DPM Heng Swee Keat at the Book Launch of ‘The Singapore Synthesis: Innovation, Inclusion, Inspiration’

DPM Heng Swee Keat | 23 August 2022

Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the Book Launch of ‘The Singapore Synthesis: Innovation, Inclusion, Inspiration’ on 23 August 2022.

Mr Janadas Devan, 
Director, IPS,

Mr Ravi Menon,
9th S R Nathan Fellow, 

Ladies and Gentlemen, 

Good afternoon.

IPS established the S R Nathan Fellowship for the Study of Singapore in 2012, in honour of our sixth President. The Fellowship was set up to support research on Singapore policy issues. 

IPS appointed Ravi as the 9th S R Nathan Fellow. Ravi delivered a series of four lectures in July last year. Today, we are here to launch his book, which is based on his lectures.  

I have the privilege of knowing Ravi well. We were colleagues in the public service, where he is known for his thoughtful views. 

When I entered politics in 2011, Ravi took over me as the Managing Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore. He now has the distinction of being Singapore’s longest serving central banker. 

As Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies, I work closely with Ravi and others in transforming our economy. His advice is one that I greatly value. 

It came as no surprise when Ravi was appointed a S R Nathan Fellow. And when Janadas approached me to launch the book, I gladly agreed.  

Uncertainty and Complexity 

Those of you who know Ravi well will be familiar with his flair for writing. In a previous speech, he made references to the Three Musketeers. In another, he spoke about Goldilocks and the three Bears. In the first of this lecture series, Ravi outlined the Four Horsemen – demographics, inequality, technology, climate. 

Indeed, these are four tectonic shifts that are altering the global landscape. In his first lecture, he proffered a possible fifth horseman – pandemics. 

Less than a year later, a sixth horseman has emerged – conflict. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has ruptured decades of peace in Europe, with global ramifications on food, energy, and supply chains. 

Under the Biden administration, the strategic competition between the US and China has intensified. The temperature has gone up in hotspots like Taiwan, which could reach boiling point if there are any miscalculations.  

So, while there are a few known horsemen, which Ravi had outlined, there are also other horsemen not in our direct field of view, which might rear their head unexpectedly.  

We live in a more complex and uncertain world. The four horsemen could well turn into a calvary. We might not know when and where the calvary would strike, but if we stood still, we are certain of being mowed down when it does. 

Having captured our attention, in his next three lectures, Ravi argued for what it means for Singapore to be a nation, an economy, and a society rolled into one.

I have several observations in response to this lecture series. But I will keep them brief, for I am sure you would want to hear more from Ravi.  

Group Think 

My first observation is group think, more specifically the lack of it, which is a good thing. 

In his speeches, Ravi outlined his thoughts on what we needed to do to create a better future – from increasing carbon taxes, to raising wealth taxes, and studying having a minimum wage. 

Coming from the establishment, some were surprised by his candidness. There was even a media article about whether Ravi has gone rogue. I can assure you that he has not. 

Within Government, issues are often extensively deliberated on, and it is not just Ravi, but many others, contributing to the contestation of ideas. 

A plurality of views is natural and should be encouraged. It adds to the rigour of policy formulation and subsequent implementation. But we must not let a divergence of views lead to paralysis. 

On a spectrum, groupthink and gridlock are on extreme ends. Gridlock can be as dangerous, if not more so, than groupthink. As with most things, we need to find a path that works in our context.  

We need to take a pragmatic and constructive approach to build common ground. While values may drive our conviction, taking an overly ideological approach could very easily lead to gridlock. 

While we want a diversity of views and debate the different perspectives rigorously, we also need leaders with the vision and courage to decide on a course of action. 

Once a decision is taken, it is time to act collectively and decisively, with all hands on deck. And we must periodically review the choices made, to see whether we could do even better.

This is how it works in Singapore, and this has made us successful.   

So, my first observation is that we have a very healthy dose of productive pluralism in Singapore, which we must continue to harness. 

Similar Aspirations, Differing Approach 

My second observation is that much of what different groups of Singaporeans aspire towards is not fundamentally that different – a vibrant economy, a more equal society, a more sustainable environment, and more.   

But policy choices come with trade-offs. This is where perspectives may differ. The benefits and cost may apply to each of us differently. 

We may not give the same weight to the same consideration. Consequently, we may have divergent approaches on how to approach the same issue. 

