Monday, June 19, 2006

Singapore: Place or nation? or does it matter?

Dear friends,
I am gravely troubled by Professor Linda Lim’s commentary (ST 19 June 06 Singapore: Place or nation?) not because of its brutal candor but because much of what she says is valid. If her insightful pronouncement is even remotely true, then a serious reappraisal of many national policies is surely long overdue.

As Singapore’s stakeholders, it is right that we ponder on some serious questions which her commentary has generated.

Is the state’s overpowering economic role “crowding out” our SME’s? Is there more that can be done to help any of our budding entrepreneurs?

How do we ensure that foreign talents really add value to us and not just take away much needed jobs? Have firms abused the policy to hire cheap workers from around the region at the expense of our own unemployed?

It is a no-brainer that most firms, if faced with a choice of employing a Singaporean or a worker from the region for half to 2/3 the Singaporean’s rate, will hire the latter! Where does that leave the less educated older retrenched Singaporean? Left on the shelf again after being unfairly accused of being “fussy” or being “unrealistic!”

It is probably the government’s hope that some of the more highly qualified foreigners would sink roots here and become useful contributing citizens and help compensate for our feeble procreation rate. It is understandable that many will use Singapore merely as a “stepping stone” en route to the promised-land in the West. I guess even if a few good ones remain, it is worth the trouble? As the Hokkien saying goes, “If there is no fish, prawns will do!” That is the new reality? We are, as economists say, “price-takers”.

Forging a Singapore identity will then be that much harder as these new Singaporeans may just as quickly leave when another place offers them superior opportunities.

Regarding nationhood, the professor’s “naïve” idealism showed when she said, “It is when I stick around when a place cannot guarantee me a good life, or I am concerned with the welfare of others in that place, and try to improve things even at a risk to my own good life (say, I join the political opposition), that I can say I am of the nation, and not just the place.

She also said, “In the same manner, it is when I enter public service even though it pays a fraction of what I could earn in the private sector, that I can claim to be primarily interested in the public good and national welfare and to have a passion for public service.”

Or should we all just be philosophical about the whole thing and consider Singapore’s existence as just a temporary blip in time-space continuum and agree with Rousseau who said,” If Sparta and Rome perished, what State can hope to endure for ever?

On a more serious note, Prof. Lim has done us a favour as it is because she is sufficiently detached from us that she is able to provide an objective bird’s eye view of where we are heading towards. Her commentary will either strike a chord or touch a raw nerve, but it cannot be ignored or wished away.

Happy pondering!

Dr. Huang Shoou Chyuan

I attach Professor Linda Lim's commentary for your reference:

Singapore: Place or nation?
What makes a country a home? Is it emotional ties or purely economic self-interest?
By Linda Lim, For The Straits Times Jun 19, 2006
The Straits Times

SINGAPORE'S economic development has never relied on its being a nation. First a colonial port where immigrant merchants and labour served the needs of the British empire, after independence in 1965 its economic policy still located the city-state within the regional trade and global production networks of foreign corporations.
Unlike Asia's other export-oriented 'developmental states' - Japan, South Korea and Taiwan - Singapore did not actively nurture or encourage a local capitalist class. Foreign and state enterprises were favoured, so 'national champion' outfits such as Toyota, Samsung and Acer never developed.
Instead, Singapore has always been a 'global city' - a place where parts and people are imported to produce goods and services that are exported to foreign consumers.
To be sure, given its size constraints, the strategy of being a niche player in multinationals' global value chains is quite defensible, even if other small countries - such as Switzerland, Denmark, Finland and New Zealand - have managed to grow locally owned global companies.
However, in Singapore, it is not market actors but the state that targets particular niches in global value chains, filling them overwhelmingly with subsidiaries of foreign enterprises. State policy has shaped local resources - labour, land, infrastructure, housing, fiscal regimes and cultural amenities - to provide a competitive place for particular foreign economic entities to locate.
The standard justification for state intervention in an economy is 'market failure' - where resources are not efficiently allocated because of the divergence of private and social costs and benefits.
In health, education and infrastructure, for example, society's net gain from an investment is greater than the private return to the individual, resulting in under-investment if left to market forces.
Market failure is common in developing countries but, as they develop, so do markets. State intervention then becomes less necessary. Yet the Singapore state has kept its developmental role and control of the economy way past the stage at which a market-believer would expect it to 'wither away'.

