Beyond the pandemic: What we have learned and have still to learn

Events / Saturday, May 2nd, 2020

Edited transcript of Academia.SG Webinar, 1 May 2020

Teo You Yenn (Nanyang Technological University)

This is an event both ordinary and extraordinary. Ordinary, because this is the type of event the speakers have each been doing for years — we have all presented our research at roundtables, and we have each spoken at events that are for public and not just academic audiences. But this event is also obviously extraordinary: we don’t normally do these talks from our individual homes, most of you would not ordinarily sign up to hear a bunch of academics on a Friday night of a long weekend, and certainly amongst the 1,000-plus who signed up to follow this webinar, we have never before had such a deeply shared context of crisis on this major and global scale. 

I think the motif of ordinary and extraordinary will serve us well tonight as well as in the days ahead. It suggests that we have to be thinking about the past in relation to the present, but also about the present in relation to the future. We need to rely on what we know during ordinary times but also challenge ourselves to reflect and respond and operate in new ways given extraordinary ones. Keeping these two things in tension, we can hopefully use what we have, to build what we need.

Some of you sent questions when you registered for this webinar. Thank you for taking the trouble to do that. We looked at your questions in preparation for our conversation. We grouped your questions into three broad categories:

In the first set of questions, you ask us to reflect on what we know to make sense of the ongoing crisis. You asked what we think of ongoing responses to and impacts of the crisis in the areas of politics, economy, and society. I will therefore ask my fellow panelists, as scholars of Singapore society, what are some issues and problems that you see manifesting in particular ways during this crisis? Through addressing this question, we will try to draw on the tools we’ve built in ordinary times to make sense of this extraordinary one.

A second set of questions you sent concerns the link between the present and future: what can we expect the next weeks, months, years, to look like? What will the fallout of this crisis be? Importantly, you have also asked in various ways: how do we mitigate the negative impacts of the COVID-19 crisis? While we certainly cannot and should not presume that we can address this definitively, part of the purpose of this webinar, and the work of Academia.SG more generally, is precisely to open up space to consider issues of mitigation and solutions. So I will also ask my fellow panelists to discuss what they are especially concerned about in terms of the fallout of this crisis, and what lessons we can draw from theirs and others’ research that can help us think through mitigation strategies in the days ahead.

Finally, because we are academics, and many of those who have signed up are students and academics, there is some interest in the role of scholars and scholarly research during these extraordinary times. More broadly than that, there is also interest in the question of how social change can come about and who gets to play a part in it. And so, finally, I will ask the panelists to reflect on the question: what can we do—as scholars, as civil society, as members of society — to generate the conditions we need for the changes we want to see.

Let me repeat the first question: as scholars of Singapore society, what are some issues/problems that you see manifesting in particular ways during this crisis?

Cherian George (Hong Kong Baptist University)

Let me pick up this paradox you’ve highlighted, of the ordinary and the extraordinary. There’s a related tension between the predicted and the unpredictable, and also between what’s well known and the unknown.

To me this is yet another illustration of a universal problem that I’ve been writing about on and off for the last 6-7 years — this post-truth paradox of “unknown knowns”, where human society painstakingly builds immense knowledge about a problem but then proceeds to behave as if we are clueless. Human civilisation has never been better informed as we are now. But there’s always a time lag, a sometimes fatal gap between what we know and what we act on. I’ve personally been studying how hate merchants take advantage of this gap. The most important case is of course man-made climate change.

But the list includes the threat of global pandemics. No government has a right to claim ignorance. Even before SARS 1, this was on every expert list of global catastrophic risks that people need to prepare for.

At the individual level, unfortunately, humans are seriously stupid in our ability to comprehend risk, we worry about the trivial things, and don’t pay attention to many more serious ones; but that’s no excuse, because even this — this mental handicap within the human species — is well known, thanks to decades of research in psychology and the behavioural sciences.

How to compensate for our individual stupidity is also well known. History, social theory, political science tell us that when we realise we are prone to tendencies that might harm us, that’s when we should be designing institutions that try to save us from ourselves. That includes government, of course, but also media and universities.

So as I try to think through this current crisis, one of the questions I’m focused on is that of institutional failure. How can our institutions globally and at home do better at closing this gap between knowledge and action. Why have most countries regardless of political system, been found wanting.

This is a challenge that is much more than one of efficiency, it’s not just a technocratic issue. These are questions of morality and power. I say this because all our fields tell us that a key reason why this gap between knowledge and action persists is that the people with the most knowledge and the most power to act in every society are the most the privileged, and they know that, even if the ship is sinking, there’s going to be place on the life boat for them.

And it’s the same with pandemics. For all the talk about Covid-19 as a great equaliser, we know that’s not true; and it will be increasingly untrue as the crisis morphs from being a health crisis to an economic crisis.

