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Hard Choices #bookreview 📖 ‘Hard Choices Challenging the Singapore Consensus’ by Donald Low and Sudhir Vadaketh published by NUS Press⁣⁣📢 “Singapore’s economic success masks some uncomfortable truths about life in this city state” ⁣That is the opening line of the book – definitely drawing me in to find out about these “uncomfortable truths” Through the fifteen essays Low and Vadaketh unpacks various issues that Singapore society is facing and proposes a rethinking of the country’s current policies and institutions⁣⁣📝 In an essay ‘The End of Identity’ Vadaketh underscores the importance of having dialogue even or rather especially for difficult “out of bounds” topics Only through having crucial conversations about various markers of our identity can we form a national one that is resilient against backlash from all around 🗯 “In order for Singapore to build a resilient global city identity it has to allow ideas and opinions on identity to bubble up naturally Society’s appetite for top down identity theorising is diminishing”⁣⁣Reading that reminded me of how national values are defined largely by the system we are in and how state narratives are responsible for shaping the kind of citizens we have in society It is therefore crucial that we remain critical in thought and not accept old age theories and social norms that no longer serve well in today’s socio political climate There needs to be a conscious effort to discard any confirmation bias and raise the need for government to embrace humility at the core of servant leadership⁣⁣To that end several essays highlighted and explored the conseuences of breeding individual responsibility and focusing on fast paced economic growth⁣⁣🗯 “The government’s constant drumbeat on individual responsibility and asset enhancement may have run counter to a sense of commonality and identity It may also have produced a highly individualistic and atomised society – one in which people see only the “me” rather than the “we” – and and eroded norms of trust and inclusion” In today’s situation I can only vouch for such truth of the detrimental effects on our communal values today Hoarding behaviours are clear reflections of selfish traits seen in “those who have” buying unnecessarily large amounts of supplies from supermarkets – definitely the first of a kind for me to witness throughout my life here in Singapore 🤦🏽‍♀️Back to the issue of rising ineuality in Singapore the authors emphasise the need to revisit policies and embrace inclusive social programmes At a fundamental level policies need to consider radical new ways to increase levels of social trust and build a stronger sense of solidarity in Singapore society today And I cannot agree ✊🏾 For books on economics history and politics I usually take at least two to three months to read thoroughly However Low and Vadaketh's book was incredibly simple to read at least for a person with only an A Levels Economics background I suspect the reason this book was relatively simple to read is because of the way it is structured The book makes an excellent start by pinpointing the societal and economic myths that shape Singapore policy this is crucial because the following criticisms within the book hinge on the fact that these myths are and continue to be subscribed to The progression of the book continues smoothly the essays all highlight the underlying problem of Singapore's society economy and how these specifically affect various industries within Singapore I also liked the fact that the authors of the essays used simple English which probably contributed to the relative ease I had going through this bookThis book is a sharp incisive simple to read and frank analysis of Singapore's society economy; I would highly recommend it to anybody interested in policy in Singapore Singapore is changing The consensus that the PAP government has 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 uniuely vulnerable that this vulnerability limits its policy and political options that good governance demands a degree of political consensus that ordinary democratic arrangements cannot produce and that the country’s success reuires 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 political landscape that is likely to become contested how should the government respond What reforms should it 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 fifty years Thomas Friedman on Singapore's key strengths It is small and thus can be very agile and flexible and forge political consensus easily and it has no natural resources and so will never suffer from the complacency or resource curse that has blighted many resource rich countries Vulnerability is not necessarily objective factEuality of opportunity cannot be easily separated from euality of outcome Uneual resources easily translate into uneual access to opportunities eg to uality education One should not subsidise businesses that have highly specific manpower needs hence reuiring importing people rely heavily on imported labour and talent provide few jobs for native Singaporeans or are highly land intensive A system that distributes rewards based on relative performance reduces social trust cooperation and cohesion REP ftw Success becomes a limited resource It is not an argument for switching over completely to absolute performance Many scarce rewards have to be allocated by relative merit But recognise the costs imposed on societyGlobal cities like New York and London are pointed to as examples of the necessary demographic make up of global cities However these examples are global cities connected to much larger heartlands No matter how cosmopolitan they become there will never be any doubt about what it means to be British or American The identity of these cities is never in uestionA vulnerability perspective suggests that the risks of uttering any ethnical inflammatory statement is sufficient grounds to bar all discussion But a resilience perspective believes that the only way to strengthen the system is to air all opinions positive and negative in the belief that open discussion will ultimately foster greater tolerance trumping the risk of bigotry festering in silosIn this rapidly evolving multipolar world Singaporeans can find common ground with people than any other nationality Simply put they have cultural touch points with people The Americans so the argument goes find it easier to deal with Singaporeans than with any other Asians The Chinese similarly have less trouble communicating with Singaporeans than with people from other English speaking countries There are also complaints from some employers that many local Singapore university graduates lack sophisticated language competencies social skills diversity of thought and a multicultural outlook As one such MNC recruiter told me Singaporeans all think alike that is why we need to hire expatsThe reason for excess demand for labour at all skill levels is the overly aggressive GDP growth targets reuiring