Speech by DPM and Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat at the Pre-University Seminar 2019 Opening Ceremony at University Cultural Centre, NUS on 6 June 2019.
Good morning everyone.
I am very happy to be back here today. The last time I spoke at Pre-U Seminar was in 2015 when I was the Minister for Education. I have always enjoyed hearing from younger Singaporeans. You have interesting perspectives and very thoughtful views about Singapore, our future and the world. This gives us hope and confidence that our future will be in good hands.
This year is a significant milestone. We celebrate 50 years of the Pre-U Seminar – so the seminar is almost as old as Singapore! This goes to show the emphasis we have placed in engaging our youths over the years, because you hold the key to our future. This year, we are also commemorating the Singapore Bicentennial, the 200th anniversary of Sir Stamford Raffles landing in Singapore in 1819.
I am glad that this year’s theme is “Singapore 4.0”. It reflects that you are thinking seriously about Singapore’s future, and looking at how we can build a better Singapore together.
Before I share my views on this topic, let me start by asking you a couple of questions: The first question I would like to ask is in which year was the World Wide Web invented and by who? The answer is 1989, and it was by Tim Berners-Lee. Second question, how many of you were about to reach out to your phone to check? Last question, how many of you own phones by Huawei, Samsung, OPPO or Xiaomi?
I asked these questions because they show a number of things. One, is the rapid advancement of technology; Two, is the changing demographic profiles around the world. Three, the growing opportunities in Asia.
Rapid advancement of Technology
Let me start with the rapid advancement of technology.
Technology has dramatically changed the way we live, work and play. In fact, the video earlier alluded to that. Almost everyone now has a smart phone with them all the time. We use it to do everything, not just surf the net, but also to make payments, book movie tickets, and even to control the song list when you go for karaoke.
Advancements in technology, such as AI, big data, and the internet of things have opened up many new opportunities. About a year back, I went to study what Japan was doing. Japan introduced the concept of Society 5.0. The main idea is that technological advancements should not just be for industry and for humans to be replaced by robots. Japan is giving serious thought to how technological advancements can help our people live a better life at work, for learning, and for play.
We have to give serious thought to how our society will be reshaped by technology, and how technology and machines can help augment, rather than replace, human labour. In the economy, we are seeing more dark factories, named so, because the factories are run entirely by robots. You do not need lights for human workers. I visited one such factory recently when I was in Switzerland. In a couple of years’ time, autonomous vehicles are likely to be more common on the road. This will change transport, logistics and many related industries.
Several weeks back, the NTU Student Union invited me to speak to a group of students. Before my speech, I asked the moderator, what the students’ greatest concern was? To my surprise, he said that I was likely to be asked about whether students would still have a job or whether their jobs will be taken over by machines. True enough, during the Q&A session, the students did ask this question.
At the end of the dialogue, during the tea break reception, I spoke to the students. I asked, why is it that all of you are concerned about this? You are in Nanyang Technological University - you should be best prepared for the technological changes that are coming.
The answer they gave made me very happy. They said, we want to think about the future and what it means. It is not that we are scared, but we want to be better prepared. I thought this was a great answer. Because the best way to meet an uncertain future is to go and create the future that you want. The students’ responses were most encouraging.
I used to ask this question when I meet students – would you like to be the person to program the robots and invent a robot, or the person who is replaced by the robots? My question is intended to stimulate the range of issues on rethinking education. Because education is going to be very different in the coming years. Lifelong learning is going to be the norm. The question is, how well prepared are we for this?
Changing demographic profiles
The second trend I want to talk about is the changing demographic profiles around the world. This is one of many pressing issues that the world is facing.
Another example is climate change. When I was in Davos earlier this year, someone had done a computer simulation on how the sea levels will rise and which parts of the world will be affected, if global temperature rises by 0.5 degree Celsius, by 1 degree Celsius, by 1.5 degrees Celsius, and by 2.5 degrees Celsius.
Earlier this week, I was at another seminar where someone showed the effects on Singapore. Those of you who live near the coastal areas will all be affected. And those who live on higher ground will probably be safe. I found out that I live in a low-lying area.
