Is Singapore Prepared for its Future?

Everything big or small is planned in Singapore. The next big thing in the economy – Greentech and Medtech – is centrally conceived. The next prime minister has been chosen. His own successor is in the making. Even the maximum walking-distance between one’s home and the next park is centrally-determined – it’s 10 minutes. But the real question is: Is Singapore truly prepared for its future?

The March 2015 death of the founder and patriarch, Lee Kuan Yew, has left the 5.5 million residents of the city-state in the hands of technocrats who have been some of the world’s most intensive city planners. It is a city best thought of as an experiment in social planning. So far, it has been a successful one, with gross domestic product ranking third highest in the world behind Qatar and Luxembourg and highest in Asia. It is clean, efficient and modern.

But social planning presupposes good social planners. And that is easier understood than it is put into practice. The planners have to be good in what they do, i.e. educated and virtuous (in the Legalist sense: they have to excel in planning). But they also have to be modest. Otherwise, central-planning becomes tyranny. However there is still a greater challenge: The planning elite has to remain in power. It is not sure that Singapore really understands what this last sentence means.

Nominally, the city-state is a democracy. What happens to its model if the people decide to oust the People’s Action Party (PAP)? Is there a plan for the transition of power? Are the other politicians and the people they eventually will bring into government and administration equally educated, virtuous and modest? And even in a more modest scenario: What would happen if the PAP formed a coalition government with a significant partner? Do they have a plan for that?

These are more than theoretical questions. If history is any guide, with the establishment of a middle-class comes political diversity. And with it competition enters the realm of politics. Certainly, some regimes can slow the pace of this transformation down. Other can even bring it to a halt – albeit just a temporary one. But one of the aspirations of the middle-class is to partially determine its future. From a certain point on, following the plan, being nudged by the state, being told which the boundaries of imagination are, stop being as appealing as they once were. From a certain point on, liberty calls.

Sure; it comes with the nature of the middle-classes’ diversity that different groups of people understand liberty differently. For the one group, liberty is living without material problems and risk. But for the other, liberty is taking matters into their own hands, taking risks and indulging in rewards. Still for other groups, liberty is political self-determination.

In any case, the diversity of thought that a middle-class society usually has, might emerge in Singapore, too. This is good news. The potentially bad news is: The city-state’s central planners never had to deal with diversity of thought before. Even worse: They might see this diversity as something disruptive – which it is – and perilous or even bad – which it isn’t. Their lack of experience in dealing with diversity of thought might lead them to counter it altogether. Or it might even lead to a breakdown of the central-social-planning model.

There is a way out of that possible dilemma. It is embracing diversity, especially diversity of thought and political competition. It also means accepting that there is less social-planning to do. But at the same time, it strengthens the liberty of Singaporeans. The question if the city-state is truly prepared for its future translates into: Is Singapore prepared for liberty?

Henrique Schneider is chief economist of the Swiss Federation of Small and Medium Enterprises (sgv). He can be reached at