Kenneth Paul Tan (National University of Singapore)

I work in political science mainly but also on the margins of cultural studies. I’m quite interested in seeing how the pandemic exposes the weaknesses of Singapore’s more recent practices of authoritarianism which are much more subtle and sophisticated than the older more explicitly brutal variety but no less debilitating.

The way I try to understand Singapore’s neo-authoritarian system today is to think about it as constituted by two tendencies that react against each other.

The first tendency relates to what many of us refer to as neoliberal globalization: a fixation on the market and the permeation of economic and technocratic logic into all spheres of human activity, such as the social, cultural, ethical, aesthetic and political; when all that most of us can think about most of the time is making a profit, or competing against one another in a meritocratic scramble to the top of the hierarchy, or treating economic growth as the nation’s most important goal and the mistaken belief that it will naturally benefit everyone, including those who find themselves at the bottom of society.

When we do all these things, we limit our horizon of human experience, interdependency and value. We limit our capacity for moral reasoning. We deny the power of imagination that can enable us to work practicably and collaboratively towards a more liberated, creative, empathetic and equal society where everyone has an opportunity to flourish. In effect, we accept our infantilization and the impossibility of real growth.

The second tendency, reacting against the extremes of neoliberal globalization, is authoritarian populism. As more and more people get excluded from the benefits of neoliberal globalization and they feel systematically disenfranchised, resentment builds up against the elite who have treated everyone else with disrespect and even disdain. I’m especially interested in the way that moral panics are generated in such circumstances where the popular feelings of victimhood are galvanized and collectively channeled against scapegoats or folk devils who are misidentified as the root cause of a degenerative society.

I think many of the phenomena associated with the coronavirus pandemic can be explained critically through this macro-theoretical lens. The panic buying, the acts of public defiance and the bullying behavior triggered by them, the racist and xenophobic speech and behavior in a society usually lauded for its multiracial harmony, and the unequal impact on those at the margins of society. Most spectacularly perhaps are the migrant workers whose large presence in Singapore reflects the increasing neoliberal demand for cheap, low-skilled workers in visibly sustaining the myth of an economic miracle; while efforts to contain and erase their bodily presence in normal times and the tendencies to pathologize them in times of crisis, the ordinary and the extraordinary, reflect the extent of resentment that Singaporeans feel about having to share their already crowded city and limited opportunities. I suspect that we need beyond all else to think in an enlarged way about what we should do about the deeper structural problems of an economy and society that have become dependent on migrant labor.

Linda Lim (University of Michigan)

The pandemic seems to have emphasized issues which economists in Singapore have been discussing for at least 10 years. It’s nothing new. It just highlighted it.

Two things in particular. One, the pandemic has revealed the hidden cost of our long-established economic growth model, which we call an extensive model or an input intensive model, in which you increase capital and labor in order to produce more output. One corollary of this model is over-reliance on excessively labor-intensive methods of production in some sectors which are also correlated with low wages and low productivity growth that has been bothering us for years.

The second issue that has been highlighted by the pandemic is the limits of our heavy reliance on highly globalized sectors like export manufacturing, oil services, transport, travel, tourism, international finance, in an era where we have been experiencing de-globalization for at least a decade, in terms of reduced growth in trade and investment. We know de-globalization is occurring. There’s technological disruption, organizational changes, and the big multinationals to which we have hitched our wagon have been forced, including by environmental pressures — reducing carbon footprints and so on — to consolidate production in their larger home markets.

In our case, the models that we have relied on in the past, putting more inputs to get more outputs rather than using existing inputs more efficiently — that’s the productivity problem which is hitched to over reliance on cheap foreign labor — and continuing to double down on globalization subsidies, I would call them, to global corporations, to encourage them to come to our country and invest at a time when the forces pushing them against doing that are stronger.

The pandemic is showing what Singapore economists have been talking about for 10 years. It’s here now. It’s always been here and we didn’t acknowledge it.

Donald Low (Hong Kong University of Science & Technology)

To pick up from Cherian’s point on how this crisis reveals the failure of our institutions to deal with well-known risks, the pandemic is not a black swan. This is something which scenario planners, futurists and public health professionals have reminded us timelessly about since the 1990s, and with climate change we can expect a lot more of this.

I work on behavioural economics and on the intersection between people’s psychology and cognitive limitations, and the need for institutions to correct and compensate for those. This crisis really reminds us that we live increasingly not just in a globalized economy, we also live increasingly in a globalized society. I just found recently that from Wuhan airport, you can reach anywhere in the world within 36 hours, or at least when flights were still operating. We should really think of ourselves as living in a giant global communal stream. Whether you talk about global public health, global environment, global financial stability, dealings with this current pandemic, and of course, climate change mitigation, these are all problems of the global commons. And what this crisis reminds us is that even though we become a lot more interconnected and interdependent as globalized economies and as globalized societies, we have not developed the global shared norms and the collaborative, cooperative institutions that Kenneth was talking about, to ensure sustainable use of these global pool resources.

