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Singapore’s ‘social engineering’ is tool for integration

Crowds gathered for National Day celebrations in Singapore in August. The city-state strictly controls ethnic composition of neighborhoods to ensure social and economic integration. (EPA/TOM WHITE /LANDOV)

Singapore limits the number of ethnic minorities who can live in a neighborhood or even in an apartment block. This kind of social engineering may sound a bit controlling, but Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam says the city-state relies on the strategy to ensure diverse communities.

Richard Reeves explains the concept, which Shanmugaratnam laid out in a recent appearance at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Shanmugaratnam acknowledged that the policy is intrusive.” 

But he also defended the upsides. Shanmugaratnam argued that the approach ensures that home values stay uniform across the island nation and that slums don’t emerge. He also contended that even in places where such engineering is taboo, policymakers engage in forms of it anyway. For example, he said American efforts to address segregation and poverty are variants of social engineering. They just occur “downstream” of the problem, rather than “upstream” in Singapore’s approach.

Reeves is a senior fellow in Economic Studies at Brookings.

Brookings Institution

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