• The Convergence

Has Singapore built sufficient assets to ensure its resilience and survival in a crisis?

By Arash Shah, Essays Editor


Photo: Scott Halleran/Getty Images.

Introduction


As a state which came abruptly into being with its separation from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore struggled in its early years to alleviate poverty for her people. Today, 53 years later, Singapore has evolved into a metropolitan city-state, leaving an indelible mark on the world. Singapore’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita recorded an all-time high of 85535.38 USD in 2017, being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, producing world-class defense systems and highly developed urban infrastructure.[1] Intangibly, Singapore is home to a myriad of cultures, races, and religions. This benign diversity is a result of an extensive emphasis on equality and meritocracy where abilities of individuals matter more than their background or skin color. These prominent features of Singapore are a summary of assets which are necessary tools required to survive in a crisis.


In this paper, assets are defined as “stocks of resources which the state have accumulated over time, aiding as contingencies and acting as a source of security in a crisis”. [2] A crisis involves an “unstable state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending; especially one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome”.[3] The disastrous effects of a crisis urges Singapore to consistently and continually build their assets to widen their safety net in combating adversities.


The key elements necessary to evade a crisis are resilience and sufficiency of assets. Resilience is the capability of a united society to withstand, endure, recover and grow from ‘significant shocks or gradual challenges that threaten stability’, while continuing to function.[4] As Prime Minister Lee affirmed at a recent book launch that, “Intangible assets hold Singaporeans together”, indicating the criticality of assets in ensuring resilience. [5] It is indisputable that assets are necessary for crisis management in any country, but the probing question is: Has Singapore built sufficient assets to be resilient and meet the needs of a crisis?


This paper argues that Singapore has successfully built an abundance of tangible and intangible assets, which are sufficient to ensure its unwavering resilience and survival in a crisis. However, it is acknowledged that Singapore is not a perfect country and there are shortcomings through domestic challenges where her resilience can be tested, evident in the 2008 economic recession.[6] Despite these issues, Singapore is amongst the most opulent and successful nations in the world as a result of its prudence and pragmatic policy-making strategies.


The examples showcased below are not exhaustive but are amongst the salient attesting to the sufficiency of Singapore’s assets in a crisis. Other important facets of Singapore’s successful asset-building strategies are ubiquitous in its economy, where Singapore recently clinched the status of the world’s most competitive economy, taking over major powers such as the United States.[7] [8] [9] These robust policies are vital in ensuring resilience and survival in a crisis. This paper also seeks to present Singapore’s resilience and survival through the social and political lenses. Specifically, on economic crisis, income inequality and terrorism, this paper also aims to demonstrate how Singapore utilizes its assets not only to rebound from a crisis but also to mitigate the effects of contemporary domestic issues that could potentially lead to a crisis.


In spite of this paper’s claim that Singapore has shown tremendous successes in its asset-building strategy, questions if Singapore has reached or could be approaching a saturation point has been raised. Like many of Singapore’s political leaders who repeatedly mentioned that like Singapore’s nation-building strategies are a work-in-progress so is their economy. There is always room to further excel, and Singapore is one of those countries that aims to advance their economic policies, making it compatible to sustain till SG100.


Singapore’s economy in crisis: Power of Dollars and Cents


In 2008, Singapore experienced an appalling financial crisis which tested its resilience. Unemployment rates skyrocketed, and economic labor productivity declined. Employment rates reduced to 75.8% in 2009 from a peak of 77%. [11] This reflected a considerable number of residents in the working age group losing their jobs, which is their main source of livelihood. This makes it arduous to maintain housing expenditures and can negatively affect education and health which have the potential of causing intergenerational poverty in the long run. Additionally, relying on one’s savings were fruitless when many lost their life savings when investments in DBS Highnotes 5 soured.[12] Many argued that if Singapore had sufficient assets, why then did it fall into recession in the first place? This was because Singapore was heavily dependent on foreign exports in their economic policies. With this said, when businesses of foreign states get affected, it has a ripple effect on Singapore that experiences the tidal waves of economic policies of their allies.


