Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the NTU’s Nanyang Centre For Public Administration’s “Mayors’ Class” 30th Anniversary Gala Dinner on 25 November 2022.
Professor Ling San
Deputy President, and Provost, Nanyang Technological University
Professor Joseph Liow
Chairman, Academic Board, Nanyang Centre for Public Administration
Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Good evening. I am delighted to be here to join you tonight to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Nanyang Centre for Public Administration’s “Mayors’ Class” (市长班), and the 15th anniversary of the Lien Ying Chow Legacy Fellowship.
30 years ago, a group of 36 Chinese government officials arrived in Singapore to attend an executive training programme. This happened months after Deng Xiaoping embarked on his Southern Tour (南巡), where he reiterated China’s commitment to reform and opening up. Deng had encouraged Chinese officials to “learn from Singapore’s experience, and do even better than Singapore”. A very young university in Singapore – itself only inaugurated in 1991 – saw this window of opportunity and seized it. The Nanyang Technological University (NTU) organised briefings and dialogues for these officials. The officials learnt about Singapore’s development model, governance structure, and multi-racial society during their time here. The initial training programme was a success, and eventually evolved into a Masters’ programme known as the “Mayors’ Class”.
As China’s governance system evolved, the Lien Foundation responded by launching the Lien Ying Chow Legacy Fellowship in 2007, to promote two-way interactions. Outstanding government officials, professionals and academics were given the opportunity to spend time in each other’s countries through this Fellowship. While in China or Singapore, the Fellows met with local personalities and researchers. In the process, they built up mutual understanding and knowledge, and built enduring friendships.
The story of the Nanyang Centre for Public Administration, which I will refer to as the Nanyang Centre henceforth, is one of building bridges. The bridges that the Nanyang Centre has built with China over the past 30 years have endured. The “Mayors’ Class” has nurtured 1,700 graduates who come from different regions in China. Besides government officials, there are businessmen and tertiary institution officials. The 127 Lien Fellows have grown to become a diverse cross-sector community who keep in touch regularly, be it through networking events or scholarly exchanges.
The Nanyang Centre also runs regular seminars and forums to promote the exchange of views and ideas. The Lien China Development Forum, held biennially in China, brought Lien Fellows together with scholars and practitioners to discuss issues related to China’s development. The Lien International Conference convened researchers and scholars from all over the world to discuss issues related to good governance.
Bridges promote deeper understanding, as the Nanyang Centre has done over the years. Bridges also facilitate collaboration and the discovery of new opportunities. The many bridges that were built across the world during the post-Cold War era, especially in international trade and finance, underpinned a sustained period of growth and prosperity. These bridges sparked innovation, accelerated collaboration, and lifted millions out of poverty.
But our world today is a very different one. It is more fractured and inward looking, marked by tension between the big powers. The dominant frame has shifted from collaboration to competition. But unlike the Cold War, today’s competition is set within a world that is deeply intertwined and connected. Countries have turned towards strengthening resilience and mitigating the risks of external shocks. But we must remember that the stressors that societies are confronting – like climate change, ageing populations, and the fourth industrial revolution – are common and global in nature. The case for collaboration and cooperation is stronger than ever.
Bridges, including those built by the previous generations, are valuable and relevant. There are positive signs of late, the most significant being the meeting between Presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden in Bali earlier this month. The meeting was an important demonstration of the intention of both sides to stabilise relations, and work together to deal with difficult issues.
I hope this will provide renewed encouragement to restore existing bridges and build new ones across the board. This way, we can meaningfully tackle urgent global challenges like climate change and economic transformation.
Progressing with the Times
Just as the world needs a boost to revive cooperation and build new bridges in the current global climate, the Nanyang Centre must also progress with the times, to maintain your relevance and grow your contributions. I would like to offer two suggestions on how you can do this.
One, continuously innovate, to make your offerings relevant and valuable to your stakeholders. Over the years, the Nanyang Centre has expanded its offerings beyond the Mayors’ Class and executive training programmes. There are now six Master’s degree programmes, taught in English and in Mandarin. You have updated your modules and curriculum so that your participants can draw practical lessons on governance and public administration. During the COVID years, when international travel was difficult, you pivoted to online classes, and convened the 2020 Lien China Development Forum virtually.
