Singapore’s Identity Crisis: Part 1

There is growing discussion among Singaporeans on what it means to be Singaporean and what our national identity is. To put it simply, there are two groups of Singaporeans who chastise one another.

There is one group who believes that the other group has forgotten the hardship that Singapore had endured to move from a Third World to First World economy, and feel that this other group has forgotten the struggles that we had fraught and that in this time of relative comfort, is demanding for more personal gratification than they should. They feel that Singaporeans should understand that because of the fragility of Singapore’s position in the global economy, the government is right in making hard decisions, even as they might encroach on the rights and well-being of the people, and that Singaporeans should show their support to the government.

On the other hand, the other group of Singaporeans believes that precisely because the country is growing strongly, where Singapore has attained a high GDP per capita, and where in the midst of increasing inflation and depressed wages that the government should support Singaporeans further, by increasing wages and uplifting the people’s purchasing power, and provide more assistance to the people, by subsidising further the rising costs, such as for healthcare and education.

A Common Interest to Want Singapore to Succeed in the Long Term

Yet, these two approaches are not necessarily divergent or contradictory. There are merits to both points of views, and if we were to understand further, stem from somewhat different, but equally, concerns that the people have in their joint interest in the longevity and protection of Singapore.

Perhaps it is not so much important to understand what their viewpoints are, as to what the motivations for their beliefs are. Inherently, both these two groups of Singaporeans have the interests of Singapore at heart. But their approach is different. Underlying all this are different perceptions as to what contentment means.

For the former, they might content that their state of wealth is acceptable and they believe that the government’s direction is favourable for the long term interests of Singapore. For the latter, they believe that the government has forgotten about the people and content that the government is not compensating the people adequately for their productive efforts for the economy. At this point, we might argue that the different adsorption of media influences and personal fear might also have a part in the skewing of viewpoints differently. The latter might accuse the former of buying into state machinery and in their fear of ‘losing what they have built’ for themselves in Singapore, would choose not to rock the boat. Though the former might similarly accuse the latter as being only interested in their personal short term gains and do not have the long term interests of the country at heart.

Yet, again, who is right? (Or, perhaps, is there a right or wrong?) As proposed, these two groups of Singaporeans have a common belief – the both of them want to see Singapore succeed. Yet, how they perceive success and how they perceive the government’s approach to this success is different. Is there a way we can align these viewpoints?

Admittedly, the government is aligned to the former. Some might argue that the government’s alignment to the former group is because the government wants to amass wealth for themselves and with the former’s belief that the government need not drastically change its direction and thus a lesser belief for need for the transfer of wealth back to the people, this satisfies the government’s own agenda. Yet, it can be similarly argued that because the government had long built itself on principles of self-reliance and its belief that the people should take care of their own needs, they naturally align themselves with the former group. Of course, we might never know what the government’s true agenda is.

Fear As A Common Driving Principle

However, what is definite is that the government is currently more aligned to the former and the government struggles to understand the latter, or if they do, is resistant towards shifting their agenda towards the latter or an in-between. Underlying the government’s fear of shifting its current goalposts is that a decision to shift requires a long term commitment – long term funding and perceived ‘revenue-loss’ (assuming that the government does not have other hidden agendas).

Fear – so, the government has a fear. But what about the people’s fears? If I were to try to understand the people’s fears, for the former, their fear lies in that if the current grumblings among Singapore continues and that if there is no common consensus among Singaporeans and the government, this will be tenuous for Singapore in the long term – what does it mean for their personal livelihood? For the latter group, as mentioned, their fear lies in not being able to sustain themselves in the longer term because of the rising cost of living and wages that have not kept pace with the cost of living, where the people feel that their long term livelihood is at stake.

Moving Beyond Fear to Curious Questioning

Is there a common ground here? If I may, I think everyone in Singapore is concerned about the longer term – be it from a personal perspective or from a larger national perspective. We want to be able to continue to live. What we might not agree on at this point is how we can continue to live. Should we simply accept any decision that the government makes and take it lying down, believing that the government has its best interests for us? Or should we insist that the government shares Singapore’s wealth with us, especially since we have the one of the world’s highest GDP per capita, national reserves and continued surplus?

The defining point could be this – for the latter, they are not quite sure if they should ‘simply take it lying down’. “But the government is lying to us!”, “but the government isn’t being honest with us!”, “Again, the government is raising taxes without giving the money back to us!”. Are they right to lament the government’s lack of protection over the people? Perhaps they might be right, if we look at how our government leaders are the best paid in the world, where even our ministers are paid higher than the leaders of the other countries, by several times more. Perhaps they might be right, if we look at how our income inequality has been increasing over the past decade and how the richest is earning more and more times more than those at the lower economic rungs. Perhaps they might be right, when housing prices have increased by so much that people feel that they are left with little savings for their old age. This is not helped by how at their old age, they feel that they are able to draw out less of their CPF savings – where did my money go, they think?

Are they right to think in this way? Well, thing is, we don’t know. What is really going on behind the government’s decision-making? The people might say that they are less able to withdraw their CPF, they might feel severely unable to pay for their medical bills and have thus chosen to not access healthcare. This might achieve the government’s goals of preventing the overuse of our healthcare facilities, but is this at the expense of the people’s health and well-being? Again, what can we truly know?

You can read Part 2 of the article here.


  1. Pingback: SINGAPORE’S IDENTITY CRISIS: PART 1  |  The Temasek Review - Temasek Review Emeritus - The Temasek Review - The Online citizen - The Real Singapore
  2. Pingback: Singapore’s Identity Crisis: Part 2 | The Heart Truths

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