What next, Singapore? – Three possible intents for the next 50 years

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Happy jubilee, Singapore! And here’s to 50 more years! It is heartening to see Singapore jump from third world nation status to first world in such a short time. This is the legacy of our founding fathers, which we have much to be thankful for. Yet, as we look to the next 50 years, a lot should be on our mind. That the next general election is coming so closely on the heels of the SG50 celebrations is a good indicator that the government is hoping to get a mandate for the next 50 years. If the last election was a watershed moment for the political scene in Singapore, the next one will be a future shaper. Hence, the electorate must listen carefully above the din of election promises and aspersions, and make the right choice for a government to bring us there.

What is our intent?

The intent for Singapore is not clear at this moment. Who should we be placing our bets on, and how will we get there, are just two strategic questions that Singaporeans go to the polls to decide. “How do we want Singapore to look like in 2065?” is an important question to answer. In this article, we paint three hypotheses of how the intent could shape itself, and wait for the politicians, and the electorate, to play them out.

Business as usual

The first hypothesis is “business as usual”. Singapore has branded itself as a great country to do business in, and the tax schemes bear that out. Even as the Singapore dollar strengthens against other major currencies, its socio-political-economic circumstances still make investing in Singapore an attractive one. But one thing we need to be aware of is the shifting economic landscape, and one that throws the market wide open through increased competition. This would commonly lead to oversupply of services, causing margins to crumble, some even in negative territory. There is a strong intent by the government to maintain increased pressure on this so that businesses in Singapore will be forced to innovate, and be operations-lean. This may inevitably cause manpower to be displaced, but through SkillsFuture, there is a safety-net to catch them, reskill them, and redeploy them. So the “business as usual” hypothesis seems very likely, but there are some serious flaws in the assumptions that drive this. One such flaw is the thinking that labour is just another factor of production, and reskilling is as easy as retooling, and that the economy can chug along nicely through SkillsFuture. There is some risk that this may just backfire, causing GDP to contract, and forcing the government to rethink its restructuring plan. Although it is still early days in its restructuring plans, but the business-as-usual intent may be given a severe blow if the electorate don’t buy into it. At this point in time, it seems like that is quite unlikely.

All for all

This next intent hypothesis is the inclusive growth strategy that the Prime Minister spoke about in his 2013 National Day Rally. The fact of the matter is the growing income gap, the economically diverse electorate, and the rapidly ageing population, all combine to spread out the demographic and psychographic nature of the population. If policies are seen to favour one group of people more than others, or opportunities open to a select few, then there will be a huge disquiet in the community, leading to an ultimate explosion. Although the Little India riots in 2013 were fuelled by alcohol, it does show that if Singapore’s subcultures are not well taken care of, there will be an even wider disparity between the haves and have-nots, and this might spill over into violence. Hence an inclusive growth strategy that looks not just at income appreciation, but also at growth in wellbeing and a positive outlook for the whole population is important. This all-for-all strategy requires a fundamental shift away from elitism, which is still very much alive in Singapore. The tax laws need to change drastically to champion the common man, and the small businesses. Entrepreneurial zeal should be celebrated and championed in schools, as should technologists through better integration with the economy. Embracing the inclusive growth mindset needs to be firmly embedded in the total psyche of the nation, something which needs a lot of effort, and a few hits on the GDP growth indicator. Can Singapore afford that? Would this play out for the next 50 years?

Singapore the Welfare State?

While the first two hypotheses are driven by the economy, this hypothesis is grounded on a socialistic bent. In its first 50 years, Singapore’s strategy was to get the economics in order. To a large extent, we have done that through good policies and people. But the intent of economic growth cannot be sustained without proper social development. If the rich are driving their luxury cars, planes and yachts on the back of a hardworking, and generally subservient population, there will be social backlash. Singapore may well need to spend a large proportion of its reserves to prop up socialistic growth. Questions abound like, “Can Singapore afford to become a welfare state?” Indeed if Singapore has done so well in managing the business side of the country, perhaps it can now channel its expertise on the people side? Policies like the Pioneer Generation are one-off and can be seen as populist. There is a need to look more closely, and more broadly, at welfare issues. It cannot be a discussion simply about costs. It has to do with people, and a way to support all with basic universal rights. If a state cannot commit to giving its people a baseline standard of living long after they have contributed to the economy, then Singapore might simply be the global equivalent of a hotel for the rich and famous.

So where will Singapore be headed? This is a very interesting question, which might well be answered when Singapore goes to the polls. But one thing is certain – Singapore in the next 50 years will be more exciting and vibrant. Here’s to all of us!

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