The changing sea level and climate change is something that we take seriously. This is why we have announced a carbon tax. Minister Masagos Zulkifli also announced that 2019 will be a Year of Zero Waste.
The other major trend affecting Singapore and the rest of the world is changing demographics.
In Asia, Japan is aging. China is also aging rapidly. In fact, the number of seniors above 65 in China will be the largest in the world.
In Singapore, one-in-seven Singaporeans are above the age of 65 today. By 2030, this will be one-in-four. The first batch of Pre-U Seminar participants in 1970 is now part of the Merdeka Generation today.
This will put significant stresses on everyone - from families thinking of how to better care for their seniors, to Government funding for our rapidly rising health care expenses. This is why I earlier announced that we will be raising GST from seven to nine percent, because our healthcare expenditure will rise sharply in the coming years.
But in some other parts of the world, we are going to have a relatively youthful population, including India, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Will we get a population dividend? That depends critically on whether we educate our young well. In this regard, I am glad that Singapore was ranked number one on the World Bank’s Human Capital Index. The Index is based on two major indicators - education and healthcare. PM Lee Hsien Loong was invited by the President of the World Bank to speak on this when we were in Bali. And it is important for all of us to continue to share what we know and to learn from one another.
Growing opportunities in Asia
The third issue I want to talk about is the number of you who own mobile phones produced by Asian companies. This reflects the growing opportunities in Asia.
For the first time in the history of the Industrial Revolution, the fourth industrial revolution is not just happening to Asia, but happening in Asia. Many Asian companies are at the vanguard of this revolution. They are among the most innovative, and best regarded companies in the world.
The GDP share of Asia is projected to grow from 26 percent to 50 percent by 2050. Within Asia, ASEAN itself is a bright beacon of growth. It has a young and growing population of over 600 million. ASEAN is also projected to become the fourth largest economy, fourth largest single market in the world by 2030.
The next wave of opportunities will be in Asia and in ASEAN. Singapore is well positioned to seize this opportunity. These are exciting times for our young people.
I spoke about three major changes – technology, changing demographics, and the growing economic prospects of Asia. So what does this mean for you and for Singapore?
All of these pose serious challenges, but also tremendous opportunities. This is especially so for younger Singaporeans, because you are individually well equipped to harness the advantages of technology. You are all digital natives, well positioned to make your mark and fulfil your ambitions.
What about Singapore 4.0? Let me suggest a few ways we can build a better Singapore together. First, we can first build a strong community. Second, our people can venture boldly into Asia and beyond. Third, that we dream big, but stay rooted.
Building a strong community
Building a strong community is key to our brighter future. We now live in a hyper connected world. Technology has changed the way we relate to one another.
Many of you have Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, or perhaps all three. Through these apps, you are connected to hundreds of friends all across the world.
However, the network that we build in a digital realm may shrink, instead of expanding our worldview. We run the risk of amplifying our echo chambers, by choosing to hear and see only things that we agree with. Our society could become even more polarized, because we are now fragmented into exclusive circles.
This is a concern particularly for Singapore, because we are an open society where information flows freely. Divisive comments could threaten our multi-racial and multi religious social fabric. So it is important that we guard our common space.
Can I ask by a show of hands, how many of you get your news through social media? How many of you read the physical copy of the newspaper? How many of you read the digital copy? Good to know that many of you at least read the digital copy. The commentator David Brooks had an interesting article in The New York Times about how storytelling was a way to bond community in earlier times. Stories are told in the form of parables, myths, and sharing over a fireplace. The invention of print changed all that, because one can read in the privacy of one’s own room. Social media is once again dramatically changing the way we communicate.
I mentioned about the need to guard our common space. Indeed, we need to spend more time outside of the digital world and build meaningful relationships with the people around us. At the end of the day, a lasting relationship is not built on the number of ‘likes’ you give one another, but the time spent and memories made together.
Do share a meal with family and friends without using your mobile phone. When I go to restaurants, I see how many families are eating together, but everyone is on their mobile phone instead of sharing a meal together.
