schoppert, the Director of NUS Press, provided invaluable advice throughout the...


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pp. xvi-xviii

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Introduction: Reframing Policy and Political Debates in Singapore

Donald Low and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh

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pp. 1-14

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...

PART 1 The Limits of Singapore Exceptionalism

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1 The Four Myths of Inequality in Singapore

Donald Low

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pp. 17-30

Whether measured by the Gini coefficient, or by the ratio of incomes between the top and bottom quintiles, the evidence points to an incontrovertible fact: income inequality in Singapore has risen significantly in the last ten years or so. While this fact is beyond dispute, there is little agreement in the government on whether it represents a problem that merits serious policy...

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2 How Land and People Fit Together in Singapore's Economy

Linda Lim

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pp. 31-39

The ongoing debate about Singapore’s population policy provides a timely opportunity to reconsider how different pieces of our economic growth model fit—or do not fit—together.1
GDP (output) growth in any country comes from increases in inputs (primarily land, labour, and capital) and/or increases in the productivity of those inputs. As noted by various economists, Singapore’s GDP growth has depended more on input than productivity...

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3 Economic Myths in the Great Population Debate

Donald Low, Yeoh Lam Keong, Tan Kim Song, and Manu Bhaskaran

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pp. 40-47

The debate on the Population White Paper has surfaced a number of myths and fallacies that seems to dominate the current discussion on Singapore’s population policies. Economics provides us with a very useful set of analytical tools to clarify thinking and to develop sensible,...

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4 Good Meritocracy, Bad Meritocracy

Donald Low

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pp. 48-58

Meritocracy is widely regarded as a core principle of governance in Singapore. Basic disagreement over it was one of the reasons why Singapore separated from Malaysia. The meritocracy principle— equalising opportunities not outcomes and allocating rewards on the basis of an individual’s merit, abilities, and achievements—is as close as anything gets to being a national...

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5 The End of Identity?

Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh

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pp. 59-76

China-born Singapore citizen Feng Tian Wei’s Olympic table tennis bronze medal in 2012 sparked an outcry. Many Singaporeans expressed the view that they feel no sense of pride about the country’s first individual Olympic medal in four decades. What then does it mean to be a “true”...

PART 2 Policy Alternatives for Post-Consensus Singapore

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6 What's wrong with Singaporeans?

Linda Lim

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pp. 79-96

The recent population policy debate has thrown up a number of references to the inadequacy of Singaporeans—by quantity or quality—for many jobs in the country, resulting in the heavy dependence on foreign workers (both labour and talent) that has caused such controversy. In this essay I focus narrowly on examining the common assertion...

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7 Adapting to Our Population Challenges

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pp. 97-103

In Robert Zemeckis’s 1989 blockbuster, Back to the Future II, Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel to the year 2015. The future that was depicted in the movie bears some similarities to our world today: ubiquitous security cameras, wall-mounted flat-screen TVs, the ability to watch six channels at the same time, video games that do not require the use of hands, and the popularity of plastic surgery. But many other features of the future imagined by Zemeckis and his team are...

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8 Rethinking Singapore's Housing Policies

Donald Low

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pp. 104-112

Public housing policies in Singapore have been highly successful in enabling home ownership for the majority of Singaporeans and in giving citizens a stake in the country. The proportion of the resident population living in public housing is about 85 per cent, of which the large majority (around 95 per cent) own the flats they occupy. Equally notable is the fact that the opportunity to own homes has not been...

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9 Beware the Inequality Trap

Donald Low and Yeoh Lam Keong

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pp. 113-119

Whether measured by the Gini coefficient or by the ratio of incomes between the top and bottom 20 per cent, the evidence points to increasing income inequality in Singapore in the last decade. Government redistribution in the form of taxes and transfers has not slowed the increase in inequality sufficiently. Even after taking into account...

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10 New Options in Social Security

Donald Low

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pp. 120-136

Singapore’s social security system is premised on the principles of individual and family responsibility, community help (sometimes referred to as the “Many Helping Hands Approach”), and government assistance as a safety net of last resort. Besides housing and healthcare, the main expressions of our social security system are the Central...

PART 3 Governance and Democracy: Past, Present & Future

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11 The Old Normal is the New Normal

Thum Ping Tjin

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pp. 139-167

Between 1955 (Singapore’s first election for partial self-government) and 1963 (Singapore’s independence from Britain), Singaporeans went to the polls an average of once a year: three general elections, four by-elections, one City Council election, and one National Referendum. Through these intensely contested, open, and fair elections, the people held the government accountable. Competing parties...

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12 What Went Wrong for the Pap in 2011?

Donald Low

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pp. 168-177

With a 75.3 per cent vote, the People’s Action Party (PAP) won a landslide victory at the 2001 General Election (GE 2011). Held soon after the September 11 terrorist attacks and the collapse of the US tech bubble, it showed that in times of crisis, Singaporeans turn instinctively to the trusted hands of the...

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13 Governing in the New Normal

Donald Low

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pp. 178-187

The two elections of 2011 herald a significant shift in the political values, attitudes and aspirations of Singaporeans. While the People’s Action Party (PAP) and its preferred candidate for the presidency were returned to power, it would be a mistake for the PAP Government to assume that it can return to the business of governance along the technocratic lines it is used...

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14 The Future of Democracy in Singapore

Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh

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pp. 188-208

The essays in this book have offered several reasons why greater democratisation will benefit Singapore. First, more established channels of dialogue, including the media and civil society institutions, will allow the political elite to bridge what Singaporean author Catherine Lim called in the mid-1990s the “great affective divide” between ordinary Singaporeans and the PAP (People’s Action Party). This divide...

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15 Liberal Ideas in the New Normal

Donald Low

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pp. 209-225

Right after the 2011 General Election (GE 2011), it was probably fair to say most liberals and progressives in Singapore believed that the policy and institutional changes that they wished to see would be best advanced by the incumbent PAP government. Most, I think, subscribed to the view that it was preferable for these changes to be driven from within, rather than forced on the government from...


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pp. 226-233

E-ISBN-13: 9789971698317
Print-ISBN-13: 9789971698164

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2014

Edition: New