So, we must not let differences on how to make these trade-offs, hold us back from achieving our common aspirations.  
Take lower-wage workers. There is broad consensus to uplift the wages of these workers to create a more equal society. 

How much, how fast, how to implement, how the cost increase should be borne? This is where there are different perspectives from businesses, unions, service buyers, the community, to the workers themselves. 

I do not intend to go into the policy minutiae in my speech, nor the various partnership models to build consensus and to galvanise action. But I am glad we introduced the Progressive Wage Model, which is making tangible improvements to the lives of lower wage workers. 

The differences in views are perhaps smaller than what they are often made out to be. If we make the effort to understand the different perspectives and appreciate the constraints, the gaps can be further narrowed.  

How we make the trade-offs can shift over time. What might be less practical now might work in the future. So, any policy discourse will be an ongoing one, with our policies reviewed and refreshed over time.   

I have given the example of lower-wage workers. But the same dynamics could be said of wealth taxes and other social policies, and also our economic policies. 

Most of us want a growing and vibrant economy that will create better jobs with better lives for our people. 

But how do we keep pace with disruption? How do we make the transition to a more digital and greener economy?  

How do we equip our workers with the skills to succeed, while also attracting the top global talent needed to propel our growth sectors and complement our workforce? PM spoke about this at NDR on Sunday.   

It is important that we acknowledge that while different groups of Singaporeans may have differing approaches, we do in fact have very similar aspirations. The glass is often more than half full. 

This gives us greater confidence that we can grow what we have in common, even as we ensure that each of our voices are heard. 

Moving forward, not backwards 

This brings me to my third observation – the need to ensure that discourse grows the common space, and not diminish it. Ravi spoke about the celebration of diversity in his last lecture. 

Indeed, diversity is one of the features of our multi-racial and multi-cultural society, one that we should continue to embrace and celebrate.

But we do not need to look too far back to know that the harmonious state of affairs we have today is not one that should be taken for granted. 

My generation grew up during the race riots. Race and religion will remain fault lines. As society becomes more diverse, more fault lines will emerge. 

There are difficult and deeply emotive issues that societies must grapple with, not just locally but globally.  

We must learn to handle these issues sensitively and with forbearance. Progress cannot be made by advocating loudly for a single viewpoint. 

Take the discourse on S377A, which PM addressed recently at NDR. This is a longstanding and deep-seated issue, with strong views for and against a repeal. 

Through extensive consultation, taken closed door in a candid and constructive manner, we are moving towards a new equilibrium.

PM announced that we will work towards a repeal of S377A while amending the Constitution to protect the current definition of marriage from being challenged in court.

DPM Wong also gave his assurances that the definition of marriage would not change under his watch, should the PAP be re-elected in the next GE.  

A new balance would not be possible if people insist only on pushing across their views or venture into polemics. 

Singaporeans by and large cherish the harmony and common space that we have. Even for difficult and evocative issues, parties have approached dialogue with respect, restraint, and rationality. 

Arriving at a new equilibrium on S377A will show that even for contentious issues, there can be room for accommodation. 

But we all need to do our part to carry out dialogue in a way that will move society forward and call out those whose actions undermine the harmony that we so treasure. 


Let me now turn back to the S R Nathan Fellowship. 

The late S R Nathan was an accomplished civil servant, a distinguished diplomat, and Singapore’s longest-serving President. I had benefitted greatly from the advice that he has given me over the years. 

Through this Fellowship, his legacy lives on. Ravi joins a list of distinguished fellows – eight before him, with a total of twelve appointed to date. Together, they cover a wide range of topics and come from varied backgrounds.  

As importantly, they have pushed the bounds of thinking and promoted public understanding and discourse on critical issues of national interest. 

This lecture series could not have come at a better time, as DPM Lawrence Wong is leading the ongoing Forward Singapore effort to collectively renew our social compact. 

Singapore can only succeed if we work together to shape our future, with each of us doing our part. I say this through past experiences, with Our Singapore Conversation and the Singapore Together movement. 

My hope is that this book will inspire you and other Singaporeans to step forward to shape the next chapter of our nation’s history. Not just to contribute ideas, but also to put good ideas into action. 

In this way, we can continue to be an inspiring nation, an inclusive society, and an innovative economy. So do give DPM Wong and the 4G team your fullest support!  

Let me once again congratulate Ravi on your lecture series and on the launch of this book. Thank you.