(Equal Justice and Human Rights) The SAP Narrative: Cultural Promotion or Racial Segregation?

By Claire Phua (’22), Bas Jacobs (Exchange), Manar El Amrani (Exchange), and Diore Liu (’23)

As a highly multiracial society, the Singapore government has continuously promoted the importance of multiculturalism. In the words of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, “There is nothing natural about where we are – multiracial, multi-religious, tolerant and progressive. We made it happen, and we have got to protect it, nurture it, preserve it and never break it,” This unnatural multiculturalism would refer to policies such as the ethnic quotas for Housing Development Board (HDB) neighborhoods, where 80% of the population live in, which aims to promote inter-racial interaction through daily interactions. It is against this narrative of enforced and careful integration that the obvious racial segregation that the Special Assistance Plan (SAP) perpetuates stands in stark contrast with. This op-ed seeks to unearth more insights about the SAP, explore its implications on Singapore’s multiculturalism, and offers a way forward through a pluralistic vision of culture-driven education. 

Understanding the SAP

The Special Assistance Plan includes the creation and funding of public education institutions in Singapore that are committed to developing excellent bilingual students, specifically in the two languages Mandarin and English. Although also often touted as a way to preserve traditional (Chinese) cultures within Singapore’s cosmopolitan city, the SAP was actually founded in 1979 to promote better English standards in Chinese-medium schools during a time when Singapore’s education was split into English-medium schools and non-English-medium schools. It was established in addition to an Assistance Plan enacted earlier, in January 1978, which sent English teachers to Chinese-medium schools to help improve English standards. 

When it first started, only the top 8% of scorers in the Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE) were sent option letters to join the first 9 SAP schools. These schools were selected based on their foundies ties with the Chinese community, excellent academic performance, facilities, staff and popularity with parents. These SAP schools were then provided with the best teaching staff as well as government assistance to improve their facilities. These plans were a bid to increase the attractiveness of Chinese-medium schools, amidst more parents sending their children to English-medium schools, to preserve the Chinese school environment where “social discipline and cultural values” can be nurtured. This rationale was in line with Lee Kuan Yew’s promotion of the bilingual policy in 1966, requiring all Singaporeans to learn both English and their mother tongue so as to provide a common working language whilst allowing citizens to remain connected to their cultural heritage. 

It is interesting to note here that the mother tongue that MOE adopted for Chinese citizens is Mandarin Chinese, this despite the fact that hardly any of the Chinese Singaporeans hailed from provinces that spoke Mandarin Chinese. Afterall, Singaporean Chinese largely hailed from Southern Chinese provinces that speak Chinese dialects such as Hokkien and Cantonese which are largely not mutually intelligible. This brings into question even the proclaimed intention behind promoting ties with cultural tradition if the language Chinese students learn is not even the vernacular of their cultural origin. What was timely with the implementation of SAP and the push to promote Mandarin was the opening of the Chinese economy with the free-market reforms in 1979, where Mandarin was mainland China’s standardised language already widely spoken in Northern China. 

Although the intention of these plans were initially two-fold, improving English and retaining Chinese traditions and cultures, the focus shifted to the latter with the end of Chinese vernacular schools in the 1980s when the Ministry of Education announced that all pupils in Singapore would be taught English as a first language and their mother tongues as second languages. Hence, the narrative often heard today focuses on the need to improve our second language and promote traditional Chinese culture. The importance of mastering Chinese is emphasised by the prioritisation of students who do well in the Chinese subject in PSLE. Specifically, students who take and pass “Higher Chinese” are given bonus points for entry into SAP schools, 

Today, there are 15 primary SAP schools and 11 secondary SAP schools, which receive additional funding for special cultural and language curriculums and programmes. For example, in response to the strengthening Chinese economy, the Bicultural Studies Programme (BSP) was started in 2005 to nurture the best bilingual students into professionals who could effectively engage China as well as the Western countries. A Review Taskforce in 2007 also led to the development of flagship programmes in SAP schools such as Media Studies in Chinese and Chinese internet broadcasting, filmmaking and drama. On average, SAP students get $300 more per year in government funding as compared to other non-SAP school students. 

Implications of the SAP

As the Singaporean language policy assigns mother tongue languages based on one’s ethnicity, students are not allowed to choose or transfer languages under normal circumstances (exceptions include mixed-race children). Crucially, Chinese is the only mother tongue that is offered in SAP schools, and consequently the segregation of students by language essentially becomes a segregation by race and ethnicity, as evidenced by the largely racially homogeneous demographic of SAP schools. 

In a conference about diversity in 2016, the SAP came under fire for promoting racial segregation and promoting Chinese elitism. In response to suggestions to allow SAP schools to offer Malay and Tamil to allow a more racially diverse student population, then Minister of State for Education Janil Puthucheary defended the SAP, bringing up the hypothetical situation of a SAP school offering Malay which would allow a handful of Malay students to attend the school, and questions the benefits of doing so:

“Are we saying that this is a good thing because all the rest of the kids now have some exposure to a Malay student or more Malay students in schools?”

