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Beware the unintended consequences

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.

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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.

While two decades of pronatalist policies have failed to encourage people to have more children, the logic embedded in the promotion of a self-sufficient nuclear family unit, attained through a narrow path of specific steps, has produced a certain “common sense”.

This is that individuals should be responsible for themselves above all else; that there are certain life paths that are superior to others; and that individuals have limited say in shaping outcomes and, therefore, that big decisions must be made by the state.

In other words, pronatalist policies may not produce babies, but they do produce highly individualised sensibilities as well as a particular sort of political disempowerment.

It is crucial, then, to recognise that policies have unintended consequences.

How does this matter?

Policymakers and citizens have great responsibility. Policymakers’ work should not focus only on laying out incentives and disincentives to achieve a small range of behaviours. Instead, policies must be considered for their long-range and big-picture consequences.

Importantly, they must not be formulated with the presumption that “culture” is a stable and static fact, but must instead recognise that policies can shape people’s tastes, preferences and sensibilities.

On their part, citizens must question and challenge the logic and principles embedded in policies, and not just examine how measures affect them as individuals in the short-term.


The recent Population White Paper is a case in point. It embeds within it several assumptions about culture.

One, that Singaporeans are united in caring first and foremost about GDP growth and the generation of jobs, and therefore that other goals, while important, cannot be considered until these are achieved.

Two, that Singaporeans care only about immediate family members and, therefore, that an increasing dependency ratio is a disaster that must be avoided at all costs if the current austere welfare regime is to be maintained.

Three, that Singaporeans do not care about the well-being of migrant workers and, therefore, buttressing the workforce with a growing transient migrant population that can be reduced to economic digits is unproblematic.

It does not consider its own effects. For example: That the continual framing of population problems as resolvable only through aggressive immigration may exacerbate divides between older and newer citizens and create cultures of division.

It does not consider that prioritisation of growth might lead people to feel greater insecurity and thereby compel cultures of self-centredness; and that rolling out population plans that have not adequately addressed growing public discontent may create cultures of disempowerment, wherein people feel it is futile for members of society to engage uncynically in public debate.


The American sociologist Ann Swidler points out that there are “settled” and “unsettled” times in cultures.

In the former, particular habits and values have become so settled as to be invisible. In the latter, people continue to explicitly debate their beliefs and orientations.

It seems to me we are still in unsettled cultural times — where we are still capable of explicitly articulating and arguing over important values that are inching toward the settled status of “common sense”.

We should seize this “unsettled” space. The lively debate in and outside Parliament this past week is evidence that many have. Policymakers will hopefully not see this as mere noise or disruption.

Beyond the usual suspects, ordinary citizens will hopefully also engage. We must examine the complex and long-range social, political and ethical implications of policy orientations. Policy, after all, shapes not only what we do, but who we become.

Dr Teo You Yenn is an Assistant Professor in Sociology at the Nanyang Technological University.

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