Notwithstanding the skepticism towards Singapore’s resilience to elude the financial crisis, the speed at which Singapore recovered from this adversity is a commendation in itself. More than $21 billion was spent on the Resilience Package in January 2009 so that citizens could steadily adapt to the aftermath of the crisis and seek employment.[14] This is excluding other hidden costs to support households in an attempt to mitigate the effects of the recession on families.[15] Singapore did not have to resort to alternative methods such as acquiring loans to escape the crisis. This speaks volumes of the apparent economic strength of a ‘vulnerable’ country through prudent asset-building policies of the Ministry of Finance.


This financial crisis caused numerous problems, yet the government was determined to provide hope and assurance to its people, attempting to evoke the notions of solidarity and resilience. Striving to mitigate the effects of the crisis, Singapore acted swiftly to provide a temporary respite through measures such as the Resilience Package. Such initiatives provide some breathing space for Singapore, acting as a stepping stone to grow and recover as it buffered the alarming effects of the recession. Unemployment rates reduced significantly to 2.2% in 2010, and a further reduction to 1.9% in 2011, not forgetting its peak of 3.4% during the recession. [16] With a powerful asset base, Singapore proudly announced that the economy was stabilizing, and grew to become a society more attuned to understanding that resilience is key in crisis management.


Ongoing social crisis: Rich v Poor?


Notwithstanding Singapore’s fast-paced recovery after the 2008 crisis, there still is a need to balance financial prudence against higher social spending. Singapore does not have minimum wage and salaries are subject to negotiation and mutual agreement between the employer and the employee.[17] Despite the continual debate on the implementation of minimum wages championed by Prof Tommy Koh, the lack thereof has caused a vast disparity between the rich and the poor. Although the Gini Coefficient Rate of 0.459 in 2016 record the lowest figure in a decade,[18] it still indicates the distinct income inequality amongst Singaporeans.


These unfavorable trends in income equality may disrupt Singapore’s social cohesion, as a higher number of citizens from lower- and middle-income families have to work harder to secure a basic and rudimentary lifestyle. The restricted socioeconomic mobility on lower-income households could trigger a general sense of resentment and envy towards system, denting the social cohesion and worsening the noticeable class issue in Singapore. This discontent could lead to a social crisis with rising distrust and tensions making Singapore more vulnerable to external threats. This is evident in the conspicuous social class divide when students from elite schools tend to be less close to those that come from non-elite schools. [19]


The emphasis on an egalitarian society is critical in ensuring that the class divide will not widen, averting ramifications to Singapore. Indranee Rajah recently reminded its citizens, “to stop thinking of people in terms of social class or income”. [20] This shows the governments’ constant efforts in promoting cohesion and togetherness regardless of social classes to prevent any detrimental consequences such as citizens begrudging one another.


To circumvent this latent crisis, the government ensures that all citizens have a shelter over their heads and food on the table, regardless of their income level. For those who do not own homes, the erection of 3 transitional shelters with substantial capacities provide temporary accommodations while the Ministry of Social & Family Development work to secure long-term housing arrangements for them.[21] Additionally, there are subsidies in place for lower-income families to ease their burden. These grants include the provision of financial aid for education purposes and the Rent and Utilities Assessment Scheme where residents are given vouchers monthly to assist in rent payment. These governmental efforts are only feasible as Singapore’s reserves are sizeable enough to sustain these payouts.


Have these grants been effective? To eradicate income inequality, no. However, to mitigate the effects of income inequality, yes. $131 million has been put aside for such assistance which benefitted about 79,500 individuals. [22] This helps the lower-income households to regain stability. When individuals have enough for themselves, the likelihood of adopting a feeling of resent is significantly reduced. This attempts to resolve the prevalent issue of income inequality as underprivileged citizens are not neglected and the emphasis on an inclusive society for all citizens is upheld. The resilience sought by the citizens is derived from the confidence that the government has instilled in them by having their best interests at heart.


Over time, the ideas of solidarity prevailed. The state’s efforts to address any discontent amongst its people have been successful through the development of the economy and urban infrastructure. Such resilience is vital not only to survive in a crisis but to prevent one preemptively.