The perpetuation of racial segregation by SAP schools has led to concerns that a lack of awareness about racial-plurality has been allowed foster in these Chinese enclaves due to a lack of peer-to-peer interactions to understand other cultures. This was reflected by an SAP alumni, Shaf, who is an Indian Muslim, in an interview with RICE media, that although not all of the students are like this, “some of them really don’t seem to know anything at all about non-Chinese Culture.” She was told things like, “I can’t differentiate between Malay and Indian”, and recalled being asked, “how are you Indian if you’re Muslim” and “if water was halal”. It is also hard to deny the pressures that a student from a minority race would feel representing her entire race and culture in the face of a cohort of students from the majority race. 

While SAP schools mandate celebrations of cultural festivals to mitigate the lack of ethnic diversity amongst students – for instance CHIJ St Nicholas Girls’ School holds Bollywood dance competitions to commemorate Deepavali – the time spent on such programmes is scant. Furthermore, such manifestations of “cultural exchange” risk cultural appropriation. If exposure to these traditions are thought of as activities and not as a journey to learn about the culture of others, these attempts at cultural integration are a poor substitute for meaningful social interactions between students of different races. 

This was echoed by Zhong Xuan, an alumni of Hwa Chong Institution, who shared with us about the subtle feelings of discomfort that being in a predominantly Chinese environment for a decade led him to feel when he was placed in a wing in National Service that was more racially diverse than his experience in school. “It was not a very bad or very strong feeling, it was something very subtle,” but the presence of such a discomfort led him to question why it exists and where it comes from, as he recognised that it was uncalled for. “While I was lucky in NS to be in a wing that was quite diverse… what’s scary is that most can live a huge chunk of life without confronting this”. Zhong Xuan illustrates that the SAP environment creates a space of comfort for the majority race to be themselves without having to be aware about other races, which does not prepare the students well for interacting with other races outside of these educational institutions. Moreover, past these formal educational institutions – in university or at work – it is much easier for one to choose their circles and continue to avoid interactions with other races.

Segregation at these formal educational institutions — in university or at work — matters because it is much easier for one to choose their circles and continue to avoid interactions with other races. A study co-authored by a postdoctoral fellow at NUS, Elvin Ong, found that alumni from SAP schools do have less ethnically diverse social networks than their peers from comparable but integrated schools, even years after graduation. This hints to the lasting effects of educational segregation on the social interactions of students throughout their lives.

While the above illustrates the negative effects of racial segregation in education, Minister Puthucheary makes an important point when he said that “we do not want to make use of racial tokenism in order to provoke a cultural position.” We should still caution against expressly saying that the SAP should be abolished so that the chinese majority gets more exposure to racial minorities as this presents the latter as objects used in the education system to ensure the holistic development of the majority. While ensuring space and opportunities for inter-racial interaction is important, what provides a strong cause for changing the SAP is the unequal access to educational institutions and opportunities.

“And then what? … Do those kids get a better education because they are learning Malay in a SAP school?

Many SAP schools today are independent schools which receive large donations, possess more resources, and attract students of higher socio-economic classes due to their higher school fees and their accomplished alumni. Topping that off with the additional resources and opportunities that the SAP itself provides, it is true that the league of SAP schools are some of the most popular elite educational institutions in Singapore. The segregation by language thus denies minority races the opportunity to attend these institutions. 

While one might argue that minorities have access to other schools that provide similar opportunities as SAP schools, under certain circumstances, race as an explicit qualifier may compound with other factors such as residential geography to increase the overall barrier to education opportunities. Let us take the plausible case of a male minority student who lives in Boon Lay, in the west of Singapore, and scored 253 for PSLE. 

Source: https://www.salary.sg/2019/top-secondary-schools-2019-cut-off/


Taking a look at this list of secondary schools based on PSLE cut-off scores from 2019, this student might have to opt out of the opportunity to have an Integrated Programme (IP) education as the three IP schools he qualifies for are either SAP schools (i.e. River Valley High School which is located in Boon Lay), or located in the east close to an hour and a half away by public transport (Victoria School, Temasek Junior College). Essentially, the SAP can increase the burden of residential geography on some minority students by increasing the travel time demanded of them to access education opportunities. It is these unfair experiences minority students experience from arbitrary barriers for entry that we should, as a multi-racial society, strive to equalise and alleviate. 

What Next for the SAP?

The topic remains in heavy debate. In February 2019 Education Minister Ong Ye Kung reasserted the relevance of the SAP schools in an interview with The Straits Times, saying that “countries around us are catching up or surpassing us in teaching their people multiple languages” and that “we should preserve our programmes and institutions to develop biliterate and bicultural talent at this crucial point in history.” However, this official emphasis on the pragmatism of the SAP programme seems to fall short in addressing the SAP’s explicit emphasis on the Chinese language and culture, at the exclusion of other cultures like Malay and Tamil culture. However, we can try to understand this bias if we turn to Lee Kuan Yew’s promotion of Confucian values, or “Asian values”, during Singapore’s developing years. 

“Singapore depends on the strength and influence of the family to keep society orderly and maintain a culture of thrift, hard work, filial piety, and respect for elders and for scholarship and for learning,” Lee wrote in “From Third World to First. “These values make for a productive people and help economic growth,” he added. The choice to emphasise Chinese culture, at a time when Westernisation was affecting the country on a whole, may have been a result of Lee placing certain Confucian values at the root of his construction of Singapore, values which he felt were important to promote to safeguard the work ethic of Singaporean society. 

