DPM Heng Swee Keat at the Debate on the President's Address 2020
Deputy Prime Minister, Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies and Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat during the debate on the President's Address in Parliament on 31 August 2020.
Mr Speaker Sir
I rise in support of the Motion.
In my maiden speech in Parliament in 2011, I said that all debates in this House will always be guided by one question: “How can we best ensure the survival and success of Singapore, and improve the lives of Singaporeans?” We have over the years examined this question in different ways.
The question has now become more critical than ever. We began 2020 full of hope, having just commemorated our Bicentennial last year. None of us could have foreseen what was to come – the whole of humanity locked in by a virus; millions of people infected, and lives upended; the global economy plunged into the worst recession since the Great Depression; and the ways we earn a living, go about our lives, and interact with one another turned on their head.
In Singapore, we mounted a swift and robust response. To protect lives, we imposed the circuit breaker. Our healthcare and frontline workers responded valiantly, keeping our fatalities very low and bringing down the number of new infections. Our people observed strict discipline, to keep each other safe. To protect livelihoods, we are doing all that we can to keep our workers in jobs, preserve the core capabilities of our businesses, and support households during this difficult period. We committed around $100 billion to fight the pandemic and safeguard our people and businesses from the fallout.
But as a small and open economy, we cannot defy the full force of this global crisis. The risk of new waves of infection persists, threatening to derail the gradual reopening of our economy. The global economy is projected to contract by around 5% and will remain weak and fragile for years to come. Our resident unemployment rate has climbed to 3.9% in the second quarter of this year, and we can expect more job losses. Many who have held on to their jobs have seen significant falls in income. For those in the most affected sectors, like aviation and tourism, recovery will be long-drawn.
We have to tackle these challenges amidst the underlying shifts that pre-dated COVID-19. There is a backlash against free trade and sharpening nativist instincts, because the costs and benefits of globalisation have been unevenly distributed. Technology and innovation are reshaping the nature of work, disrupting jobs and businesses. These stresses have in turn caused societies to be polarised, exacerbated by the proliferation of echo chambers on social media. The uncertainties created by COVID-19 have only accelerated these shifts. To compound matters, governments around the world have financed massive stimulus packages through borrowing, putting an even greater burden on future generations.
It is against this sombre backdrop that we open our 14th Parliament. As the President said in her speech, we are at an inflection point in our history. Now, more than ever, we must ask: How can we best ensure the survival and success of Singapore, and improve the lives of Singaporeans, in these unprecedented times?
We can answer this in one line: Adapt to change, but stay true to our values.
Change will leave us behind if we stand still. That we must adapt is a given. What will define this term of Government is how we will adapt, that will build a better life for our people. Even as we keep pace with change, we must stay true to the values that have enabled us to progress all these years. By embracing change with courage and confidence, we build our capacity to adapt. By staying true to our values, we strengthen our sense of common purpose. By working in close partnership, we advance as Singapore Together.
I will speak about how we need to adapt as an economy, a society and a people.
Adapting as an Economy
Singapore’s economic story over the decades has been one of constant adaptation, restructuring and transformation. Our latest refresh started in 2016, with Industry Transformation Maps to spur sector-specific adaptation throughout our economy. The effort has borne fruit. Productivity and wages were going up before COVID-19 struck. Industry players have also found new ways of working together to raise the competitiveness of their industries.
Indeed, bearing fruit is not just a metaphor here. I met a fruit seller Jun Sheng, better known as “Ah Boy” at Block 58 Marketplace in Bedok. In addition to operating a physical stall, he sells fruits online and even takes orders via WhatsApp. Many hawkers and small businesses island-wide are also going digital. We must do what we can to support our workers and business, big and small, and make such innovation pervasive.
While we have made progress in industry transformation, we must look ahead and prepare ourselves for even faster and more disruptive change. To emerge stronger as an economy, we must strengthen our capacity in four areas.
First, we must take an even more integrated and coordinated approach to economic transformation. The economy is very complex, with multiple stakeholders. In our system, tripartism – the Government, businesses and the Labour Movement working together – has been a tremendous source of strength.