To equip your graduates to tackle today’s complex and cross-cutting challenges, the Nanyang Centre’s offerings must be innovative and relevant. Your curriculum must be up-to-date, to give your graduates a strong grasp of the key issues of the day, such as digitalisation, Industry 4.0 and climate change. This will enable them to apply their knowledge and skills in practical ways. The Nanyang Centre is fortunate to be embedded within NTU, whose efforts to foster a stronger research and innovation base are reflected in its rising university rankings over the years. This offers valuable opportunities to foster inter-disciplinary exchanges and innovation in the study of governance and public administration. Issues like ageing and climate change require governments, scientists, engineers and businesses to work together to co-create new solutions. The earlier we broaden our perspectives and build norms of collaboration, the better equipped we will be to tackle these challenges.
The Nanyang Centre should also tie your research more closely to key issues on the policy agenda, and actively contribute to the thinking and implementation process. The Lien Fellows are a rich resource, as they collectively offer expertise and connections in many subject areas. They could be tapped on to build up the Nanyang Centre’s think tank functions. For example, the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC) sets out the bilateral cooperation agenda for Singapore and China. Many areas of cooperation have been identified, and the Nanyang Centre can directly contribute to the policy thinking and implementation process by gearing your research towards these areas.
We need to continuously embrace the spirit of innovation, to ensure that our work, and the way we do our work, progresses with the times. This is how the bilateral relationship between Singapore and China has evolved over the decades. We have an All-Round Cooperative Partnership Progressing With The Times (与时俱进的全方位合作伙伴关系) with China. True to its name, our partnership has grown in breadth and depth over the years. We have three Government-to-Government projects to date, each reflecting the spirit of breaking new ground to bring mutual benefit and progress. We also have many areas of practical cooperation, from trade to education to finance.
The JCBC that I co-chaired with Vice Premier Han Zheng earlier this month is another reflection of this strong partnership. It was our first in person meeting in three years, and Vice Premier Han’s first overseas visit since the pandemic. It reflected the importance that both sides attach to our bilateral relationship. We had a bumper crop of 19 deliverables, centered around Digital, Green and Connectivity. These areas are future drivers of growth, where we can seize opportunities to benefit not just Singapore and China, but also the broader region.
This brings me to my second point – the Nanyang Centre should grow new roots in Asia and the region, even as you deepen your ties with China. The Nanyang Centre has played a bridging role between China and Singapore throughout its youthful history. This role is even more valuable in the current climate, and should be expanded. The “Mayors Class” today often have a small number of Singaporean participants. The Nanyang Centre also conducts many bilateral training programmes, for Chinese and ASEAN officials.
I encourage you to venture beyond these, and design programmes to facilitate interactions across nationalities and cultures. In a world that is more fractious, you can play a role in building new bridges to connect China, the region, and the world. So I am happy to hear that you will soon be offering an ASEAN Mayors Class, which will be taught in English. When your ASEAN participants are here, do make sure that you provide opportunities for them to work with participants from Singapore and around the world. These people-to-people exchanges are foundational for further cooperation and learning. This way, the Nanyang Centre can cement your positioning as a key node for participants across China, Singapore, ASEAN and around the world – to learn with, learn about, and learn from one another.
You must also find fresh ways to activate your 20,000-strong network of alumni and Fellows. They can help you grow new bridges across China, the region, and the world. Every alumnus represents a potential bridge and multiplier for the Nanyang Centre. Collectively, they offer access and insights to many subject matters and geographical areas. You have been engaging your China alumni through your WeChat account, as well as through regular events, conferences, and gatherings.As the Nanyang Centre embarks on your next bound of development, I hope that you will involve them in contributing to your growth and success.
Let me conclude.
The Nanyang Centre has come a long way in building bridges between China and Singapore over the last 30 years. With a can-do “Nanyang spirit”, you have evolved your offerings over the years, while buttressing signature programmes such as the “Mayors’ Class” and the Lien Fellows. By continually looking forward and preparing for the next bound, you can serve as an important node for China to understand Singapore and the region, and for the region to have a better appreciation of China.
As we celebrate the anniversaries of the “Mayors’ Class” and the Lien Ying Chow Legacy Fellowship, I would like to congratulate and thank the many parties who have contributed to the Nanyang Centre’s success over the years. Through your dedication and effort, we have deepened mutual understanding, strengthened people-to-people linkages, and built enduring friendships and bonds.
I wish you every success as you progress with the times, scale new heights, and contribute to stronger relations between China, Singapore and the world.
Thank you and have a wonderful evening ahead.
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