Do interact and learn more about the people around you, your schoolmates and neighbours. And eventually, when you enter the workplace, your colleagues. Only then will you be able to understand and appreciate each other's perspectives better.
In particular, bullying has entered cyberspace. In fact, cyber bullying can be an even more vicious than physical bullying. As digital natives, you have an important role in tending the online space, and making social media a conducive environment for us to connect with and engage one another.
Venture into Asia and beyond
The second thing I would like to talk about is how you will need to venture into Asia and beyond to build a better Singapore, a better world. Asia, in particular Southeast Asia, is growing fast. To thrive in a foreign place, having appreciation of culture is key. We need to be sensitive to cultural norms, to interact effectively with our friends from all over the world.
The best way to appreciate the culture of a country is to spend some time there. Can I also ask how many of you have taken a holiday in any of our ASEAN countries? How many of you have been to China, India, or Japan or South Korea? This is good. I say this because the first time that I took an aeroplane was when I was going to England for my studies. This goes to show the progress we have made, because all of you are certainly younger than me when I went to England.
The Government has been encouraging Singaporeans to venture abroad to build better people-to-people connections with countries in the region. But I think the perception of Asia is lagging behind the potential it has to offer.
So I encourage many young Singaporeans to spend time in countries in Southeast Asia and in Asia, on immersion programs, internships, and work attachments. When you are in the workforce, do consider taking up postings abroad.
We are also creating more opportunities for Singaporeans to venture abroad. We launched the Global Innovation Alliance in 2017, to strengthen Singapore's connections with innovation hubs around the world. Our Global Innovation Alliance enables our young people and innovators to learn more about opportunities around the world, and to interact and work with innovators who share the same passion. We have built connections with 10 cities, including Bangkok and Jakarta. I launched one in Beijing about a year back, and one in Shanghai more recently.
I have spoken about positioning Singapore as a Global Asia Node of technology, innovation and enterprise. Having a wider world view and making the best of our location in Asia, which is at the heart of a vibrant Asia, will give all our people, especially our young, many opportunities ahead.
Dream big, stay rooted
Let me now touch on my last point, which is that we must work together to build a brighter future for Singapore. The future will be shaped by your dreams, and the dreams of your peers. Some of you have attended the recent youth conversations, where you discussed what “success” means to you. Many of you said that beyond getting good grades, or building a good career, you wanted to make a difference to society and have a meaningful career.
I am glad that many of you are asking these important questions. There is no one right answer for everyone. Instead, your answer will probably become clearer to you as you explore the various opportunities that life presents – whether in school or work, through relationships and eventually marriage and parenthood, or your hobbies and interests. We will do our best to give you these opportunities to learn to grow and to support your dreams. So dream big, and do not settle for less.
As you pursue your dream, be assured that Singapore will always be your home and a safe haven. Many of you here will be architects and builders of Singapore 4.0 and beyond. You will face challenges that are different from the ones that your parents and grandparents faced. But I believe that you have what it takes to take us to greater heights. You are tuned to the rapid changes of technology and well equipped to take advantage of the opportunities in Asia. We now have a stronger sense of nationhood because of our shared memories and experiences, from independence to SG50. And now, our Bicentennial. More importantly, the desire to build a better home for ourselves and future generations runs in our blood.
Current generations of Singaporeans have inherited the tenacity and resilience of our forefathers, as well as a spirit of openness, multiculturalism and self-determination. That is precisely how they took Singapore forward 200 years ago and in particular in the last 50.
The Singapore we see around us today, the Singapore you grew up in, is a testament to their hard work over the many years. It will soon be your turn to lead and shape Singapore's efforts to scale new heights. Together, we can make Singapore 4.0, our future Singapore, even better than before.
This is the 50th anniversary of the Pre-U Seminar. When we mark the hundredth anniversary of the Pre-U Seminar, all of you will be about 67 to 68 years old. Just like the first generation of 1970 Pre-U Seminar participants, who are now part of the Merdeka Generation.
I hope that the next 50 years of your life will be an exciting and fulfilling one. All of you - the young people of your generation - will be the ones building Singapore.
I look forward to hearing your ideas on the Singapore you will like to build.
Thank you very much.
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