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Singapore's midlife crisis

Posted on Aug 27, 2012 10:27 AM Updated: Aug 27, 2012 5:23 PM
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Singapore turned 47 this year. If the tone of public conversations on and offline is anything to go by, the country is in the throes of a midlife crisis.

And about time too.

Midlife in the human context is the period between ages 40 and 60, when many go through a process of re-evaluating their lives.

For some, midlife is a smooth progression from the drive and ambitions of youth through the maturity of middle age straight to the calm satisfaction of old age. For others, it can be a period of discontinuity, characterised by a distinct break, a sharp turn, and then a continuation on a totally different trajectory along the journey of life.

For the latter group, influential Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung's description of midlife will resonate: "Wholly unprepared, we embark upon the second half of life… we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still, we take this step with the false assumption that our truths and ideals will serve as before.

"But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life's morning - for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie."

After nearly five decades of material progress, Singapore is going through a period of soul-searching unprecedented since Independence.

Like a person going through a midlife crisis, the nation is questioning what once worked. What was once taken for granted as articles of faith, are being disputed.

Two key tenets undergirding the nation's success and stability in the first 46 years are being scrutinised.

The first is economic primacy.

A single-minded focus on economic growth has made Singapore very rich - in fact, according to various rankings by global organisations it is among the very richest countries in the world, if judged by its GDP per capita.

In the trade-offs between environment, heritage conservation or equity on the one hand, and economic development on the other, it has usually been the latter that has taken precedence. Hence the rapid transformation of green spaces and the clearing of rural areas into urban centres; the acquisition of private lands and properties by the state in the public interest to build roads, schools or homes; and the rapid influx of foreign workers to speed growth in recent years.

But there has been an intensifying level of unhappiness at such trade-offs, culminating in last year's watershed General Election.

Like a man who climbed the rungs to reach the apex of material success only to wonder if he was even scaling the right ladder, Singapore is today wondering if the costs of such rapid economic progress have been worth the price.

Singapore may stand at the top of the ladder of per capita GDP growth; but did it get there by trampling on some of its own family members? Did we do damage to our own kin in our race to be top?

This is a difficult issue to confront, yet confront it Singapore must, in order to get consensus on the way ahead.

It may be that after reflection and debate, we decide that economics must remain supreme, as the No.1 priority, without which there would be no viable Singapore nation. Or we may decide that other values like cohesion and justice matter just as much, and find a way to strike a better balance.

The second key tenet being questioned by Singapore in its midlife crisis is the political primacy of the People's Action Party.

The PAP's detractors may not care to admit it, but most fair-minded Singaporeans would agree that this country would be a very different - and likely lousier - place without the PAP. The men in white stamped the nation with the foundational values of meritocracy, intolerance of corruption, and multi- racial tolerance that are still held dear today by many.

That the PAP has done much good for Singapore is incontrovertible. But the PAP's formulation of itself as the only party that can govern Singapore well is being contested. So too is the declaration by some PAP leaders that it is good for Singapore to have a dominant party system (with the PAP being the obvious dominant party in the system).

Some PAP leaders have argued that competitive politics that bring Singapore closer to a two-party or multi-party system will spell the end of the golden era for Singapore. But an increasing number of Singaporeans aren't sold on that idea, as seen in the numbers who vote for non-PAP parties.

The citizenry, who once happily traded voice and participation for material security, wants to renegotiate the social contract, leaving the PAP blind-sided by the rapidity of the change in mood.

You might say the situation is akin to that of a marriage, where one party in the government-people relationship is going through an intense period of questioning and self-doubt, while the hapless partner stands by wondering how best to cope.

If they go through midlife transition together, a couple can emerge stronger. But sometimes, the spouse going through a midlife crisis embarks on a spiritual journey of self-discovery and realises her values have changed. If the other party remains the same, they find their values no longer gel, and the marriage is doomed.

The PAP has read the mood of the people after the last GE and has promised change. It has acknowledged that there is a rupture in the smooth state-people relationship. One only has to recall the iconic moment in last year's General Election when the Prime Minister apologised for the mistakes of his administration.

That moment of epiphany is akin to the "aha!" moment when a husband suddenly realises his wife is unhappy despite being provided for. But he still doesn't quite understand why, let alone know what he has to do to make her happy and to make the marriage work.

While Singaporeans go through soul-searching and re-evaluate their priorities, will the PAP do likewise? Of course individual PAP members are all Singaporeans, and have every interest in how the country develops. But the PAP as the incumbent political party has vested interests in remaining in power and well ahead of its rivals out to unseat it, whereas not all citizens are enamoured with that vision. Will the PAP be able to keep pace with the values and changing priorities of a new generation of Singaporeans, if they no longer think the PAP should maintain political primacy?

As of now, there is no other political party capable of winning majority support. The Workers' Party may have won six elected parliamentary seats, but it has been thrown into disarray by a spate of recent departures. Intellectually and policy-wise, it has not shown itself capable of keeping up with, let alone setting, the national agenda.

This means that if voters deny the PAP the political primacy it desires, there will be a vacuum in political leadership.

This is the danger in Singapore's midlife crisis: that the status quo is thrown over, and there is nothing strong to replace it with.

It's like a woman in the throes of midlife crisis, who seeks to reclaim her lost youth and turns away from her steady middle-age husband to the embrace of an exotic hunk, hoping to find in excitement and novelty a balm to soothe the turmoil and confusion within. When the self-destructive cycle ends and she comes to her senses, the trust may have been irreparably broken, and the marriage destroyed.

A people's relationship with the political regime of the day is of course not a marriage. And a country is not an individual.

But metaphors can help us gain insight.

Singapore's period of soul searching is only just beginning. I think the conversation around whether economics should reign supreme, can find a consensus. But the question of the PAP's continued political dominance is far more divisive - and carries far greater risks for the country's stability.

This article was first published in The Straits Times (Copyright 2012)