Chief political agenda: Counter-terrorism


Terrorism has been a key concern worldwide. It is immensely sensitive and highly detrimental, urging a cautious and apt method of handling such crisis. In a multi-religious country like Singapore, it simply cannot afford to face such adversities, especially when there is a possibility of causing a religious divide. In 2008, Singapore conducted its largest manhunt for an Indonesian-born Singaporean fugitive, Mas Selamat, suspected of plotting to bomb Singapore Changi Airport. [23] This incident had wide ramifications for Singaporeans and Singapore on the global scale.

The government immediately employed the media to reach out to its citizens. Instead of addressing the manhunt, Singapore’s first order of business was to ensure there was no retrospective finger-pointing at anyone. [24] The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had to be cautious in not implying a connection to any race or religion which can enrage the local Malays or Islam citizens due to commonalities with the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorist group. Aside from fortifying the resilience of the citizens, Singapore deployed men islandwide to safeguard key installation points and its citizens. This was tirelessly executed until Mas Selamat was eventually arrested in April 2009. Many have alluded that Singapore’s military capabilities are finite, but their resilience invigorates Singapore and has proven that there is no crisis too big as long as they have the assets to overcome the crisis.

Singapore’s geographical position have not only brought upon a sense of elevated vulnerability, but also puts it at a much higher risk of a terror attack, making its likelihood a matter of when, and not if. In order to guard against such threats, constant additions to security policies have been put in place such as the implementation of SGsecure to train and mobilize the community to deal with terror attacks.[25] These are measures taken by the government to educate and protect its citizens should such threats recur.


In spite of such horrifying external threats, this can aid in forging political appeal between the government and its citizens. After the death of Lee Kuan Yew, the attachment between the government and the governed remains something to be observed and Singapore must effectively tap on these crises to preserve the trust of the Singaporeans. Citizens appreciate openness which is fundamental in any mutually beneficial relationship. When Singapore is resilient enough to fight as one, as witnessed in the 2008 terror crisis, it is well on its way to surviving as one.


Conclusion


Since independence, Singapore has had its fair share of quandaries – terrorism, religious concerns, recessions – not to mention the anxieties caused by globalization and the silver tsunami. Singapore’s forte is not to insulate itself from a crisis but to bounce back from it stronger. To overcome any crisis, Singapore must ensure that its asset-building policies will be its perennial modus operandi.

In this case, it could not be more obvious that Singapore unswervingly relies on its economic wealth to ensure the resilience and survival of its citizens in a crisis. The government continues to believe that wealth creation and control can save Singapore from adversities. This version of pork-barrel politics has been highly effective in the past. However, if this approach remains unchanged in the 21st century, all other policies will remain status quo. As much as Singapore’s economic wealth has prevailed throughout its continuance, it is important that Singapore keeps itself tremendously adaptable and responsive if the need calls for a change in strategy.


This paper demonstrates that Singapore’s bountiful assets are more than sufficient to survive in a crisis. Notwithstanding this optimism, factors such as over-reliance on foreign exports or increasing trade tensions between world leaders have the potential to undermine this growth. However, Singapore has taken measures to cure the symptoms by promoting a multilateral rules-based international order, preventing it from developing into a disease. With crisis as the disease and challenges as symptoms, it indicates the importance of tapping on its assets to mitigate challenges, ensuring that Singapore’s resilience is its societal stronghold, preventing crises from recurring. There are continuous governmental efforts to build and sustain its resilience to ensure that Singaporeans are well-prepared in a crisis. With such resilience, Singapore will get through some of the roughest of terrains as evident from the past 54 years.


References


Balakrishnan, A. (2018). Singapore slides into recession. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/business/2008/oct/10/creditcrunch-marketturmoil1


Budget 2009: Resilience Package. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.singaporebudget.gov.sg/budget_2009/resilience.html


Chia, L. (2018, October 29). Stop thinking of people in terms of social class or income: Indranee Rajah. Retrieved from https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/stop-thinking-of-people-in-terms-of-social-class-or-income-10876762


DE MEYER, Arnoud Cyriel Leo. A resilient society for a global Singapore. (2017). Social futures of Singapore society. 3-9. Research Collection Lee Kong Chian School Of Business.


