Singapore in the 21st Century: Addressing the Unique Challenges of My Homeland
Singapore is my homeland, an island-state borne from the political turmoils of the 20th century — colonialism and communism. The prosperity enjoyed by Singaporeans is a product of economic prosperity and political stability. This is fascinating to many, given Singapore’s adoption of a free-market model yet with government-linked-corporations, or its unitary dominant-party nature. Nevertheless, any nuanced insight and academic scholarship on Singapore recognises the tradeoffs that have come with this success. In order to build a more prosperous society, where prosperity goes beyond material success to include economic well-being, issues from social, political and economic realms need to be addressed. This essay will examine the issues of freedom of speech, economic inequality and education, highlighting certain areas of concern and propose solutions. The issues were selected for their relevance and their nature in spanning across fields.
First, to address the issue of freedom of speech. Singapore remains a country where these freedoms remain a point of contention between the government and activists/critics. While these rights are constitutionally guaranteed, there are policies and laws that have the potential to curtail these freedoms.1 A potential threat lies in the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019 (POFMA) that seeks to curb false statements on matters of public interest through the issuing of correction or stop communication orders by Ministers.2 The risk arises in its details. While it is a comprehensive attempt to deal with the abuse of social media to spread hatred, the law allows for extensive government control. A prevailing condition for use is that the issue has to be in the “public interest” and includes the maintenance of “public confidence” as part of “public interest”.3 As critiqued by the International Commission of Jurists, “members of a ruling government, holding political office, cannot be deemed, under the law, to be impartial, reliable artbiters of what constitutes ‘legitimate criticism’ of their performance”.4 Hence, the law has the potential for abuse to violate freedom of speech in the name of maintaining ‘public confidence’. Additionally, POFMA in its current form lacks redress and sufficient oversight mechanisms. With the burden of proof being on the recipient of a POFMA correction order in court challenges,fruitful discussion on contentious topics where information is scarce becomes practically inconceivable.5 As the leader of my country, I would re-examine POFMA and look into revisions to increase judicial oversight without compromising on efficacy. Firstly, the creation of an independent reviewing commission for POFMA usage to review appeal requests and orders on an impartial and objective basis. Secondly, allowing for the direct process for an appeal to be brought to the abovementioned independent commission or the High Court without an application to the Minister who ordered the direction. Lastly, reducing POFMA ambiguity through more transparent communication on what “public interest” entails in the issuing of correction or stop orders. These changes protect the freedom of speech in the country, contributing to prosperity both directly and indirectly. A Singapore that firmly aligns itself to protecting these rights would generate more productive discourse and new ideas that sustain economic growth in the long-run by value creation, increasing productivity and “competitiveness of existing enterprises”.6 Additionally, it would further attract investors, particularly ethical investors. This is also in light of evidence that exchanging ideas is critical for producing an innovative economy.7 Through the upholding of the freedom of speech, we allow for vibrant political and economic discourse that produce solutions for the betterment of society.