Over the last few weeks, I’m constantly reminded of Elinor Ostrom’s ground-breaking work on how we deal with problems of global commons. Neither the market nor governments provide a perfect solution. We really have to develop what she calls institutions — the rules, shared norms, and shared collective governance systems that will ensure sustainable use of these common pool resources.

The second point I wanted to pick up on is Kenneth’s emphasis on how societies and governments become increasingly fixated on market-based efficiency. I’m reminded also of Michael Sandel’s ground-breaking work on how we become not just market economies, we’ve also become market societies, where efficiency is valorized sometimes as the only metric of sound policymaking. In the Singapore context, this has become very salient and apparent. When many of us pointed out the limits and the inadequacies and really, the deplorable state of foreign worker housing, I was surprised by how much pushback there was from fellow Singaporeans including well-meaning Singaporeans who said, well, this is as good as it can be, the conditions are good enough. What they are really saying is that since we have decided to provide foreign worker housing through the market — financed and provided by the market — their living conditions that are produced by the market are natural, just, efficient. I think, as Sandel might say, we have replaced our social norms — our moral perspectives of what constitutes acceptable or adequate living standards of housing conditions — with entirely market norms.

This crisis should remind us that the market is not the only lens. Efficiency is not the only thing that matters for public policymaking. In fact, as somebody who works on complexity and innovation, I think what we really want from the market is its ability to generate variety and its ability to promote innovation. I’m still a believer in market capitalism. But we should like the market not because of its efficiency properties — and as this crisis has clearly shown, efficiency has its limits — but because of its effectiveness in promoting innovation.”

Teo You Yenn

Everyone has pointed out a lot of structural issues that underpin the system. All of you are pointing out that these have been there for some time and that the crisis has made these issues more salient. I’m going to add to these a little bit by talking a little more of what the costs are, or for whom, or who bear the costs of these problems.

As a sociologist who studies inequality, I have tried to emphasize two things that sound a little contradictory: on one hand, the income and wealth differences among people in society means that people have very different opportunities, unequal choices, and uneven capacities to meet needs. Yet, on the other hand, inequality isn’t just bad for people who have low income but also bad for society as a whole, including those who are higher income.

The ongoing crisis has made it clearer that both things are indeed true: it has never been clearer that our overall health as a society is dependent on a lot more than the actions or wellbeing of any single individual, and that when some members of our society are at higher risk for poor health, everyone is affected. And yet, although this crisis obviously affects everybody, it is also clear its impact is very different for different segments of our population. 

In the past months, in Singapore and across the world, it has become obvious that this disease – although potentially affecting all bodies regardless of wealth—has very different consequences on people across socioeconomic lines. There is the obvious divide between people in white-collar professions who are able to quickly shift to working from home and people in blue-collar jobs that require continued physical presence outside the home. We see variations in job security surfacing almost overnight – people in part-time work and the gig economy have seen immediate drops in daily, weekly, and monthly incomes. People who have always lived quite precarious lives are now having difficulties meeting basic needs.

We also see very quickly that apart from variations along class lines, gender and ethno-national inequalities matter as well. As countries go into lockdown, we see anew the activities that had been taken for granted: shopping, cooking, cleaning, caring for children, caring for the elderly, caring for the disabled – all this revealed as labour, and disproportionately held by women both in families and in the form of underpaid care work. Ethnicity and nationality also matter in various ways – partly because ethnic minorities are disproportionately overrepresented among the lower income, and also because ethnicity and nationality have historically, in Singapore and elsewhere, been the basis for prejudice and discriminatory practices that lead to lower access to public goods such as healthcare, or education, or specific forms of wage work. Ethnonationality also differentiates access to the very possibility of making demands and being heard.

To sum up, this crisis may affect everybody in society, but people’s experiences of it vary sharply. And the variations map onto the systemic inequalities that we have always had in society – along class lines, along gender lines, along ethnonational lines. The crisis has amplified the vulnerabilities and precarity for those who were always vulnerable and precarious. How these inequalities will play out, we cannot say with certainty now. We will need to understand these specifics better through long-term research. But the point of my starting with this is to emphasize that we must maintain inequality as lens in any analysis and discussion of the COVID-19 crisis and our responses to it.

Let me move to the second question, which is, what can we expect in the next weeks, months, years? What would the fallout of this crisis be? And very importantly, how do you think we should think about how to mitigate some of the negative impacts of the Covid-19 crisis?

