Social innovations key to Singapore's success

Prof Sherraden sharing his insights on Singapore's social innovations

When Singapore was born mid last century, the small vulnerable country with a largely migrant population had little resources. How did the tiny island state achieve its current success as a first-world nation within 50 years of independence?

Social innovations contributed to the phenomenal accomplishment, noted a social development expert named by Time magazine as among the world's 100 most influential people. Professor Michael Sherraden, S R Nathan Professor, NUS' Department of Social Work, has been observing the progress of the country for decades. He shared this view during his S R Nathan Professorship in Social Work Public Lecture on "Fifty Years of Social Innovation: Reflections on Singaporean Social Policy on 11 March.

Prof Sherraden suggested that these innovations are made possible in Singapore by "a well-defined and purposeful sense of the social potential of the state, where the government actively engaged in shaping social institutions and practices. Singaporean leadership, highly attuned to the country's conditions, creates solutions with the willingness to invent, implement, assess and expand entirely new strategies. In the process, there is a strong emphasis on pragmatism, he said.

The Director of the Next Age Institute, who is also with the Washington University in St. Louis, pointed out the Central Provident Fund (CPF) as one social innovation with the biggest impact. First instated during the British rule of the island, the provident fund was shaped into a comprehensive asset-building social policy which brings security to most families. The mandatory contribution by both employee and employer goes towards the employee's savings that can only be withdrawn later in life.

During the early days of nation-building where housing and healthcare presented the most immediate needs, the CPF was made available for home-ownership. This was followed by various aspects of healthcare, education, insurance and investments. Together, they comprise Singapore's policies for household protection and economic development. 

One forward-looking socio-economic policy was the strong investment in human capital, where the drive in continuous training and upgrading prepares a skilled workforce for growing global competition, he said.

The public sector investment in Singapore forms 20 per cent of the GDP, about half the rate of most developed countries. A lot of it goes into asset-building as this approach emphasises building social capacity, not maintenance.

Given Singapore's innovative social policy, Prof Sherraden felt that such useful knowledge could be shared, especially through partnerships with universities and social science researchers.

"Singapore has some characteristics which are like the future in this century, he observed. He believes that the country's experience in rapidly increasing wealth, income inequality and urbanisation'reflecting those of the planet'places it ahead of the curve.