Han, C., & Rothwell, D. (2012). Savings and family functioning since the 2008 recession: An exploratory study in Singapore. International Social Work, 57(6), 630-644. doi: 10.1177/0020872812444482


Henson, B. (2008, November 29). Govt’s focus is still jobs in this crisis. The Straits Times, p. 62; Teo, A. (2009, January 23). An anchor for jobs, a spur to lending. The Business Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.


Hoo, T. (2008). CO08024 | Mas Selamat Kastari’s Disappearing Act: Assessing the Fallout | RSIS. Retrieved from https://www.rsis.edu.sg/rsis-publication/cens/1044-mas-selamat-kastaris-disapp/#.W8nhs5MzaqQ


Lim, K. (2018). Singapore's most wanted militant arrested in Malaysia. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/idINIndia-39487020090508


Long, J. (2010). Saddam's War of Words. Austin: University of Texas Press.


McKernan, S., & Sherraden, M. (2012). Asset Building and Low-Income Families. Urban Institute Press. (pp. viii)


MHA. (n.d.). Home. Retrieved from https://www.sgsecure.sg/


MOM. (2018). Minimum Wage for Singaporeans. Retrieved from https://www.mom.gov.sg/faq/work-permit-for-foreign-worker/is-there-a-prescribed-minimum-wage-for-foreign-workers-in-singapore


MSF. (2018). $131 million in ComCare assistance benefitted about 79,500 Individuals in FY2017 | Ministry of Social and Family Development. Retrieved from https://www.msf.gov.sg/media-room/Pages/131-million-in-ComCare-assistance-benefitted-about-79500-Individuals-in-FY2017.aspx

Public Housing – A Singapore Icon. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.hdb.gov.sg/cs/infoweb/about-us/our-role/public-housing--a-singapore-icon


SELECT COMMITTEE ON DELIBERATE ONLINE FALSEHOODS - CAUSES, CONSEQUENCES AND COUNTERMEASURES. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.parliament.gov.sg/sconlinefalsehoods


SIM, R. (2018). Intangible assets hold Singaporeans together: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/intangible-assets-hold-singaporeans-together-prime-minister-lee-hsien-loong

Singapore GDP per capita PPP | 1990-2018 | Data | Chart | Calendar. (2018). Retrieved from https://tradingeconomics.com/singapore/gdp-per-capita-ppp



Singapore Workforce 2009. (2009, November 30). Retrieved from https://www.mom.gov.sg/newsroom/press-releases/2009/singapore-workforce-2009


Statistics on shelters | Ministry of Social and Family Development. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.msf.gov.sg/media-room/Pages/Statistics-on-shelters.aspx


T. (n.d.). Singapore Unemployment Rate 1986-2018 | Data | Chart | Calendar. Retrieved from https://tradingeconomics.com/singapore/unemployment-rate


Tan, D. W., & Chan, F. (2008). ‘When it happened, I was shocked’. The Straits Times, p. 8


Water Policies of Singapore. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.mewr.gov.sg/policy/managing-our-water


Webster. (2018). Definition of CRISIS. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/crisis


YONG, C. (2018). Income inequality in Singapore lowest in a decade, monthly household income grows but at slower rate. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/income-inequality-lowest-in-a-decade-monthly-household-income-grows-but-at-slower-rate


[1] Singapore GDP per capita PPP | 1990-2018 | Data | Chart | Calendar. (2018). Retrieved from https://tradingeconomics.com/singapore/gdp-per-capita-ppp


[2] McKernan, S., & Sherraden, M. (2012). Asset Building and Low-Income Families. Urban Institute Press. (pp. viii)


[3] Webster. (2018). Definition of CRISIS. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/crisis


[4] DE MEYER, Arnoud Cyriel Leo. A resilient society for a global Singapore. (2017). Social futures of Singapore society. 3-9. Research Collection Lee Kong Chian School Of Business.


