The problem with the national conversation: information asymmetries

Dear friends, as long as there are significant information asymmetries in the government-citizen relationship, Singapore will never be able to have a completely fair and open national conversation.

What information asymmetries exist? Simply, the government has all the data and information, and we, the people, are given only selective access to it. Whenever people talk about the “lack of information” or the need for a “freedom of information” act, it is difficult to grasp what precisely this means in practice, and why exactly we need it.

Hence, in my humble bid to shed some light on this problem, I will adopt the same approach as I did last year, when I wrote a piece entitled “The problem with Singapore’s media“, showing six clear examples of institutionalised bias in Singapore’s media.

Here, I will show three clear examples of how the Singapore government’s stranglehold over data has blunted my ability to function as an analyst and journalist, preventing me from writing transparently, undermining the richness of any dialogue I can hope to promote through my writing.

If you’d like to cut straight to the three examples, please click here. But, if you are keen on some discussion on information asymmetries in society, then do read on.

Information asymmetries

“In economics and contract theory, information asymmetry deals with the study of decisions in transactions where one party has more or better information than the other. This creates an imbalance of power in transactions which can sometimes cause the transactions to go awry, a kind of market failure in the worst case.” 1

Information asymmetries can lead to several “market failures”, including adverse selection, moral hazard, and principal-agent problems.

“Adverse selection” is best demonstrated through the market for second-hand cars. Sellers know exactly how many times they’ve spilled coffee or burnt rubber on the cars they’re selling. Buyers don’t. Sellers of lemons are more likely to be bargained down than sellers of good cars. At any given price, it is more likely that a lemon than a good car is going to be sold, to the detriment of buyers and sellers of good cars.

“Moral hazard” pops up frequently in the insurance industry. Insurance firms assume all 26-year old drivers are the same. But Speedy Gonzalez assumes that once he has paid his insurance, he can drive how he wants because somebody else will cover him. If the insurance firm could have identified the Speedy Gonzalezes beforehand, it would have raised their premiums.

“Principal-agent problems” occur when the interests of the “principal” are not aligned to those of the “agent” who represents the principal. These issues are commonly discussed in terms of corporations. The company owners (principals) hire managers (agents) to run the firm. But the managers (agents) make decisions–bigger bonuses, more Club Med retreats–that might not be in the interests of the owners (principals), who are keen to maximise profits.

Everyday information asymmetries

Consider the doctor-patient relationship.

“The asymmetry of information makes the relationship between patients and doctors rather different from the usual relationship between buyers and sellers. We rely upon our doctor to act in our best interests, to act as our agent. This means we are expecting our doctor to divide herself in half – on the one hand to act in our interests as the buyer of health care for us but on the other to act in her own interests as the seller of health care. In a free market situation where the doctor is primarily motivated by the profit motive, the possibility exists for doctors to exploit patients by advising more treatment to be purchased than is necessary.” 2

Errrr, Susan Lim?

Many information asymmetries also exist in the financial services industry. Given the drama we witnessed in 2008, it’s fitting that we look at collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) in the American mortgage market. Perhaps the most famous example of an information asymmetry being exploited is when John Paulson, a hedge fund manager, allegedly influenced the composition of a Goldman Sachs CDO and then bet against it. In other words, Mr Paulson helped choose some really shitty mortgages that went into a bond which was then sold off to investors. The investors thought it was gold. Mr Paulson knew it was crap. And he made money off that trade. (Of course, he could have also lost money if the value of those subprime mortgages kept rising.)

Closer to home,  we have the Lehman Brothers Minibond Saga, where Singaporean financial institutions were accused of having mis-sold products; ten of them had penalties imposed. The mis-selling was possible only because of an information asymmetry: the sellers of the financial products had more information–i.e. understood the risk-reward profile better–than the buyers, many of whom were inexperienced elderly investors.

Information asymmetries in government-citizen relations

Government-citizen information asymmetries can lead to principal-agent problems. Elected politicians are actually the agents who are chosen to act on behalf of the principals: the voters, the people, the citizens. But these agents (politicians) may not always be acting in the best interests of the principals (voters).

Why would governments want to hide information from citizens? It usually relates to elite protection. People in positions of power, in their bid to retain their status, can go to great lengths to hide and massage data and information.

A country’s political system influences its approach to freedom of information. On one side of the spectrum we have the most information-biased country on the planet: North Korea, a brutal totalitarian, military dictatorship. On the other, we have liberal democracies, such as the US, which not only have Freedom of Information acts–including systematic declassification of secret government documents–but also have assertive, independent media outfits that relentlessly hound the government for data and information.

