“The measure of a civilised country is how it treats its weakest members.” This oft-cited quote by many including Plato, Gandhi and Pope John Paul II, reiterates the notion that for any country, adequate attention must be given to meet the needs of those who may not necessarily benefit from the economic and material progress of that society. The question lies in the extent to which economic gains should be the primary concern of government policies, especially when the pursuit of economic growth can lead to unintended consequences such as income inequity and harm to the environment. Yet, while I acknowledge the need to be aware of such potential pitfalls, I would argue that economic gains should be the main concern of government policies because the aforementioned issues require a country to be economically stable and prosperous to mitigate and resolve in the first place.
A starting argument in favour of pursuing economic gains is that the basic duty of any government is to ensure the physical and material well-being of the people under its care. And in order for these fundamental aims to be achieved, the development of a country’s economy is paramount. In the case of Singapore, this is well-understood and relentlessly pursued by the government. Since Singapore achieved independence in 1965, the government has not only been conscientiously implementing policies to ensure that the country’s economy provides Singaporeans with a high standard of living, but it is also constantly looking ahead and planning so that Singapore’s economy remains competitive regionally and globally for the future. As one of the ‘four Asian tigers’, Singapore now has the world’s 3rd highest GDP per capita, the world’s busiest port, and is the world’s 4th largest financial centre. With a growing economy comes improved public amenities and infrastructure, which in turn leads to a more satisfying standard of life for its citizens. This is similarly replicated in China. As its economy grew by leaps and bounds, it lifted between 600 million to 800 million citizens out of rural poverty, enhancing their standards of living. With a growing economy comes improved public amenities and infrastructure, which in turn leads to a more satisfying standard of life for its citizens. Hence, it is undeniable that before any other objectives can even be considered or actively pursued, a healthy and growing economy must first and foremost be a key goal for the government to achieve.
Another reason that economic gains should be the primary focus of government policies is the fact that a strong economy ensures political stability, which makes the governance of the country more effective, allowing for the implementation of long-term policies that further the progress of the nation. This has been proven true time and time again in history in countries as diverse as South Korea, Brazil, Malaysia and Taiwan. While it is argued that for Singapore, political openness and freedom largely take a backseat compared to economic development, it can be countered that it is precisely because the government has been consistently able to secure rapid economic progress for the country that it has earned performance legitimacy, and therefore now has the liberty and space to move towards becoming a full-fledged democracy. A weakened economy, on the other hand, invariably leads to political backlash,es which makes it difficult to govern a country properly. The decline in the price of petrol, and the consequent collapse of Venezuela’s oil dominated economy, ushered in an unprecedented political crisis in 2017, with no end in sight. as was seen in the example of the United States government shutdown in 2013, which was largely caused by America’s economic woes. Thus, an economically secure country should be the principal concern of the government for the crucial reason that this leads to Singapore being more politically stable, and allowing for the governance of the country to be smooth and effective.
In the same vein, economic gains should be prioritized by pursued as a main concern of governments policies, as these lead directly or indirectly to social stability within the country. Considering firstly the direct impact of economic growth for social stability, we find that with less poverty, the incidence of crime falls, and this brings about greater social security for the people. Economic gains and material improvements in the standard of living also do much to remove the many grievances that people in more impoverished countries experience – hunger, lack of housing, unemployment, disease. And these social and economic ills have the potential to result in social instability by allowing public discontent, anti-social behaviour and even extremist ideologies to fester as individuals grow more desperate. In Singapore’s case, on a macro-level, it is no coincidence that its much-lauded economic performance has a direct correlation to its low crime rates. As an eminent scholar, Kishore Mahubani, formerly the who is also Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, wrote in a recent article, the primary reason that Singapore experiences social stability is that the government has created an ‘ecosystem’ that resulted in a high level of personal safety, and one essential element of this ‘ecosystem’ is the absence of desperate poverty. Although he also acknowledges in the same article that economic growth does not automatically lead to a reduction in poverty, statistics have proven that the converse is very likely to hold true: that lacklustre economic development invariably leads to higher crime rates and higher potential for social disturbances as witnessed in places like Mexico, Lesotho and Nepal. This is replicated on a micro-level. Researchers evaluating the impact of a demobilization, disarmament and reintegration programme based in Liberia observed that recidivism rates for former mercenaries decreased when they were offered employment opportunities and resources Indeed, because economic gains often translate into less poverty and less desperation which then leads to greater social security, it can be argued that achieving economic gains should be a top priority for the government.
