When Singapore turned 50 in August 2015, Huffington Post asked me to evaluate Singapore’s first fifty years. I made an outrageous claim, saying that Singapore was “the most successful society since human history began." This article went viral, with 400,000 views. Amazingly, no one disputed this outrageous claim. The big question for Singapore’s future is therefore a simple one: can Singapore remain the most successful society in the world?
The simple answer is: yes, we can! We must continue setting ambitious goals and work hard to achieve them. In this article, I will suggest three ambitious goals. Let’s call them the three zeroes:
All three goals are achievable.
Zero car ownership is possible because Singapore is the smallest major country in the world. We don’t have wide-open spaces to drive out of the city to enjoy. Hence, a small Singapore provides the ideal public policy laboratory for trying out a bold policy of zero car ownership.
Zero car ownership does not mean zero cars. Nor does it mean zero car driving. We can still have the pleasure of driving cars, if we want to. But we don’t have to own the car we drive. We can just rent or lease a car whenever we need one. We can also enjoy the pleasure of picking up and dropping off cars freely.
And what are the benefits of this policy? They are enormous. Firstly, we can make the same number of car trips in Singapore with 300,000 cars instead of a million cars. An MIT study has documented how this can be done. Secondly, with 700,000 fewer cars, our environment will become much better. We can also legislate that only electric cars will be allowed in Singapore. Our air will smell cleaner. It will be like living in a rustic paradise. Equally importantly, we can reduce road space from 12% to 9% of our natural territory. We will save 21 square km of space, enough to build three Ang Mo Kio-style new towns or 25 Botanic Gardens.
But it would be a mistake to focus only on the physical benefits. The psychological benefits will be greater. The sense of self-esteem of Singaporeans will go off the charts when they perceive the rest of the world looking at Singaporeans as the wisest people on planet earth. We would become the first tribe of the human family to abandon car worship. Instead, we would worship our environment. And we would save a lot of money by not owning cars. We can use that money to enhance our education and cultural experience, thereby increasing our happiness even more. We can become the happiest society on planet earth.
The second zero we can achieve is zero poverty. Ending poverty is a noble goal. However, if we use the wrong means, we can destroy a society. This is not an abstract point. Many modern Western societies have created expensive welfare programmes, ostensibly to help the poor. More often than not, these expensive welfare programmes have damaged the poor as much as they helped them. Writing 250 years ago, one of America’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, warned of the dangers of demotivating the poor:
I think the best way of doing good to the poor is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. In my youth I traveled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer … The day you passed that act, you took away from before their eyes the greatest of all inducements to industry, frugality, and sobriety, by giving them a dependence on somewhat else than a careful accumulation during youth and health, for support in age or sickness. In short you offered a premium for the encouragement of idleness, and you should not now wonder that it has had its effect in the increase of poverty.1
Another contemporary problem is that Western welfare programmes have become financially unsustainable. Referring to the US, Charles Murray said in 2006:
This much is certain: The welfare state as we know it cannot survive. No serious student of entitlements thinks that we can let federal spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid rise from its current 9 percent of GDP to the 28 percent of GDP that it will consume in 2050 if past growth rates continue. The problems facing transfer programs for the poor are less dramatic but, in the long term, no less daunting; the falling value of a strong back and the rising value of brains will eventually create a class society making a mockery of America’s ideals unless we come up with something more creative than anything that the current welfare system has to offer. So major change is inevitable—and Congress seems utterly unwilling to face up to it. Witness the Social Security debate of last year, a case study in political timidity.2
However, the danger of becoming a welfare state doesn’t mean we should stop welfare programmes. People don’t choose to be poor. I know this personally. When my father went to jail, there was no reason for his wife and children to be starved. Fortunately, we got welfare cheques. And our relatives helped. The simple fact is that many people become poor because of circumstances out of their control. The public policy challenge is how to help them without creating unsustainable expensive entitlement programmes which also remove the incentive to work.
One way out is to ask the local communities to take care of welfare. Local grassroots organisations (and Singapore is blessed to have many) and non-governmental groups can interview families and neighbours to find out the truly deserving ones for assistance. Rigid bureaucratic rules never work because each poor person’s story is a different one. Local communities are in a better position to understand the needs of their constituents. They should be provided the means to help out their local constituents. All this would also enhance community building. We should transfer the responsibility of achieving zero poverty to local grassroots organisations.
The third zero to achieve is zero domestic terrorists. Singapore is truly fortunate that it has not experienced a major terrorist attack. This is unusual and abnormal. There is no doubt that Singapore has been targeted. More dangerously, some Singaporeans have become self-radicalised. However, it is important not to blame one religion for this. The 168 victims who were killed in the Oklahoma bombing and the 77 victims who were killed in the Norwegian shooting were killed by Christian terrorists. Suicide bombings were also practised by Japanese kamikaze pilots and Hindu Tamil Tigers.
Since Singapore is an open multi-racial society, we are particularly vulnerable to an attack started by one community against another community. Hence, preserving and strengthening inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony in Singapore is not optional. It is a vital national interest. One can conceive of various scenarios how Singapore could fail. There is no doubt that one possible scenario will be a result of a collapse of ethnic and religious harmony. Growing up as a child in Singapore in the 1960s, I personally saw what happened when Malays and Chinese fought each other in a riot. And they both lived in the same Joo Chiat neighbourhood. Hence, I know from personal experience that it can happen.
So how do we preserve our current harmony? We can continue our present strong top-down approach. Strict laws against hate speech help. We should also maintain our preventive detention laws and put chauvinists and extremists of all shades in jail. Yet, history also teaches that top-down approaches are never enough. They need to be complemented by bottom-up approaches.
Singapore should therefore consciously encourage greater community bonding. Here we should take advantage of our small size. We are one of the few countries where MPs can knock on the doors of each of their constituents. When they knock on their doors, I hope they will ask them a very simple question: when was the last time you sat down to a meal with your neighbour?
I know what happens when you eat meals together. When we grew up on Onan Road, our Hindu family had Muslim Malay neighbours on both sides. And next to the Malay family on the right was a Chinese family. We were all poor. Yet we always kept our doors open, both in the front and back. As a child, I would frequently walk into their kitchens and pick up food to eat. On holidays, we would send food to each other. In theory, there should not have been harmony between our Hindu family and our Muslim neighbours. My mother had escaped being killed by a Muslim mob in Pakistan. She came to Singapore filled with the trauma of Hindu-Muslim partition between India and Pakistan. Yet, she couldn’t have been closer to our Muslim neighbours. We always helped each other. And we ate in each other’s kitchens. No government initiative could have achieved this incredible harmony. Instead, it was purely a bottom-up initiative.
We did all this when Singapore was poor and when my family and neighbours were poor. Now Singapore is rich. Can we persuade rich Singaporeans to also open up their homes to other ethnic groups? If we can, we can remain the most successful nation in SG100.
1 Benjamin Franklin (Nov 29, 1766). On the Price of Corn, and Management of the Poor. The London Chronicle.
2 Charles Murray (Mar 22, 2006). A Plan to Replace the Welfare State. The Wall Street Journal.