Govts 'must take active role in social policy'

Governments grappling with the problem of inclusion can choose to either act upstream by trying to shape behaviour or deal with the fallout downstream, but they can no longer simply dismiss interventions as "social engineering", Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said here on Monday.

Just as there is now a consensus on the need for the authorities to regulate the "invisible hand" of the free market, Mr Tharman argued that governments need to take an active role in social policy.

He was delivering the keynote address at a conference on housing, inclusion and social equity at the Brookings Institution.

Mr Tharman challenged the long-held notions some in the United States had about social policy, drawing parallels between economic market forces and social ones.

Like market forces that can produce bad outcomes such as the global financial crisis, social forces also do not naturally pull a multicultural society together, he said. "It's not a natural tendency of society, it's not part of the natural workings of society that you get people wanting more and more to live with people who are different from them. So we need the visible hand of public policy to mitigate the invisible hand of markets, both the economic market as well as the invisible hand of social forces."

He stressed that once the authorities accept that social interventions are necessary, the choice that remains is when to do it.

"You either engage in social interventions, or if you like, social engineering, by design, as intelligently as you can, with the public purpose in mind, or you engage in social interventions and engineering by default. And typically, if you do it by downstream and by default, once problems have accumulated, the problems are more intractable and they are more expensive to solve."

Mr Tharman, who is also Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies, had been invited to share Singapore's experience at the conference by organisers who said they wanted to gain insight into Singapore's approach to avoiding the problem of segregated communities.

Enclaves and segregation in the US have been a key focus in the country this year, especially after racial incidents and riots in towns like Ferguson and Baltimore were found to have roots in deeply divided neighbourhoods.

The issue has also taken on a new urgency in Europe, with terrorist attacks shining a spotlight on the struggle to integrate immigrants, mostly from the Middle East.

At the forum, Mr Tharman gave a broad sweep of how a wide array of policies fit together to help Singapore maintain its harmony. The centrepiece of all that was its neighbourhoods, he said.

"The secret sauce is our neighbourhoods, their composition and the way the neighbourhoods are designed so as to maximise interaction and give us the best chance of achieving an integrated society," he said. "It's not just about the numbers - the balance of ethnic groups in different neighbourhoods - it's about the everyday experiences. It's walking the corridors and taking the same elevators as your neighbours every day; it's the way the kids grow up together in the playgrounds and in the primary school nearby; it's about the peers in the neighbourhood."

To achieve all that required a multi-faceted approach. Besides putting small flats next to big ones and ensuring racial enclaves do not form through housing quotas, he stressed that it was crucial to have quality public spaces, high standards of service and rejuvenation to ensure estates do not fall into disrepair, and to ensure good access to jobs and good schools everywhere.

Said Mr Tharman: "We have disadvantaged persons, we have disadvantaged families, we have at-risk youth, but we don't have disadvantaged neighbourhoods in Singapore, and we don't have an at-risk neighbourhood. That's a big difference."

He said another measure of the success of this approach is that the lower-income group has been able to enjoy rising home prices together with the rest of society.

He noted that over the past 35 years, real growth in housing prices for three-room HDB flats had risen faster than that for larger ones and private property.

"By designing neighbourhoods so they are mixed for all income groups and with high-quality shared spaces, attractive for everyone to live in, everyone's home equity goes up. That's a bit of a rarity around the world. We've got that for free," he said.

This article was first published on December 2, 2015.
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