However, it would be wrong to conclude that the countries with the most liberal information agendas are the ones with the most politically aware or enlightened populations. As much as there is information, there is also mis-information. Vested financial and political interests regularly  manipulate the media in ostensibly open, democratic systems. That is the reason why many Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11, and why many of them today believe that President Obama was born outside the US.

Hence, even in countries where there is freedom of information, one might argue that the informational outcomes are not always optimal from the principals’ (voters) point of view. There are many other factors that matter, including literacy and media quality and diversity. If you’re keen to read more about information control and media manipulation, do refer to the work of Noam Chomsky.

Nevertheless, all other things being equal, it is in the interests of principals (voters) to demand greater information access from their agents (government); with a few possible caveats, related to national security. Yet, even then, according to Mr Chomsky in this video on freedom of information,

“If you look at the declassified records, you find very little material that has anything to do with national security or the defense of the country. What you find mostly is the need to defend the government against its own population. Most of what’s there, they just don’t want you to know, because it harms power.”

What are some other countries that have Freedom of Information Acts? According to Wikipedia,

“President Pervez Musharraf promulgated the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 in October 2002. The law allows any citizen access to public records held by a public body of the federal government including ministries, departments, boards, councils, courts and tribunals. It does not apply to government owned corporations or provincial governments. The bodies must respond within 21 days.

In Germany, the federal government passed a freedom of information law on September 5, 2005. The law grants each person an unconditional right to access official federal information. No legal, commercial, or any other kind of justification is necessary.” 3

Where does Singapore sit on this government-citizen information continuum?

Although some government critics have in the past (ridiculously) put Singapore and North Korea in the same sentence,  in terms of information, we are actually much, much closer to the US or other Western liberal democracies than we are to totalitarian states. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of information that the government keeps from us–let me describe the three instances of government agencies rebuffing my requests for data and information.

Note: As with my earlier piece on the media, I will not be revealing the names of any of the Singapore government officials I communicated with. This article and argument has absolutely nothing to do with them; it is simply about the system and structure that we all have to operate within. In fact, all of them were quite cordial and prompt in my discussions with them, and were simply following orders–or, perhaps, as often happens in any hierarchical organisation, they were erring WAY on the side of caution. Not empowered to make big decisions, so they “cover backside”, and turn me away.

Here are the three incidents:

1) Secretive population data Part I

In November 2009 I was working on a piece for The Economist looking at immigration and its impact on Singapore. You can read my final article here.

As part of my research for the piece, I wanted to find out the ethnic breakdown of three groups of people: the “Permanent resident population”, the “Non-resident population”, and the “New citizens (i.e. not born in Singapore)”?

Why did I want to know the ethnic breakdowns? Simple. I wanted to see if Singapore’s immigration policies were giving preference to any particular nationality or ethnic group. Some HR personnel and small business owners had told me, for instance, that it is much easier to bring in Chinese from China, Malaysia and Indonesia than it is any other person on this planet.

I wanted to find out if this is true, partly because then it might explain some of the irritation in society with service staff who speak only Chinese. ““I am Singaporean and tired of service staff who can only speak Mandarin” is a group on Facebook, the social-networking site, with more than 10,000 members,” I had written three years ago.

So I asked the Population Statistics Section at the Singapore Department of Statistics. The only data point it offered was “Permanent residents by ethnic group, 2000”. This was its reply: “We are sorry to inform we are unable to provide further breakdown of the permanent residents and non-residents for the other years requested.”

As soon as I read this, my mind started racing. Why wouldn’t the government want to share ethnic breakdowns of migrants? Was the situation really so serious, i.e. has Singapore really been drastically changing the composition of its population? I still don’t know.

I also asked the newly established National Integration Council (NIC): “How many Singapore citizens are Singapore-born, and how many are foreign-born?” This would allow me to properly consider the extent of the “integration” challenge facing the NIC.

I was foolishly assuming that the NIC would be happy to share this data. After all, if its mandate is to promote integration, surely it has to know how many foreign-born people there are in our country? And surely it would want to inform the people in the country so they are aware of all the other wonderful people in the country?

Well, no. As you will read further below, that was the first but not the last time the government did not want to share this bit of information with me. Again, my mind started racing. Why does the Singapore government not want Singaporeans to know how many foreign-born citizens are in the country?

2) Secretive education spending data

Earlier this year, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), where I work, published a research report comparing preschool education around the world. I was the editor of the report. After the report was completed, I wanted to write an Op-Ed for The Straits Times on preschool education in Singapore. You can read the Op-Ed here.

Just to rewind a bit–when the EIU was conducting its research for the project, we had asked each of the 45 countries we studied to provide us with data on “Government spending per relevant-aged child”, i.e. how much public money is being spent on children below the age of 7. For every other country, this is public information. Not here–in Singapore, this data is confidential.

Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) had very kindly agreed to let us have the data purely for the purposes of building the model, i.e. we could use it in our benchmarking of the 45 countries, but were not to publish it publicly.

OK. I had initially thought this was because MOE, for whatever reason, did not want this info being disseminated across the world. But surely MOE would consent to publishing it in the local newspapers, for Singapore citizens to understand the state of preschool education here?

Well, not really. The official at MOE told me not to release this figure to The Straits Times. So, as you will see in my Op-Ed, I had to dance clumsily around the fact:

“In terms of government spending per year on each relevant-aged child, exact figures for Singapore are not available, but it is understood to spend less than Norway does (US$7,620 in PPP terms), and less also than countries such as New Zealand (US$4,329), Japan (US$4,029) and Poland (US$2,635).”

From a journalistic point of view, this creates confusion. Any reader who reads the above statement will ask: So, what exactly does Singapore spend? Is it US$2,500? Or is it US$500? This loss of clarity is to the detriment of all parties involved.

From a citizen’s point of view, you are probably asking yourself the same question I did. In an article in a Singapore paper, why is it that we Singaporeans are not allowed to know how much of our tax money is flowing into preschool education? Not only that, what makes it more galling is the fact that we do have the information to discuss all the other countries’ spending amounts. But not ours.

Why does the Singapore government not want Singaporeans to know how much it spends on preschool education?

(Note: Even though I learned about all this during the course of my work, there is nothing confidential here. I did not discover all this because of any privileged access. Anybody who is interested in preschool spending in any of those 45 countries would have found out exactly what I did.)

3) Secretive population data Part II

The most recent brush I had with government information intransigence was last month, when I was doing research for a piece entitled “The End of Identity” that I intended to publish on the IPS Commons site.

In order to get a better grip on Singaporean identity, I wanted to know what percentage of citizens were born in this country. Essentially, the same question I had asked three years prior, but coming it at from a slightly different angle.

This time, I was actually much more optimistic about getting a straight answer from the government. At a macro socio-political level, from 2009 to 2012, there have been quite significant changes in this country, as Singapore’s political space has opened up. In particular, it seemed to me that the government is trying to be much more consultative, and engage citizens like myself in conversations and dialogues. At a more micro level, I was buoyed by the setting up of the National Population and Talent Division (NPTD), which sits under the Prime Minister’s Office. The NPTD was some proof, I thought, that the government is taking the population issue seriously.

Perhaps most importantly, the NPTD had recently rolled out a population “Issues paper” with a big song and dance, with the specific aim of “engaging the public extensively this year to hear their views, because we think it’s an important issue that affects all of us,” according to an official at NPTD.

Finally! Now I can ask the NPTD all my burning population questions that will help me write my pieces.

Well, not really.

As it turns out, the NPTD only wants Singaporeans to discuss certain population issues, not others.

After almost one week of mulling what to say to me, amid numerous conversations with a Corporate Comms person there, this was its official reply: “The number of Singapore citizens, as at Dec 2011, is 3.27 million. We do not provide a breakdown in terms of local-born or naturalised citizens, as we regard them all as Singaporeans.”

From a journalist’s point of view, this whole process of information gathering can be quite frustrating. First, I have no idea about whether I’m going to get the data I need. Second, my piece gets held up for a week, as the government spin doctors whir into action. No big deal in this case, since many people ultimately got to read it. But it still rankles.

Third, there is again loss of clarity, to the detriment of all parties.

This process of government obfuscation, which then leads to journalists having to come up with rough approximations, which then leads to readers having to wonder what the truth actually is–is this the kind of National Conversation we want to have?

Is the NPTD interested in a genuine engagement or is its main purpose simply to communicate the government’s population policies to the people of Singapore?

And, to ask the same question that bothered me three years ago, why does the Singapore government not want Singaporeans to know how many foreign-born citizens are in the country?


Conclusion: What kind of a national conversation do we want?

Let me sum up with a few points. First, when faced with requests for Freedom of Information, a frequent government retort–not just in Singapore, but the world over–is that “there are national security concerns”. If anybody ever mentions this to you, dear reader, I’d appreciate if you can point them to the above three examples. I can’t wait for somebody to explain how spending on toddlers is a national security concern.

Second, to reiterate, I do not think there’s any point haranguing Singaporean government officials (i.e. civil servants) who refuse to provide data or information. They are trying to do the best possible job given the constraints they face, just like journalists in mainstream media outlets. We have an institutionalised problem that needs to be addressed.