Donald Low

I think what the crisis also shows is the various forms that inequality can take. As an economist, I work mostly on income and wealth, sometimes on consumption, inequality. And You Yenn as a sociologist, obviously, you take a broader view of inequality and the way it shapes people’s capacity to respond to crisis like that, the way it shapes people’s daily lived experiences.

Inequality can take the form of spatial, environmental, health, very obviously housing inequality. Going forward, to pick up on your point on how we should take inequality as a lens in this is to address, for the Singapore government at least, to look at inequality in all its various forms. That means not just inequality within Singaporean society but also inequality between Singaporeans and non-residents. And inequality not just in terms of income and wealth but also in terms of living conditions, housing, access to public goods and amenities, and so on. Going forward, as policymakers, we really need to be a lot more sensitized and a lot more attuned to inequality as a metric, social justice more broadly as a metric of good policy making, not just growth and efficiency.

Teo You Yenn

Why should we prioritize social justice?

Donald Low

Because as this crisis has shown, if you don’t have an acceptable or adequate level of equality and social justice, even the efficiency that you prioritized couldn’t be achieved. What is the most salient, most vivid manifestation of inequality in Singapore? It is in the disparity between Singaporeans and foreign labor. And why is Singapore on lockdown? Well, because of inadequate access and inadequate protection that foreign workers suffered in this pandemic. We have to pay a price not just in inequality but also we pay a price in terms of how quickly we can go back to business as usual, how quickly we can resume economic production. If you do not have an adequate level of, not just of resilience, but also of social justice and inequality, you pay a price in efficiency eventually.

Teo You Yenn

Kenneth, you mentioned moral reasoning. Do you want to jump in on that?

Kenneth Paul Tan

Moral reasoning is of course a very lofty thing. You need moral compasses and capacities to navigate very complex problems and situations. That is something that needs to be built over a medium term or long term. Before we get there, we need to develop moral sensibilities. Perhaps they might have grown out of this experience too. I think it’s not all bad news, of course. We’ve been able to look out and see many expressions of generosity and kindness, people who have come out of their shell, and made use of whatever skills they have in order to provide assistance to others. And people are discovering all the different levels of activism that are available to them. These are opportunities for developing empathy, acquiring knowledge about things that for a long time have been hidden, made invisible. But these things emerged very sharply through the crisis. Coming face to face with the crisis but also face to face with the people in the crisis creates a store of knowledge about the real complexities and the textures of our society that may have been absent for a lot of people growing up in a very cocooned type of space.

There’s a lot of social capital that can be built out of this experience. People who come out, especially young people with a positive sense of what can be done, galvanizing charitable energies, the energy of generosity in order to do good. But I also want to say that I worry a little bit also that if we stop at that level of just being kind and generous to others, it may not incentivize us on the whole to go further and try to make necessary changes at the level of policy or legislation. What I mean by that is that if we see that the current system has many cracks in it, and people fall through the cracks, whenever they fall, there are kind and generous people out there to pick them up. Then people might say, so what’s the problem. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the system. It might slow us down in terms of actually embracing more deeply the kind of structural and systemic changes that I think need to be made.

The question was really about moral reasoning, but I think before we get to moral reasoning at that cognitive intellectual level, we should tend to our moral sensibilities, give them an opportunity to develop, to emerge, and to be expressed. And then we create social capital. But at the same time, we might lose sight of the really difficult policies that need to be changed.

Cherian George

Can I pick up a question that has come from the audience. Sticking with the topic of moral reasoning, which means that the spotlight is still on you, Kenneth.

Sarah Ang asks: Given the importance of moral reasoning, do you see a role from across the disciplines and levels of education, how can we incorporate elements of social justice for the mass public?

Kenneth Paul Tan

There are so many ways of doing that. And probably the weakest approach, at least in curricular terms, is to simply teach people moral frameworks. But at the very least, I think people do need to understand the different paradigms, the different lenses used to make moral sense of complex situations.

But I think that’s insufficient because it mustn’t be yet another technocratic exercise. Here’s a complex problem and here are lenses for you to make sense of the problem. This needs to be taken further. There needs to be an experiential level to this.

There are courses in universities and schools where students are sent out to engage with communities and civil society organizations, with communities that are rarely seen or heard. These are occasions where moral reasoning can be exercised. You could scaffold those experiences with critical questions, with moral frameworks just to get students thinking about this. But because they come face to face with real people, there’s a lot more at stake. It gets elevated from just an academic exercise to an exercise where there’s a lot of stake. We are actually engaging with real people with real concerns and we develop a strong sense of responsibility in such interactions. So if we could organize more of these kinds of causes where students go out and obviously, we need to refrain from conceptualizing these things as a kind of poverty tourism or something like this where you send them out just to experience the hardships of another community that’s different from their own and they come away feeling grateful. It mustn’t be like that. It needs to be directed in a way that gives them real discomfort about being in that space.

