How can countries prepare for shocks in a complex, volatile and politically contested world? Donald Low, Wu Wei Neng and Alisha Gill examine the role of resilience thinking and its implications for policy-making.
The resilience of a country is like that of a complex adaptive system such as an ecological biome. Ecosystems with a diverse, highly interconnected range of species are more robust and recover more quickly from external shocks than a monoculture plantation with only one dominant species.
In the similar vein, the resilience of an economy or society is critically dependent on its diversity and adaptive capacity. Given this, policy makers should move from a dominantly “vulnerability perspective” which currently informs policy-making in Singapore to include a “resilience perspective”.
Their ideas were presented at the inaugural Social Resilience Conference “Researching Social Resilience”, organised by the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). The conference, which took place in August, looked at recent research on social cohesion and resilience, and its policy implications.
The “vulnerability” approach is premised on the belief that Singapore is fragile, faces serious existential threats, and requires extensive government management and social engineering to mitigate or avoid the risks the country faces. A “resilience” perspective emphasises the growth of diverse capabilities, skill sets and options in government. Adopting this latter perspective suggests that the country has more policy alternatives than the Government has tended to present.
The authors use the lens of resilience to analyse the principles of policy design and implementation in Singapore since its independence in 1965. On the economic front, they suggest that Singapore is quite resilient to sudden shocks and externally- induced volatility. This is largely the result of its strong fiscal reserves position, built up through fiscal discipline and the accumulation of structural surpluses over the decades, and the Government’s ability to take decisive policy action in times of crisis. These factors enabled the quick implementation of the S$20.5 billion Resilience Package in response to the 2008-9 global financial crisis.
To improve economic resilience, Low et al. argue that policy makers must pay attention to the diversity and quality of GDP growth, not just its level. They should also create more spaces for the entrepreneurial intelligence of small- and medium-sized companies to complement top-down industrial planning that has largely favoured investments by multinational companies, while staying plugged-in to global flows of capital, trade and talent.
The resilience perspective also suggests that a society founded on the principles of meritocracy and self-reliance is inherently unstable because, among other things, both accentuate inequalities. Rising income inequality and social distance undermine cohesion and trust, and reduce social mixing and inter-generational mobility. This does not mean that meritocracy and selfreliance should be jettisoned as principles of governance, but a more nuanced and balanced approach is necessary to bolster social resilience.
In particular, Singapore should go beyond means-tested social assistance to improve risk-pooling through more universal safety nets such as unemployment insurance, a basic pension system and comprehensive insurance for long-term care. Policies must also reflect a plurality of views by drawing upon the diverse and distributed knowledge in society. For instance, open policy deliberations can expose both citizens and policy makers to a broader range of views, and improve cohesion and trust. Underpinning all this must be a compassionate meritocracy that recognises broader definitions of success while protecting and providing for those who lag behind.
At the same time, building national resilience has trade-offs, since spare resources and backup capabilities are, by definition, not fully utilised under normal conditions. The results achieved with a resilience perspective may be less than maximum efficiency, although it may, in fact and over the long term, be the most optimal.
Crucially, the authors also do not advocate a laissez faire approach by governments. There are necessary roles for the state in regulating and legitimising market outcomes, correcting market failures, and ensuring diversity and resilience. In this context, the widespread application of resilience thinking to public policy can generate widespread benefits for Singapore.
Donald Low is Associate Dean (Executive Education and Research); and Wu Wei Neng and Alisha Gill are researchers at the Case Study Unit, LKY School.