Tolerant Pragmatism: Singapore’s Next Growth Strategy?

 
 

Despite handwringing by political progressives about the PAP’s landslide victory in the 2015 general election, social change is inevitable – and it may even originate within Singapore’s proudest policy arena: the economy. If the knowledge economy of the past and present is about starched shirts, lab suits, and pocket protectors, the creative economy of the future is about tight jeans, helix piercings, and MacBook Airs. These fashion references may be dated, but the point remains: Singapore’s competitiveness will soon be in the hands of a new style of worker. The PAP has shown remarkable adaptability in restructuring Singapore’s economy to capture global opportunities. To stay ahead of its regional peers and retain talent, Singapore should continue its willingness to eschew ideology in favor of pragmatism. One opportunity is gay rights.

Richard Florida – oft quoted, oft criticized – made a noisy contribution to the understanding of urban growth in the creative economy with his talent-technology-tolerance framework. The first two are arguably uncomplicated. A city can attract talent through amenities, or develop it through education and training. Technology is still only as good as its investment and prudent management and application. Tolerance, however, is an urban policy hobgoblin for two reasons. First, in countries with multi-layered government, cities often have little control over national level social policies that influence their economies. Second (and more relevant to Singapore), tolerance goes much deeper than law. With a recent ruling by the United States Supreme Court, gay couples can now marry in politico-religious fiefdoms like Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma, but this likely has little effect on social tolerance and may even compel besieged ideologues to double-down.

Likewise in Singapore, there is no guarantee that a socially progressive policy revolution would prompt prejudiced contrarians to abandon their beliefs. However, it would send a message to creative talent pools – global and domestic – that the freedom to pursue happiness without hurting others is protected (and maybe one day will be celebrated) in Singapore. Tolerance is the link in Richard Florida’s framework that is missing in the newly developing world, and Singapore has an opportunity to be a regional and global leader on this issue, as it has for economic development and urban planning.

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As Singapore’s regional peers move predictably – albeit sluggishly – through the standard economic development stages, there will be increased competition in the industries for which Singapore has long enjoyed an unassailable competitive advantage. Better educated workers, lower wages, and institutional reforms in countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, and India may eventually erode Singapore’s regional dominance in knowledge industries (such as science research, and FIRE: finance, insurance, and real estate). The competitive Singapore of the 21st century may look more like New York, San Francisco, and London look today: a robust creative sector filling the gap left not only by long-departed manufacturing industries, but also by FIRE industries geographically dispersed by globalization. The openness and tolerance characterizing emerging creative industries may be spilling over into remaining knowledge industries – both legally and culturally. This social bricolage helps enrich the atmosphere of global cities.

Singapore’s historically rapid economic development has occurred despite the presence of Section 377A, the Singaporean law criminalizing homosexual activity. Many other nations have generated economic growth while retaining similar laws criminalizing homosexuality. Indeed, firms in finance, insurance, and petrochemicals – three of Singapore’s staple industries – likely do not base location decisions on a country’s social policies; they are more interested in “business friendliness” and market access. By contrast, for creative industries – the arts, education, fashion, advertising, entertainment, architecture, design, and so on – location decisions revolve in part around the imperative to attract world-class talent, and this ability is dependent on global perceptions of social tolerance. As such, Singapore’s legacy industry mix explains why its economy has grown without much concern for the image “liability” of 377A.

To educated foreign workers who play a part in bolstering Singapore’s global competitiveness, the country’s ostensibly race-neutral policies and veneer of social cohesion may seem enlightened relative to regional peers. Some expats coming from highly “progressive” countries (in Scandinavia, for instance) might feel otherwise, but for ideological moderates it may be satisfying enough to know that Singapore chooses not to aggressively apply 377A (despite the affirmation of the law’s constitutionality by an appeals court in 2014). This “soft prejudice of low expectations” about Singapore’s social progressivism places the bar fairly low for policy reform. A quasi-tolerant equilibrium has emerged, one that arguably makes sense within the current political milieu. However, the retention of 377A in any form fails to alter global perceptions.

