By Yusof Sulaiman


The Political Dictionary defines a ‘sacred cow’ as “any programme, policy, or person that is regarded as being beyond attack or untouchable”. Sacred cows in nation-building can take the form of policies, social norms and institutions. Singapore has her fair share of sacred cows covering existential themes such as multiracialism, meritocracy, equality and so on.

From time to time, these underlying premises or foundations of the state are challenged especially in the context of domestic shifts in socio-economic status, changes in societal aspirations and new secular (and non-secular) trends. At times, changes in the external environment can also impact the country’s fundamentals in nation-building.

Occasionally, a black swan event such as COVID-19 appears and can unravel deep-seated practices and policies of a country. In the case of Singapore, the pandemic inadvertently exposed significant wage disparity amongst its workers and brought to the forefront deep socio-economic divides in the society. This led to intense discussions on policies impacting wage distribution and livelihood of low-income and transient workers.

In quite a number of situations, such wide-ranging engagements in Singapore do lead to changes or enhancements in policies where they are warranted. On the economic and employment front, for example, special grants and work schemes were established to assist low-income workers and their families. In education, there was a shift from an entrenched streaming system in schools to a Subject-Based Banding (SBB) one designed to allow students to customise their education and encourage a growth mindset. So, changes can be more than incremental in some cases.

Ongoing reviews of policies and practices that for some had morphed into sacred cows in nation-building in Singapore are discussed in this article, in the context of Forward Singapore (SG), a new national exercise to renew the social compact of the country.

Mr Lawrence Wong, Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) and Minister for Finance, and his 4G team launched the Forward SG dialogue in June 2022 to gather the views of Singaporeans to shape the nation’s future and refresh its social contract. Forward SG is intended to foster trust and seek consensus with Singaporeans on issues such as health and social support, Singapore identity, and environmental and fiscal sustainability, to name a few under the six pillars or themes identified for the dialogue[1].

Like other previous national conversations, an invitation to dialogue is perceived by some as an opportunity not to be missed especially for its potential for the citizenry and the new 4G leadership to collaboratively forge a vision of the future for Singapore. While covering familiar grounds, the hope and expectation in such an exercise is to venture into more difficult issues on nation-building in prevailing and challenging circumstances in order to achieve a broad consensus for the future and perhaps co-creation of optimal solutions.

Of course, there is also the concern that the new Forward SG exercise will be “more of the same” as previous national engagements. There are typical reservations such as how inclusive and wide-reaching the consultation process is, and how receptive the Government is to bold and contrarian views. If there is a sovereign case, is there an appetite to re-visit assumptions and premises to policies deeply entrenched in our governance model in the context of greater complexity and uncertainty? Do we have the political will to consider and implement changes leading to shifts in policy or other policy options that emerged in the engagements, recognising the trade-offs in policymaking?

There are many facets to a social compact – this can range from economic progress and well-being to good social relations and a strong national identity. Singapore has made a significant mark in the economic front despite its size – leapfrogging from third world to first in three decades since its independence, GDP per capita spiraled 13 times from US$5,597 in 1981 to US$72,794 in 2021[2] and among other things, global recognition as a financial/commercial and transportation hub serving the world. Singaporeans enjoy a high standard of living, and the Government continues to enhance other aspects of the social compact, for example, by creating an environment that promotes good social relations and nurtures a resilient national identity.

Many attributed Singapore’s success to its visionary leadership starting with our first-generation leaders and forward-looking and innovative policies that serve as a foundation for its world-class institutions. The ability to galvanise its citizens towards a raft of national development initiatives has been pivotal to get to where we are today.

The rallying call since independence that Singapore is ‘small, fragile and vulnerable’ has been met with full cognition of the high stakes involved to survive and we as a country have more than delivered. This needs to continue, so say our leaders. This notion of acute vulnerability and putting us up to the challenge has served us well to the extent that it has become part of the Singaporean psyche.

In an Our Singapore Conversation session, which was part of an earlier national dialogue organised by the Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao in June 2019, participants spoke on some aspects of our nation-building narrative. They expressed concern that the repeated refrain that Singapore is small, fragile and vulnerable has become the stuff of “nation-building myth” and this so-called sacred cow needs a rethink[3]. The general view is that harping on it would restrain Singaporeans’ innovativeness and ability to scale up to become global players.

Although Singapore’s outstanding achievements over the years have proven otherwise, overplaying this vulnerability narrative can have negative overtones. We are well-regarded for our prudence and vigilance in the manner we develop and implement our policies. However, we tend to veer towards a governance model premised on a kind of ‘survival anxiety’ that some perceived as being excessively cautious and risk averse. This may have repercussions on a wide range of hot button issues such as social care and support, talent development and sourcing and handling of geopolitical issues vis-à-vis Singapore society.