Active targeting

IT DOES not merely enhance productivity through social investments, but also determines the sectoral allocation of resources by shaping relative resource endowments and moulding competitive advantage in certain industries.
Thus state policy has targeted the development of specific 'clusters' in which Singapore does not have the requisite local resources, markets or leading companies.
In the capital- and talent-intensive field of the life sciences, foreign talent is imported (sometimes by paying above-world-market rates), and capital subsidies provided to foreign firms, to produce medical breakthroughs for global consumers.
This might make Singapore a profitable place for parts of the life sciences' global value chain to locate. But it is not clear where Singapore the nation benefits, since the jobs, profits and goods are produced overwhelmingly by and for foreigners. In this case, the Singapore state may be seen as acting as a steward of the interests of non-Singaporeans.
Foreign and local economic interests may be complementary. But if the state did not attract, steer and push resources in the direction of the life sciences, resources would be allocated to other sectors by local entrepreneurs. In a market economy, every investment choice, private or public, has an opportunity cost against which its economic benefit must be evaluated.
The Singapore state's penchant for 'picking winners' reflects its continued adherence to the last generation's successful industrial policy, and its distrust of markets and local private entrepreneurs as drivers of the economy, and possibly also as alternative leaders of a more pluralistic political and social system.

A contradiction

THE official encouragement of entrepreneurship is based on a contradiction, since individual initiative and risk-taking in response to market forces are the essence of private entrepreneurship, not government exhortations, training and incentives. Both entrepreneurship and creativity spring from social conditions and an economic policy environment very different from the top-down control model found in Singapore.
The economic primacy of place over nation is reflected in the government's recent decision to allow international gaming companies to establish casinos in Singapore. Responding to local objections based on 'values' as well as economic concerns, the government argued that casinos would not undermine Singapore society because Singaporeans would not be involved in the business as consumers but only as workers - though we may expect casino employees to be disproportionately foreign.
Singapore, in short, is to be a place where foreign profits are earned from foreign customers served disproportionately by foreign workers, and it is only the disentanglement of place from nation that makes the casino enterprise justifiable, given national objections. Such disentanglement may be considered inevitable given contemporary globalisation trends, the diminution of nationalism globally and Singapore's small size.
A state-directed foreign-dependent place-based economic development strategy could also yield higher income and non-monetary returns to nationals than market-determined local-entrepreneur-led nation-based activities.
But there are also economic risks and potential losses associated with defining Singapore merely as a place in competition with other places around the world. It exposes us to US columnist Tom Friedman's 'flat world' - ultimately a cost-based contest we cannot win - rather than building the particular competencies and strategies based on difference rather than sameness that strategy professors believe allow premium incomes to be earned by taking advantage of the world's roundness, rather than surrendering to its flatness.
For Singapore, this would mean 'market positioning' as a regional rather than a global city, exploiting location-specific advantages and limited regional competition, versus replicating the amenities of multiplying other 'global cities' such as London, New York or Shanghai.
Place-based economic development also has implications for Singapore as a nation. Most of the foreign workers who constitute a large part of Singapore's workforce are lower-skilled so will not be given the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. For them, Singapore is merely a place, not a nation.
The situation at the upper, more-educated, skilled and higher-income levels of the labour force is of more interest to the nation since it tends to be elites who lead nations and define nationhood.

