Singapore’s innovative response to its rough and vulnerable beginning has shaped the first 50 years of the island country, Michael Sherraden said Wednesday, speaking to a crowd gathered at the National University of Singapore for his public lecture marking Singapore’s 50th Anniversary as an independent nation.
“Socially, in sharp contrast to 50 years ago, the population is well-housed,” said Sherraden, who is the George Warren Brown Distinguished University Professor at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) and the S.R. Nathan Distinguished Professor of Social Work at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Sherraden also is the director of the Center for Social Development and of the Next Age Institute at Washington University. Next Age Institute is a McDonnell International Scholars Academy partnership between WUSTL and NUS.
“Ethnic and religious groups are no longer violently at odds, and today enjoy each other’s favorite dishes and celebrate each other’s holidays,” he said in his lecture titled “Fifty Years of Social Innovation: Reflections on Singaporean Social Policy.” “Order and safety have become hallmarks of daily life in Singapore. Geopolitical ‘space’ has been extended, so that Singapore is not nearly as strategically vulnerable as it once was.”
The city-state has become impressively modern, he said. But how did all of this occur, and so rapidly? Much of the credit for Singapore’s growth and stability is due not to economic strategy alone but to social innovation, Sherraden said. He stressed Singapore’s understanding of the state as a social entity and a tool for social development. Singapore is an “intense laboratory,” abandoning failures and expanding successes. “Perhaps no other modern society has been as creative,” Sherraden said.
Sherraden summarized some of Singapore’s major social policy innovations and achievements. Step by step, the Singapore state created a new social policy system that had asset building as its central structure, he said. In the world of social policy, it would be hard to overstate the exceptionality and the extent of this innovation, he said. During the past 25 years, Singapore policy has taken important steps toward lifelong asset building, beginning very early in life. These innovations include EduSave, the Baby Bonus, Child Development Accounts, and related asset-building incentives.
The development of housing in Singapore also is remarkable, Sherraden said. Public housing shelters about 80 percent of the population, with all but a small percentage in home ownership, Sherraden said. “The goal is household stability,” he said, and in keeping with that goal, social policy subsidizes home ownership for the lowest income families and is also oriented to family-by-family problem solving—effective social work—as needed.
“Like any social policy, this is not perfect, and some families do not succeed,” Sherraden said. “But overall the success rate in housing stability is remarkable.” More than 90 percent of Singaporean households are homeowners, he said.
Also, the overall health and longevity of the Singaporean population is high, while the cost for health care as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product is quite low, currently about 5 percent, Sherraden said. “We can compare this to the United States, where life expectancy is lower than in Singapore, yet health care expenditures are approaching 18 percent of GDP.” Health policy is complex, he said, but perhaps the United States should learn more about other examples of health policy in the world, including what is happening in Singapore.
To understand Singapore’s social innovation overall, consider some main themes, Sherraden said. He named several: look and plan ahead; build a multiracial society; house the nation; invest in human capital.But Singapore also has opportunities to improve. The government tends to be protective of data about the population, and this inhibits research and international comparisons. Sherraden offered an example. The United States is testing the concept of universal accounts at birth (Child Development Accounts), he said. Research evidence is positive, and in 2014 three U.S. states announced they would create universal accounts for children. “This is great progress,” Sherraden said. He said a next step is to suggest larger funding flows to the accounts, and in this regard it would be helpful to have data on how much funding is going into the Baby Bonus and CDAs in Singapore “because Singapore is more advanced in these policies than any other nation. This is an opportunity to join positively in international policy discussions.”
Singapore has been enormously innovative in social policy and has created a highly functioning social state, he said. But this also has some limitations—including the free flow of data and discussion, Sherraden said. “This is troubling, does not serve a good purpose, and can be improved,” he said.
“A key issue for international policy comparisons is to sort out social innovation from governance strategies, and on this there is some confusion. For example, the asset-building policies of Singapore are commonly referred to in the U.S. as ‘forced savings.’ However, U.S. Social Security policy, which is equally as mandatory and automatic, is not called ‘forced social insurance.’ In fact, both policies are highly structured. The comparative challenge is to sort out the policy design.”
“Singapore has a lot to gain and a lot to contribute in international policy discussions in its next 50 years,” Sherraden concluded.