Treating social values and morality as commodities is a dangerous game.
Singapore has made great economic strides over the 50 years since independence. With a GDP per capita of $55,000, the island state is, by this measure at least, the most prosperous country in the world. Yet rather than being proud of their country’s achievement, measures of social harmony and happiness indicate that Singaporeans are far from pleased with the status quo.
Looking behind the numbers, it seems that Singapore’s economic success has wrought havoc on less measurable, but no less important, aspects of life: Freedom, compassion and equality. It is the degradation of these values that has contributed significantly to Singaporeans’ disenchantment with the current system.
Even before the Reagan-Thatcher era of neoliberal economics, Singapore adopted a market-driven approach in which even value systems and social life were commodified. When the government wanted fewer births in the 1970s, it paid women to undergo tubal ligation. When it changed its mind and wanted more births, it gave tax incentives to couples to have more babies. When it wanted the children to demonstrate strong character, it rewarded their desirable traits with cash.
Monetizing things that we shouldn’t—especially under circumstances where societal values are involved—leads to harmful outcomes. It causes citizens to abrogate moral responsibility and devolve decision-making to market norms set by the elite few.
We need to fundamentally rethink how we pursue wealth and, more importantly, to what end. We need to ask that all-important question that Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel so trenchantly posed: What price do we pay when we cede our values to market mechanisms?
Unfortunately, without democracy Singaporeans cannot have a national debate on the future direction of our country. Talk about political freedom and the rights of the people is eclipsed by government threats that democracy undermines GDP growth.
And yet Singapore is in danger of being left behind. A survey of countries around the world reveals a distinct shift towards more democratic forms of governance. Many such political transitions have yielded greater, not less, prosperity. Adaptation to change is necessary for societies to keep themselves relevant in the global community. Singapore is no exception.
The island republic needs an alternative vision, one that will confidently usher Singapore into the next phase of development: Privately owned small and medium-sized enterprises, instead of state-owned conglomerates, need to be the prime drivers of growth; the wage structure should ensure that the working poor don’t see their real incomes shrink even as the number of billionaires rise; the elderly should not have to work menial jobs just to feed themselves; the media must be free from state control; and, most importantly, the political system needs to change to allow truly free and fair elections, where the political freedoms of Singaporeans are respected.
Singapore is at a crossroads. How the country moves forward will depend on the choices that the people and their leaders make today. The incentives that those in power build into the system will determine whether the country progresses or stagnates. To that end, the ability of Singaporeans to question authority and to build a capacity for collective reasoning and debate is essential.
It is shameful that we live in a state where market values guided by an authoritarian system trump moral ones guided by a democratic process. The danger is that we become blinded by the things we want and ignore the things we really need. Ultimately a nation’s success is not measured by the size of its GDP but by the number of minds it unfetters, the number of young lives it gives hope to and the number of poor it empowers. It is this kind of wealth, the kind that really matters, that Singapore must accumulate.
Now more than ever, we need a genuine conversation about Singapore’s future. Indeed, we need a bold new vision for the country.
Mr. Chee is secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party.