In fact, I think the government officials’ jobs would be much easier if Singapore had a Freedom of Information Act. Then they wouldn’t have to spend time wondering whether to respond to requests from people like me. They could just get on with their work. Do note that data and info is not transparent even within the govt. According to my public sector friends, there is often a problem with government units hoarding information and hiding it from other government agencies.

A Freedom of Information Act would help us all. Note that, according to Wikipedia, “A basic principle behind most freedom of information legislation is that the burden of proof falls on the body asked for information, not the person asking for it. The person making the request does not usually have to give an explanation for their actions, but if the information is not disclosed a valid reason has to be given.”3

Even if a Freedom of Information Act is politically unworkable in the short term, I am sure there are other ways to free up the mountains of data and information that citizens want access to. Perhaps we can set up a separate “Information office”, or Ombudsman of some sort, with the authority and mandate to get other government bodies to release information to the public. I’m sure there are other problems around this, but it’s high time we considered all our options.

On a related note, I am not even sure Singapore’s most senior politicians are happy with the status quo. Some may be, of course, but there are others who might see the value in sharing data and information–like those in the 3 examples above–with the general public. This can improve the quality of public discourse and ultimately policies. But, as with any huge, hierarchical bureaucracy, not every intention at the top gets passed down the chain of command swiftly. It is entirely possible that the foot soldiers are slightly out of step with the generals.

Earlier this year, Teo Chee Hean, the deputy prime minister, got a lot of stick for asking students “What do you think?” in response to some tough questions. While it would have been nice for Mr Teo to offer more concrete opinions of his own, part of me agrees with him. It is important to ask Singaporeans what we think. (It’s also important to listen and absorb our responses.)

This is largely because of the increasing complexity of policymaking and economic development. In a modern, knowledge economy in an open, globalised world, information and knowledge exists in disparate pockets everywhere. “What do you think?” has arguably become a much more important question than at any point in our history.

But it’s also important for Mr Teo to remember two things. While it is good to ask “What do you think?”, the PAP should do so with a dose of humility. One of the main reasons Singaporeans assume that we do not have to think and contribute to policymaking is, well, for decades the PAP told us NOT TO.

“They say people can think for themselves? Do you honestly believe that the chap who can’t pass primary six knows the consequence of his choice when he answers a question viscerally, on language, culture and religion? But we knew the consequences. We would starve, we would have race riots. We would disintegrate.”
– Lee Kuan Yew, The Man & His Ideas, 1997

The second thing Mr Teo should understand is that as long as there are significant information asymmetries in society, Singapore will never be able to have a proper national conversation. And we the citizens will never be able to “think” as well as we should.


Dear friends, in my book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze, I discuss in further detail several of the issues that crop up in this essay: the Malaysian and Singaporean governments’ control over information, and scripting of our national history; Singapore’s population policies; and our approach to ethnic composition, and the supposed preference for Chinese migrants.

If you are in Singapore, please join us for my book launch at 8pm, September 26th at the Esplanade. Do RSVP to Riya at if you’d like to come. Please click here for more details of the launch.

Also, the book itself will be available in book stores in Malaysia and Singapore very shortly. Look out for it! Or to buy on Amazon, click here.


1 Wikipedia:


3 Wikipedia:

Photo credit: Derek Midgley’s photostream

The End of Identity?

Dear friends, what does it mean to be Singaporean? Can we even build a national identity when less than half of our total population was born here? I published an essay on IPS Commons today examining these issues. Please click here to read it.

A shorter version is available on Yahoo! Please click here if you have less time 🙂

Would love to hear your thoughts on this piece, good, bad, agreements, disagreements. Thanks




Article reproduced here:

China-born Feng Tian Wei’s Olympic table tennis bronze medal has sparked an outcry in this country about what it means to be a true Singaporean. Many Singaporeans say they feel no pride about the country’s first individual Olympic medal in four decades.

Yet the problem is not so much that Ms Feng has failed to integrate into Singapore. It is that the people who grew up in Singapore, myself included, have failed to integrate into Ms Feng’s Singapore — the Singapore of the future.

Native Singaporeans cling to a romantic notion of national identity that is now passé. For better or worse, the era of Singaporean national identity, the one that our founding fathers tried to establish, is fading.

From birth, an artificial nation

In many countries, national identity develops from a common tribal base, whether stemming from ethnicity, as in Japan, or religion, as in Pakistan. In some other countries, national identity is nurtured initially through a shared values system — for example, freedom and opportunity in the United States.

On August 9th, 1965, Singapore had neither.

“Some countries are born independent. Some achieve independence. Singapore had independence thrust upon it,” says Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, in his memoirs. “How were we to create a nation out of a polyglot collection of migrants from China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and several other parts of Asia?”