What’s important also in efforts to really learn moral reasoning is to understand that these communities that we engage with are not simply objects of analysis, but they are subjects. They are people with voices and those voices may have been silenced for all kinds of reasons. And the most important learning goals that we could design in these courses is for students and professors to work with these communities in a collaborative way, not in a way that suggests that we are there to solve their problems, but to work with them. That’s a good starting point, to return the communities we engage with their voice and agency. If we kind of translate that to the activism that we do with communities, I think that it would make a big difference. If we were to engage with the migrant workers, for example in this very specific problem of dormitories today. We’ve hardly heard their voices in the solutioning type of work that’s been presented in public. Where are their voices? Where is their creativity? Where is their agency expressing what the problems really are? We need to have enough faith that people on the margins have a voice, they have creativity, they have agency. And I think that’s a very important lesson to learn in developing the capacities of moral reasoning.

Cherian George

Linda, can I ask you a question: for inequality, the solution is obviously some kind of redistribution, which I assume would mean taking your foot off the pedal of economic growth, rather than maximizing growth all the time. One argument that the government has made is that given how little control we have over the global economy, given the fact that we can’t really select the growth rates we have from year to year, the smart thing to do is to make hay while the sun shines, because we will need those reserves when times are bad. Could it be argued that this formula is actually proving its value right now? They can throw money at the problem now precisely because the government resisted left-wing calls for more redistribution in the past and focused on maximising growth. What would your answer be to that?

Linda Lim

We have to ask first of all where does inequality come from. Why do we have inequality? Inequality comes from the economic model that we choose to follow which tends to reward capital more than labor. This comes from the input-extensive model: let’s go out and attract investment since, we assume, nobody will come to Singapore unless we give them goodies, so we give them goodies. That’s why profits or surplus are a very large chunk of Singapore’s economy.

A big part of inequality comes from the fact that wages and consumption demands are very low proportions of GDP by global standards. Consumption in Singapore is about 40% of GDP (domestic consumption) which is very low by international standards. And wages are about 45% of GDP. So you have to go and look into that. So I think it’s a fundamental economic model, rather than let’s just let this unequal model go, keep going and keep going and rewarding some people over others, and then tax and redistribute. And that’s the whole redistribution argument.

I think we need to think more about how we cannot privilege a model that generates inequality. To get back to the specifics on reserves and being able to spend. First of all, reserves have not been a constraint in this pandemic globally on how other governments spend. Every government, even the United States with a huge deficit of trillions of dollars, it can go out and borrow. OK maybe the US is special. But other countries, also, you can borrow in the market at zero and even negative rates of interest today. So that shows that you don’t need to build up reserves for 30 years in order to spend them in 3 months. Where do reserves come from? Reserves come from the lack of or the repressed consumption of people in the past. People in the past had low consumption, high savings (for a variety of reasons), and so the private sector saves more that it invests. So we have actually suppressed the consumption of the Pioneer and Merdeka generations and so on when they were much poorer than us now. So we suppressed through wage policy, cost-savings etc. We suppressed the consumption and living standards of people in the past, built up these huge reserves. What did we do with them? We invested them overseas–benefitting foreign shareholders, foreign bond holders and so on. Why would you do that, going forward? We have huge reserves. We have run budget surpluses. What is a budget surplus? Budget surplus is government taking from people more than it gives back to them. Do we want to have this forever? – with government taking resources from people, putting them overseas, just in case there’s going to be a pandemic and then we can bring a small fraction of that money back

We need to be much more fundamental and structural in how we think about the economy going forward. This is not a short term, cyclical issue. This is a long-term structural issue that we have evaded simply by riding this high growth policy. It was 1972 when Dr. Goh Keng Swee said that we had to reduce our dependence on foreign labor. And then I think Dr. Tony Tan said it again in 1985. We’ve known these problems for decades but we got hooked onto a model because for some time it generated growth and high returns for some people. We know that that model has been sputtering for years now. Our growth by employing more and more labor to try and grow produces something economists call diminishing returns. We reached that point of diminishing returns even before the pandemic. We do need a fundamental rethinking.

Teo You Yenn 

I just wanted to add that if we don’t act collectively now, there will be great hardships ahead of people who are already struggling. Because of the scale of the current crisis that we’re in, it also seems obvious that population is going to grow – the population of people who are going to face hardships will grow. We know that jobs have already been lost and that the likelihood of jobs and wages going down is high, from where we’re standing now looking ahead. This is not going to be a problem that so far, we’ve been able to say it’s a minority. It is going to be a grim problem that people are going to face hardship.

We do have to mitigate these impacts at least partly through reforms in our social policy regime. Because social policies are meant to correct some of the irrationalities of the market. By irrationalities, I mean that certain things are highly rewarded, but those are not necessarily the things that bring the most value to humans. Many important roles and many important jobs are not necessarily highly rewarded through the market.