However, despite the fact that economic gains do bring about a higher standard of living, more effective political governance and greater social stability, there is also a need to recognise that rapid economic growth can, and does, also generate certain negative side-effects that governments do well to take note of. Critics, for instance, highlight the fact that although Singapore has an impressive economic growth track record, it also has one of the world’s highest Gini coefficients, which is a figure that measures the income inequity levels of countries. The income disparity in Singapore is further accentuated by statistics which reveal that the bottom 10% of Singaporean households earn $570 a month, while the top 10% of Singaporeans earn $13,581 a month. Yet, while it is true that this wide gulf is partly caused by the Singapore government’s breakneck pursuit of economic gains, it must also be noted that the government does recognize this issue and has channelled much of Singapore’s financial gains from past decades back to helping the needy and disadvantaged in recent years. A good example of this is how in the economic recession of 2008-2009, the Singapore government was able to dip into its reserves to draw S$4.9 billion to fund two extraordinary measures such as the Jobs Credit and a Special Risk-Sharing Initiative to mitigate the impact of the economic downturn. Singapore’s Budgets of the last few years also have also kept the social needs and welfare of the people. The budget allocated to ministries such as the Ministry of Social and Family Development and Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth has increased by 100%, from $15 billion in 2009 to $30 billion in 2018. New schemes such as Careshield Life have been steadily introduced as their primary focus the social needs and welfare of the people, with billions of dollars being harnessed to fund community initiatives such as ComCare to help to address the diverse needs of Singapore the needy. In light of this, it can be argued that economic gains actually do lead indirectly to social stability as the monies generated provide the means to look after areas of society that the government is obliged to look into. Therefore, economic gains should be the main concern of the government, even as it acts to ensure that those who may not be benefiting from the economic gains are given the help and assistance that they require.
On another note, detractors of the position that economic gains should be the primary concern of the government opine that, more often than not, these economic gains come at the expense of the environment. When governments make industrialisation and modernisation a top priority, environmental concerns and conservation inevitably almost always become marginalised. A prime example of this would be India, which has enjoyed a GDP growth rate of 6 to 7% since 1991. Yet, although it has one of the world’s highest rates of economic growth, India is also notorious for the vast environmental damage that economic development has wrought within the country. As of 2019, 22 of the world’s 320 most polluted cities are found in India; and life expectancy has decreased by 2.6 years due to air pollution. The Ganges river is one of the most polluted in the world, and close to 640 000 die every year due to water pollution. Similarly, 40% of China’s lakes and water sources are contaminated with chemicals from factories; numerous species of wildlife have become extinct, most notable among them being the Yangtze River Dolphin. But thankfully, in contrast, the situation in Singapore is more optimistic. While it cannot be denied that economic progress at times come at the cost of the environment, the Singapore government has assiduously worked hard to balance this tension between pursuing economic gains and pursuing environmental protection by using the financial gains it has amassed through sound economic policies to map out and implement strategies to ensure sustainable living within the country. For instance, since 2012, the Housing Development Board has rolled out a $31 million drive to install solar panels in 30 neighbourhoods, and it is currently in the process of turning its youngest townships such as Punggol, Bidadari and Tengah into real-time test beds for the newest energy-saving innovations. The Solar Energy Institute of Singapore is leading the research and development in the solar energy sector, with the support of the Economic Development Board and the National Research Foundation of Singapore, among others. Many of these initiatives to protect the environment can only come about because of the economic gains that the Singapore government has achieved for the country which then pave the way for these projects to be adopted.
In the final analysis, while we acknowledge that the government has a duty to look into legitimate concerns that economic gains can lead to undesirable consequences, it must also be recognized that governments must first and foremost ensure the economic viability of the countries they lead. This is for the simple reason that without economic security being achieved in the first place, essential services cannot be provided. A strong argument can therefore be made for economic gains to be the main concern of the government, as this gives it the financial and political means to implement policies which address other aspects of society such as income inequity and environmental conservation, as the case of Singapore has adequately shown.