Especially given that Minister Ong recently endorsed that “we should review the programmes with a view to enhancing and improving them, across all our mother tongues”, it begs the question: are the purposes of the SAP programme still relevant today? If it is about the pragmatism of promoting bilingualism and biculturalism in an increasingly multi-lingual world, why favour one language and culture over the rest? Minister Ong’s point about the fear of undoing programmes and institutions that have been working well to promote bilingualism is important, then perhaps we should strive to update and improve our systems to promote multilingual and multiracial education for all.

We need to first acknowledge that Chinese language-only restrictions for SAP schools are in themselves barriers to good educational opportunities for non-Chinese students, which should be lowered. Furthermore, all students, regardless of race, should have access to the additional funds allocated to SAP schools for enhanced cultural immersion. SAP schools should thus offer other mother tongue languages, and simultaneously diversify cultural programmes to draw on the values and intellectual traditions of Malay and Tamil cultures in equal proportion. To give a couple of examples, SAP schools can introduce classes on Singaporean Malay ​poems which “embody the aesthetic as well as the cultural and political values of Malay society”, or organize visits to the ​Indian Heritage Centre to understand the diverse history and traditions of the Singaporean Indian community. Looking to our immediate regional backdrop, classes covering Islam Nusantara’s ​values of being moderate, tolerant, balanced and inclusive, align well with Singapore’s proclaimed social model of pluralism and multiracial harmony, while Javanese culture emphasizes the life philosophies ​of politeness, thoughtfulness, and humility, amongst many other values.

Fundamentally, we need to shift the narrative of “Asian values” to be more inclusive and to actually reflect the diversity of cultures in Asia. Indeed, the moral values that SAP seeks to teach through its cultural programming should still stand even when abstracted from the Chinese cultural context, so we should find solutions for a more culturally inclusive moral and value education. As Zhong Xuan reflects, “Do you really need to teach life lessons as a Chinese thing?” While the life lessons he learnt were valid, labelling it as Chinese culture necessarily excludes others and “what’s the point of building a strong culture if it is built around exclusion”? Only through reducing arbitrary barriers of race and allowing equal access can we really take a step towards calling ourselves a multiracial and culturally plural society.

Image Credit: Dunman High School website

Article Revision Notice: The concluding 2 paragraphs of this article were revised in response to community critiques. The full editorial note can be found on our Facebook page dated July 2020.

(Energy, Technology, and the Environment) Singapore’s Development “Stories” – The Exploitation of the Region and its Environment

Can we really call Singapore a success story if we are growing and protecting ourselves from climate change at the expense of our neighbours?

By Alisha Lavendra (’22), Jie Min Heng (’22), and Nicole Hu (’23)

A Story of Sustainable Development

Over the past 50 years, Singapore has garnered a reputation for our rapid economic ascension from third-world to first. Despite having a mere 721.5 km² of landmass and limited natural resources, we have been able to produce a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that exceeds $300 billion dollars annually, ranking 3rd internationally in terms of GDP per capita based on purchasing power parity. 

More impressively, Singapore seems to be able to strike a balance between economic growth and environmental sustainability, having been actively pursuing sustainable development even “before the term became fashionable”. Singapore has consistently been ranked ‘the best in Asia’ in both sustainability and livability. As of April 2019, close to 40% of building projects’ gross floor areas are “Green Mark” certified, a testament to how energy efficient our buildings are. Turning to energy production, in April this year, Singapore achieved our ten-year 2020 target to annually power an equivalent consumption of 5% of all households with solar energy. Beyond successfully integrating greenery into where we live, work and play, the city-state has embarked on ambitious and innovative showpiece projects like Gardens by the Bay and Jewel Changi Airport to build our image as a biophilic ‘City in a Garden’. Besides raking in millions from tourist revenues, these sites house some of the world’s largest indoor gardens and greenhouses, showing how nature can flourish within ‘eco-friendly’ Singapore. It is with these credentials that we market ourselves as “Asia’s Greenest City,” holding ourselves up as role models for the region to learn from. In fact, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli has proclaimed that the Singapore model “demonstrates how we can make economic progress and yet maintain the integrity of the environment.”

However, under this façade of achieving both economic growth and environmental sustainability, Singapore fails to be as environmentally responsible as we say we are. In being overly invested in pursuing a specific brand of sustainable development, one where environmental sustainability and economic development are delicately balanced, we end up avoiding instances of conflict between the two, even when confrontation is necessary. By not challenging the status quo, Singapore continues to prioritise economic development above all else, turning a blind eye to unethical and unsustainable industrial practices. Furthermore, continuing with our present development trajectory will become an impossibility, as climate-induced instability becomes the new norm worldwide. 

How Green Are We Really? 

First, we must face the reality of our role in contributing to carbon emissions. At present, Singapore contributes to 0.11% of global carbon emissions. While our carbon intensity (emissions per $GDP) ranks us amongst the lowest 20% internationally, our per capita emissions ranks us amongst the top 20%. In other words, though we have managed to be somewhat carbon-efficient in our pursuit of economic wealth, we still contribute disproportionately large amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere. Singapore has not been confronting the full extent of our role in climate change. We exclude emissions from marine vessels and bunkers, our aviation industry, and coal financing from carbon calculations, conveniently ignoring our central position as one of the world’s top three export refining centres and our deep complicity in the petrochemical industry. Though individuals do play a role in reducing our carbon emissions, they make up less than 20% of our carbon footprint. Large industries contribute towards a majority of our emissions, and it is imperative that the government recognise this, and actively consider how we can pivot our national value creation away from these polluting industries.

