Singapore's ability to build and maintain what can only be called national neighbourhoods lies at the heart of its untiring efforts to sustain social resilience.
Unlike neighbourhoods elsewhere, which often are carved out by the divisive geography of economic and ethnic segregation, the Housing Board precinct bears testimony to the guiding principle of social inclusiveness. Certainly, the HDB estate is not seamless terrain.
Working- class, middle-class, socially-aspiring and dysfunctional families all exist there. However, the fact that they coexist, sharing common areas and enjoying access to amenities open to all, justifies viewing the public housing estate as a microcosm of Singapore.
In drawing attention to the integrative role of housing in creating Singapore's social landscape, at a Washington conference recently, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam highlighted as well the macrocosm within which socially-unifying institutions such as housing have to function.
The chief challenge to public policy today is being mounted by global economic forces which are widening income gaps within nations even as they create more wealth worldwide. Singapore's close integration into the global economy translates into a corresponding vulnerability to economic disparities growing within itself.
Hence the need for interventionist public policy. If the Government is unresponsive to disparities, the public will vote against it. If it veers towards populism, the market will punish it. Striking the correct balance at the right moment is crucial. The issue is not a battle between Left and Right, for these notions are not cast in ideological stone. The HDB itself is proof that what was considered left-wing once can become an unremarkable fact of life in moderate times.
Singapore's extensive public housing was unabashedly socialist at inception, verging on the effective nationalisation of vast swathes of private land. Today, it continues to not only exist but also expand in a country marked by the largely free play of market forces. Indeed, confounding neat ideological dichotomies, the HDB has become a default feature of a market economy.
What matters is that the political centre must hold. It can do so only if it gives succeeding generations of citizens a stake in the collective life of their nation. Investment in education, healthcare and tripartite labour programmes serves to anchor Singaporeans in a single national destiny. Meritocracy, tempered with compassion, keeps pathways of mobility open to all and helps prevent entrenched interests from replicating their power, generation after generation. Multi- racialism makes a fundamental statement of Singapore's national character. These tested aspects of the Singapore system must remain the bedrock of public policies to take it further.