Arguably the most significant drawback of refusing to repeal 377A concerns Singapore’s image not with the rest of the world, but with its own citizens – and young professionals in particular. Singapore was recently recognized as having the “smartest kids in the world.” Brain drain has been a problem in countries across the region, including Vietnam. Many young Singaporeans choose to move away for education and work, although global connectivity and stagnant Western economies may compound the cyclicality of these patterns. In general, this emigration represents a loss of raw intellectual capacity because emigrants tend to be a self-selecting group of highly creative thinkers; these are exactly the type of workers Singapore needs to build competitiveness in the booming global creative industry.

Regardless of whether 377A is ever applied, its presence may – to some of these workers – reflect an unsettling disinterest in the social progressiveness making gradual headway in the West. Canada recently elected a progressive national government. The 2016 United States presidential election appears to be the Democrat Party’s to lose, with the support of a fractured Republican Party alternating between a megalomaniacal billionaire and a former doctor who believes that prison makes people gay. The disarray of right-wing parties in many countries provides would-be emigrants with attractive relocation opportunities. Granted, repealing 377A will do little to address personal attitudes that can make life at home, work, and in public uncomfortable for gays; social progress famously lags legal progress, and the West is no exception (see: modern racial discrimination in the United States). However, the repeal would be a symbolic gesture to Singapore’s gays, and also to the decreasing number of close-minded Singaporeans, that the country is serious and proud about embracing all forms of tolerance.

In the final analysis, 377A appears increasingly antiquated with each passing year, particularly as developed countries make progress on marriage equality. The intolerant minority is becoming marginalized as generations turn, and the pragmatism of economic policy makes government intrusion into private lives look childishly meddlesome. Pressing social issues such as wealth inequality and an ageing society seem far more important than matters of love. In the United States, public attitudes about gay marriage have evolved significantly in the past decade, and the few outraged by the recent pro-gay Supreme Court ruling are on the fringe right, which has little relevance at the national political level despite its loud voice. Lee Kuan Yew, who openly questioned why law would criminalize a trait some people are born with, said “I think we pragmatically adjust” regarding such laws. This year, Lee Kuan Yew’s son and current Singaporean Prime Minister echoed that sentiment, saying of gay residents, “We do not harass them or discriminate against them.” Nevertheless, the repeal of 377A would, at the moment, be highly unexpected. There will be a time when such reform makes better political sense; when the government believes that a policy shift reflects society’s values.

With that said, on matters of fundamental human rights the majority is not always moral. Extending voting rights to women and racial minorities in the United States was unpopular, but as a policy decision supported the concept of equality. Last year, a Singapore pastor claimed, “The voice of the LGBT [sic] is growing louder. If they succeed in repealing 377A, this will lead to a loss of religious freedom as seen in other countries…It’s crazy.” This logically vapid argument has also been used in the recent Kim Davis controversy in the United States. Fringe groups around the world are using ideology as a battering-ram to crash the gates of tolerance and freedom, but their ideas will eventually be relegated to the rubbish heap of abandoned fallacies as more people acquire the education to dismantle antiquated, self-evident dogma.

In Singapore, repeal of 377A would effectively be window dressing; gays work, socialize, and recreate without the legal harassment they would endure in many other countries. The repeal, however, would generate positive attention globally and enhance the country’s brand image as a beacon of pragmatism in a region still making social and economic progress. Further, it would be a symbolic moment domestically, possibly making life more comfortable for Singapore’s talented would-be emigrants. Shane Tan, a budding Singaporean blogger and one example of the country’s youthful creativity on the brink of departure, argues that the repeal would encourage “an accepting environment in which talented, creative, intelligent Singaporeans who happen to be LGBT would want to stay and not flee.” Arguably, Lee Kuan Yew himself would agree that retaining local talent helps Singapore maintain a competitive edge. Indeed, Lee even said of homosexuality, “It’s a matter of time before it’s accepted here.” That time came much sooner than expected in the United States; it may in Singapore as well. Gay marriage is only a distant hope, but decriminalization of homosexuality is an increasingly realistic prospect.

Kris Hartley is a Visiting Lecturer in Economics at Vietnam National University – Ho Chi Minh City, and a PhD Candidate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. 

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