Secondly, we should acknowledge the fact that we are developing at the expense of our neighbours, despite the fact that we do have the money, resources and scientific expertise to pursue a more regionally inclusive notion of sustainable development. Just last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong publicly acknowledged the existential threat climate change-induced temperature and sea-level rises pose to our small, low-lying island. In the same breath, he also shared about the government’s S$100 billion plan to engineer for ourselves a solution to sea-level rise, by continuing our legacy of land reclamation.

Yet, at what cost? While protecting ourselves from the effects of climate change is undeniably important, one should not disregard the fact that our land reclamation entails the continued exploitation of sand resources from other ASEAN countries. Over the past decade, many Southeast Asian countries have tried to implement bans on sand exports to Singapore, and for good reason — dredging is believed to lower water tables, increase riverbank erosion and destroy marine and riverine habitats, lowering fish stocks, and threatening local livelihoods. Furthermore, because of how poorly regulated the industry is, there is rampant misreporting of how much sand is being dredged. Ultimately, the murkiness of regional sand dredging occludes attempts to demand accountability. By engaging in land reclamation, we are using our comparative wealth to take advantage of our neighbours, sabotaging their chance at sustainable development. 

Beyond causing direct environmental degradation, Singapore also indirectly drives the growth of unsustainable industries throughout the Southeast Asian region. While many Southeast Asian countries are themselves among the fastest increasing emitters globally, we have to question the enabling role Singapore plays as one of the wealthiest and more influential nations in the region. As mentioned earlier, we should remember Singapore’s integral role in the global petrochemical supply chain, our banks’ continued financing of existing coal-fired power plants in neighbouring countries, and our high consumption of imported goods and services that contribute to habitat degradation and sometimes unsustainable practices in source countries. Within an interconnected regional economy, Singapore’s economic activities will always have a sizable impact on other countries. In our pursuit of growth, profit, and consumption, we are fuelling unsustainable industries across the region and accelerating climate change beyond our borders. 

How Will Climate Change Affect Our Neighbours?

It is widely acknowledged that climate change disproportionately harms tropical coastal regions and low-lying areas — geographical characteristics of Southeast Asia’s regions with the poorest and most vulnerable communities. These nations suffer even more as they also have fewer economic resources to adapt to and mitigate the onslaught of environmental threats that face them. The Germanwatch global climate risk index, which measures the direct fatality and economic losses from past weather events, listed half of its 10 most climate-vulnerable nations as South and Southeast Asian nations: the Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Bangladesh. A recent 2020 McKinsey report estimates that “the risk of extreme future flooding events in [the] major Vietnamese metropolis, Ho Chi Minh City, could increase by up to 10 times by 2050, resulting in immense economic and infrastructural damage”. Without climate change mitigation, a once-in-a-century flood would inundate two-thirds of the city, causing the city centre to become an island, causing gargantuan disruptions and social instability. Meanwhile, Indonesia has taken the drastic step of moving its capital from Jakarta, one of the fastest sinking cities, to the Kalimantan highlands.

Climate change will also invariably alter Southeast Asia’s economic landscape. For one, the key economic sectors of these Southeast Asian nations include agriculture and fishing, industries that are heavily intertwined with environmental factors, making them especially vulnerable to prolonged dry-spells, sea-level rise and extreme weather events. For example, Vietnam’s food bowl, the Mekong River Delta, produces over half its rice and staples and over 60% of its shrimp, but flooding and rising sea levels exacerbated by warming are projected to inundate up to 7% of its low-lying agricultural land, causing a 40% decline in production along the delta during some seasons. If we continue with business as usual, researchers estimate that climate change could cost Southeast Asia GDP losses of up to 11% by 2100

Why Should We Care? 

The plight of our neighbours given the imminent climate disaster should compel us to address the harmful externalities of our high emissions per capita. Still, Singapore often seems reluctant to be more ambitious in curbing emissions, especially when it threatens our economic growth. After all, however dire the effects of climate change seem, we will not be the worst off. Already protected from natural disasters owing to our geography, we have the money and resources to invest in climate change mitigation solutions to protect ourselves from the effects of climate change. 

Even if we wish to place economic arguments over ethical ones, the impact of climate change on the region will not be insignificant for Singapore. The harms are not as distant from us as we think. Among the various commonalities that Southeast Asian nations share — such as long coastlines and heavily populated low-lying areas as shared earlier — two other common traits are significant for Singapore’s economy: they are our key trading partners, and home to huge segments of our vital foreign labour. 

Since the 1970s, Singapore has pursued economic growth by relying on a large pool of migrant labourers from across Southeast Asia. Today, Singapore harbours almost 1 million migrant workers, close to 1 in 5 people on the island, who form the basis of the labour force in construction, shipbuilding and domestic help, and who keep our city as pristine and manicured as it is. This understanding only serves to make reality all the more discomforting when one realizes that the home countries that our migrant labourers come from are the very nations that will bear the biggest brunt of climate change. 

