Anchored by the premise that while Singapore has been successful in its first 50 years, the collection of essays in Donald Low and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh’s “Hard Choices: Challenging The Singapore Consensus” point to necessary changes to politics, policymaking, and – above all – the assumptions underpinning these processes. “The mistakes of the government in the last decade are less the result of bad intentions, ignorance, or incompetence” Low wrote, “than the result of deeply-held ideological assumptions and mental modes of decision-makers in power”. In this vein, the book is not necessarily a compendium of policy proposals or recommendations that the government should adopt, but instead raises questions about how institutions shape policies and whether these beliefs remain relevant for the future.
A major issue Low and Vadaketh emphasise is that of socio-economic inequality, and in their proposals for redistributive policies which “spread the fruits of growth widely and evenly” – even as growth-enhancing policies are continued – they also address counter-arguments or oft-cited reasons for dismissing the proposals. And in fact since the publication of the book in 2014, and after the general elections last year where there were clearer indications that the People’s Action Party was more “left-of-centre”, policy changes have been observed, though perhaps these changes have not been as substantial.
Notwithstanding the incoherence between some essays, a few essays were not substantiated fairly. In Linda Lim’s “What’s Wrong With Singaporeans”, in which she sought to examine the “complaint of many employers and human resources professionals that “there are not enough good Singaporeans to hire,” focusing them to rely heavily on foreign labour and talent”, many of her comparisons were supported by anecdotes or personal observations. And when Vadaketh made important points about the regulation of online news sites, he quoted Minister of Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim out of context, who said “I think it is important for us to ensure that the [ordinary Singaporeans] read the right thing”. Vadaketh did not, unfortunately, include the comments which followed.
After all, when Minister Yaacob Ibrahim explained that the government has to make sure that the ordinary citizen reads the “right thing, insofar as what has transpired yesterday”, that events are “reported accurately”, and that quotes are attributed properly, his interview was taken grossly out of context. Few would disagree that online news content providers are obliged to make sure that facts within their publications are sourced, attributed, and verified. Facts are sacred, opinions are cheap.
Other more minor editing quibbles concern the absence of figures and graphs to complement the economic analysis, on socio-economic inequality in particular. Balance has to be struck between a commentary piece and a more substantial research paper, yet comparative graphs – showing Singapore’s Gini coefficient or wage growth of Singaporeans, across time and across household groups – would have been useful. There were also essays which cited academics without giving context to their profiles or backgrounds to their research work, making the assumption that readers already have such knowledge tucked away.
Still, the overall premise that changes to the Singapore system should be coupled with broader discourse remains valid. We should “eschew simplifying dogmas or truisms in government, such as the idea that people only respond to incentives, or that markets are always efficient, or that welfare erodes competitiveness”, and even more specifically I am in agreement that “the government ought to rely a lot more on experiments, the use of randomised controlled trials, and evidence-based policymaking”. Challenges to an established status quo will be hard, but in the long-term is critical to our survival.