Beware the unintended consequences

Beware the unintended consequences
Published: 3:59 AM, February 7, 2013
Updated: 3:50 AM, February 8, 2013
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Policymakers and political leaders in Singapore speak often about “mindsets” and the need to change them before policies can follow. They speak often, too, of existing “values” and “traditions” that policies must respect and speak to.

This is an incomplete view of the relationship between policy and culture that overlooks and under-examines the influence of policy on culture.

In the process of researching for my book, Neoliberal Morality in Singapore: How Family Policies Make State and Society, I observed the powerful effects of institutions, rules and regulations. “Eligibility criteria” and clearly laid out bureaucratic steps obviously shape how people plan for their lives.

Beyond that and more importantly, however, they shape how people come to think of and take for granted what is “normal”, “ideal” and “Singaporean”.

Policies’ effects are not at the superficial levels of compelling people to jump through bureaucratic hoops. Instead, they cut to the core of how people see and feel about themselves, their relationships to the state, as well as their position vis-a-vis others in society.

I argue, then, that “culture”—values, beliefs, norms, habits—are produced through people’s shared negotiations of policy rules and regulations.


In addition, it is not just the content of policies that matter, but also their form.

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