Singapore’s CPF Policy: Conclusion

Looking backward, CPF policy is largely a successful policy that has adapted a British colonial legacy to the needs of a modern Singapore. But this adaptation has come at a cost, in terms of increasing complexity and political angst over modifying the policy to suit demographic changes.

Moving from analysis to prescription, over the long-term, I prefer to resolve the paradox between paternalism and individual responsibility gradually in favour of the latter. Embedded in CPF policy are unspoken assumptions concerning the nature of work and the allocation of rights and responsibilities in a family. In Lee Kuan Yew’s letter of appreciation to Howe Yoon Chong in 1984, he noted that “if Singapore does not falter and become another Third World country, our life expectancy now at sixty-nine and a half, will become seventy-five by the year 2010” and that these future retirees “will discover how pre-occupied their children can be with their own lives, and how difficult it is for children to stretch salaries to cover the support of aged parents. Then they will have reason to be grateful to you.” Interestingly, Singapore’s life expectancy in 2010 turned out to be 81.5 years. It is harder to tell whether Lee Kuan Yew had predicted family norms correctly, though modernization is broadly correlated with rising individualism. Arguably, in Singapore at least, policies shape norms as much as norms shape policies.

More generally, top-down paternalism requires the state to make the right assumptions and is thus fragile and difficult to reverse. Bottom-up individual responsibility is gradual, incremental and ultimately more adaptable.

Looking forward, I expect CPF policy to come under pressure. No policymaker in the 1980s could have predicted the rise of the gig economy, which is likely to increase the proportion of self-employed workers, who have always existed somewhat outside the archetypal employee-employer relation envisioned by CPF policy. As we shift away from an industrial economy, the idea of a lifetime employer seems increasingly improbable, as employees switch jobs more frequently and have longer periods of unemployment between jobs. Some of this is probably also driven by a preference for flexibility over stability. These trends surely undermine the assumptions of current CPF policy. And these are just the challenges that are foreseeable. What about the unknown unknowns?

I worry that the response to these challenges would be yet another initiative, another scheme. I worry that increasing complexity of CPF policy will result in systemic fragility and unforeseen, unintended consequences. This point on complexity applies to more than just CPF policy.

In truth, Singapore has many advantages that has allowed the government to minimize the fallout from complexity. As a small country with a functional political system, regular elections, and high state capacity, Singapore’s policymaking is relatively nimble and responsive. For the most part, the most consequential managed markets in Singapore (housing, healthcare, and education) have achieved outcomes that outperform comparable developed countries. Rather than discount the very real success Singapore has achieved so far, I believe Singapore’s relative success with high modernist policymaking is best explained as enjoying advantages not shared by other countries that similarly dabbled in high modernism.

To conclude, I believe it is far more sustainable to dial back excessively complex policies and to gradually empower citizens to have genuine individual responsibility over their own lives.