Nothing conjures the image of a nagging, finger-wagging government more than the term “nanny state”. On the other hand, we, as the nanny’s counterpart, are reduced to babies and likened to the infantilised mascots in the Land Transport Authority’s Graciousness Movement posters.
Depending on the person, the concept of a “nanny state” is either a blight on Singapore’s image due to its association with authoritarianism, or a notion to be relished as it reveals the success of government regulation in creating the streamlined society we live in. Either way, it is easy for us to dismiss the concept as a slight handicap in our daily lives : don’t chew gums, don’t smoke in public areas, don’t be naked at home.
However, it is important for us to notice the more subtle effects of government micromanagement which permeate every area of our lives.
In the late 1960s, Singapore lacked the demographic features to transition from a developing country to a developed nation. Aggressive publicity campaigns coupled with “population disincentives” policies were spearheaded by Lee Kuan Yew to urge parents to “Stop at Two”. The schemes were known to target the uneducated, with low-educated (no O-level) and low-income (less than $1500) women receiving a $10,000 grant if they agreed to be sterilized after the birth of their second child.
Birth rates plummeted. The policies were too successful as the slogan on posters soon changed to “Have Three, or More if You Could Afford It.” Despite reeking of eugenics, there is no doubt that the paternalistic population planning policies were catalytic for Singapore’s growth. In fact, Lee Kuan Yew is famously unapologetic for the government’s interference in citizens’ lives :
Is the existence of “nanny state” a necessary evil then? There is some hard truth in LKY’s argument that a society prospers when the authorities protect their people from unnecessary risks. The disproportionate pressure placed upon the uneducated to stop reproducing in the 1960s was justified by the government as a means to conserve their limited resources, adequately nurturing few children and ensuring a decent quality of life for them.
The clear-cut, segregated academic streams inculcate into students the mindset that success in predefined by one’s ability to reign the academic hierarchy, pitting 12-year-olds against each other in a cut-throat PSLE environment to squeeze into the prized “Express” stream.
Although Singapore’s achievements in the PISA exams should be lauded, they also reveal the overemphasis on the STEM subjects which sends a clear message : study a STEM subject if you want a “good job”, and subsequently, a “high SES”. There are very limited options for the hawker’s son who aspires to change his family’s fate when he grows up.
There is no question for Singapore’s socioeconomic success, yet what might it have costed us?