Book Review: Hard Choices (NUS Press)

The opening line of this book is as follows:

“Singapore’s economic success masks some uncomfortable truths about life in this city-state.”

The text is very neatly organised into three sections:

I. The Limits of Singapore Exceptionalism
II. Policy Alternatives for Post-Consensus Singapore
III. Governance and Democracy: Past, Present & Future

The chapters cover a wide range of topics, from economics, to inequality, to land mass / population challenges, housing policies, democracy, meritocracy, as well as the concept of defining a national identity.

I like how most of the chapters have a distinct two-part feature, in terms of first explaining the issue at hand before offering viable and constructive solutions.

For instance, Chapter 9 explains why the trend of increasing income inequality in Singapore is worrisome.

Far from it simply being an issue about money, the authors cite an academic paper which correlates a high initial level of high inequality with the decreased likelihood of establishing social programmes that enhance social trust. And why is social trust important? Because it leads people to be “more inclined to have a positive view of their public institutions, participate more in their civic and political organisations, [and] to be more tolerant of [others].”

Historian Thum Ping Tjin’s chapter, “The Old Normal is The New Normal,” is a condensed version of Singapore’s political history (dark events included). This chapter is notably hard-hitting for it demonstrates how the lesson of history is clear — that “only democracy, dissent, and diversity can offer the leaders and ideas required to meet Singapore’s challenges.”

In Chapter 12, Donald Low analyses what went wrong for the PAP during the 2011 General Election (GE 2011). He writes that the Singapore population has become “more demanding of transparency [and] accountability.” Wise advice is laid out, such as how high ministerial salaries contribute towards the weakening of political discourse which is “not conducive to mature, reasoned public debate of our policy problems.” The chapter also suggests that political reforms “founded on the virtues of fairness, equality and resilience” will help sustain Good Governance.

Donald Low ends off the book on a personal as well as social note. He concludes:

“As a liberal, the policy and institutional changes I wish to see are those that would make Singapore a more just city-state, one that prioritises the well-being of its citizens over narrow measures of economic progress.”

The biggest strength of Hard Choices is the diplomatically critical tone throughout the writing. The style is moderate and objective without being too inaccessible to the general reader with an interest in Singapore’s politics and/or policies.

It is this consistency throughout the chapters which renders the writing as effectively persuasive, in terms of why Singapore needs to undergo vital and constructive change in terms of governance. This happens to coincide with a new generation of Singaporeans that are “empowered by the internet and social media,” which as Mr. Low and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh write in the preface, has enabled citizens to “openly question many of the PAP’s long-held assumptions and beliefs.”

I would definitely recommend Hard Choices to people who may find “anti-government” or “anti-establishment” websites a bit too critical. I believe more than a few Singaporeans would be able to appreciate the book’s presentation of a wide range of pertinent issues, along with real alternatives that should be considered for the betterment of the nation and its citizens.

After all, it’s hard to argue with cool hard logic.

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More Information:

Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus (Amazon)
Hard Choices (NUS Press)
Hard Choices (Kinokuniya)
Hard Choices (Review by Howard Lee / TOC)

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I. DONALD LOW is Associate Dean (Research and Executive Education) at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Donald Low Online: LKYSPP | Facebook


II. SUDHIR THOMAS VADAKETH  is author of Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore. He also writes for a variety of publications, including The Economist and Yahoo! SG.

STV Online: Website | Facebook


III. LINDA LIM is Professor of Strategy at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michian, where she also served as director of the 53-year-old Center for Southeast Asian Studies.


IV. THUM PING TJIN (“PJ”) is a Visiting Fellow at Green Templeton College, University of Oxford; Senior Research Fellow at Sunway University, Malaysia; Research Fellow at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia; Research Associate at the Centre for Global History, University of Oxford; and co-ordinator of Project Southeast Asia.

Thum PJ Online: | Project Southeast Asia | Wiki | YouTube | Interview | TOC | Facebook