Singapore’s development needs pluralism

Singapore Democrats

Delegates at one of the sessions

All societies and peoples strive for development. But how do we define development and how does diversity contribute to development? In a time where multiple perspectives are challenging accepted wisdom, how will a commitment to diversity of opinions and approaches advance development for the benefit of the whole community?

These were questions seeking answers at a conference of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD) in Bali last week. Representing the Singapore Democrats were Dr Vincent Wijeysingha and Ms Jaslyn Go.

Entitled Pluralism and Development in Asia: Issues and Prospects, the conference sought to examine the role of pluralism in national and regional policymaking.

Pluralism is broadly defined as “a belief in, or commitment to, diversity or multiplicity.” It is associated with political diversity which espouses the safeguarding of individual liberty and the promotion of debate, argument and understanding.

But how does pluralism contribute to development? Of late, Singaporeans have grappled with this issue. Is development to be measured solely in GDP growth? Or should a society pay attention to the diverse desires and dreams of all communities and individuals?

In other words, should development be seen purely as a function of how much money there is in the bank or should it include how wealth is made and distributed so that each and every citizen can claim to lead a fulfilling and meaningful life?

As it stands, Singaporeans work long hours, have little time to start families and live in one of the most stressful cultures on earth even as GDP rises. Studies carried out over the last decade by domestic research institutions such as the Institute of Policy Studies reveal that the numbers of young people expressing a desire to emigrate or making active plans to do so have increased exponentially.

Societies that are pluralistic, that make space for a diversity of opinions, approaches and values, are consistently found to have the happiest and most satisfied citizenry. Nobel economics winner, Prof Amartya Sen, argues that real and enduring progress can only come from a community which is free to think and to develop which in turn widens the terrain for future development.

Vincent Wijeysingha with Jaslyn Go and family

“The Singapore experience is at the opposite end of this perspective. Our top-down policymaking framework has drowned out alternative viewpoints,” Dr Wijeysingha told conference delegates.

As a result, Singapore’s cheap-goods, export model is rapidly being displaced by countries at lower levels of development.

A second outcome of this unidirectional mode of policymaking is that creativity and innovation have been stifled to an extent that unlike countries such as the United States and Germany where a vast proportion of economic growth is powered by productivity, Singapore’s productivity has stagnated at the lower reaches of Developing World levels.

This is no recipe for long-term success, Dr Wijeysingha said, a successful and enduring community is one which values the perspectives and contributions of each and every citizen.

As these governments disseminate these ideas across the policy frameworks, the Singapore government will either tighten its hold on resources or founder in a new world of diversity and pluralism. It should avoid both.