massive investment and promotion of multiple industries These include the IRs large scale pharmaceutical manufacturing life science projects IT digital media creative industries Most recently Big Data and a space industry are being promoted to foreign investors Regardless of the TFR of its native population no city in the world with only 35 million people as at 2000 can absorb such massive and diverse investments in just ten years It is not possible to be a 'jack of all hubs' because excess demand will eventually push up costs and reduce competitiveness for all Further Singapore does not possess a market based comparative advantage abundance of resources reuired nor a competitive advantage large local market or comprehensive supply chain in these sectors These investments have had to be subsidised by tax and other investment incentives including the liberal importataion of labour and talent There is no way local Singaporeans could have filled all the reuirements of the aboveA significant proportion of scarce local talent is siphoned away by the large state and uasi state sector and by MNCs often to work overseas The goverment should discard its implicit but long standing goal of asset appreciation and end its reliance on housing as a de facto form of retirement funding Compared with other markets the housing market is particularly prone to speculative booms and busts Relying on such a volatile market to deliver retirement security where surely one of the key goals of public policy should be to shelter citizens from the vagaries and uncertainties of the market not only creates too much risk to citizens but is also highly regressive and uneuitable The proper goal of housing policy should be to maintain price stability The real lesson from Japan's lost decade is that a real estate boom and crash has long lasting deleterious effects on the economyThe lessons from the northern European experience in considering the design of social programmes the technocratic objectives of efficiency and getting incentives right should be complemented by a deeper nuanced understanding of the wider societal benefits that inclusive social programmes may generate In theory 'means testing' promises to limit moral hazard and deadweight funding In practice they often result in high administrative costs stigmatisation and rent seeking behavioursInstead of direct unemployment benefits a unemployment savings programme could be set up like CPF but for unemployment For lower income workers the state could contribute Another option is wage loss insurance which kicks in when reemployment occurs paying the worker a percentage of the difference between old and new jobs encouraging people to reenter the labour market soon even at a lower wageThe PAP's good governance stems from it tackling the great ineualities and the vast poverty that existed alongside the wealth It empowered its citizens by creating a system of social justice and opportunity protecting and preserving citizens' rights and allowing citizens to share in the gains of economic growth earn fair wages and attain a livelihood coomensurate with the effort they put into building SingaporeGerrymandering and other antics skewing elections in favour of the incumbents may lead voters to apply affirmative action to the opposition voting for them simply to 'level the playing field'In highly uneual societies people tend to see the world as a zero sum game What is good for others not like me must be against my interests They also guard what they have jealously and resist efforts to extend the benefits and privileges they enjoy to other social groupsRegarding baby bonus scheme The lesson for policymakers in all this is not that economic incentives do not work or produce perverse conseuences Behavioural economists have also highlighted instances where financial incentives complement and work in tandem with intrinsic motivations as well as instances where incentives reinforce valuable social norms What policymakers should strive for are policy solutions that create the right incentives and reinforce and support desirable social norms such as those of fairness and inclusion Policy should not go against the grain of incentives and people's psychology What matters just as much as the policy itself is the social context A thought provoking set of essays The main writer Donald Low is persuasive about how widening income ineuality in Singapore is destroying the social compact between the government and the people He argues for income redistribution and the strengthening of social nets and against the shibboleths that stand in the way such as elite belief in trickle down economics moral hazard and decreased global competitiveness He wants policy makers to look hard at the empirical evidence instead of being confirmed in their prejudices by past experience raised to the status of ideologyLow is particularly good at using insights from cognitive research to explain why the governing elite is so slow to adapt to a fast changing environment His reliance on such findings is telling He mainly believes that governmental failure is primarily a failure in thinking Correct the thinker and he will correct his policies and processes At one point Low assures the reader that the governing elite that he mingles with both civil servants and ministers are well intentioned and public spirited He does not see them as a class and that as a class they will act according to their class interest And so his calls to the government to expand democratic freedoms may sound overly optimistic Nothing is harder for the powerful than to give up their power His co writer Sudhir Vadaketh may be less analytically astute but he has stronger political instincts He speculates that political change if it comes will come from the ground up and not from the top downThe one essay by historian Thum Ping Tjin takes a very different tack By taking a synoptic survey of the twentieth century history of Singapore he makes the nice point that present day Singapore resembles Singapore in the 1920s and 30s when it was the richest and most cosmopolitan city in SE Asia Then as it is becoming now it was also the most exploitative economy When the British found it untenable to hold on to power they tried to transfer power to the pro British pro business Progressive Party It was David Marshall and his Labor Party however who won the vote and implemented pro labor policies such as starting the CPF Other good ideas came out of that period of intense political debate and contest ideas that became the foundation of Singapore's success The implication for modern Singapore is clear we need multiple political parties that are capable of forming a government This scenario looks realistic especially after the 2011 election than any proposal to reform the entrenched political elite Whichever party wins it would do well to look hard at Donald Low's policy recommendations This is a great overview on the G’s shortcomings that reduces complex issues into an incisive set of essays