By Natalie Feder and Rolf Bachmann, St. Gallen Symposium
At the 1st St. Gallen Symposium Singapore Forum held on 23 January 2016, a number of prominent Singaporean thought leaders provided interesting insights on the topic of the 46th St. Gallen Symposium (11-13 May 2016, Switzerland), "Growth - the good, the bad, and the ugly".
During the five decades since it achieved nationhood, Singapore has undergone an unparalleled process of radical change that has transformed it into a thriving global technology, manufacturing and, above all, financial hub. Along the way and despite its small size, it has overcome many challenges, showing a remarkable ability to turn weaknesses into strengths and flourishing in a way few would have imagined two generations ago.
Growth has been fundamental to The Lion City's development, described by Singapore's first and longest serving Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in his memoirs as being "from third world to first", so it is interesting to see how a number of prominent Singaporeans reflect upon the meaning of growth and the different directions in which it can lead.
In Singapore, as elsewhere in the world, economic growth and development are seen as vital for progress and survival. For society, development is essential because it creates the kind of hope that spurs on human ingenuity, making it possible to overcome the challenges that society faces. In other words, growth can be seen as a means to unleash the human spirit and the individual's pursuit of happiness. The absence of growth would be tantamount to not giving hope to the next generation. In Singapore, growth is seen as a way to uplift lives and to leave behind a better world for future generation.
The good way for an economy and its civil society to grow involves achieving prosperity on a sustainable basis through good governance with a whole range of associated benefits to humanity, such as good health and education. Growth without a healthy level of governance tends to have a negative impact on civil society, bringing problems such as unemployment and poverty. When extreme growth is pursued, focusing solely on the current generation, it can quickly become ugly. If that occurs, fundamental questions need to be asked about the values of a country's leaders. Continuing with the mindless pursuit of material wealth is unacceptable, for human beings then lose all sense of what a better world could be. It is also essential to remember that many important things in life are difficult to measure and that it is unwise to take a single number as a yardstick.
Despite Singapore's substantial economic achievements in the past 50 years, its rapid growth has led to various problems including income inequality and strained infrastructure. In recent years, the Singapore government has been able to narrow the huge income gap to a certain degree, not least thanks to a steady increase in the real incomes of low and middle-income Singaporeans combined with reinforcement of the social safety nets and greater progress in government taxes and transfers.
Singapore's current high standard of living is the result of a process of proactive and visionary leadership. The question arises of whether Singapore's next generation of leaders will be able to build on the impressive legacy of its predecessors. There is increasing awareness in Singapore of the merits of helping students to make their own choices in the light of their particular strengths, passions and interests, rather than following blindly what others expect from them. This greater flexibility will hopefully lead current students to develop a resilient understanding of sustainable growth, enabling them "to plant the robust and healthy trees in whose shades their next generation will not only rest but further flourish".