[5] SIM, R. (2018). Intangible assets hold Singaporeans together: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/intangible-assets-hold-singaporeans-together-prime-minister-lee-hsien-loong


[6] Han, C., & Rothwell, D. (2012). Savings and family functioning since the 2008 recession: An exploratory study in Singapore. International Social Work, 57(6), 630-644. doi: 10.1177/0020872812444482


[7] Water Policies of Singapore. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.mewr.gov.sg/policy/managing-our-water


[8] Public Housing – A Singapore Icon. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.hdb.gov.sg/cs/infoweb/about-us/our-role/public-housing--a-singapore-icon


[9] SELECT COMMITTEE ON DELIBERATE ONLINE FALSEHOODS - CAUSES, CONSEQUENCES AND COUNTERMEASURES. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.parliament.gov.sg/sconlinefalsehoods


[10] Long, J. (2010). Saddam's War of Words. Austin: University of Texas Press.


[11] Singapore Workforce 2009. (2009, November 30). Retrieved from https://www.mom.gov.sg/newsroom/press-releases/2009/singapore-workforce-2009


[12] Tan, D. W., & Chan, F. (2008). ‘When it happened, I was shocked’. The Straits Times, p. 8


[13] Balakrishnan, A. (2008). Singapore slides into recession. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/business/2008/oct/10/creditcrunch-marketturmoil1


[14] See https://www.singaporebudget.gov.sg/budget_2009/resilience.html for the Resilience Package


[15] Henson, B. (2008, November 29). Govt’s focus is still jobs in this crisis. The Straits Times, p. 62; Teo, A. (2009, January 23). An anchor for jobs, a spur to lending. The Business Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.


[16] T. (n.d.). Singapore Unemployment Rate 1986-2018 | Data | Chart | Calendar. Retrieved from https://tradingeconomics.com/singapore/unemployment-rate


[17] MOM. (2018). Minimum Wage for Singaporeans. Retrieved from https://www.mom.gov.sg/faq/work-permit-for-foreign-worker/is-there-a-prescribed-minimum-wage-for-foreign-workers-in-singapore


[18] YONG, C. (2018). Income inequality in Singapore lowest in a decade, monthly household income grows but at slower rate. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/income-inequality-lowest-in-a-decade-monthly-household-income-grows-but-at-slower-rate


[19] YONG, C. (2018). New study finds clear divide among social classes in Singapore. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/new-study-finds-class-divide-in-singapore


[20] Chia, L. (2018, October 29). Stop thinking of people in terms of social class or income: Indranee Rajah. Retrieved from https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/stop-thinking-of-people-in-terms-of-social-class-or-income-10876762


[21] See https://www.msf.gov.sg/media-room/Pages/Statistics-on-shelters.aspx for additional information on transitional shelters for the homeless.


[22] MSF. (2018). $131 million in ComCare assistance benefitted about 79,500 Individuals in FY2017 | Ministry of Social and Family Development. Retrieved from https://www.msf.gov.sg/media-room/Pages/131-million-in-ComCare-assistance-benefitted-about-79500-Individuals-in-FY2017.aspx


[23] Lim, K. (2018). Singapore's most wanted militant arrested in Malaysia. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/idINIndia-39487020090508


[24] Hoo, T. (2008). CO08024 | Mas Selamat Kastari’s Disappearing Act: Assessing the Fallout | RSIS. Retrieved from https://www.rsis.edu.sg/rsis-publication/cens/1044-mas-selamat-kastaris-disapp/#.W8nhs5MzaqQ


[25] MHA. (n.d.). Home. Retrieved from https://www.sgsecure.sg/


Arash Shah is a 2nd-year political science major in NUS. He is serving The Convergence as an Essays Editor. An avid traveller, Arash aims to step foot on as many countries while learning about different cultures and how it is applicable to Singapore. A strong advocate for children's rights, Arash is currently researching on different means to help children-at-risk re-integrate into society.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

  • White Facebook Icon

The Convergence is a student publication

of the NUS Students' Political Association.

© 2019 The Convergence