Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus

Hard Choices Front_Ver 2

Dear friends, I am very happy to announce the release of my new book, Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus, co-authored with Donald Low, with contributions by Linda Lim and PJ Thum, and published by NUS Press.

Do you recognise the image on the cover? Scroll to the bottom of this post to find out more about it.

Availability in Singapore

Donald and I will be taking part in a discussion at NUS, moderated by David Skilling of the Landfall Strategy Group. Bookhaven will be selling copies there at S$20 per book (usual price S$24).

Date: April 22nd 2014
Time: 6:00pm to 7:30pm
Venue: Bookhaven, NUS U-Town. 2 College Avenue West, Singapore, Singapore 138607 (see here)

Registration is free, but necessary as space is limited. Click here to do so.

For those who cannot make it on April 22nd but still want a personalised copy autographed by the two of us—at the launch price—please order through me directly by April 22nd morning, for collection at NUS Press.

To order, send an email with your details, including autograph instructions (if any), to sudhir@post.harvard.edu. The S$20 is payable to NUS Press upon collection there (see here).

Otherwise, the book should be available in all good bookstores, including NUS Press itself, by end April.


Digital versions (Amazon, Apple, Kobo and B&N) will be ready by end April. We are still working out the Google Play delivery. Worldwide hard copies should also be available on Amazon by July 31st—although they are notorious for delays with hard copies.

Do check back here for updates; or click the “Follow” button at the bottom of this page to receive my blogposts automatically.

What is the book about?

The book is a collection of essays on Singapore, each dealing with a different policy or social dimension—including history, meritocracy, social security, housing and identity.

More important than the specific topics, perhaps, is the spirit of the book. Each essay challenges one or more assumptions of the Singapore consensus—from vulnerability to elite governance—and suggests policy alternatives, some fairly radical, to the limited and narrow options that are often presented in public discourse here.

Will greater welfare necessarily harm Singapore’s competitiveness? Does Singapore need high immigration in order to keep growing and raise living standards? Are ethnic classifications—Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others—and quotas in HDB estates necessary in order to maintain ethnic harmony?

A traditional Singapore establishment viewpoint would respond with a resounding YES to all of the above. In the book we skewer these and many other sacred cows.

Here is the synopsis from the back of the book:

The Singapore polity is changing – profoundly and possibly irrevocably. The consensus that the PAP government constructed and maintained over five decades is fraying. The assumptions that underpin Singaporean exceptionalism are no longer accepted as easily and readily as before. Among these are the ideas that the country is uniquely vulnerable, that this vulnerability limits its policy and political options, that good governance demands a degree of political consensus that ordinary democratic arrangements cannot produce, and that the country’s success requires a competitive meritocracy accompanied by relatively little income or wealth redistribution. 

But the policy and political conundrums that Singapore faces today are complex and defy easy answers. Confronted with a more critical and sceptical public and a political landscape that is likely to become more contested, how will politics and policymaking in Singapore evolve? What reforms should the government pursue? This collection of essays suggests that a far-reaching and radical rethinking of the country’s policies and institutions is necessary, even if it weakens the very consensus that enabled Singapore to succeed in its first fifty years.

Most importantly, we want to stress that there are no right answers, only hard choices. The higher purpose of the book is to stimulate and inspire ordinary Singaporeans to challenge and question long-held orthodoxies, in the belief that it is the distributed intelligence of Singaporeans—rather than the wise words of a few elites—that will lead to better policies, and ultimately greater prosperity and happiness.

On a personal level, I’m actually still a bit surprised that this day has even come. I wasn’t expecting to publish a book this year. As some of you know, I am actually writing a book on China and India (see here), what I thought would be my second. But about 12 months ago, some irreverent soul suggested that Donald and I stitch together some of our essays into a collection.

And so we dug out some old essays, revised them completely for this collection, then wrote a few new ones, and solicited wonderful contributions from Linda and PJ.

Donald, my co-author; Linda and PJ, contributors

Donald Low is associate dean for executive education and research at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. I first met Donald a few years ago when he had just left the Singapore Civil Service. I interviewed and featured him in my first book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore (see here).

Amongst the policy fraternity in Singapore, Donald is regarded as one of the most brilliant, outspoken intellectuals. Sumana Rajarethnam, my best friend, and I have concluded simply that he is the smartest guy in Singapore (contrary to popular belief, that sobriquet does not belong to anybody wearing white and earning millions). I make the claim despite the risk that you, dear reader, might interpret it as promotional fluff. It is one I am willing to take.

It is a great honour, then, to be co-authoring a book with him. This is our first full-length collaboration, hopefully many more to come.

Linda Lim, meanwhile, is a professor of strategy at the University of Michigan. She has studied and written about Singapore for almost forty years. She was one of the mentors and driving forces behind Sumana’s decision to cycle with me around Malaysia in 2004, a trip which led to my first book.

PJ Thum is a historian and research fellow at NUS. I first communicated with him after reading a review of his PhD thesis, Chinese Language Political Mobilization in Singapore, 1953-63 (see here). In his thesis, Thum draws heavily on Chinese-language sources to highlight the role played by the Chinese-speaking majority in Singapore’s decolonisation process, a story often left out in our British and English-speaking elite historical narratives.

PJ’s essay in this book is perhaps my favourite. Without giving too much away, he draws stunning parallels between Singapore in the 1950s and the Singapore of today. In the process, he debunks the notion that Singapore was some economic backwater in the 1950s, a favourite creation myth of establishment folk when boasting about the PAP’s legacy.

In fact, as PJ shows, in the 1950s Singapore had the highest per capita GDP in Asia outside of Tokyo. It was the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, a maritime and trading capital.

It makes me wonder: Did the PAP transform Singapore completely, as fans love to claim, or did it simply do a highly efficient job of pushing Singapore along a well-established trajectory?

(This question, to be clear, is not the subject of PJ’s piece, but a tangential one I have asked after reading it.)

Book reviews

“This is an important book and should be read by all who are interested in understanding post-2011 Singapore. The authors, Donald Low and Sudhir Vadaketh, are two of our most original thinkers”.

—Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-Large, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore

“These wide-ranging, diverse, and richly stimulating essays deserve to be read by anyone seriously interested in Singapore’s future. The arguments against presumed vulnerability and chaotic populism as reasons for elitist illiberal rule will be contested. The book’s own title predicts as much. But if they are, so much the better; especially if their public airing serves to hasten salutary reforms.”

—Donald K. Emmerson, Director, Southeast Asia Forum, Stanford University

 “This is a thoughtful collection of essays on recent political developments in Singapore that raises penetrating questions and offers plausible answers. The authors brilliantly pull together a variety of seemingly unrelated developments to highlight systemic patterns that deserve attention and response. It is a must-read for anyone interested in politics and public policy in Singapore.”

—M Ramesh, Professor, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore

Book cover

The image is a sculpture by Singaporean artist Chun Kai Feng, inspired by Singapore’s old National Theatre on River Valley Road.


The theatre was completed in 1964 and then demolished in 1986, largely to make way for the Central Expressway (CTE) Tunnel. It thus became another footnote in our country’s headlong rush to development. And therefore a very appropriate image for a book that challenges Singapore’s growth-at-all-costs mentality.

The sculpture is also of personal significance. One of my first ever book events in Singapore, for Malayan Breeze, was hosted by Fost Gallery in Gilman Barracks. At the time, Kai Feng’s work was hanging behind in the gallery as I spoke. So it’s wonderful to have it on the cover of my second book.


With Steph Fong and Clarissa Cortes of Fost Gallery, Gilman Barracks


National Theatre photo credit: Wikipedia

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