As Mr Lee says, most modern states are the products of a drive to self-determination from a nation of people. In Singapore, the opposite happened. We were made a state, and then had to artificially create a nation.

Singapore hence tried to establish both a unique tribal base as well as a shared values system. The unique Singapore tribe comprises Chinese, Indians and Malays, who speak English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil and worship at temples, mosques and churches. Other dialects (e.g., Hindi) and religions (e.g., Zoroastrianism) that might belong to these three main groups in their homelands were occasionally tolerated, but sometimes, as in the case of Chinese dialects, actively suppressed.

Meanwhile, almost every other person from outside this polyglot tribe was welcomed into the new Singapore of 1965, but was stuck with the rather uncharitable, amorphous label of “Others”.

When Singaporeans first receive an Identity Card, which states our ethnicity, at age 12, we huddle and swap them around with our friends, poking fun at unflattering photographs and pontificating about exactly where young Mr/Ms “Others” is from. The message to “Others” has always been clear: please stay, but do remember that you are different from us.

‘Singaporeanness’ — poetry, pragmatism and patois

Singapore also ingrained a common set of values in people — hard work, tolerance, the importance of meritocracy, and the belief in pragmatism both in day-to-day behaviours and national policies.

In what is now a well-worn yarn, this combination of hard work and meritocracy, coupled with an open economy and good governance, propelled Singapore up the development ladder in a few short decades.

While the economy grew rapidly, Singaporean identity always remained in flux. It has not been easy creating an imagined community out of nothing. At no point in our history did “What does it mean to be a Singaporean?” have an easy, consistent answer. Depending on who you speak with, Singaporeanness can range from the trivial (“Our food!”) to the profound   (“Pragmatism”).

Yet even the famed Singaporean pragmatism has no consistent definition. At its meekest, it points simply to the habit of making rational rather than reckless decisions. At its most draconian, Singaporean pragmatism can refer to an austerity of action and thought where every single interaction is pregnant with cold calculation, where every calorie, it seems, must be expended only towards some higher economic purpose.

“Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford,” Mr Lee famously told students at what was then called the University of Singapore in 1968. This brand of Singaporean pragmatism is our brutal riposte to Europe’s joie de vivre. Even today, when fans of the fiscally prudent Singapore government thumb their noses at Southern Europe’s parlous public finances, the crux of their triumphalism is a preference for disciplined pragmatism over the perceived trappings of joie de vivre.

Tensions between Singapore’s various cultural narratives have always simmered below the surface. They came to the fore most prominently in the late 1990s, when a segment of Singapore’s population, led by Goh Chok Tong, the then prime minister, fought a misguided battle to dampen the use of Singlish in Singapore, claiming that foreigners may not be able to understand Singaporeans who speak Singlish.

The inevitable backlash was ferocious — which in Singapore means we all sobbed quietly to cabbies. Confused Singaporeans lamented the possible loss of one of our few truly unique cultural markers.

A country for migrants

And yet Mr Goh need not have worried. From the mid-1990s till today, a dramatic experiment in mass immigration as a means to counter low birth rates has meant that opportunities to use Singlish are dwindling.

In 1990, more than 86% of Singapore’s population was made up of citizens. By 2011, this had dropped to below 63%. More telling, given the high number of new citizens from abroad, is the fact that perhaps less than 50% of Singapore’s total population was actually born here.[i]

Put another way, Singapore is possibly the only country in the world where there are more migrants — including temporary workers, permanent residents and foreign-born citizens — than native-born people. Some like to call the US a country of migrants. Singapore is much more — it is a country for migrants.

The recent furore over “The Sticker Lady” dug up some old debates about vandalism and the nature of art. What was missing was a discussion about her linguistic choice and the market for it. Perhaps the reason Sticker Lady doesn’t have more fans in Singapore is because, well, less than half of the country even understands the meaning of kancheong. Perhaps, to the immense relief of English pedants, the 1990s will one day be remembered as the apex of Singlish.

Differentiation in the face of globalisation

Proponents of high immigration in Singapore point to the demographic make-up of global cities such as London and New York as exemplars. This argument is somewhat defensible from an economic point of view, but it also reveals the fundamental problem with Singaporean identity.

London and New York are global cities that are connected to much larger heartlands. No matter how cosmopolitan they become, there will never be any doubt about what it means to be, respectively, a British and an American. The identity of those countries is never in question.

Singapore, largely because of history and politics, is untethered from our most obvious heartland, the Malay Peninsula. Singapore is not a primary city for the Malay-Indo region, or for China, or for India. We have tried to position ourselves as the Asian jack of all trades, a developed world hodge-podge that is both all of Asia and yet not Asia at all. Again, while this may work economically, from an identity standpoint, contradictions abound.