Stepping stone

THE government's 'foreign talent' policy resonates with our own immigrant history and, by shifting our comparative advantage towards more highly skilled activities, is complementary, as well as competitive, with local talent. But compared with the United States, which has a similar history and policy, immigrants form a much larger proportion of the labour force here and are particularly highly represented at its upper echelons.
My own experience with Chinese and Indian nationals who studied in Singapore's universities, often on Singapore government scholarships, worked here for a few years, then went to the US to pursue their MBAs, suggests that most use the place as a stepping stone to the American job market. They tell me it is easier to get into a top American MBA programme, and to get a US visa, if they apply from Singapore than from their home countries. In the US, they tend to identify much more with students from their countries of origin, than with Singaporeans.
Economically, the circular flow of talent may benefit the economy by enhancing its flexibility. But politically and socially it may be a problem.
The nation, after all, is a political entity, and its ability to survive as such is already undermined in an era when globalisation allows economic survival and prosperity to occur with the bypassing of the national authorities in an increasingly 'borderless' world.
Today, in Singapore, place and nation increasingly do not coincide: Many of those in the place are not of the nation, and many of the nation are not to be found in the place.
What then constitutes the nation if it is to be more than an aggregation of the temporary or permanent residents of a place?
As elsewhere, there are different ways of 'being Singaporean', though much of our pre-nation-state identity was erased - most notably through language policy - to forge a 'new' national identity that would not conflict with survival and prosperity in a globalised world or encourage challenge to established domestic political authority.
National identity has been reshaped to serve economic and political goals, with the state itself becoming the determinant and arbiter of acceptable ethnic identities and their expressions, such as the enforced diminution of the Malay heritage of Peranakan Chinese and of the dialect heritage of the majority non-Mandarin-speaking Chinese.
If what makes a nation is its collective memory and shared values, it is difficult to find the nation in a place where memory has been erased or reconstructed and values pared to emphasise only social stability and material prosperity.
Fearful of the emergence of alternate centres of power, the Singapore state has pre-empted local private initiative in civil society as well as the economy, precluding the independent political involvement which engages and defines the citizens of nations but is typically denied foreigners, making them easier to control and, thus perhaps, the preferred inhabitants of the place.
A high-performing paternalistic state which engenders passive dependence and apathy on the part of contented - or fearful - citizens is perhaps a greater threat to nationhood than an under-performing state which permits and provokes active civic and political participation.
A nation cannot exist in a political vacuum and, as in any organisation, the empowerment of stakeholders is necessary to engender the 'sense of ownership' that can elicit the best performance from citizens as well as foreign talent.
As parents and teachers, we know that the best way to develop our children and students is to let them 'own' projects and make their own mistakes while 'learning-by-doing', even though we may be more efficient at doing things than they are.
A 'global city' implies 'global citizens' like our immigrant ancestors, distinguished by their willingness and ability to move and change nationality in response to the ever-shifting competitive attractions of other places. A 'global city' also requires leadership by a cosmopolitan elite able to navigate the complexities of a global economy, further legitimating continued political control by the members of such an elite. We may even end up with a situation where Singaporean 'heartlanders', emotionally committed to their birthplace and relatively immobile in the global job market, are ruled by potentially footloose 'foreign talent', while members of the Singapore-born elite, raised to be 'global', depart for foreign shores.


VIEWING Singapore as a 'place' versus a 'nation' affects public policy. For example, Nature Society president Geh Min has noted that viewing Singapore as a city results in its physical environment being managed by urban planners and our land resources treated as real estate, defined by their globally determined commercial market value. Open spaces are seen as having value only as manicured parks, improving the urban quality of life.
Considering Singapore as a nation, however, would result in its physical territory, including the biodiversity represented in wild areas, being valued as a national treasure and birthright. Wild lands might then be preserved in their natural state for their emotive and affective appeal for nationals.
In education, Singapore the place and global city would overweight technical training of commercial value in subordinate parts of global value chains, and underweight the study of Singapore history, languages and literature which, like its security and economic future, are inextricably linked with those of its South-east Asian neighbours.
Singaporean scholarship students in the US have told me that they are often embarrassed that they do not know enough about their country and its neighbourhood to answer the questions of interested Americans.
Many Singaporeans see 'no use' in learning or thinking about our own past or present, while foreign faculty in local universities shy away from doing research on Singapore that might be construed as 'controversial' or critical of the imagined local conventional wisdom.
A place 'unknown' to its own privileged and educated youth, and which fades away in teaching and research, risks disappearing as a nation.
I believe that national identity must have an irrational and not just an economically rational component, coming from emotional ties rather than pragmatic self-interest.
If I choose to become a member of a nation because it gives me a good job and lifestyle, I am really interested in that nation only as a place, and it makes sense if one day I leave it for another place which can offer me superior conditions and opportunities.
It is when I stick around when a place cannot guarantee me a good life, or I am concerned with the welfare of others in that place, and try to improve things even at a risk to my own good life (say, I join the political opposition), that I can say I am of the nation, and not just the place.
In the same manner, it is when I enter public service even though it pays a fraction of what I could earn in the private sector, that I can claim to be primarily interested in the public good and national welfare and to have a passion for public service.
A recent audience of Singaporean students at an Ivy League university nearly all raised their hands when I asked if they were 'afraid of failure'. But tolerance of risk and acceptance of failure are required for political democracy, business entrepreneurship, knowledge creation and scientific discovery.
If 'fear of failure' among the young elite of a place as successful as Singapore comes from a culture created by a strong state (since it is not present in ethnic Chinese communities elsewhere), this may undermine the nation, and possibly even the economy of the place itself.

The writer, a Singaporean, is professor of strategy at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business and director of the Centre for South-east Asian Studies, University of Michigan.This article is adapted from a talk given at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies on June 8.


Anonymous said...

Singapore is a place and hotel.

PAP said so.

PAP have said Singapore runs like a company and not a nation.