Our social policies cannot map onto that, which they do to a great degree now. Your access to good education, your access to healthcare, your access to housing, all of this is so deeply tied up with employment, and so deeply tied up to wages. And so deeply tied up, I may add also, to the very narrow definition of family. That fundamentally does have to shift in order to allow more people to be able to meet needs and to be able to flourish as humans, and for us as societies to flourish.

In some of my work I have emphasized that social policies besides meeting various specific needs and giving various specific material (transforming various material consequences) is that they also have very important symbolic and cultural meaning embedded in them. One of the things I’ve talked about in my work is how there is a deep sense of differentiated deservedness in our social policy regime.

And also this relationship between state and society, that I call neoliberal morality, where the relationship between state and society is quite an individualistic one and people are compelled to think in terms of what should I do for myself and what should I do for my family. 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. So that it’s not the emphasis where people are thinking only in terms of ‘how do I meet my own needs, make sure that I can take care of myself and my family,’ instead of thinking in terms of contributing to the commons, and when people can meet their needs and flourish that is good for all society and we want to contribute to that. 

I’ll ask this question to the others. This came up earlier too when you talked about institutions and the importance of institutions. 

Cherian George

That lack of community spiritedness, or whatever is that glue that binds us together, actually contradicts the story that Singaporeans have been telling ourselves, that we are this communitarian, non-individualistic society. We’ve been fed the line from a tender age that what distinguishes us from liberal democracy is that they are individualistic, we are communitarian.

Yet 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. When it comes down to it, we are capable of generosity, but we are also capable of much kiasu selfishness. So what happened to this idea of communitarian values? It’s gotten me thinking that, really, we’ve been using the term wrongly. What we understand by communitarianism really is just looking after our own, looking after family and other people like us. But, the human species is already hardwired to do that. We don’t actually need national ideology or the PAP or anyone to tell us to put family first, or put those who are like us first. Every community has always done that and continues to do that.

Kenneth Paul Tan

We’ve got a law in Singapore that allows people to sue their children if they don’t look after their parents.

Cherian George

Right. Which shows that even that is not that strong. But this and other crises show that in fact this desire to look after our own doesn’t actually scale up. We’re not very good at scaling up from looking after our family, to looking after strangers. And in any city of more than 5 million, probably in any community that has more than a hundred or two hundred people, we need to develop the instincts to look after strangers. That was really what the entire human rights revolution was about, what is novel in the human experience, dating back no more than a hundred years. The earlier bit was easy: look after people who are like us, whom we can identify with. Singaporeans do that well because every society does that well. 

What this crisis exposes is that family is not the microcosm of the nation. There’s a gap. We look after our families but we’re not good at looking after strangers. Hence the need for institutions. Hence the need for a social compact that encourages us to look after and show compassion for all individuals, just because they are human beings, not because they are Chinese or Indians, not because of their nationality and so on. We’ve been pretty bad at that, and I think that’s what this crisis is forcing us to realize.

Donald Low

But it’s also the case that society never really had the chance to develop those intermediate institutions between families and the state, between private firms and government. 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.

The work that I’ve been reading by Acemoglu and Robinson’s The Narrow Corridor says that what allows societies to progress, what systems would allow us to keep our freedoms and liberties while constraining an overly strong authoritarian government would be strong civic institutions. You need a strong society to complement a strong government. Having been in Hong Kong (Cherian you’ve been here longer) I’ve been struck by how, over time the Hong Kong government has really become paralyzed, has become weaker, characterized by inertia and trapped by all sides — but it’s got a relatively strong society. It’s capable of self-organization for better or for worse, I mean the protests might be a sign that it is capable of self-mobilization for the wrong things.

But during this particular pandemic, you can see how society was able to come up with all the right responses collectively in a sort of self-organizing, emergent way. Every Hong Kong person I’ve spoken to, when I asked them, why do you think Hong Kong has done relatively well in this crisis, nobody credits the Hong Kong government. Although I think the government has done a reasonably good job – it’s listened to experts, tightened their borders upon the advice of public health and professionals and scientists – everybody says it’s the community response that’s really behind it. 

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. When you’re dealing with complex problems like this, it really helps to have a diverse, strong societal response. If we rely only on elites and government making the right calls, well if you get it right, you’re lucky, but more likely than not, because it is such a complex problem, you get some things wrong. And you need to have compensating mechanisms. All the literature and political scientists say that that compensating set of institutions is a strong, diverse society that is able to mobilize, organize and compensate for the state’s errors and mistakes.

