Singapore's no utopia but still a good place to live in

Over the last half-century, Singaporeans have created a society that deftly balances material well-being, educational opportunity, merit and "the right to rise", personal safety and social security.
Over the last half-century, Singaporeans have created a society that deftly balances material well-being, educational opportunity, merit and "the right to rise", personal safety and social security.PHOTO: REUTERS

In recent months, Singapore's government, for a variety of reasons, has expanded and extended its social welfare activities and made moves to redress problems arising from growing income inequality.

It has, for example, increased health subsidies for the elderly. Through the National Wages Council it has also recommended significant wage increases for the poorest-paid members of the labour force.

Such actions have surprised some critics, who have long believed that the Government was committed, first and foremost, to limiting its role and responsibilities in such realms to ensure that Singapore would not succumb to some of the problems associated with over-extended welfare states in the West.

Even before the recent moves, of course, Singapore was well known for having created a social order and, indeed, a society that ranked at or near the top of international league tables regarding material and social well-being, as measured by such criteria as income and living standards, health care, education, global competitiveness, transparency, lack of corruption and global competitiveness. In so doing, Singapore also created a social order and a society that fare pretty well even when employing moral calculus much favoured by Western liberals.

In A Theory Of Justice (1971), his master work on morality and political philosophy, the late Harvard professor John Rawls famously employed the time-honoured "veil of ignorance" thought experiment to evaluate the morality of political and social policy.

Through this experiment, Professor Rawls attempted to establish a moral basis for a fair "social contract". He started from a hypothetical "original position", in which a group of individuals is tasked with developing principles and structures around which to organise a society.

To Prof Rawls, the best way to ensure fairness and justness in the society so established is for those involved to proceed behind a "veil of ignorance", that is, a situation wherein "no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like".

With this veil in place, Prof Rawls believed, people would behave more rationally, impartially, empathetically and morally.

In other words, the chance that a participant in the thought experiment might be placed in society as a woman or a racial/ religious minority, as a poor person or one with a physical handicap, as a person of below-average intelligence, or a person without social capital or connections - or some combination of the above - would lead people, at least at the margin, to establish principles and structures that were both fair and humane to all.

Contemporary Singapore is no utopia and, like any other society, it has its faults (increasingly, income and wealth inequality among them). But in many ways it acquits itself well when judged by Rawlsian criteria.

Obviously, few seriously question Singapore's achievements in meeting its citizens' "basic needs" - subsistence, quality education, access to quality housing and health care.

But what about other Rawlsian concerns?

In this regard, one might begin by pointing out that justice and fairness are, more than anything else, about meeting basic needs. Over the last half-century, Singaporeans have created a society that deftly balances material well-being, educational opportunity, merit and "the right to rise", personal safety and social security. It also extends such "benefits" to the overwhelming majority of its citizens, regardless of position.

Although there is no one index that captures such social welfare accomplishments completely - the World Bank's Human Opportunity Index shows potential, but is still being developed - Singapore generally ranks highly in various international ranking schemes.

According to the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Index, for example, Singapore placed 18th out of 185 states and territories ranked last year, even though its position has been hurt in recent years because the index is now "inequality-adjusted".

Perhaps the most comprehensive, currently available index is the Where-to-be-born Index, compiled by the Economic Intelligence Unit of The Economist. This index brings together weighted economic, social, and political data to establish a composite portrait of the overall quality of life in countries around the world. It includes measures of income, education, health, economic opportunity, job security, family life, gender equality, safety, community life, and governance, at least some of which can be viewed as imperfect proxies for fairness and justice.

Last year, Singapore ranked sixth out of 80 countries and territories, behind Switzerland, Australia, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The Where-to-be-born Index is the closest thing to a Rawlsian index we have. And Singapore, as we have just seen, scores very well indeed.

Moreover, one of the hallmarks of Singapore over time has been the governing system's ability to move quickly and continually to recalibrate public policy. This being the case, it seems possible, perhaps even likely, that other elements important to Prof Rawls - such as individual rights, and personal liberties - will rise in relative importance in the social welfare equation in the years ahead.

Singaporeans have reason to feel good about what they have created. Yet the country has a "brain drain" problem, arguably a function of rising or perhaps even unrealistic expectations.

Let me end with another thought experiment which will perhaps reinforce the need for perspective. Ask yourself: If you had to land randomly anywhere on earth - behind a veil of ignorance, not with curriculum vitae in hand - how many places would be preferable to Singapore?

The writer is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of history and director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.