Our nation’s export-oriented trade model also means that we will be hurt by regional economic instability. As of 2016, ASEAN holds the biggest market share for Singaporean exports, a strong indicator that local and regional economic interests are intertwined. Wounds from the US-China trade war and COVID-19 pandemic also reveal our dependence on regional economic health. Climate change-induced instability will undoubtedly alter local economies, take a heavy toll on regional trade and financial markets, and impact Singapore’s economic outlook

The irony remains that the very people we depend on to support our development are the ones who will be hardest hit by our negligence, and the impacts of our development will eventually come back to bite us. It is unethical of us to continue to prioritise continued economic growth over what seems to be costly environmentalism, just because we can afford to protect ourselves from its harms. Considering the fact that our economy relies heavily on regional trade, migrant labour and fossil fuels, our continued prioritisation of carbon-emitting economic growth means this: we are making our labourers drive our economic growth while squeezing them dry. We ask them to help build climate solutions for our homes while letting theirs sink underwater.

Dealing With Globalized Risks 

Ultimately, the global climate crisis requires every country to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, no matter how far removed they may be. Though the impacts of climate change are not equally felt, it does not excuse the seemingly more sheltered nations from having to do their part to build a more resilient world. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that national borders blur in a crisis, and our dependence on one another becomes ever more pronounced. The externalisation of our environmental costs onto our neighbours will only serve to hurt us, as the climate crisis continues to escalate over time. As Singapore continues on our path of development, we need to reconsider the kind of growth we want to achieve as a nation. 

Taking a step in the right direction, the Singaporean government announced plans to strengthen our climate pledge at the 2020 Budget debate: constrain our 2030 peak emissions to an absolute cap of 65 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, halve this by 2050, and achieve net-zero emissions “as soon as possible”. Nevertheless, we are still lagging behind IPCC’s recommendation to achieve global net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050, if we hope to limit global warming to 1.5°C and avert the worst of the climate crisis. 

To enact truly transformative and sustainable growth, we must begin by setting up new frameworks to assess our climate impact on a regional and global scale, rather than a local one. Our position of economic stability should be seen as a privilege that allows us to direct our economic growth towards greater social equity and ecological justice. Instead of minimising our own responsibility by pointing to our meagre size and supposed insignificance on the global stage, we must leverage on our vast wealth and technological expertise to take the lead in shifting the region’s trajectory towards real sustainable development. It’s time to stop pretending to play the ‘balancing’ act and be bold when it comes to climate action. 

Image credit: Ria Tan/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

(Economic Development) Innovation and Inequality: How can the government prepare Singaporeans amidst the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

By Heather Cheng Hoi Yeuk (’22), Ng Jun Jie (’22), and Lim Tian Jiao (’23)

Singapore’s economy has long been known for its regional hub position: consisting of a web of financial services, manufacturing activities, and business headquarters, supported by credible tax policies, regulatory frameworks, and free trade agreements that promote flows of goods, services, human and physical capital [1]. However, though Singapore remains a highly sought-after business destination for its good infrastructure, business environment and political stability, she now faces stiff and rising competition from regional counterparts in sectors such as logistics, aviation and the equity market, especially in terms of costs [2].

Meanwhile, the world is now entering into the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), a new era of technology-driven economic disruption. Companies are utilising enhanced tracking, processing, and analysis technology to optimise their business decisions. From logistics giants seamlessly tracking shipments from freight containers to department stores, to manufacturing companies making use of production machines that can learn from their own mistakes and adjust their own settings every few seconds to improve long-term quality output, the world of 4IR means heightened productivity for those who are proactive in harnessing its benefits [3]. At this critical juncture, an opportunity arises for Singapore to develop a new basis for competitiveness — to lead the wave of entrepreneurship to become an established innovation hub [4]. 

At the same time, automation in the 4IR is likely to displace lower-skilled, often lower-paid workers, whose repetitive tasks may be more efficiently and cheaply executed by machines. Meanwhile, technological advances will likely benefit higher-skilled, often higher-paid workers, who are better able to harness these to improve productivity. As such, the 4IR is likely to exacerbate income inequality. 

To better understand the policy implications of 4IR for Singapore, the Roosevelt Institute @ Yale-NUS interviewed Manu Bhaskaran, Chief Executive Officer and Director of Centennial Asia Advisors, and Professor Tan Ern Ser from the National University of Singapore’s Department of Sociology. This policy memo explores the following twin dimensions, reviewing the present state of affairs and charting some paths forward:

  • At this juncture, has the government done enough to ensure innovation and growth? How can it support Singapore’s transformation into a data-driven manufacturing hub? 
  • Amidst the possible widening income gap, are existing governmental policies adequate in meeting these challenges and opportunities? 

Insufficient systemic support for local entrepreneurial risk-taking?

The trajectory of Singapore’s future growth will be shaped by the amount of local innovation that it sees in coming years. Indeed, the government has responded to this, pushing out a robust framework of top-down policies that make Singapore an attractive startup environment. For example, Singapore’s Startup Tax Exemption Scheme waives 75% and 50% of eligible startups’ tax payments for the first S$100,000 and next $100,000 of chargeable income respectively [5]. Together with Singapore’s strict intellectual property (IP) [6] laws and business transparency — in 2019 Singapore was named the second-easiest country to do business in [7] — Singapore is currently ranked the 14th-best global startup ecosystem in the world [8]. This business-friendly environment has attracted the likes of companies such as Grab and Lazada, which use Singapore to expand into the Asia Pacific market. 