This combination of globalisation, low birth rates and high immigration has essentially overturned the very essence of Singaporean identity that our forefathers tried to build. The traditional notion of “tribe” — Chinese, Malay and Indian — has been disrupted.

While diversity must be cheered, it would be callous to ignore immigration’s impact on feelings of identity and belonging. Singaporeans welcomed “Others” when they were a small minority; now that “Others” are flooding in, completely dissolving native-born Singaporeans in places such as Marina Bay, the core feels vulnerable.

“My Singaporean Chinese friends used to speak only English to me,” says Farouk Khan, a Singaporean who lives in Kuala Lumpur. “Now whenever we meet, they are always trying to litter their conversation with Malay words and phrases. They are trying to show that they are local Chinese, different from the Mainland Chinese.”

Some suggest that when Singaporean Chinese try to differentiate themselves from Mainland Chinese — or, for that matter, Singapore Indians from India Indians — it is because of classism or racism or some other prejudice. While perhaps true in some instances, the most basic instinct that is driving these actions is the loss of identity. Singaporeans are desperately clawing onto any vestiges of Singaporeanness.

The pro-migration camp does not seem to understand these grumblings. The common refrain is that many countries welcome migrants, and so Singapore should be no different. But this harks back to the earlier point about magnitude. While migration does occur globally, no other country has enacted such dramatic demographic change.

The seemingly irrepressible waves of migrants over the past two decades have affected Singaporeans’ job opportunities, quality of life and, most importantly, identity.

Failed by meritocracy

This is true not only in terms of our tribe but also values. Singapore’s meritocracy has long promised that as long as individuals work hard, they will enjoy the fruits of their labour, with the best workers rising to the top of the ladder. Here, again, mass immigration has undermined this contract.

At the top end, the perception is that the global elite has moved here with containers of cash in hunt of lower tax rates, and is creaming off the spoils of Singapore’s growth. At the bottom end, a seemingly endless stream of low-cost migrants from neighbouring countries has allowed businesses to keep wages low, squeezing out hardworking Singaporeans who face spiralling living costs.

In the middle, there are many stories about how the infusion of migrants has torpedoed Singapore’s meritocracy. One common anecdote relates to India Indians in the financial services sector, who prefer to recruit their old chums from back home rather than promote well-qualified Singaporeans from within.

Unlike many other countries, including Hong Kong and the US, Singapore does not require employers to look for locals first. For any particular vacancy, companies are free to hire from anywhere in the world (up to their foreign-worker quota). They do not even have to advertise the position locally.

As a result, over the past few years, there have been countless accusations of employers giving preference to foreigners over locals — the reasons vary, depending on the sector and seniority. In mid-level service jobs, for instance, employers can generally hire foreigners from less-developed parts of Asia at lower wages.

Singapore’s meritocracy was meant to reward people fairly for their efforts; but in the eyes of many locals, it appears to be performing less and less equitably. This, in turn, has threatened the very notion of Singaporean identity.

Ethnic integration — taking a page from Malaysia

Finally, mass migration has dented Singapore’s attempts at inter-ethnic integration. Recall that the entire thrust of Singapore’s national identity formation from the 1960s onwards involved a seeping away of ethnic, clan and communal identities and sentiments in favour of the higher, common Singaporean identity.

Don’t speak Hokkien, we were told, because we can’t alienate the non-Hokkien speakers. Don’t allow too many Indians or Malays to live in the same area, we were told, lest a ghetto forms. The Singaporean, a new glorious pan-Asian breed, was meant to rise from the ashes of ethnic and religious strife, to tower above the clannish impulses that govern lesser beings.

But somebody forgot to tell the new migrants. Ethnic enclaves have now formed, including a rather posh Indian one in the East Coast and a more humble Vietnamese one in Joo Chiat. Foreign languages and dialects are all the rage, echoing through the corridors of high finance down to the back alleys of coffeeshops. Ms Feng, to the bewilderment of her fellow citizens, has not bothered to learn English, despite having lived in Singapore for five years.

In terms of identity, it is as if native-born Singaporeans have been marshalled and spanked for years while migrants, including new citizens like Ms Feng, have been given carte blanche to be whoever they want to be.

It is interesting to compare the relative reactions to the two Malaysian and two Singaporean Olympic successes. Ms Feng not only won an individual bronze, she and her China-born compatriots also won the team table tennis bronze. For Malaysia, Lee Chong Wei won a silver medal in badminton, while Pandelela Rinong Pamg won a bronze for diving.

