In a webinar by Academia.SG on 1 May, five panellists reflected on the possible fallout of the COVID-19 crisis and offered suggestions as to how those negative impacts could be mitigated.
Part of the webinar— titled “Beyond the pandemic: what we have learned, and still have to learn”—focused on the role of society as a whole and academics in particular can create a space where fundamental change to social policies can be made possible.
The speakers were Professor of Media Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University’s School of Communication, Cherian George; Professor Emerita of Corporate Strategy and International Business at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, Linda Lim; Professor of Practice at the Institute of Public Policy of the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, Donald Low; Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Kenneth Paul Tan; and Assoc. Prof and Provost’s Chair in Sociology at the Nanyang Technological University, Teo You Yenn.
Singapore society is more individualistic than we think
Ominously, Assoc. Prof Teo noted that if collective action is not taken immediately, people will face great hardships ahead. Because of the scale of the COVID-19 crisis, the number of people who will find themselves struggling will only increase as wages go down and unemployment rises in the wake of the pandemic, she said.
The professor stressed, however, that these impacts can be mitigated partly through reforms of Singapore’s social policy, adding that social policies are meant to correct the “irrationalities of the market”. Essentially she explained that Singapore’s growth-focused economic policies that guide the nation’s social policies places market-based efficiency over all else and doesn’t necessarily bring the most value to individuals.
“Many important roles and many important jobs are not necessarily highly rewarded through the market,” said the associate professor.
She went on to explain that this is how social policies here are currently structured, and emphasised that a fundamental shift is required to allow more people to flourish as individuals and as a society.
Going on, Assoc. Prof Teo said that there is a deep sense of “differentiated deservedness” in the country’s social policies.
She explained that people are quite individualistic and focused on what they can do for themselves and their families. She said, “There’s a very thin sense of mutual obligation, very thin sense of lateral ties across society. I think it really is important that our institutions be reformed in a way so that it is not the case.”
On that note, Prof George chimed in to highlight that the lack of community spirit in Singapore society runs counter to the story that Singapore is a “communitarian, non-individualistic” society.
“There’s no evidence that Singaporeans are demonstrating any more or less social cohesiveness or unselfishness or community spiritedness than any other peoples in the world,” said Prof George, adding that the crisis has exposed the fact that our desire to look after our own doesn’t actually scale up from family to strangers.
Singapore lacks self-organisation and strong civic institutions
Prof Low jumped in to add that society never really had the chance to develop those intermediate institutions between the government and families.
“And so Singapore just got this unusual dichotomy between a very strong state and a relatively weak society because we have not developed the civil institutions, the civil society that usually defines the space between state and private individuals and families,” lamented Prof Low.
He went on to reference the book The Narrow Corridor by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson which said that what allows society to keep its freedoms while also restricting an overly authoritarian government are civic institutions.
“You need a strong society to complement a strong government,” he stressed.
Drawing from the example of Hong Kong, Prof Low said that the society in that city is capable of self-organisation for better or for worse.
“They knew from the start they have to practice social distancing, practice better standards of hygiene, to put on masks. At the initial stage, the Hong Kong government actually discouraged people from wearing masks. And the public backlash was so strong, they had to back track on that.”
He then explained that diverse and strong societal response is extremely helpful when dealing with complex situations such as a global pandemic. Relying solely on the elite and governments to make the right call will more often than not lead to them getting some things wrong. This is why a compensating mechanism is crucial.
He added, “What the experience here shows is that you do need compensating institutions when the state doesn’t always get it right. And those compensating institutions have to come from bottom up.”
It is irresponsible for the PAP to use nationalist rhetoric
Prof George expanded on that point in the local context to note that the use of nationalist rhetoric is worrying because “the PAP establishment is making the mistake of thinking that this is just harmless political rhetoric”
He added, “But there’s a big difference between cultivating an inclusive patriotism, which I think is very good, from an exclusive nationalism, which is pretty dangerous.”
“The government seems to assume that it can separate the two.”
The professor added that when people are made to think in an exclusivist nationalist way, not even the PAP can “put the genie back in the bottle”, adding that there has been a rise of authoritarian populism around the world.
He went on, “Frankly, I think it is irresponsible for the PAP to be using this kind of rhetoric. We should not be playing the nationalist populist game as if we’re immune from these forces. We should be instead inoculating ourselves against these ways of thinking.”
“Stop talking about critics as if they’re anti-nationals. Stop encouraging the us-versus-them attitudes,” he urged.
The lack of engagement by scholars with society is institutionalised
On the question of what scholars can do to create the space that is required for change to happen, Professor Emerita Lim said that academics need to continue with research, teaching, and public education. On top of that, scholars should also not be afraid to research and speak out on certain issues to share their expertise and opinions.
As for civil society, Prof Lim stresses that strong communities are needed to transcend the us-versus-them thinking that is pervasive in Singapore society today.
On this note, Prof Low said that part of the rise of authoritarian populism is also the rejection of experts.
“Social media has given rise to the view that my personal experience, my personal opinion counts more as evidence than what experts say,” Prof Low explained.
Though he doesn’t think this is happening in Singapore yet, the professor highlighted that this sentiment has already begun to grow.
As such, Prof Low emphasised the importance of social scientists and scholars stepping up to counter those sentiments.
“We need to make ourselves heard because one sure way we will get to that disdain and rejection is if we keep silent and we let public discourse and social media be dominated by ignorant, maybe well-meaning, but ignorant voices,” he suggested.
Looking at the problem from within the academic sphere, Assoc. Prof Tan chimed in to suggest that the reason there isn’t more intervention from scholars is that many of them are reclusive. Additionally, there is a “nervousness” in Singapore about how academic contributions to the public might be interpreted or received by both the state and the public.
“But there’s also the preoccupation in academia to do the kind of research that views public intervention as a distraction,” he added.
He also noted that competitiveness in university has “ripped apart” collegiality and support between academics. This has to be changed.
However, he admitted, “Being much more interventionist beyond academic circles is actually having to swim against the tide and for some, it’s a very rough tide.
“Those of us who can afford it should be especially generous in the way we build collegiality within our departments and within our faculties. I think it’s got to start by strengthening our own scholarly environments.”
Assoc. Prof Teo then added that this lack of engagement is no accident, but is in fact institutionalised.
She suggested that something scholars can do to counter that is build ties and alliances outside of academia with the larger community.
“With other people who are in the civil society space, with people in the arts, activists, and to try to build communities there, where we can learn things, we can build alliances, we can take risks alternately, or spread out the risks where possible.”
“It will take a lot of really explicit attention and purposeful action to do.”