The Straits Times says

Studying facets of social resilience

The infusion of $350 million over the next five years into research in social sciences and the humanities is an investment in Singapore's social future. It's a necessary step to take after decades of attention to the fulfilment of economic needs. For example, investment in public education once had a pronounced economic bent. And spending on research and development was to create the scientific basis of a new productive economy. The latter impetus, which has survived financial ups and downs, manifests itself in the $19 billion committed to research, innovation and enterprise activities from this year to 2020. The four technology domains highlighted in this R&D strategy are advanced manufacturing and engineering; health and biomedical sciences; services and the digital economy; and urban solutions and sustainability. These are among the vanguard areas within which advances will determine the competitive position of nations in a globalised world.

Yet, other needs have also emerged as material demands are satisfied, and they are no less insistent than their predecessors. The American psychologist Abraham Maslow identified a hierarchy of needs beginning with the biological and physiological imperatives of air, food, drink, shelter, warmth and rest. These proceed to the desire for protection from the elements and fear, and revolve around security, order, law and stability. A higher level involves friendship, intimacy, trust and acceptance. Then, there is the need for achievement, independence and status. Finally, the quest for the realisation of personal potential and self-fulfilment represents the pinnacle of the pyramid of needs.

As Singapore consolidates the social gains of its economic growth, its ability to handle higher-order needs will determine the degree of its social resilience in the years to come. Here, social science research can direct attention to the gaps in social existence and expectations that public policy and societal norms must address.

A lack of adequate understanding of social phenomena could lead to the neglect of shortcomings or misdirected efforts to correct them. Tensions between groups might then result, or a loss of faith in institutions which could be manifested in disruptive ways. Knowing how people can work together and make compromises for the larger good, for example, is critical for democracies. And how race features in, say, voting or the formation of close friendships is among questions that matter to all multiracial societies. Public attitudes towards jobs is another issue that will assume importance in a new economy that makes old hierarchies obsolete. How to break the cycle of poverty, boost volunteerism rates and encourage civil exchanges online are some of the many areas that social scientists could probe to help in the creation of a more stable and resilient society.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2016, with the headline 'Studying facets of social resilience'. Print Edition | Subscribe