However, it is also worth noting that Singapore has yet to produce an ecosystem of  home-grown startups with truly innovative ideas. Mr Bhaskaran points out that Singapore has relatively poor innovation efficiency — the ratio of innovation output in the country, given its investments into this field. “Clearly, we have the inputs… to attract talented scientists and engineers, but we can’t extract the value from them. The ecosystem is not complete for innovation,” he says [9]. 

An oft-cited reason for this is Singapore’s inflexible education system. From the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) to the A-Level examinations, students are assessed upon their rote learning abilities and have little opportunity to think out of the box and develop creative problem-solving skills [10].

Additionally, Singapore society has been noted to be risk-averse. Immersed in a highly competitive society from primary school to the workforce, many Singaporeans perceive failure — both their own and others’ — as equivalent to having no future or second chance [11]. Singaporeans’ lack of risk appetite [2] could be a large contributing factor to the relatively poor innovation output, as few Singaporeans are attracted to a field where success is propelled by the willingness to constantly fail, adapt and try again [12].

But for Mr Bhaskaran, the problem is deeper than that: Singaporeans are risk-averse, because they are all too aware that the consequences of failure can be more painful than in other innovation hubs. “If [the government] wants Singaporeans to take the risks, an expanded social safety net and reformed bankruptcy laws would help,” he says [9].

Singapore’s policies do not always inspire a sense of security in failure. Take, for example, the consequences of declaring bankruptcy in Singapore [13]. Unless able to repay all outstanding debts, it typically takes individuals three to five years — and consistent loan repayments throughout this time period and beyond — to be discharged from bankruptcy. During this time, they may cease to become a director of a company by resignation or disqualification, nor are they allowed to obtain credit. Compare this to bankruptcy laws in the UK: while individuals who have declared bankruptcy are similarly barred from director positions, bankrupts are typically discharged after one year and no longer liable to repay outstanding debts [14]. 

Moreover, Singapore’s social spending is notoriously low: data from the International Monetary Fund shows that Singapore’s government expenditure is 14.4% of GDP in 2018, one of the lowest in the world [15]. (In contrast, government expenditure in Hong Kong, which is often compared to Singapore, is 18.7% of GDP, excluding defence and foreign relations, which falls under Beijing’s purview [16]). The lack of viable fallback options for unsuccessful entrepreneurs make the consequences of embarking on a risky venture much higher.

Altogether, the potential risks of a venture, coupled with the hefty consequences of failure, could discourage would-be entrepreneurs from moving forward with potential ideas. Likewise, the consequences of unemployment could discourage Singaporeans from moving towards rising but underdeveloped industries. In other words, risk averseness in Singapore deprives the economy of first-mover advantage in the 4IR. The best way to cultivate a culture of risk-taking is for the government to absorb these risks and insure citizens against them, especially in this time of “rising uncertainty, volatility and inequality” [8].

Existing literature points to how “taxes have a positive impact on innovative activities, while income inequality has a negative impact on innovation” [12]. As such, at a time of 4IR-driven volatility, the government needs a comprehensive and fundamental rethinking in its ideology of small government. Tweaks and adjustments at the margins, long-described as “fiscal discipline and fiscal prudence”[13], may well prove inadequate in the future. 

An industrial revolution for all

Beyond the pressing need to harness innovation, 4IR also brings issues of economic inequality to the fore, increasing the need for government intervention for affected citizens. Singapore’s rapid economic growth over the past four decades brought about material and social benefits enjoyed by most of the population [19]. But in recent years, increased globalisation contributed to widening inequalities and slower upward social mobility. While current discussions tend to focus on its impacts on unskilled and working-class Singaporeans, an interesting phenomenon has emerged as a result of technological disruptions. Particularly, middle-class workers, also known as the PMETs (Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians), are particularly vulnerable to global competition and technological changes [20].  

Thus, there emerges a need for constantly upgrading skill-sets in order to stay employable. In an interview with us, Professor Tan emphasised that workers previously considered useful, notably members of the middle-class, may find that some of their tasks can increasingly be taken over by machines and are at the risk of entrenchment [21]. How is the government responding to the retreating middle-class career trajectory widely sought after by Singaporeans? How can this response be improved?

Current government strategies against this new pattern of disruption are focused on (1) Skillsfuture training and (2) tie-ups between training providers and employers for workplace learning [22]. However, current key policies fail to address a lack of time and energy workers can devote to attend Skillsfuture courses on top of their full-time jobs. On this point,  Prof. Tan comments, “Some of these skills can be learned on the job. Employers can also make time, (and) give employees time off to pick up a skill… Imagine if you have to work the whole day or longer, and in the evening you are expected to sit through a three-hour-long intensive session. Where could you find the energy to stay alert in class, and time for yourself and your family?” [21] This also echoes a concern for mental health that is emerging in the local workforce. Today, evidence from the Institute of Mental Health shows that one in seven people in Singapore experience a mental health condition in their lifetime [23]. This translates to a significant part of the workforce that struggles with mental health conditions while under employment.