Two years back, as Chairman of the National Research Foundation, I visited the Netherlands to learn more about their “triple helix” model of innovation – where government, businesses and academia work together to build knowledge, test prototypes, and scale innovation. Like some research triangles in the US, the Dutch have done well. This model is being expanded, to incorporate other dimensions such as societal responsibility and environmental protection.
In essence, the economy is very complex, in how it allocates resources, generates innovative ideas, and in how returns are distributed across multiple stakeholders. While there is a competitive element in this, there are also benefits to be gained from working together for shared prosperity.
Singapore can build on our tripartite partnership, to be a test-bed that create deeper linkages with an expanded set of stakeholders – including our education and research institutions, our community groups, and interested partners from around the world. By doing so, we can create good jobs for our people and new opportunities for entrepreneurs.
Second, we must redouble our efforts to develop everyone to their fullest potential. In this way, our people can take on new opportunities, and flourish in their chosen pursuits. We need a holistic approach for this, that spans the lifetime of individuals, from birth, to preschool, to schools, all the way to lifelong learning as part of SkillsFuture. I am glad that our workers are embracing upskilling, with about half a million taking part in SkillsFuture programmes last year.
And we have to explore new possibilities for developing our people fully. Studies in Singapore by Prof Chong Yap Seng show that the physical and mental health of women during pregnancy affects the brain development and behaviours of their babies. Ongoing clinical studies will assess if nutrition and other measures taken during pregnancy and early childhood are associated with better outcomes in both mothers and their children. The National Research Foundation is expanding on this by supporting research programmes that address the broader goal of enhancing human potential through measures during pregnancy and childhood including nutrition, parenting and later, our studies on how people learn.
Third, we must strengthen our pathfinding capacity to find new bright spots amid economic disruption. Four months ago, we set up the Emerging Stronger Taskforce to identify and seize new opportunities in emerging trends. The Taskforce has made good progress and commissioned seven Alliances for Action. These industry-led coalitions to pilot ideas quickly represent a new, action-oriented approach to pursue specific growth areas.
The ideas being explored are promising. They range from environmental sustainability, to smart commerce, supply chain digitalisation, and the use of robotics. These can create new growth markets for our businesses and good jobs for Singaporeans.
We will invest in incubating and accelerating start-ups, and supporting established companies to expand their R&D to build competitive strengths. Such a vibrant innovation ecosystem will build up our pathfinding capabilities.
Fourth, we must find new ways to be a vital node, with rich and deep interconnections with the rest of the world. As a small city-state, being open is our strength and opportunity. Unlike other major cities, we do not have domestic hinterlands that buffer us against shocks. We cannot take for granted that, in a post-COVID-19 world, we can continue to be the same kind of hub that we used to be. We must therefore forge new forms of connections, such as digital economy agreements, while deepening our linkages with regional markets to ride on Asia’s potential.
We must also remain open to investment and talent from around the world. In this economic climate, we understand that many Singaporeans are anxious about their livelihoods. Our starting point is that our economic strategies must serve the interests of Singaporeans. The foreign investments we attract must create meaningful jobs for our people and strengthen our corporate ecosystem. Singaporeans must receive fair consideration at the workplace, like what Patrick Tay just said.
We are therefore adapting our manpower policies, including our Employment and S Pass policies, to the changing circumstances, to ensure that Singaporeans’ interests are upheld. But to emerge stronger, we must resist any temptation to turn inwards. We cannot close ourselves to the world, or make foreigners unwelcome in our society.
We must always serve the interest of Singaporeans. The best way is to ensure that this little red dot – with no natural resources of any kind, but with a determined, hardworking, forward-looking people – is to remain useful and relevant to the world. We do this by keeping our economy vibrant and competitive, so that Singaporeans and other people choose to be here, to invest and do business, thereby creating good jobs and opportunities for all of us.
