Singapore's transition from the Third World to the First rightly is a source of national pride. That it occurred in a generation can only deepen the collective sense of achievement. It took place even as some nations slipped back from economic and social progress into mismanagement or civil war. That provides a sobering reminder that hard-won gains can be easily lost. All in all, the Third World-to-First narrative reflects the lived experiences of all Singapore citizens in one way or another. They can take pleasure in seeing how far their nation has come since it was a byword for unemployment, crime and sleaze during the tumultuous period of its history.
However, membership of the First World today is a problematic affiliation because that world is not what it used to be. After World War II, it signified the developed world of the West led by the United States. This was a group of advanced industrial democracies that offered their citizens an enviable combination of economic opportunity and political liberty. That is hardly the case any more. Instead, parts of the First World are exhibiting ominous signs of stress and stagnation, if not decline.
Welfare policies based on economic expansion and a buoyant demography are becoming unsustainable for two reasons. First, globalisation flattens economic hierarchies and subjects all nations to the levelling discipline of a world market. Second, populations are ageing, shrinking the fiscal base needed to uphold the welfarist architecture. Politics reflects the gridlock that paralysing economic moments produce, with vested interests contending furiously for parts of the economic cake. Meanwhile, the apotheosis of liberalism seen in politics has consequences for security - for example, when the state is prevented from meeting the threat of terrorism through the use of rigorous preventive detention laws.
In a state of economic denial, over-confident about its political norms and processes, and delusional about its liberal capacity to tackle extremism, the First World is not an ideal place to be associated with. Hence the need for Singapore to explore better solutions to its problems, unencumbered by the "First World" label, as a recent conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies heard. It is not only Singaporeans' right but also their responsibility to determine how their economic and political systems should be aligned so as to avoid welfare dependency and populist politicking. That extremist individuals and terror groups are caught before they can carry out their plans is not the result of luck but of painstaking work by the security agencies backed by stringent laws. No system, including Singapore's, is cast in stone. However, what to change, when and how are choices that citizens need to make with a clear eye on the fundamental realities of size and resources that define Singapore.