Strike the right balance to make Singapore a 'city in a country'

 Strike the right balance to make Singapore a 'city in a country'

Speaking in London last week, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong expressed confidence in the future as Singapore strives to remain a truly global city while maintaining national solidarity. He emphasised that Singapore "must get the balance just right".

In the past few years, I have been one of several observers who have spoken about the need to better manage the tensions or contradictions between these two goals.

How does Singapore get the balance just right? More fundamentally, how should Singaporeans think about the contradictions? And what does getting the balance just right really mean?

These are basic questions of mindset. The answers adopted will lead to policy and public actions that will affect both national interests and the interests of individual citizens.

The 'give-and-take' mindset

A common answer to the balancing question is to adopt a "give-and-take" mindset. In other words, people need to give up something in order to obtain something else.

So to ensure Singapore's continued growth as a global city, for example, citizens need to be more tolerant of the problems of crowding, clustering, competition, comparisons and conflict brought about by the inflow of foreigners.

To give-and-take is more than to accommodate. It is to achieve consensus through compromise - to reach a middle ground between two opposing positions.

But the concepts of "give-and-take", "compromise" and "middle ground" lead people to think of issues along a single dimension. City and country goals form the two poles of the dimension. This representation leads people to think of the two goals as contradictory rather than potentially complementary.

This give-and-take mindset to the city-country paradox is a limiting one. It is based on a zero-sum approach - to move towards one goal is tantamount to moving away from the other.

When the zero-sum approach dominates in people's minds, a win for one goal implies a loss for the other. People feel forced to choose between economic growth and social well-being, between competition and compassion, or between cosmopolitan openness and national solidarity.

Such zero-sum thinking will produce growing resentment among different segments of the Singapore population. This is because the reasoning is some segment needs to lose for other segments to win.

Routinely masked by compromised or middle-ground "solutions", growing resentment will eventually surface as overt conflict and adverse outcomes. Those advocating the give-and-take mindset may get caught by surprise and fail to respond effectively.

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