1)Company staff job hops with no loyalty.Singaporeans leave Singapore with no second thoughts.

2) Top executives gets top pay in companies which is what PAP members are doing now.

3) Every policy is about profit and loss and not about social well-being. PAP is doing that too.

4) Staff are treated as cost and are retrenched when necessary. PAP will not blink when doing the same thing.

5) Social problems are secondary to profits and losses which PAP is also doing now.

Some examples of how PAP runs Singapore like a company and not a nation. A family run business too.

nofearSingapore said...

Thanks for comments!
More of us will feel that we are truly joint-owners of this place only if we think that how our opinion matters. Not only must this be a place to make $ ( which is undeniably impt) but we must be convinced that S'pore is not an uncaring and mercenary place where we are valued even if we are poor and handicapped!and not just for your vote every 5 years!
Dr. Huang

6:52 PM

En & Hou said...

Dr. Huang : That is our ideal, and the reality otherwise.

Singaporeans, even MPs, have very little power on policies if the leaders choose not to listen. Remember, the Whip for the ruling party has only ever been lifted twice in history.

Singaporeans will have no sense of belonging if they know that they are being well-treated only when they are useful. Consider this comparison :

* Retirees of Singapore are shipped to neighouring countries after their producitivity is spent.

* Boxer was sent to the Glue Factory after he collapses and could work no more.


Anonymous said...

After 40 years of PAP rule, there are somethings that are too obvious and blatant truth.

What Singaporeans are today is the result to an extent cause by climate,environment and culture.

But what perpetuates these climate, culture and environment these 40 years ? The PAP style.

Until PAP goes, it is very difficult for Singapore culture, style, environment and climate to change.

What PAP wants is to remain in power at all costs. PAP is willing to sacrifice social benefits of majority to keep in power the PAP minority.

The trade-off is very clear. It all starts from politics.

Singaporeans perceptions will change 360 degrees once a new party comes into power. It does not mean Worker's Party only.

Singapore is tired and needs a change of fresh air. We forever cannot carry on with this mentality of fear, kiasuism and "protect own backside".

Singapore are there in money and economic terms, all we need is maintainance.

But we are still zero and infant in terms of political progress and social progress because progress in these areas defeats PAP's objectives.

PAP has done their job for 40 years, it is time for them to take a back seat. It is time to let Worker's Party do theirs.

From laws, climate, environment, business, people, society to culture etc, we need to see changes. PAP will not compromise their position nor the media.

When you do for 40 years, your company will also ask you to go in the end. This is the natural cycle of events.

You must remember, PAP has admitted running Singapore like a company instead of a nation.

A company has no place for social interests because it is regarded as a cost.

This is why PAP are always finding ways to offload the senior citizens of Singapore. Senior citizens are regarded as costs and not anything else in PAP ledger.

Anonymous said...

Since you are a senior citizen, you should know by now you are an employee of a company and not a citizen of Singapore.

PAP has repeatedly say Singapore is run like a company and not a nation. Singapore Inc.

Every citizen is seen as a digit and employee in Singapore Inc.

The characteristics of a nation and company are very different.

If you work in companies before, you should know all that matters is profit and losses.

Singaporeans and especially senior citizens are considered a cost and not revenue in PAP's eyes.

Every policy in Singapore is geared towards profit & loss concept. This includes public transport.

As long as Singaporeans can afford, MRT will go all out to raise charges and get maximum profit.

This Singapore is a company and not a nation. You can forget about social benefits that you so often see in Australia, Europe and US etc.

It is a burden and sin to grow old in Singapore.

nofearSingapore said...

Dear anonymous ( I assume the last 2 comments are by same person),
Thank you for your very genuine comments. I can feel your pain and frustration.
BTW, I am not senior ( only 46) but am keenly interested in the affairs of your state.
I am very disturbed by what's happening and how they are so powerful that they can brazenly that govt funds will continue to be used for their political benefits! Now SM Goh even openly admit that GRC concept is not just to ensure multi-racial representation but so that they are attract "kiasu" MP's to join them. If they are not assured of being elected, they will not join!! That's why only million dollar salaries can attract ministers etc!! They are telling us in out face and ... WE CAN DO NOTHING? It is a shame. I have noticed that their media of late seems to be less willing to print objective opinions. My article on Linda Lim's comments was rejected but they printed the one on "anonymous bloggers".
What can we do? I feel like I am shouting into the wind! Like a madman!
Please visit my blog and invite your friends.
Sincere wishes

Dr Huang

Anonymous said...