Furthermore, given our overachievements in many areas, our position in the global order and how we have developed as a society, this refrain is becoming less credible especially to younger Singaporeans.

Take the case of the handling of geopolitical issues or politics, especially international relations, as influenced by geographical factors. Our conception of Singapore as a small country in the centre of the Malay Archipelago surrounded by much bigger neighbours of largely Malay stock has formed a basis of how we manage foreign and regional affairs and to some extent, our internal matters.

A pertinent point is the issue of Malays in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) where Malays in Singapore are perceived as a ‘security risk’, especially in the context of unlikely but potential incursions in the region. This has been a bugbear for the Malays since independence although there have been improvements since the subject and the associated issue of loyalty of the Malays were publicly raised by AMP in its convention in 1990. Dr Ng Eng Hen, our current Defence Minister in a speech in Parliament in May 2014, noted that “there are now Malays in all services, whether as Air Force pilots, commandos, combat engineers, artillery men in the Army, and in the Navy”[4]. He stressed that Malays have made great strides in the SAF without publicity or fanfare over the years. This is in response to a query that Malays are not deployed in sensitive vocations in the SAF due to the so-called ‘security risk’ posed by them.

This is heartening, and the news of Malays being promoted to very senior positions in the SAF on their own merit has been encouraging. Mr Zaqy Mohamad’s appointment as a Senior Minister of State for Defence (in addition to the Manpower Ministry) in July 2020 was also a positive development. All said, the changes are well-received by the Malay community and quite importantly, the larger Singapore society, as we view these developments in line with our meritocratic vision.

The geopolitical landscape in the region has evolved – it is more collaborative in its posturing – for example in international trade, bilateral/multilateral agreements are well-established and, in the defence front, joint military exercises are a regular affair. However, there are shifts in big power rivalries, especially between the United States and China, seeking influence and support for their geopolitical assertions in the region. In his Mandarin speech at the National Day Rally on Aug 2021, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reminded Singaporeans to be vigilant with messages on geopolitical issues and not be swayed to take sides and to trust the Government on such matters[5]. This is a reminder that loyalties can be tested and no groups in Singapore are spared from exposure to such risks.

On the issue of the loyalty of the Malays, Dr Lai Ah Eng, a prominent anthropologist and scholar in multiculturalism in Singapore asserted that “the doubt on Malays’ loyalty to Singapore is a ghost from the past that must be put to rest immediately”[6] – something that we should all ponder upon.

The important question is how we should progress from here, recognising that there is still a lingering perception that Malays are generally excluded from sensitive military units and that more opportunities should be given to them on merit. While the government’s modus operandi on sensitive issues affecting ethnicity is to handle them with care and ‘behind closed doors’, should they provide more clarity and direction on the way forward? In fact, they can offer better assurance by providing more information on deployment for example, and more importantly, establish the relevance and need for such an approach. This should be cognisant of the changing geopolitical landscape without compromising the need to stay vigilant and focus on strengthening our society’s inner core which can only enhance nation-building and national identity.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Social Mobility Index 2020 ranked Singapore 20th out of 82 economies overall. Singapore did well in health and education but was below average for social protection (61st) and fair wage distribution (51st). Areas highlighted were social protection spending, social safety net protection and the significant gap between low- and high-income earners[7].

To some extent, this reflects the fundamentals of Singapore’s system of social security – emphasising self-reliance, supported by strong family ties and social networks. Our aversion towards welfarism is well-known, and it has been a deliberate policy since Singapore’s independence not to take this path as it promotes overdependency on the state leading to a ‘crutch mentality’. Social assistance then was based on short-term aid for the unemployed, the old and ill, and those with disabilities.

While core values such as self-reliance still remain, Singapore’s policies encompassing social care and support have evolved extensively over the last decades. Social assistance programmes now cover a wide spectrum of beneficiaries targeting vulnerable groups and are designed holistically, taking a whole-of-society approach complemented with ‘many helping hands’ provided, for example, by community-based groups. Social expenditure in the government’s budget – which covers healthcare, education and social and family development, among others – surged to about $37.8 billion in 2019 from $12.6 billion in 2002[8], indicating the vast resources allocated to social development.

In fact, some scholars agree that there has been a shift to the left in Singapore’s social policies – in terms of wealth redistribution and social protection – over the years.

A number of initiatives have been put in place – for example, the Wage Credit Scheme (WCS) and Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) – to assist low-income wage earners and more recently, the extension of the Progressive Wage Model (PWM) to a wider group of low-income workers. A string of packages and grants have been rolled out that ran into billions of dollars supporting needy households and vulnerable groups for their utilities, higher cost of living expenses due to inflation and the impact of COVID-19, compensation for GST increases, etc.

