On 12 June 2023, the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) held its 35th anniversary conference at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre. Titled “Revisitings”, the goal of the conference was to “revisit and re-examine the social, political and economic foundations of [Singapore’s] success so far”, in the midst of “new threats and old constraints”.
The conference featured political office holders, academics and others in panel discussions on four areas: Meritocracy, Housing, Pluralism, and the Social Compact. Each segment started with a speech by a political officer holder, followed by two other speakers and question-and-answer.
As suggested by the theme of the conference, the discussions revisited some of the fundamentals which have helped Singapore to survive and thrive so far, while reconsidering some of these in light of changing circumstances.
Meritocracy was the first topic of the day. In his speech, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing made the case that meritocracy is “a core pillar of Singapore’s Story and our success”.
However, he pointed four weaknesses of meritocracy: risk of being based on “a single, static and narrow metric”, rewarding success at pre-determined fixed points, tendency to stratify over time creating an “endowment effect”, and the “misplaced belief” that one’s success is solely the result of one’s own talent and hard work.
Thus, while emphasising the importance of meritocracy, he argued for the need to lean against “the natural tendencies for humans to stratify because we all want to pass our wealth and privileges to the next generation” and to have diverse dimensions of merit which evolve to meet the needs of the times. “And most importantly, meritocracy must be combined with the right values – gratitude for what we have received and compassion towards those who have not had these advantages in life and a collective sense of responsibility for us to uplift everyone together.”
The two other panellists echoed similar sentiments. In his response, Associate Professor Daniel Goh said that there was a risk of growing inequality if equitable baselines were not established for everyone to unlock their skills and talents for performance. He highlighted three “sticky issues” in the education system: private tuition, alumni-associated privileges, and the stratification of neighbourhoods with good schools.
Associate Professor Jason Tan likewise warned of the “intergenerational consequences” of policies, given parents’ natural tendencies to think of one’s own children and pass on wealth and privilege. Due to perceptions of the education system as highly competitive, this has led to a great deal of “parental strategising” and “parental social networks”, and the “individual actions by hundreds of thousands of parents act in a cumulative sort of manner to affect the wider public good”.
Speaking from the floor during the question-and-answer segment, one education researcher who is also a parent advocate for children with special education needs in mainstream schools queried how Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) would look like for such children. Minister Chan said that the aim was to “allow everyone to do justice to their blessings” by creating a “variegated education landscape” according to their learning needs, and that all can make contributions commensurate with their abilities.
Senior Minister of State for National Development Sim Ann addressed “heightened anxiety over housing prices and affordability”, even as she highlighted the constraints in Singapore as a city-state.
She pointed out three areas that are being revisited. Firstly, dealing with the “windfall effects” and stratification, where people realise large financial gains. Secondly, to reconsider housing typologies, including the introduction of Community Care Apartments (CCA) in 2021. While public housing reflects the Government’s “commitment to be pro-family”, it is also aware of the aspirations and greater demands of singles for housing. It has been engaging singles, among other groups like first-timers and seniors, to hear their views and aspirations on housing.
The third area under rethinking is the relevance of the classification into Mature Estates or Non-Mature Estates, in order to make public housing affordable and accessible.
Associate Professor Walter Theseira spoke about how expectations about housing have been “set up to be unsustainable”, because people want the “fundamentally contradictory” goals of affordable and accessible housing on one hand, while also wanting housing to meet aspirations for wealth accumulation on the other. As a solution, he suggested de-emphasising housing wealth accumulation through adjusting the tax system.
Professor Sing Tien Foo presented his research on the housing challenges of Singapore by separating the population into different cohorts and explaining the challenges for each cohort: younger, middle age and elderly. It is generally more difficult for a young couple to own a house, given that the home price is around 4 or 5 times their income. However, this was much better than Shanghai (about 35 times) or Hong Kong (about 26.5 times).
Minister for Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam spoke on the topic of pluralism. Taking racial pluralism as an example, he credited Singapore’s success to the Government’s efforts to protect minority interests, integrate different ethnicities through policies like the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) for housing, and laws against “hate speech”. Unlike the United States or France, he said that Singapore takes an “interventionist approach” towards racial pluralism, adding that Singapore takes a “race-sensitive” approach rather than a “race-blind” approach, to ensure that racial minorities are not disadvantaged.