Hello Doc,

With your qualifications, you should be PART of the process and not at the sideline.

You should join Worker's Party as a member or candidate. If not, at least a volunteer. They lack advisers and people to keep score what PAP says.

I am a professional too but can only volunteer my services 2 years later as I am overseas.

nofearSingapore said...

Hi anon,
Thanks for your compliments!
I am a cowardly fence-seater, good only for ranting and shouting into the wind! No-one listens to mad people like me. My hobby is to hit my head against the wall. A Masochist,
See you in 2 years!
Dr. Huang

Structurally unemployed said...

Professor, without disrespect I say: fools seldom differ.

I wrote this as comment to another blog with regards to hiring native speakers to teach English, but you said it more eloquently.

I just came home from being a foreign talent for a few years. Let me play devil's advocate. Our Gahmen and Tartman are geniuses, the millions of dollars spent on them and our scholar think tank must have help them work out everything like Kasparov at chess. See it this way: Foreign teachers especially white/causcasian whom we worship are the perfect candidates to check the omnipotence of school management. The many teaching and learning quality issues in our schools can often be attributed to the management styles of this middle management both at school and ministry level. Singaporean teachers fear for their jobs, they obey, they do uncreative work, they work hard at pushing grades, do drills, the students don't worship them, the principals and HODs don't respect them. But, expatriate teachers are different, their higher price automatically accords them respect and if that's not enough, we know their more liberal education and cultural background means they probably will be able to stand up to unnecessary/ineffective work. they will more likely teach with passion/flair, because they are free men and women in this land. And their better conditions will encourage them to be more flamboyant. This will enhance the worship by the students of the expatriate teachers and they will be more willing to learn. We know, they are geniuses, this is a technocratic management issue. We cannot be worried about individuals, such as a few lousy caucasians and a few lousy classes and schools they produce. Remember, by and large the major trends will be good. Remember meritocracy will drive this country to be the best. We must continue to nurture the elites. They are our future, in their minds rest the solutions to all our future problems.
Someone said: that we rank the highest in immigration and emigration rates in the world. That's the other side of our Gahmen's genius. U see with the better overall education that will consolidate our great system, Singaporeans can continue to become foreign talent. This is fantastic, being a foreign talent is a great enterprise. Many of us Singaporean foreign talents are paid more than 10 times what the locals in our Asian neighbours are getting. Fear makes our country strong by compliance and engendering a stable investment environment that attracts the big money, thus the high economic growth figures and then use the same fear to allow better men and women to do the important work. Those of us who don't fear go out and live a life without fear and that's good marketing for Singapore. Don't u see the wisdom?
With regards to the term of Angmo, u can't blame the Gahmen, Hokkien has no institution to evolve more sophisticated terms to renew itself not like English or Putonghua. Language is part of culture, after even the most sensitive construction or choice. Red hair is derogatory when contemptuous issues in relations add emotional connotations to it. Example: African are made slaves, u don't respect them because of their status, u call them black, nigger or blackie. Anything u choose to call them will become a racist term. If we call African slaves rainbow, then rainbow will be a racist term and become taboo when they are emancipated. My Irish buddy, because we share good times and have mutual goodwill, I call him IRA and calls me Mad Chinaman. I use to call my classmate Urine, he calls me Chewbakka(Star Wars Ape-like alien). We were together for 4 years, and we never got into a fight. See Angmo can really be a wonderful term, being identified by skin colour or hair colour can warm up relations if we see how these foreign talents fills the gap that we cannot fill as long as we still cannot yet grow out of our inferior complex and the masses continue to be justified to have the complex anyway.
Now, let's be constructive, the election is just over and only 40% or so got to vote and I, like many foreign talent, cannot vote because I was overseas(don't know Singapore to vote wisely) and now need to be local talent for some length of time ..... How can I, or sorry we, not stay structurally unemployed.... Maybe go for retraining aka accept starting pay.

nofearSingapore said...

Hi structurally unemployed,
I am happy that you had opportunity to travel and have good experience with classmates and colleagues of different race and culture.

I am very keen that we continue to have zero-tolerance for racism and bigotry. I myself have great time with non-Singaporeans when I travelled and during my studies and training.

Let us be constructive about helping Singapore sort out its many social and economic issues ( which is present in all societies).

What I do not like is the "I-know-it-all" attitude of the present govt and how it tries to say that since we are the envy of the whole world, it proves that all we have done or are doing is right and therefore does not need changing.

Change is happening all the time and we have to change and adapt to survive. We cannot use old methods for new problems.
Dr. Huang

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