Second, to address the issue of economic inequality. In spite of increasingly progressive taxation and continuous attempts to curb economic inequality, economic inequality remains an issue as an inherent outcome of Singapore’s capitalist system.8 Gaps include the widening income ratio between top 10% and bottom 10% of earners, the lived reality of inequality, and structural factors.9 To address the widening income ratio, I would first look into the measurement of inequality and include non-resident households in the calculation of the official Gini coefficient. This more holistically measures inequality, taking into account the fact that foreign workers in fields such as construction are likely to earn the lowest wages in the country.10 To reduce socio-economic inequality, my solutions would lie in two main areas. One, increasing the Workfare Income Supplement (WIS), a payout scheme for lower wage workers, alongside legislation to prevent employer exploitation through unfair income regulation of employees and the allowing of greater flexibility in allocation of the WIS split across cash and CPF (a compulsory savings and pension plan for working Singaporeans and permanent residents).11 This would allow for a greater closing of the income gap and also incentivise better income management. Two, to deal with structural factors and shift away from a self-reliance focused narrative, through a review of the lived reality plights of low-income households at the grassroots level and the funding of solutions for these issues with emphasis on education, housing and healthcare. This is due to the disparity between statistical data and the realities faced by low-income households, including those rooted in qualitative plights. An example of which is the cramped living conditions faced by lower-income families, highlighted by an ethnographic study of inequality by Professor Teo Yeo Yenn.12 These policy changes address the disparities between reality and data, and would contribute to a more prosperous society by increasing economic well-being by reducing inequality, as well as increasing the disposable income of lower-wage workers to boost short-term economic growth. Third, to address the issue of education. Ultimately to build a prosperous society, an educated and economically relevant populace is key in driving progress in the socio-economic realm.13 This however, does not necessitate complete adherence to economic pragmatism at the cost of educational equity. The issue with education in Singapore is a nuanced one — particularly the realities of full-subject-based-banding (FSBB) that replaced streaming.14 FSBB is a replacement to streaming, where students are categorized according to academic ability based on standardized tests at various stages of childhood, rooted in economic pragmatism.15 FSBB seeks to end stigmatization from streaming and boost social mixing through allowing students of different abilities to be together in the same class and to take individual subjects at different aptitude levels.16 However, limitations remain such as structural constraints on upgrading the band of humanities subjects taken from Secondary 1 to Secondary 2 or the number of available subjects in different schools.17I would seek to impose a more ambitious FSBB policy, with a greater emphasis on educational equity without compromising entirely on pragmatism. This would come in the form of a review of assessment formats to better account for biases such as cultural competencies like setting priorities and time management that disproportionately reward children from middle and upper-classes.18I would also put in place greater flexibility to reward good performance through being able to more easily take subjects at a higher level, like being able to upgrade from a lower G3 band to a G1 (the highest) band of any subject given good academic performance at the end of every academic year. In general, policy focus will shift more towards educational equity. This helps create a more prosperous society as educational equity contributes towards economic mobility both inter and intra generational.19 A focus on equity ensures that everyone is able to achieve their maximum economic output, whilst recognising the unique difficulties faced by different income groups.
To conclude, my ideas to build a more prosperous society fundamentally rest on reviewing and re-examining policy issues and gaps faced in Singapore to derive nuanced solutions that address the problems whilst maintaining the virtues.
1 Parliament of Singapore, “Constitution of the Republic of Singapore” (1965), https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Act/CONS1963.
2 Parliament of Singapore, “Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019” (2019), https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Act/POFMA2019.
4Ian Seiderman to Hsien Loong Lee et al., “RE: Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill 2019,” Letter, April 2019.
5 Selina Lum, “Burden of Proof on Recipient of Correction Directions under Pofma to Show Arguable Case: Apex Court,” The Straits Times, October 8, 2021,
6 Shqipe Gerguri and Veland Ramadani, “The Impact of Innovation into the Economic Growth,” MPRA Paper, no. 22270 (May 20, 2010), https://ideas.repec.org/p/pra/mprapa/22270.html. 7 Edward L. Glaeser et al., “Growth in Cities,” Journal of Political Economy 100, no. 6 (December 1992): 1126–52, https://doi.org/10.1086/261856.
8 Tessa Oh, “Budget 2023: More Progressive Tax Changes to Help Fund Social Support,” Business Times (Business Times, 2023),
9 Singapore Department of Statistics, “Average Monthly Household Income from Work per Household Member (Including Employer CPF Contributions) among Resident Employed Households,” Singapore Department of Statistics (Singapore Department of Statistics, February 9, 2023), https://tablebuilder.singstat.gov.sg/table/CT/17803.
10 Thum Ping Tjin, “Explainer: Inequality in Singapore,” New Naratif (New Naratif, April 28, 2023), https://newnaratif.com/explainer-inequality-in-singapore/.
11 Central Provident Fund Board, “CPFB | Workfare Income Supplement,” www.cpf.gov.sg, n.d., https://www.cpf.gov.sg/member/growing-your-savings/government-support/workfare-income-supplem ent ; Central Provident Fund Board, “CPFB | CPF Overview,” www.cpf.gov.sg, n.d., https://www.cpf.gov.sg/member/cpf-overview.