While the approach in social assistance is now more multi-faceted and targeted, the underlying premise to achieve self-reliance, more specifically via employment, prevails. This in itself is not a bad thing, but individual effort and self-reliance alone for our families especially those in the lowest 10 to 20% in socio-economic status (SES) might no longer be enough to ensure a decent living in a rapidly changing economic landscape. Furthermore, this underlying objective of self-reliance sometimes manifests itself too early in our social upliftment process and can be quite overpowering – impacting across our programmes and initiatives and on the approach of our social workers.

For example, there are very strict rules to qualify for permanent Public Assistance (PA) – one has to prove that employment is permanently impossible and that one cannot rely on one’s family. In addition, to assess suitability for childcare subsidies or temporary assistance, social workers need to determine whether potential recipients are employed or trying to find employment.

Dr Teo You Yenn, an established and perceptive sociologist posited that “self-reliance via employment is a precondition to social membership in contemporary Singapore”[9]. This has implications on how poor and unemployed people are perceived and how they see themselves and others. This sacred cow of self-reliance needs to be moderated through greater flexibility in our social policies to meet the shifting demands of this group and taking an even more empathic approach to social care and support.

The stringent criteria for the PA scheme should be constantly reviewed, and more state-initiated research on the elderly poor and on social issues such as intergenerational poverty, where data is lacking, would be necessary to enhance social upliftment initiatives[10]. There is also a need to appreciate the importance of other roles that people play, their contributions other than work and those that do not necessarily lead to significant outcomes in incomes.

In a speech to social service practitioners on 10 Oct 2022, DPM Lawrence Wong lamented the paradox that “the more we lift people out of poverty and hardship, the more challenges we will face with relative inequalities in our society”[11]. Singapore’s Gini coefficient, which is a measure of income inequality, after taking into account Government transfers and taxes, was 0.386 in 2021 which is higher than the figure of 0.375 in 2020[12]. As our economy grew rapidly and with globalisation, wage disparity and the ensuing social stratification have been a key pain point for the Government. This increasing inequality has an impact on social mobility especially those in the lowest SES strata as these families or individuals become entrenched in their social orbit and cannot extract themselves from it. Hence, their ability to attain sufficient sustenance and live meaningful lives like all other Singaporeans can be an ongoing intergenerational struggle.

Social mobility is an important pillar that underpins Singapore’s social development model. There is a clear focus to address this and the associated structural inequality and arrest the slide towards further social stratification as pointed out by DPM Lawrence Wong in his speech.

It appears that we have come a long way in mobilising all our resources – expertise and infrastructure, including policy enhancements – to tackle this issue of social upliftment which transcends ethnicity, religion and background.

This is also an opportune time to answer persistent calls to rethink some of our sacred cows in the face of rapid change and progress in Singapore’s development. In Forward SG, perhaps a new overarching narrative would emerge that embraces the national development agenda and aspirations of the citizenry and all groups can have their pride of place in Singapore.

1 Kurohi, R. 4G ministers to engage Singaporeans in six areas to get views, update policies. The Straits Times. 2022, June 29. Available at:
2 Macrotrends LLC. Singapore GDP Per Capita 1960-2022. Retrieved from:
3 Ong, A., and Goh, P. et al. Calls to rethink ‘sacred cows’ in nation-building. The Straits Times. 2013, April 22.Retrieved from:
4 Lim, A. Malays make strides in SAF. 2014, May 30. Retrieved from:
5 Kurohi, R. National Day Rally 2021: 7 highlights from PM Lee Hsien Loong’s speech. The Straits Times. 2021, August 29. Retrieved from:
6 Lai, A. E. Maze and Minefield: Reflections on Multiculturalism in Singapore. in Living with Myths in Singapore, edited by Loh K. S., et. al. Ethos Book. 2017
7 World Economic Forum. The Global Social Mobility Report 2020: Equality, Opportunity and a New Economic Imperative. 2020, January. Retrieved from:
8 Refer to: Ministry of Finance. Budget Archives. Available at:
9 Teo Y. Y. Poor People Don’t Like Oats Either: How Myths about Poverty and Wealth Matter. in Living with Myths in Singapore, edited by Loh K. S. et. al. Ethos Book. 2017
10 Tan, T. Fewer Singaporeans on long-term financial aid. The Straits Times. 2022, November 5. Retrieved from:
11 Wong, L. The journey towards a fairer and more inclusive Singapore. The Straits Times. 2022, October 12. Retrieved from:
12 Tan, S. A. Household incomes rose in 2021 to above pre-Covid levels as Singapore economy recovered. The Straits Times. 2022, February 15. Retrieved from:


Yusof Sulaiman is an Associate Lecturer with Singapore University of Social Sciences and PSB Academy. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). The views shared in this article are his own.

This commentary was also published in The Karyawan, January 2023, Volume 18, Issue 1.

Photo by Stijn Dijkstra from Pexels