that’s readable to policy simpletons including A level students like me Low writes in a moderated tone and takes care to build a ualified case and his overarching approach is something of a critiue of well intentioned policymakers rather than an unhelpful character assassination typical of some government critics I also appreciated the fact that the book offered a reasonable alternative vision of Singapore worth contrasting against the current landscape Regardless of your political alignment this is an important read a bit dated surely but it sets the context within which meaningful discussions of domestic issues can take place One of the better collection of essays on Singapore politics policies and the polity since Cherian George's The Air Conditioned Nation Interesting but not from cover to cover The opening line of this book is as follows “Singapore’s economic success masks some uncomfortable truths about life in this city state”The text is very neatly organised into three sectionsI The Limits of Singapore ExceptionalismII Policy Alternatives for Post Consensus SingaporeIII Governance and Democracy Past Present FutureThe chapters cover a wide range of topics from economics to ineuality to land mass population challenges housing policies democracy meritocracy as well as the concept of defining a national identityI like how most of the chapters have a distinct two part feature in terms of first explaining the issue at hand before offering viable and constructive solutionsFor instance Chapter 9 explains why the trend of increasing income ineuality in Singapore is worrisomeFar from it simply being an issue about money the authors cite an academic paper which correlates a high initial level of high ineuality with the decreased likelihood of establishing social programmes that enhance social trust And why is social trust important? Because it leads people to be “ inclined to have a positive view of their public institutions participate in their civic and political organisations and to be tolerant of others”Historian Thum Ping Tjin’s chapter “The Old Normal is The New Normal” is a condensed version of Singapore’s political history dark events included This chapter is notably hard hitting for it demonstrates how the lesson of history is clear — that “only democracy dissent and diversity can offer the leaders and ideas reuired to meet Singapore’s challenges”In Chapter 12 Donald Low analyses what went wrong for the PAP during the 2011 General Election GE 2011 He writes that the Singapore population has become “ demanding of transparency and accountability” Wise advice is laid out such as how high ministerial salaries contribute towards the weakening of political discourse which is “not conducive to mature reasoned public debate of our policy problems” The chapter also suggests that political reforms “founded on the virtues of fairness euality and resilience” will help sustain Good GovernanceDonald Low ends off the book on a personal as well as social note He concludes “As a liberal the policy and institutional changes I wish to see are those that would make Singapore a just city state one that prioritises the well being of its citizens over narrow measures of economic progress”The biggest strength of Hard Choices is the diplomatically critical tone throughout the writing The style is moderate and objective without being too inaccessible to the general reader with an interest in Singapore’s politics andor policiesIt is this consistency throughout the chapters which renders the writing as effectively persuasive in terms of why Singapore needs to undergo vital and constructive change in terms of governance This happens to coincide with a new generation of Singaporeans that are “empowered by the internet and social media” which as Mr Low and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh write in the preface has enabled citizens to “openly uestion many of the PAP’s long held assumptions and beliefs”I would definitely recommend Hard Choices to people who may find “anti government” or “anti establishment” websites a bit too critical I believe than a few Singaporeans would be able to appreciate the book’s presentation of a wide range of pertinent issues along with real alternatives that should be considered for the betterment of the nation and its citizensAfter all it’s hard to argue with cool hard logichttpsjesscscottwordpresscom2015 Hard Choices is a collection of essays that examines Singapore's socioeconomic status and policies Its central argument is that Singapore should ditch her aversion to social welfare and offer redistributive policies in light of the widening income ineuality and aging population The first few essays were a major turn off Filled with sweeping generalizations and arguments like Scandivanian countries do it so we should do it too these essays read like the bad GP attempts I used to make I was ready to give up by the fourth or fifth essay and the only reason I trudged on was that this review said things will get betterWhile not all the later essays were better my favourites were definitely in the later half of the book Particularly liked The Old Normal is the New Normal by Thum Ping Tjin which told a brief story of Singapore's socioeconomic turmoil since the 1930s Thum's essay brought out how crucial context is in making an effective argument What Thum capitalized on and what the first few essays sorely lacked was the Singapore uniueness a specificity to the historical cultural social and political backgrounds that affected our current policies and will continue to affect future policies In drawing out Singapore's past Thum made an effective and nuanced case for an expanded social welfare system and a democratized policy making platform His line of argument is probably not what you'd expect; it was a refreshing read and offered a new framework in thinking about subseuent essays Even if you are not concerned about policy making Thum's essay is still worth a read as an alternative to the Singapore history we normally hear Hard Choices was a surprising opportunity for retrospection as I read assessments of Singapore's policies back in 2014 post GE2011 style complete with criticisms of an elite government that lives an echo chamber does not understand the ground sticks firmly to old ideological beliefs and doesn't give a hoot about democracy and considered the progress made in the past few yearsOverall not the most enjoyable read there were probably spikes of interest when I found rare gems but I am still glad I picked it up It was a timely reminder to challenge long held policy assumptions before I embark on the next stage of life And I must say for someone who used to instinctively recoil from MOAR SOCIAL WELFARE Hard Choices has made me a lot receptive to the idea


About the Author: Donald Low

Donald Low is Associate Dean for executive education and research at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy National University of Singapore


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