Thursday, February 25 2021 | ASIA TODAY INTERNATIONAL - Reporting the Business that Matters in Asia
BOILING THE FROG, COOLING DISSENT
HAVING achieved an economic miracle in its first 50 years, will Singapore suffer a mundane descent into mediocrity over its next half century . . .
IN THIS WEEKS leading up to August 9 each year, Singapore’s red and white flag flutters from private flagpoles and house balconies throughout the city-State.
This year, there was a greater sense of festivity as the nation celebrated 50 years of independence – and enviable economic success.With a per capita income of US$56,287, few would argue that Singapore’s economic achievement is anything short of a miracle.
Any visitor can see how Singaporeans live, work and play today. In international business, Singapore investors rub shoulders with the best from the rest of the world as they compete for prized assets.
Capital from Singapore has penetrated economies large and small across the globe. Government-owned agencies like GIC Pte Ltd and Temasek, and any number of Singapore’s largest — and even not so large — corporates, have jostled with others for investment opportunities.
The IMF says Singapore has a positive net international investment position, reflecting large net portfolio assets and official reserves. It stood at 182.5 per cent of GDP at end-2014.
Past success is, however, no guarantee of future success. Singapore is where it is today because of diligence, planning, clean Government and the blessing of a certain point in time in global history.
As it celebrates its 50th anniversary, many wonder what will become of Singapore in the next 50 years. Could life be more unpredictable and difficult in the years ahead?
The pressures are building in an insidious way, and Singapore authorities will need to be both responsive and pre-emptive in recognising and dealing with them.
In Government since independence, the People’s Action Party (PAP) has charted the course of its nationhood through the lens of a hard-nosed technocrat, Lee Kuan Yew.
The current Prime Minister, LKY’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, has implemented an array of popular programmes to support the young and elderly — a significant policy shift from the welfare-creates-softness attitude of the past. He is responding to changing times and the changing demands of Singaporeans.
Ironically, while their Government can be pragmatic and flexible when it needs to lean with the political winds, Singaporeans themselves seem to find it harder to do so.
Take one small but crucially important area — education.
Singaporean parents spent more than $1 billion a year on after-hours tuition so that their children can keep up and score the top grades. This pressure – although no different to other Asian societies — is creating a generation of unhappy and stressed children, their childhoods lost through swotting for exams. Today’s Singapore has room only for academic brilliance.
Recognising the damage this is causing, the Government has started to extol the value of technical education and vocational training. But people are reluctant to change when they know that Singapore prizes paper qualifications above all else.
More than 27 per cent of Singaporeans are university graduates — compared with just 2.7 per cent in 1980. Among those under 34 years old, the proportion of graduates is 51.1 per cent. Unfortunately, in Singapore a degree is no longer the ticket to a good life. Well-paid jobs in a large multinational firm or the public service are no longer plentiful. Perhaps too many are chasing the same jobs.
Compounding what amounts to over- education, Singapore’s population is declining and ageing. Residents aged 65 years and over made up 11 per cent of the resident population in 2014. The median age increased to 39.3 years in 2014 from 38.9 years in 2013. Singapore has the third “oldest” population in Asia, after Japan and Korea.
Since the 1980s, Singapore has imported labour to get jobs in “dirty industries” done. Menial jobs in Singapore go begging because there are no takers.
First came the construction workers, then domestic maids, followed by low-grade clerical/back office workers and frontline service providers. Non-citizens and permanent residents made up 2.1 million of the total population of 5.5 million in 2014.
The influx of foreign workers is straining the small country’s infrastructure, especially transportation.
Discontent is festering, Singaporeans claim that the Government is no longer keeping to its side of the social contract in return for the loss of some freedoms — the core of the so-called social contract is affordable housing, good universal education, efficient healthcare and public transport.
For some young Singaporeans, material comforts are not enough. They hanker after more personal liberties.
But a Government still scarred by the racial tensions of the 1960s — and these days the fear of the broader threat of terrorism — continues to clamp down on freedom of speech and what are deemed ‘bad habits’.
The sentiments of a younger generation are feeding into politics, and the next general election could be a watershed for the PAP. In the last election, it lost more seats than in any previous election.
There was an outpouring of grief when LKY, the father of modern Singapore, passed away in March. But as people reflect, will his passing rally citizens around the PAP, or will it have an opposite effect?
An increasingly uncertain global economy is also a threat to a country with an external trade ratio of 350 per cent to its GDP. And there are regional issues to consider.
For all the platitudes about peaceful co-existence under the auspices of ASEAN, there are considerable undercurrents of instability in Singapore’s neighbouring countries. Racial discord, Islamic fundamentalism, income disparity and sovereign claims are among dark clouds on the horizon.
Singapore lives in a fragile world.
One of Singapore’s most successful citizens, the astute businessman Ho Kwon Ping, founder of the luxury boutique Banyan hotel chain, recently expressed a sense of foreboding in the Straits Times as he pondered Singapore’s future 50 years from now.
Ho believes the Lion City could suffer a mundane descent into mediocrity. “There are enough disturbing trends to reasonably conceive of a future where we languish in the ranks of second- or even third-tier city-economies, bordering on irrelevance in a global economy, surviving but not necessarily thriving,” he wrote.
“The fundamental cause of this slow- motion demise will be, simply, complacency and hubris. Like the proverbial frog which unwittingly boils to a slow death, we may have no clue of what is happening to us and around us. As we become an irrevocably ageing and elderly society, so too may we stagnate economically, and be riven by more socio-political acrimony and angst than common aspiration.
“But we may also be so buffered from any sense of crisis by sucking upon the riches of the past — which can certainly last another 50 years before running out — that we think the good times can last forever. The Singapore frog should be aware of slowly rising temperatures in three corners of the crockpot — economic, social and political.”
Ho’s pessimism may not be shared by many at a time when Singaporeans triumphantly celebrate their collective good fortunes. But it is worth a second thought.
* Florence Chong is Editor of ATI Magazine.