Cherian George

But Donald, you are aware you are treading on dangerous ground, because you’re making international and inter-city comparisons — and if we’ve learned one thing from the social media discussions over the last couple of months, it’s that most Singaporeans do not take kindly to any such comparison, unless of course it results in Singapore coming out number one. If Singapore appears not so strong in these comparisons, there’s stiff resistance from the establishment, as well as from armies of their supporters online. Is this a problem?

Donald Low

I think it’s a problem, but generally, the point is not to compare. Our contexts are very different. But it is a problem when those rankings and comparisons suit Singaporeans’ mental model, suit Singaporeans’ perspectives of superiority. Those comparisons are welcome and embraced, on how well we are doing, we are the gold standard. But when those comparisons flip, suddenly it’s we are unique, you can’t compare.

And I think what gets to me, this is just outright blatant hypocrisy, isn’t it, let’s call it what it is. So either you say, let’s just not compare, right from the start, or you’re going to embrace comparisons. And I’m not comparing. I’m just highlighting my experience in Hong Kong and what reasonable and plausible lessons can we draw from Hong Kong. There are many things wrong in Hong Kong society. Just today, there was just a protest down from where I am. Hong Kong is trapped between a summer of protests and the pandemic. We don’t need to learn that from Hong Kong certainly.

But I think, back to your question Cherian, we really should be a lot more humble and self-aware that there are things we can usefully learn, usefully benchmark ourselves to. 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.

Cherian George

This is something that I feel strongly about, the use of nationalist rhetoric, whether it is against the Hong Kong government — which I think is low-hanging fruit because it’s not hard to be more capable than the Hong Kong government — or snide remarks about the Taiwanese people, or encouraging its online trolls to treat domestic critics as if they’re anti-national. This worries me because I think the PAP establishment is making the mistake of thinking that this is just harmless political rhetoric. 

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: it can separate harmless us-versus-them ways of thinking from dangerous us-versus-them ways of thinking. But it’s not in fact easy to separate the two. Once you get people thinking in this exclusivist nationalist way, I fear that even the PAP government will not be able to put the genie back into the bottle. What we’re seeing in the last few years is the rise of what Kenneth referred to as authoritarian populism and demagoguery around the world.

I’m not suggesting that the PAP itself is going to turn fascist. But we live in a very polarized region. What’s happening in India right now is frightening. We are seeing something akin to what happened in the Great Depression, which caused not just massive dislocations, but even genocide. I’m not saying that we’re going to get there, but we should be paying more attention to what’s going on in the Indian Right: there’s open scapegoating of Muslims, where it’s claimed that Muslims caused the virus in India and so on by mainstream media, mainstream politicians. Do we really think that this is not going to affect Singapore? These are scary times that we need to be thinking about.

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. Not tilling the ground for others to sow the seeds of hate. Stop talking about critics as if they’re anti-nationals. Stop encouraging the us versus them attitudes. These are forces that have run out of control in the region, pretty close by. And it’s not guaranteed that we can keep those spillover effects away.

Teo You Yenn 

Can I pose the last question that’s starting to come out, about civil society. I’ll ask you to address the last question: what do you think we as scholars, as members of society, parts of civil society, what can we do to generate the conditions we need for the changes that we want to see? Linda, shall we start with you?

Linda Lim 

I believe in specialization according to comparative advantage. I think that for academics, we need to continue to do our research, do our teaching, do our public education all of which are part of the role of an academic. And we should not be afraid to research and to speak out on issues such as the one we discussed today, and share our expertise, share our opinions – that’s as academics.

But we also have a role as civil society actors. I’m struck by something that came out earlier which is certainly what I see in the US, though not what you read in newspapers. There’s a lot of spontaneous grassroots initiative, self-organizing capabilities not from any formal institutions but when something happens, people say, I have got to help and I’m going to do that. Large numbers of people very quickly organize themselves not as individual charity. And I think that that’s one of the things which makes a society resilient. There was a question earlier on on the Chat, between the state and market, private firms, what is there? There is community action. And for that you need strong communities including communities that can transcend the us versus them that Cherian so eloquently put out.

Donald Low

As part of this rise of authoritarian populism, there’s also been almost universally in Western democratic societies, this 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. As Michael Gove so famously, or rather infamously, said, “this country has enough of experts”. I think Singapore isn’t there yet, but you can certainly see the seeds that are planted that might eventually lead to that kind of disdain of experts. This is why as social scientists and as scholars we need to step up and counter those, and 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. And I think we need to let our expertise and our knowledge inform, shape and guide public debates. Even as we should not abrogate to ourselves as scholars the right to make policy or decisions, we certainly should inform the public discourse and the public debates.

Kenneth Paul Tan 

The question is what can academics do and maybe the way I think about it is why isn’t there more intervention from academics outside of their own cloistered preoccupation. There are several answers to that.

