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In an ever more uncertain world, what makes Singapore, Singapore?

With Covid-19 upending the world, Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine throwing out the rules-based international order, and a new generation of political leaders in Singapore looking to refresh the social compact for the next decade and beyond, perhaps it’s time we ask a rather fundamental question about ourselves.
In an ever more uncertain world, what makes Singapore, Singapore?
The author believes that if Singapore is to continue thriving, we need to be clear-eyed about who we are and what we stand for.

With Covid-19 upending the world, Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine throwing out the rules-based international order, and a new generation of political leaders in Singapore looking to refresh the social compact for the next decade and beyond, perhaps it’s time we ask a rather fundamental question about ourselves.

What makes Singapore, Singapore?

Joe Studwell in his excellent book How Asia Works explains that he excluded Singapore and Hong Kong from his analysis of economic development policy of East Asia as they are not “proper countries” and better described as port-offshore financial centres.

He argues: “Offshore centres are not normal states. Around the world, they compete by specialising in trade and financial services while enjoying lower structural overheads than other countries, which have larger, more dispersed populations, and agricultural sectors that drag on productivity.”

So, if our economic miracle is not what makes us a country, what does?

What is it that unites us? What will we be defending if war breaks out?

The Ukraine war, now in its fourth month, ought to give us pause about the nature of our existence and place in the region. After all, we too have been caught in the crossfire between larger countries contesting for power and influence.

In The Jakarta Method, a book about “Washington's anti-communist crusade", Vincent Bevins explains that Konfrontasi was a conflict started by Indonesia in 1963 against the formation of Malaysia (which then included Singapore) because President Sukarno saw Malaysia to be in the western sphere of influence.

This was an existential threat to Indonesia which was then firmly in the non-aligned category supporting neither the western bloc of democratic-industrialised countries nor the eastern bloc of communist-socialist states.

The book goes on to document Sukarno’s fall from power, the annihilation of the Indonesian Communist Party, and the mass murder of as many as one million Indonesians in 1965-66, with tacit support from the United States government.

Geopolitics can be brutal and national interests often trump humanity — such is the world we live in.

If Singapore is to continue thriving, we need to be clear-eyed about who we are and what we stand for.

Only then will we be able to defend not just our territory but our principles and way of life. The recent uproar in Indonesia after Singapore denied a radical preacher entry is a stark reminder of the need to define and vigorously defend our principles.

There are many things that define us, but I offer three that I hope will resonate with most.

COMMITMENT TO A DEMOCRACY THAT WORKS

Pragmatism has been one of the defining features of the Singapore Government.

“Do what works” and “Get things done” have been their modus operandi.

Secularism, or a separation of church and state, is the other.

As a society, we are not dogmatic or ideological. Our healthcare system, lauded by both liberals and conservatives in the US, is a testament to that.

This approach has allowed us to escape many of the polarised debates taking place around the world on everything from abortion and gun control, to freedom of speech, and the role of religion in politics.

But democracy is more than just a way to select your government.

As American philosopher John Dewey noted, the most important thing about democracy is what comes before voting: The thinking, discussion, and debate.

Regular elections are but just one way in which we can experience democracy. We should also be engaged citizens and participate actively in public debates to advocate for the type of society we would like to live in.

PURSUIT OF LASTING EQUALITY

The recent Government White Paper on women’s development was an acknowledgement that gender equality is critical to truly progressing as a society. The paper is a start of an important conversation that needs to continue in earnest.

The conversation, however, must also broaden to include the small number of women living on the margins of our society including sex workers, domestic helpers, and those who are lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

Equality cannot exist if discrimination persists.

Most striking in the paper was the call for “mindset shifts” as it identified the root cause perpetuating a lot of the gender inequality found in Singapore.

This shift in mindset, I would argue, should also extend to how we view our own material successes and failures.

As a rich nation, Singapore has done well to redistribute its collective wealth. But our ideas around what constitutes success, who is responsible for it, and how to achieve it remain narrow.

To address our biases about wealth, success, poverty, and inequality, we first need to understand them better. Before addressing inequality, we need to identify what leads people to have an unequal shot at success in the first place — be it at school, the workplace, or at home.

As associate professor of sociology Teo You Yenn argues in her book This is What Inequality Looks Like, work-life balance should not be a class privilege.

Universal access to childcare, for instance, must also cater to low-wage workers who often work inconsistent hours or in day and night shifts.

UPHOLDING JUSTICE FOR ALL

Finally, our biggest strength is the rule of law which, in the words of retired Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong, ensures there will “not be a sudden change in policy or law instituted by a corrupt, capricious or meretricious government”.

The recent establishment of the Public Defender’s Office and the Sexual Crime and Family Violence Command further strengthen the judicial system and protect the basic rights afforded to all living in Singapore.

These recent changes underscore the constant evolution of our security and legal institutions to meet the demands of society.

The Government has also been open to reviewing existing laws as social attitudes and expectations change.

For example, the Government recently increased the penalties for sexual offences and is  “considering the best way forward” vis-a-vis Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises consensual sex between men, and remains highly contentious.

Hopefully, a similar review of corporal and capital punishment is also undertaken at some point to make our judicial system truly progressive and in line with the times.

Tim Snyder, who has written six books on Ukrainian history, recently warned in an interview that it was a belief in the “politics of inevitability” that blinded the West to the developments in Russia and the ensuing conflict that has erupted in Ukraine.

The belief is that an invisible force, namely capitalism, is going to guarantee all the things that we desire and wish for, namely democracy and freedom, eventually.

Believing we all desire the same thing, and that all societies are destined to achieve whatever they desire, can be dangerous.

As Snyder put it: “What the politics of inevitability does is that it teaches you not to think about values at all.”

The reality is that nothing can and should ever be taken for granted. Or as another philosopher, Ernest Renan of France, said: “The existence of a nation is a daily plebiscite.”

In other words, the desire to build a nation based on common values is a never-ending exercise. These values are more important to a country's identity than any common race, language, or religion can ever be.

Right now, the men and women defending Ukraine remind us of this every day.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Chirag Agarwal is a former ​civil servant and public policy consultant. He is currently a co-founder of Talk Your Heart Out, a Singapore-based mental health and wellbeing startup.

Related topics

democracy equality world order political geopolitics

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