Although he spoke on the topic of race, he added that these same principles of “being aware of differences, acknowledging them head on, and then dealing proactively with them, rather than to paper over them” are applicable other issues.
Zuraidah Ibrahim, Executive Managing Editor of the South China Morning Post spoke next, seeking to broaden the discussion to cover cultural and political pluralism. Raising the tudung issue, she welcomed the Government’s move to allow Muslim nurses in public hospitals to cover their hair, criticising the “old rule” for keeping “many Muslim girls and women out of a noble profession they would have liked to join”. However, she added that there is not yet full equality in National Service for Muslim men. As for political pluralism, she said that “most Singaporeans want a more plural system with more competition and more checks and balances”.
The final speaker on pluralism was the Executive Director of the Association of Women for Action and Research, Corinna Lim. In her speech, she declared herself as a person who was both “privileged and marginalised”, and publicly declared her identity as “a gay person” for the first time. She continued that the repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code made it feel “a bit safer” to talk about these things. She called for more “brave spaces for the marginalised to share their experiences”, and expressed disappointment that upcoming Workplace Fairness Legislation would not “include LGBT persons”.
Revisiting Social Compact
Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Lawrence Wong spoke on “several key shifts” in Singapore’s “refreshed social compact” following the Forward Singapore exercise.
The first key shift was a new approach to success and skills. Similar to Minister Chan’s views on meritocracy, DPM Wong advocated for a diverse notion of success, which is “less about means, and more about meaning”, and recognising talents in diverse areas.
Secondly, there would be more support for the unemployed, lower-income families, vulnerable groups such as persons with disabilities and their caregivers, and seniors. Thirdly, a renewed sense of solidarity built on a “deep sense of kinship and trust in one another”.
Speaking next with reference to data from the National Youth Survey, Associate Professor Ho Kong Weng sought to understand the social compact through the lens of youth. He found that “family capital” contributed positively to the well-being of youth, as did social participation of youth in various social groups and national capital. On the other hand, community leadership contributed negatively to their well-being, and Associate Professor Ho explained that this was because leadership “will make sacrifices” and “there’s a price to pay”.
How the different forms of “capital” were defined
Associate Professor Ho further shared findings that non-zero-sum life goals (family and altruism) contributed positively to well-being, whereas zero-sum life goals (career) had a negative impact. Finally, he noted that income inequality led to lower child well-being, and higher obesity, drug abuse, imprisonment rates and homicide rates. He presented data showing “good news” that income inequality (measured by the Gini coefficient) was going down over the past decade.
In the last part of Associate Professor Ho’s presentation, he discussed perspectives on social mobility and well-being. Especially among the poor, the perceived ability to improve their economic status (e.g. career opportunities, the possibility of gaining a higher income than others, etc.) was positive for their subjective well-being. However, it was less so for the rich, “suggesting that connections and luck may become more important” for this group’s subjective well-being in this regard.
Dr Gog Soon Joo, the Chief Skills Officer from SkillsFuture Singapore, spoke last, commenting on the approach to success and skills in Singapore. She explained that the focus over the last seven years has been to enhance the access to lifelong learning and reskilling by reducing five barriers, namely: financial, information, learning, application and situational barriers.
She then covered how everyone could come together and support SkillsFuture: firstly, by helping others in transitions; secondly, having the community step forward to overcome access issues; and thirdly, for business and trade associations to come together to support small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
In sum, “the new approach to skills and success will need all the stakeholders”, more than just funding and programmes, but “all of us collectively coming together to support one another”.
Same, but Different?
Taking place in the midst of a leadership transition from the so-called “3G” (third generation) helmed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to the “4G” (fourth generation) leadership to be led by now-DPM Lawrence Wong, the new leadership has signalled both continuity and change in its approach towards governance in this new era.
Against the backdrop of the conference were also the challenges of economic inflation and global diplomatic tensions, as well as disagreements over topics such as sexual and gender identities on top of racial and religious differences, as evident from the discussion on pluralism.
Faced with these challenges, the approach of the new leadership appears to be that of reasserting but moderating certain fundamentals, balancing the needs of all, while finding common ground in order to bridge divides.