Singapore is regarded as having more harmonious inter-ethnic relations. Malaysia is often accused of treating minority groups, including the Chinese and Indians, as second-class citizens. But the different receptions accorded to the athletes speak volumes about identity in the two countries.

While Singaporeans ummed and ahhed about our paddlers, who belong to the majority ethnic group, Malaysians came together in overwhelming force to bask in Olympic glory, cheering two people from minority groups — Mr Lee is Chinese while Ms Pandelela is from the tiny Bidayuh community in Sarawak.

In other words, in Singapore there exists a degree of harmony and integration, but there are deep uncertainties about what Singaporean identity actually means. In Malaysia, by contrast, there is more ethnic and religious strife, often centred on disagreements about how Malay Muslim constitutional pre-eminence should be applied in society. However, even while Malaysians repeatedly re-negotiate this social contract, one might argue that they are more comfortable in their own skin — they have a stronger sense of identity.

Unweaning the need for guidance

There is perhaps also a lesson here about the state’s role in identity creation. Singapore has always had the stronger state and a more active, top-down national identity campaign. But the flipside is that the state might have always come across as overweening, moralising and paternalistic. This may have bred a certain dependence amongst the population, who seek guidance from above on all issues — from ethnic relations to whether graffiti should be considered art — that might be important for identity creation.

All the institutions, including those in the arts, media and civil society, that might have played a role in organic identity creation, have been co-opted or subdued by the state. In short, Singaporeans know who we are supposed to be, but have not been given much of a chance to say who we want to be.

Eschewing poetry might have helped focus Singaporeans on technical skills, but it probably also lobotomised our identity-creating instincts. How many Singaporeans still know the words to “Di Tanjong Katong”?

Global citizens vs. national citizens

With birth rates unlikely to rise rapidly, and immigration likely to continue, albeit at a more moderate clip, it will be interesting to see what happens to this fragile, embryonic, 47-year-old Singaporean identity. How can a country construct a national identity when less than half the total population was born there?

Some will argue that a person does not need to be born in a country to really feel at home. Perhaps. But it certainly helps. My mother moved from India to Singapore in 1974 at age 24. Though she has lived here for 38 years, and is very Singaporean in so many ways, she still doesn’t really understand the nuance of kancheong. People will always have one set of feelings for the land where they were born and grew up, and another for their adopted home.

Perhaps the reality is that Singapore cannot build both a national identity and a global city identity. The national identity served us well in our formative years, but the global city identity will carry us forward. We are actually in the midst of a transition from the former to the latter.

A global city identity is much more fluid, less rooted, than a national identity. People do not take up Singapore citizenship for the same reasons they take up, say, American citizenship.

In Singapore, it is not about ideals or dreams or what the country stands for. In Singapore, the impetus for migration is purely transactional — including lower tax rates, safer streets and the ability to invest in property. Migrants, many of whom now have a critical mass in Singapore, tend to live their own lives in their own silos. They interact with others, of course, playing, working and breaking bread together. But there is no larger, imagined community here that binds all the people in Singapore.

The migrants of today will probably never integrate like the migrants of yesterday. The world is more globalised and cognitive distances shorter. Migrants already think of Singaporeanness in terms of a global city identity, not a national one. Many will send their children to international schools — launchpads, it is hoped, for them to join the global elite. For these young ones, Singapore is just one of a patchwork of identities they hope to stitch together as they journey through life.

And that, strangely, represents the optimism in this identity story. There are few countries in the world where race, religion and language are depoliticised to this extent, where it is so easy to set up a business, where people from all over the world can visit so seamlessly.

By unwittingly de-emphasising national identity, and ultimately nationalism, Singapore is creating a model for a future where nationhood, ethnicity and religion should not matter. Each must be celebrated, but remain secondary to the higher human identity.

In other words, while there may never be a larger, imagined community within Singapore, people here will constantly be thinking about the larger, global imagined community.

Some suggest that the Singaporean’s greatest strength is as a global interlocutor. In this rapidly evolving multi-polar world, we can find common ground with more people than any other nationality. Simply, we have more cultural touchpoints with more people.

The Americans, so the argument goes, find it easier to deal with Singaporeans than with any other Asian. The Chinese, similarly, have less trouble communicating with Singaporeans than with people from other English-speaking countries. According to George Yeo, Singapore’s former foreign minister, Singaporeans are experts at “code switching” when they move from communicating with, say, a relatively introverted Asian to a gregarious Westerner.

Embracing a global identity

This transition from a solid albeit nascent national identity to the more fluid global city identity will have implications for mindsets, personal interactions and national policy. For instance, instead of viewing India Indians with suspicion for their allegedly cronyistic recruitment policies, Singaporeans must start to realise that this might actually be how many cultures operate.