The government’s inadequacy in providing guidelines to supplement lifelong learning proves problematic in the age of disruption. In a white paper ahead of the 2020 Davos meeting, the World Economic Forum emphasised that “the full benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution can be realised and broadly shared only if the workforce is provided with adequate opportunities for continuous training and is fully engaged in the processes of designing and implementing advanced manufacturing technologies and changing work systems.” [24] With insufficient time to upskill, employees cannot maximise the benefits of Skillsfuture courses, rendering it ineffective at best and a waste of government expenditure at worst.

On the side of the employers, companies are providing their employees with some level of training for new skills, but this isn’t enough. Not only should employers invest more funds in employee development through hiring learning vendor partners that fit the needs of employees [25], there is a need for employers to play an active role in ensuring a work-life balance for their workers [21]. Concretely, companies should allocate time to allow employees to upskill. For example, the objective of Switzerland’s upskilling programme GO is to increase participation in skills training by using the workplace as an access point over traditional classrooms [26]. This policy should be mutually beneficial – while employees benefit from upgraded skills, employers should recognise that their corporations will be the ones who excel with a skilled and digitally able workforce.

Policy recommendations for a productive revolution

While this article does not provide an elaborate outline of policy recommendations, we conclude by suggesting several changes that can be made to current approaches adopted by the government in the age of disruption.

First, to encourage innovative mindsets instead of rote learning in our education system, the government may consider lowering the stakes of the PSLE. Whereas the reforms by the Ministry of Education has reduced “the overemphasis on grades” [21], the elephant in the room remains as one single exam still heavily affects school and subject level allocations. Nonetheless, given that the MOE also recently rolled out reforms that increased the flexibility afforded to students to take secondary school subjects at different levels, only with time can tell whether these reforms are sufficient in inculcating a more risk-taking, less examination-centric mindset among students.

Second, to build a population that is more willing to take the necessary risks to explore new economic opportunities in the age of disruption, we suggest universal unemployment insurance to embolden Singaporeans to do so. This reduces the cost of switching jobs by paying people as they leave their jobs in age-old sectors and spend time looking for jobs in budding industries. Retrenched workers can also afford to focus on finding positions in these industries that are commensurate with their work experiences, instead of settling for odd jobs to tide over unemployment periods and thereby affecting their job scouring efforts.

Third, risk-building also requires conversations on building a new social compact, so that no one will be unable to “save enough for longer term healthcare, education, retirement, or housing expenditures” [8], which can lower one’s risk appetite. An increase in the rise of government spending from the current 16% of GDP to 25%, spread over 10-20 years, will likely be fiscally sustainable (1-2% of GDP per year) [8]. Social safety nets could and should be expanded, so as to provide citizens with more affordable healthcare, education, housing and retirement. Reducing the need to save for a rainy day, for retirement, or for big-ticket expenditures increases the capacity of individuals to work for less or no pay in a new industry. Already, a conversation about a time-limited universal basic income has been ignited, due to the growing Covid-19 pandemic, which disproportionately affects low-income workers, “to assure (Singaporeans) their basic needs will be met even if they lose their jobs”. Likewise, non-means-tested, comprehensive and blanketed increases in subsidies create certainty for Singaporeans. While means-tested subsidies require regular applications and are volatile, universal healthcare and education, for instance, allow Singaporeans to plan their savings with definite (zero) figures in rainy days.

Lastly and more broadly, the national investment returns contribution (NIRC) can be increased to further fund expanded social programmes in Singapore. The NIRC is the contribution of the long-term estimated returns from investing reserves to the annual budget, and the current ratio is 50%, — that is, half of the returns goes to the budget while the other half goes back to growing the reserves [22]. Instead of an increase in NIRC, a plan to increase the GST was announced in Budget 2018. Given that a GST hike affects households with lower disposable income more, it is regressive and contributes to income inequality. Yet, the government has gone through with it, despite various observers, such as notable local economist Donald Low, questioning its necessity, given that an increase of the NIRC from 50% to 60% would have compensated for it [23]. Whereas government leaders have repeatedly used the slogans “fiscal prudence” while warning Singaporeans that “these can be squandered easily” as late as February [24], there has been insufficient explanation on how increasing the NIRC to 60% would result in the reserves being “squandered”. 

Likewise, Mr Bhaskaran believes that Singapore can finance a graduated increase in social spending over time using the growing reserves, without the need for a hasty domestic tax increase6. Prof Tan also mentioned the need to “find an optimal balance between being prudent and being daring to spend” [16]. The government should increase spending, “especially when we think that the benefit of spending the money is greater than just leaving it there”16. Moreover, Chua Hak Bin, an economist with the Maybank Kim Eng Group, said in an interview with South China Morning Post that “with total assets as a share of gross domestic product at around 230 per cent, it was questionable “whether it is really efficient to have so much and [still have] to raise taxes” [25]. From this, one can then see how “financial returns in our reserves may be lower than the social rate of returns on investments in healthcare, education, social security, housing and infrastructure, especially in areas where investments are starting from a lower base” [32].