One is a lot of academics are naturally quite reclusive. It doesn’t help also that in the Singapore context there’s a bit of nervousness about how things that you contribute to the public might be understood, whether by the state or trolls, in the context of increasing intolerance of academics who are regarded as elite. So there’s a nervousness about going public. But there’s also the preoccupation in academia to do the kind of research that views public intervention as a distraction. Here I’m really thinking how our universities are themselves subjected to neoliberalization. Like it or not, we work in neoliberal universities and their priorities are quite different. Some of us may have the luxury to spend our academic time in more socially impactful, policy impactful work. But for many people, the system itself has rendered them precarious. 

A lot of young academics for example struggle. The competitiveness that has also infected university cultures has ripped apart a lot of collegiality that supports moral solidarity, a mutually supportive type of environment that allows young academics to thrive. I think we witness less and less of that in universities. This makes it very hard for people to make risky decisions to devote their attention and energy to anything other than doing the kind of research that generates quick results that gets you published in the kinds of publications, the narrowing lists of publication types, that the universities here in Singapore and I suppose elsewhere actually care about. 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. To shelter younger academics who are doing very important socially beneficial, socially impactful work but whose work may not necessarily be viewed favorably by the metrics of the neoliberal university. I think it’s got to start by strengthening our own scholarly environments.

Teo You Yenn 

I think what Kenneth pointed out is that there’s an institutionalization of our lack of engagement, that it is not an accident. It is institutionalized that we don’t engage as much as we want to, or should. It is important to do it because it is right and I think it is part of our professional duty to do, but also I’m worried, like Donald, about this anti-expertise, anti-knowledge kind of trend globally. We’re not quite in that state but it is something that, it’s the real slippery slope we should be quite worried about. We really have to paddle really hard against it. 

I would add that one of the things we can do is to try to build more ties and alliances outside of academia. 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. And there are a lot of diverse strengths that we can tap on when we reach outside of academia to build these links with other people.

This is not anything that’s going to be institutionalized and not anything that a young academic is going to easily find themselves automatically doing as a part of their day job. It will take a lot of really explicit attention and purposeful action to do. Personally, I think that’s one of the richest sites and most promising areas for growing the space.

I just want to emphasize also that the push for social change is not just a push for different outcomes. It’s also a push for a different process that can open the way to different outcomes. I often get asked, particularly by younger people, if I feel hopeful about change. I think that we’re not necessarily going to see the outcomes we want to see in terms of social justice but we need to be part of building that process and expanding that space in order to get to that point.

I think that the current pandemic is like a flood where flood waters open the doors. But when the flood water recedes, the door is going to shut again. So we really need to somehow have to keep our bodies against that door and keep that door open when the flood recedes.

Cherian George

As You Yenn said we should be wrapping up, not for our sake — because one thing you have to understand about all five of us is that we’re fully capable of giving two-hour lectures without taking a breath — but we’re not going to inflict that on you tonight. It is Friday night and we would like to imagine, all of us I think, that we have plans to go out after this, even though we won’t given the circumstances.

I will echo what other panellists have said, that we will sink or swim together, and the kind of collaboration we need is more than just clapping together or singing together. Of course individual morale is important, community spirit is vital, and we’re not going to preserve our humanity without love and compassion.

But we are also an advanced economy and a complex society, and I think one thing we’ve been trying to say in different ways is that we are not going to solve the problems ahead by marching in lockstep or, to use of the PAP’s favourite metaphors, rowing in rhythm since we are all in the same boat.

And that’s true whether the leaders are dangerous demagogues like Donald Trump or benign technocrats like we have in the Singapore government.

We will address collective problems when people are able to apply their own special skills and expertise, from their own disciplinary or professional training, whether these are doctors or primary school teachers or tradesmen.

Academia.SG came together a year ago because we feel as scholars that our various fields have something to add to that mix. We hope more academics will be part of these larger societal and global conversations. And even more importantly we hope non-academics will engage with us, not just to listen to what we have to say, but to nudge us towards the strong questions that really matter to society.

That’s why it has been so encouraging to have so many of you join us this evening. Just as most Singaporeans can’t sit down to a good meal without talking about future meals, we hope this event whets your appetite for conversations like these, and that you will dive into the buffet of scholarly writing on this pandemic and other key issues.

Our outlet at Academia.SG is always open, so come explore our menu of local fare lovingly prepared by our small but growing movement of academic hawkers. There is a branch right there on your device, no reservations required, exempt from all social distancing regulations, and totally free.

Thank you to our hosts Hong Kong Baptist University, Eve, Minos and Abby, and our indispensable IT office.

Finally, on behalf our guest panellists Donald Low and Kenneth Tan, my AcademiaSG co-founders Linda Lim, Teo You Yenn as well as Ian Chong, our assistant editor Jolene Tan – all of us thank you for joining us.

Stay safe by staying informed.

Good night.

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