Not every society adheres devoutly to a strict paper meritocracy. Connections and networks matter, as do non-traditional interests and pursuits. “The India Indians are much better at looking after their own kind,” admits one disgruntled Singaporean banker friend. “Singaporeans are more adversarial, afraid that others will get ahead, so we do not compliment or praise each other as much publicly.”

With a national identity lens, Singaporeans might complain more about India Indians screwing up our meritocracy. But from a global city identity standpoint, Singaporeans might be more eager to absorb lessons, and ultimately beat the India Indians at their own game — both in Singapore, and possibly in India. This is not to condone cronyism; rather, more a recognition that societal structures and incentives will always be different the world over.

Similarly, if we embrace this global city identity, Singaporeans should not care if Ms Feng never learns any English. She does not have to sound like us to be one of us. Her time is probably better spent smashing balls than reading Shakespeare.

Letting go of outdated policies

From a policy point of view, this transition from a national identity to a global city identity has many implications, but most directly for integration. In a global city, it makes little sense, for example, to maintain ethnic quotas in HDB housing estates, when all over the country little ethnic enclaves have formed.

These quotas were useful when Singapore was emerging from the turbulent 1960s. Today, they are archaic, paternalistic and, perhaps worst of all, condescending. The policy’s effective — though certainly unintended —  messaging today is: “Foreigners and rich people do not have to integrate because they can take care of themselves. But Singaporean HDB dwellers must, lest you gang up and fight.”

Becoming a global city, therefore, requires some fundamental changes in mindsets and policies. In any case, regardless of national policy, this transition is underway. Every year sees more mixed marriages, as cultures and languages blend further. There are many stories of professionals leaving their jobs to pursue alternative careers or go to cooking school, embracing joie de vivre at the expense of pragmatism. Organically, from the ground up, Singapore’s identity is evolving.

Prioritising social inequity

But there remains one major problem with this transition from a national identity to a global city identity. Many have been left behind.  Social inequality has risen rapidly over the past two decades.

The only way for all Singaporeans to accept the pros and cons of living in a global city is if we can actually participate in it. Indeed, if Singaporeans from all backgrounds had shared in the city’s growth over the past decade, any supposed xenophobia would have been muted.

Addressing inequality — including in education, employment and income — remains this global city’s greatest priority. Though the government clearly recognises this and has begun to take steps to address this, it will not be easy reducing social inequality. Singapore faces global trends — such as economic and technological change — that have created a winner-takes-all global market economy, where wealth is increasingly concentrated at the top.

Domestically, meanwhile, mindset changes are needed. But it will not be easy convincing Singaporeans to embrace a more redistributive socio-economic model after decades of severe allergy to welfare.

And yet the alternative is dire. If Singapore is unable to reduce social inequality, lower-income citizens will become increasingly disenchanted both with their economic prospects and their sense of belonging in this global city. That could lead to serious social friction of the sort that Singapore has never before witnessed.

All roads lead to a global city

Given globalisation and the ongoing shift of economic power from the West to the East, it seems likely that all the global cities in the world — including Dubai, London, New York and Singapore — will experience some form of identity convergence.

Global cities will start to look and feel more and more like each other, from the kinds of shops that set up to the nature of business activities in the city. They will attract people from the same talent pools. These global cities will be similar, but each with a local flavour.

So, the end of (national) identity, but the start of something new? It is doubtful, though, if a global city identity can ever inspire fervour like a national identity can. In this new global city future, Singaporeans might never cheer for one of our own the way Malaysians of all stripes celebrated their Olympians.

But Singaporeans won’t worry too much about such things; we will just join the Malaysians in cheering Mr Lee and Ms Pandelela. After all, a winner is a winner, no matter what country — or city — they’re from.


[i]. Singapore’s National Population and Talent Division (NPTD) was unable to provide me with the data for the percentage of Singapore citizens born in Singapore. This is its official response: “The number of Singapore citizens, as at December 2011, is 3.27 million. We do not provide a breakdown in terms of local-born or naturalised citizens, as we regard them all as Singaporeans.”

Based on this, I do not know if the government does not have the data or if it has the data but does not want to release it to the public. In any case, I have performed a very rough calculation based on other publicly available data to arrive at a rough ‘guesstimate’ that 45.8% of Singapore’s total population (residents and non-residents) was born in Singapore.

Percentage of citizens in total population, 2011: 62.2% (from government sources)

Percentage of citizens that are born in Singapore, 2011: 73.6% (my own calculation)

Therefore, percentage of total population that was born in Singapore, 2011: 45.8%

For more detail on the assumptions in my calculation, please refer to this page.