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  2. Bhaskaran, Manu. “Is Singapore’s Hub Status at Risk?” Ipscommons.sg, IPS Commons, 16 June 2017, ipscommons.sg/is-singapores-hub-status-at-risk/.
  3. “How the Fourth Industrial Revolution Will Transform Production.” ITU News, 16 Aug. 2018, news.itu.int/fourth-industrial-revolution-production/.
  4. “Interview: Singapore Needs New Mindset to Be an Innovation Hot Spot.” Nikkei Asian Review, 31 Aug. 2017, asia.nikkei.com/Economy/Interview-Singapore-needs-new-mindset-to-be-an-innovation-hot-spot.
  5. “Common Tax Reliefs That Help Reduce the Tax Bills.” Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore.
  6. “Intellectual Property Policy.” Ministry of Law, 13 Sept. 2018.
  7. “Ease of Doing Business Index .” World Bank.
  8. Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2019. Startup Genome, 2019, p. 12.
  9. Bhaskaran, Manu. Personal Interview. 1 Apr. 2020.
  10. “Let’s Kill the Drill Approach in Schools.” The Straits Times, 17 Feb. 2017, www.straitstimes.com/opinion/lets-kill-the-drill-approach-in-schools.
  11. “Opinion: For Singapore Students to Innovate, Old Mindsets Must Be Broken.” Tech in Asia, 30 Dec. 2015, www.techinasia.com/talk/singapore-students-innovate-mindsets-broken.
  12. Assomull, Shelina Ajit. “Fear of Failure Holding Singapore Back: Study.” The Straits Times, November 8, 2017. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/fear-of-failure-holding-spore-back-study.
  13. “Bankruptcy Act (Chapter 20).” Singapore Statutes Online.
  14. “Bankruptcy – Overview.” Citizens Advice, Citizens Advice, 29 Sept. 2019, www.citizensadvice.org.uk/debt-and-money/debt-solutions/bankruptcy-2/bankruptcy-explained/bankruptcy-overview/.
  15. International Monetary Fund. Singapore: 2019 Article IV Consultation. 19/233, International Monetary Fund, 15 July 2019.
  16. International Monetary Fund. Hong Kong SAR: 2019 Article IV Consultation. 19/394, International Monetary Fund, 30 Dec. 2019.
  17. Ashraf, Mohammad. Formal and Informal Social Safety Nets: Growth and Development in the Modern Economy. Springer, 2014.
  18. Lai, Linette. ‘Budget Debate: Singapore’s Fiscal Discipline and Prudence Has Paid off, Say MPs’. Straits Times, 26 Feb. 2020.
  19. Weng, Ho Kong. “Social Mobility in Singapore.” Management of Success: Singapore Revisited, edited by Terence Chong, ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute, 2010, pp. 217–241.
  20. Tan, Ern Ser. ‘Social Mobility in Singapore’. 50 Years of Social Issues in Singapore, World Scientific, 2015, pp. 119–32.
  21. Tan, Ern Ser. Personal Interview. 17 Mar. 2020.
  22. Ng, Jun Sen. ‘Training of Workers Changes along with Tech Revolution’. The Straits Times, 18 Oct. 2018.
  23. Institute of Mental Health. Latest Nationwide Study Shows 1 in 7 People in Singapore Has Experienced a Mental Disorder in Their Lifetime. 11 Dec. 2018.
  24. World Economic Forum. A Global Standard for Lifelong Learning and Worker Engagement to Support Advanced Manufacturing. White Paper, World Economic Forum, Oct. 2019.
  25. SkillSoft (Firm). Mind the Gap: Upskilling Asia Pacific Employees for the Digital Workplace. SkillSoft, Nashua, New Hampshire, 2019.
  26. European Union. Promoting Adult Learning in the Workplace. European Union, 2018.
  27. Abdullah, Zhaki. ‘PSLE Changes Part of Education Reform, Says Ong Ye Kung’. Straits Times, 29 July 2019.
  28. Ministry of Finance Singapore. Section III: How Do Singaporeans Benefit from Our Reserves?
  29. “To Justify GST Hike, Emphasise Universal Benefits.” Straits Times, 2018, https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/to-justify-gst-hike-emphasise-universal-benefits.
  30. Ho, Grace. ‘S’pore’s Deep Reserves Allow It to Respond Quickly to Outbreak: Heng’. Straits Times, 18 Feb. 2020.
  31. Ng, Jing Yng, and Bhavan Jaipragas. ‘Singapore’s Giant Reserves: A Taxing Question for Its next Prime Minister, Heng Swee Keat’. South China Morning Post, 16 Feb. 2019.
  32. Bhaskaran, Manu, Ho, Seng Chee, Low, Donald, Tan, Kim Song, Vadaketh, Sudhir, and Yeoh, Lam Keong. “Inequality and the need for a new social compact.” Singapore Perspectives 2012: Singapore Inclusive: Bridging Divides (2012).

Image Credit: Shubhankar Sharma/Unsplash

(Economic Development) What is Industry 4.0 and what does it mean for Singapore?

What exactly is Industry 4.0 and what implications might it hold for Singapore’s economic development and inequality?

Check out the primer infographics below to get up to speed, before the full op-ed exploring the role of policy, both in contributing to and solving the issues, goes online later this week!

Image Credit: Singapore Economic Development Board