12 You Yenn Teo, This Is What Inequality Looks Like (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2018). 13 Catherine Grant, “The Contribution of Education to Economic Growth,” K4D (K4D, March 3, 2017), https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5b9b87f340f0b67896977bae/K4D_HDR_The_Contribu tion_of_Education_to_Economic_Growth_Final.pdf.
14 Ministry of Education, Singapore, “Full Subject-Based Banding (Full SBB),” www.moe.gov.sg (Ministry of Education, Singapore), accessed June 2, 2023,
16 Amelia Teng, “What MPs Said about Abolishing Streaming and Replacing It with Subject-Based Banding,” The Straits Times, March 4, 2019,
17 Ministry of Education, Singapore, “Full Subject-Based Banding (Full SBB),” www.moe.gov.sg (Ministry of Education, Singapore), accessed June 2, 2023,
18 Cameron Kheng, “Reasons to Doubt the ‘End of Streaming’ in Singapore – Singapore Policy Journal,” Singapore Policy Journal | A Harvard Kennedy School Publication, July 1, 2022, https://spj.hkspublications.org/2022/07/01/reasons-to-doubt-the-end-of-streaming-in-singapore/#_ftn1 1.
19 OECD, Equity in Education (OECD, 2018), 192, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264073234-en.
Central Provident Fund Board. “CPFB | CPF Overview.” www.cpf.gov.sg, n.d. https://www.cpf.gov.sg/member/cpf-overview.
———. “CPFB | Workfare Income Supplement.” www.cpf.gov.sg, n.d. https://www.cpf.gov.sg/member/growing-your-savings/government-support/workfare income-supplement.
Gerguri, Shqipe, and Veland Ramadani. “The Impact of Innovation into the Economic Growth.” MPRA Paper, no. 22270 (May 20, 2010).
Glaeser, Edward L., Hedi D. Kallal, José A. Scheinkman, and Andrei Shleifer. “Growth in Cities.” Journal of Political Economy 100, no. 6 (December 1992): 1126–52. https://doi.org/10.1086/261856.
Grant, Catherine. “The Contribution of Education to Economic Growth.” K4D. K4D, March 3, 2017.
Kheng, Cameron. “Reasons to Doubt the ‘End of Streaming’ in Singapore – Singapore Policy Journal.” Singapore Policy Journal | A Harvard Kennedy School Publication, July 1, 2022.
Lum, Selina . “Burden of Proof on Recipient of Correction Directions under Pofma to Show Arguable Case: Apex Court.” The Straits Times. October 8, 2021.
https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/burden-of-proof-on-recipient-of-correction-di rections-under-pofma-to-show-arguable-case?ref=singapore-samizdat.com. Ministry of Education, Singapore. “Full Subject-Based Banding (Full SBB).” www.moe.gov.sg. Ministry of Education, Singapore. Accessed June 2, 2023. https://www.moe.gov.sg/microsites/psle-fsbb/full-subject-based-banding/secondary-sc hool-experience.html.
OECD. Equity in Education. OECD, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264073234-en. Oh, Tessa . “Budget 2023: More Progressive Tax Changes to Help Fund Social Support.” Business Times. Business Times, 2023.
Parliament of Singapore. Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (1965). https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Act/CONS1963.
———. Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019 (2019). https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Act/POFMA2019.
Seiderman, Ian. Letter to Hsien Loong Lee, Chee Hean Teo, Tharman Shanmugaratnam , and Kasiviswanathan SC Shanmugam. “RE: Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill 2019.” Letter, April 2019.
Singapore Department of Statistics. “Average Monthly Household Income from Work per Household Member (Including Employer CPF Contributions) among Resident Employed Households.” Singapore Department of Statistics. Singapore Department of Statistics, February 9, 2023. https://tablebuilder.singstat.gov.sg/table/CT/17803.
Teng, Amelia. “What MPs Said about Abolishing Streaming and Replacing It with Subject-Based Banding.” The Straits Times, March 4, 2019.
Teo, You Yenn. This Is What Inequality Looks Like. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2018. Tjin, Thum Ping. “Explainer: Inequality in Singapore.” New Naratif. New Naratif, April 28, 2023. https://newnaratif.com/explainer-inequality-in-singapore/.