Author/s
19 Oct 2013



Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Concensus
By Sudhir Vadaketh Thomas and Donald Low, Published by NUS Press.

On its way to being the key reflection on the state of Singapore, Hard Choices present an engaging collection of essays on Singapore's main contemporary debates: inequality, population, housing, the welfare regime, meritocracy, and democratic governance. The accessible structure of the pointed essays by Donald Low, Associate Dean (Research and Executive Education) at the LKY School and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, and their collaborators is an apprehension of the policies, (mostly) successful in the past, that have failed to produce the desired outcomes in the Singapore circa 2014. Using economic, psychological, and behavioural insights, they show how Singapore's ruling political party has moved into an ideological bunker instead of adjusting public policy to the New Normal.


Contemporary Challenges, Foundational Shifts

Unlike many analyses of national current affairs, Low and Vadaketh not only present a convincing problem description, but also offer viable and well-explained policy alternatives. The coherence is so striking that one might wonder if Low's Liberal Ideas in the New Normal (the concluding essay) is not an offer summarising these specific policy alternatives into a broader story, and a basis for a credible opposition in 2016.

the biggest underlying challenge in Singaporean society today (is probably) inequality. To read why it is not necessarily a bad thing is almost satirical. That a government has been able to openly build its economic platform on the idea that inequality is good probably reflects how it has gone largely unchallengedand how a book like Hard Choices is necessary to broaden the debate in Singapore.

The three-part book contains fifteen essays: The Limits of Singapore Exceptionalism, challenging the foundational assumptions of government thinking; more explicit discussion of policy alternatives on issues such as housing, population, and inequality; finally, a broader political analysis of the state of democracy in Singapore.

Low, who also authored most of the articles in the book, begins the analysis with perhaps the biggest underlying challenge in Singaporean society todayinequality. To read why it is not necessarily a bad thing is almost satirical. That a government has been able to openly build its economic platform on the idea that inequality is good probably reflects how it has gone largely unchallengedand how a book like Hard Choices is necessary to broaden the debate in Singapore.

While the authors acknowledge the progress since 2011 in improving welfare systems, accelerating the provision of public housing and transport infrastructure, and curbing the inflow of immigrants, they also show that the underlying philosophy in government has not changed. For anyone seeking methods towards real change, the third part of the book may be the most revealing; the debate moves from policy alternatives to the systematic issues of governance in Singapore.


Myths and Alternatives

Low challenges today's perceived benefits of a meritocracy that creates a disconnection between a selected elite who perform the political decisions and the rest of the population. Vadaketh expands on the issue of representation when he illustrates how Singapore fails on a number of democratic values in Chapter 14. He points out how the ruling political party has over the past decades created a system that limited political competition. He makes a comparison to Malaysia, where other viewpoints have found their way into a powerful media alternative and also translated into substantially more opposition seats in 2013. Despite the strong gains by Singapore's own oppositions (notably the Workers Party) at recent elections, it is interesting that Vadaketh can neither see an opposition win at the next general election nor a significant reshape within government.

Overall the book is an excellent discussion of the problems Singaporeans face today and with credible and well-argued alternatives. The articles clearly profit from Low and Vadaketh's long careers in the civil service and the Economist Group respectively, and their deep understanding of Singaporean politics from within and outside the system'.

Although any collection of essays risks repetition, the book turns this into an asset offering different critical perspectives on the same issue. Each essay forms its own coherence such that interested readers do not need to work through the whole book to appreciate the issues of their concern. But one possible weakness is that too often the authors use a similar economic framing that they critique in their policy alternatives. While this does not invalidate their arguments, it reveals how even among the country's most eminent critical thinkers, there could be a lack of more compassionate political approach.

The book arguably covers most of the top concerns of Singaporeans. Such a selection has meant omission of other worthy debates, such as race relations, labour and gay rights to environmental concerns and privacy protection, not least seen in the Little India riots, Pink Dot and the NLB controversy which would make an equally interesting sequel.


To find out more about other books and publications by the LKY School, visit our website. Jan Seifert is a PhD Candidate at the LKY School. His email is decb64_amFuLnNlaWZlcnRAbnVzLmVkdS5zZw==_decb64