A future for S'pore I would like to pledge to

A future for S'pore I would like to pledge to

AS ECONOMISTS and politicians reshape the conversation on inequality, Singapore, a year ahead of its 50th birthday, has big decisions to make.

The momentum to fight rising inequality has never been greater, and the choices we make will define our future.

If we continue with things as they are, the chances are that we will get the same results that we have seen in the past.

Professor Thomas Piketty, a French economist, has presented undeniable evidence that a country that continues to rely on the capitalist model will always end with an unequal society.

His 700-page tome, Capital In The 21st Century, examines the growth of inequality using decades of hard data.

His conclusion is that the return on capital outpaces economic growth, so those who own capital will get richer faster than those who do not.

That does not bode well when economic growth slows - a phenomenon facing Singapore.

Prof Piketty's evidence that capitalism fundamentally leads to increasing inequality in income and wealth has implications for Singapore.

When this wealth is passed on from generation to generation, the gap grows, widening also the inequalities in access to opportunities, and to social networks.

Thus the fears here of a growing "parentocracy", where parents' wealth and social capital have greater bearing on a child's success than the child's own abilities.

While income inequality, measured by the Gini coefficient, is high, wealth inequality has not been measured officially and I have argued in these pages before that it could be much higher than the income gap because of wealth accumulated over generations.

There are few studies on social mobility here, but the last known one by the Ministry of Finance in 2012 warned that while mobility was high, it may not be the case in the future.

Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew remarked too in 2012 that students from educated families were increasingly taking places in the top schools, sounding a warning on increased social stratification.

Prof Piketty's findings shake the core of the very foundations Singapore is built on - a belief in the meritocracy of opportunities for success regardless of background.

Is there really such a thing as a meritocracy if one's success is inherently determined by inter-generational wealth that remains largely in the same hands? On the other hand, there is not yet a credible alternative system to capitalism for organising an economy.

These twin obstacles make President Tony Tan Keng Yam's Address last Friday all the more important.

While he did not speak on Prof Piketty's findings specifically, they were at the heart of his call to renew our pledge to build a better, brighter Singapore.

It is why the Government is pledging to create a nation of opportunities, and to keep pathways upwards open to all.

It is why too it has pledged to strengthen social safety nets by better spreading out the fruits of success through redistribution.

"Those who do not succeed at first should have a second chance, indeed must always have the chance to try again," Dr Tan said.

"We want an open and inclusive society, where all have opportunities to learn, and to earn our own success; where we respect fellow Singaporeans, regardless of social status, for the worth we see in everyone, and where we interact formally with one another free of rigid social hierarchy."

But the changes must go beyond rhetoric.

It threads through our education system, the economy, politics, families and communities.

So this cannot be a political mantra of the Government's alone. It must be the genuine aspiration of all Singaporeans.

A whole-hearted rethinking of what Singapore represents is needed. So here is my response to the President's call to renew my pledge to building a better Singapore. It is what I hope my country can aspire to be.

Our schools produce students who care about their country and the world, who travel and explore, who dare to dream and fail.

Their lives are not determined by the schools they go to before they are 18, or indeed after that, but how they are moulded as people of character and compassion.

Their experience in school is not summed up by their PSLE score or the grades and medals won, but by the friends they have made, the challenges they have overcome and the lives they have touched through social projects they worked on at home or abroad.

Our best and brightest are given bond-free scholarships by the public service. They come back to serve because they want to, not because they have to.

Our political leaders have varied backgrounds and have expertise beyond economics, or business or the sciences. Some are musicians or artists, or authors and poets, others have failed many times in their lives as entrepreneurs.

Our economy is diverse and vibrant, made of sectors in which stakeholders invest, not for pure profit but also for how much the sectors contribute back to society.

We buy a home to live in, not to invest in and flip in the next big property boom. Instead, Singaporeans get rich by building their own companies that make products to improve lives.

Companies and foreigners come to Singapore not because it is the most clean and efficient city with low taxes, but because every company and individual that invests in Singapore is investing in a country that stands for social good. In fact we are a hub for social innovation, drawing entrepreneurs from all over the world to develop solutions to global social challenges.

Income and wealth tax rates are much higher. But there is also widespread philanthropy from the private sector and individuals. The global wealthy pledge themselves to a worldwide giving initiative started by a Singapore businessman.

This is because we are a society that understands that there are those who just cannot do as well the first time round, and who deserve many chances to grow and learn from mistakes, and succeed.

As a result, we top the rankings not just in Doing Business but also in Global Giving.

Above all, Singaporeans are known around the world not as intelligent, efficient, calculating machines, but as an open-minded, generous and optimistic people.

So when Dr Tan began his speech by saying Singapore is at an important moment in its history - he was right.

But it is important not just because we are about to mark 50 whole years of independence.

It is important because we have a chance to make in the next 50 years a Singapore we are proud of, a nation built not on wealth, competition and rewards, but on generosity, compassion and service.

Let us pledge ourselves to that.


This article was first published on May 24, 2014.
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