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Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus Paperback – April 21, 2014
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Donald Low and Sudhir Vadaketh are two of our most original thinkers. --Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-Large
About the Author
Sudhir Thomas VADAKETH is the author of 'Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore'.
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A book that dares Singaporeans to have belief that the foundation we have built allows for us to be a great city state for he future not by being more of the past but to be aspirational and really build a new social compact that will make us all strive to make it a home that both the young and old can live happily in a trusted engagement with fear that our future is constantly under threat.
The focus in Singapore has traditionally been on the pursuit of economic growth, but this book shows is that Singapore's conventional mode of thought that economic policies can and should be divorced from political and social policies is mistaken; that in fact getting social policies right can be as important to economic growth as industrial policies.
You don't have to agree with the writers to enjoy the book. It's more than enough that they help to frame a problem differently so that we can explore better solutions.
I particularly enjoyed Thum Ping Jin's essay on how the current political environment in Singapore parallels what existed towards the end of British rule, which showed that a politically vibrant society is both viable in Singapore and beneficial for long term survival.
That being said, because the rest of the book is so good, I do wish that there had been 1 or 2 more essays on the economic challenges facing Singapore included (besides the one by Linda Lim), especially since I used to work for EDB then MTI. However, I was told by one of the writers that they had to be selective in culling the number of essays, and that there could possibly be a volume 2.
This book leaves me hopeful for Singapore. Every civil servant should read this book.
"Singapore's economic success masks some uncomfortable truths about life in this city-state."
The chapters cover a wide range of topics, from economics, to inequality, to land mass / population challenges, housing policies, democracy, meritocracy, as well as the concept of defining a national identity.
Historian Thum Ping Tjin's chapter, "The Old Normal is The New Normal," is hard-hitting for it demonstrates how the lesson of history is clear, that "only democracy, dissent, and diversity can offer the leaders and ideas required to meet Singapore's challenges."
In Chapter 12, Donald Low analyses what went wrong for the PAP during the 2011 General Election (GE 2011). He writes that the Singapore population is becoming "more demanding of transparency [and] accountability." I hope future Singapore leaders take note of the wise advice laid out, such as how high ministerial salaries contribute towards the weakening of political discourse which is "not conducive to mature, reasoned public debate of our policy problems." The chapter also suggests that political reforms "founded on the virtues of fairness, equality and resilience" will help sustain Good Governance.
Donald Low ends off the book on a personal as well as social note. He concludes:
"As a liberal, the policy and institutional changes I wish to see are those that would make Singapore a more just city-state, one that prioritises the well-being of its citizens over narrow measures of economic progress."
The biggest strength of Hard Choices is the diplomatically critical tone throughout the writing. The style is moderate and objective without being too inaccessible to the general reader with an interest in Singapore's politics and/or policies.
It is this consistency throughout the chapters which renders the writing as effectively persuasive, in terms of why Singapore needs to undergo vital and constructive change in terms of governance. This happens to coincide with a new generation of Singaporeans that are "empowered by the internet and social media," which as Mr. Low and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh write in the preface, has enabled citizens to "openly question many of the PAP's long-held assumptions and beliefs."
I would definitely recommend Hard Choices to people who may find "anti-government" or "anti-establishment" websites a bit too critical. I believe more than a few Singaporeans would be able to appreciate the book's presentation of a wide range of pertinent issues, along with real alternatives that should be considered for the betterment of the nation and its citizens.
After all, it's hard to argue with cool hard logic.