Mr Patrick Tay just spoke about ITM 2.0 and I thank Mr Tay for mentioning our ITM efforts. In fact, even in ITM 1.0, there is an explicit linkage between the various components of what we do in developing our people and job creation. Mr Tay is right that we should create even stronger linkages in the form of skills maps, job redesign, and the retraining and reskilling of our workers, to take on new jobs. In particular, we must also make a deliberate effort to develop Singaporeans for leadership roles in companies, so that they can take Singapore forward. Singapore, as a regional operational headquarters, has what it takes. that it has people, Singaporeans, in a multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-cultural environment, can connect with people all around us and build deep linkages with our friends in the region. This is something that we will pursue.
At the same time, we must not undermine the essence of what has made us successful. Even as we adapt to a changing world, we must stay true to our values – our sense of unity as a people, our composition as a multicultural society. We must stay true to our value to the world, as an oasis of harmony in this fractious world.
Adapting as a Society
Even as we evolve our economic strategies, our society too is facing new challenges and needs to continue to adapt, to sustain the promise of progress for every Singaporean. We must not let change lead to polarisation.
In the early days of our development, our economy was growing strongly. A rising tide lifted all boats, and most Singaporeans saw their lives improve by leaps and bounds. We invested in our people so that they could adapt and grow with our economy. High home ownership also gave Singaporeans a share in the fruits of our progress.
As our economy matured, we also strengthened our social safety nets. For example, we improved healthcare affordability, through MediShield Life and CHAS, and provided extra support for the Pioneer and Merdeka Generations. We uplifted the wages of our lower wage workers through Workfare and the Progressive Wage Model. Our social spending has tripled over the last fifteen years, and this is set to rise further as our population ages.
Looking ahead, our economy will change at a much more rapid pace. Disruption to jobs will be more common with the greater adoption of technology, such as automation and remote work. We must therefore take an integrated view of our economic and social policies. As our Labour Movement puts it, a job is the best form of welfare for our people. The Government will continue to invest in our people, match them to new opportunities, and bring out the best in all Singaporeans. This way, we will keep social mobility alive.
At the same time, with major changes in the economy and labour market, we will need to adapt our social safety nets and keep inequality in check. More workers will fall on hard times, and we need to enable them to adjust and bounce back through this crisis and beyond. Some Singaporeans are also taking part in the “gig” economy, taking on a wide range of jobs, either part-time or full-time. So our support for self-employed persons will have to evolve accordingly. We must continue to uplift our lower wage workers, and enable our older workers to continue working, if they wish to.
Various ideas have been proposed on how we can do this, such as a minimum wage, universal basic income, and unemployment insurance. The Government will keep an open mind to all these ideas. But we must also recognise that there are no magic bullets. Each of these ideas has its merits as well as unintended effects. We have to consider the trade-offs and be clear about what works for our context and our times.
Demands on our social safety nets are increasing, at a time when our revenue base is growing more slowly and with sharper competition for tax revenue across countries. So I must caution against looking for what may appear to be “costless solutions” – somehow, someone else will have to pay for these schemes. There are trade-offs. If we want higher social spending, taxes will have to go up. Or it will mean spending more at the expense of future generations, like what many countries are doing by raising debt. We must never forget that we have provided almost $100 billion of support for our people and businesses this year, without incurring a single cent of debt, because we were able to fund over half of this using past reserves.
At the same time, while we must strengthen our social safety nets, we must do so in a way that reinforces, and not undermine, an individual’s efforts. A strong compact maintains a balance between the roles of the individual, family, community and the Government, and helps us better cope with change together.
Indeed, a social safety net cannot become a set of shackles. It should not hold down those who started with less. It should not create dependency, such that people who get fish for today, never learn how to fish for food tomorrow. It should not breed an entitled class who ask: “What more can you do for me?”
A well-designed social safety net protects the vulnerable, invests in human and societal capital, and provides a means for those who fall down to bounce back. It gives hope and builds confidence. It believes in people and lifts the human spirit. It supports every generation to have aspirations and dreams, and for everyone to ask: “What more can we do for one another?”
As Members debate how we can strengthen our support for Singaporeans, let’s keep in mind how new enhancements can be funded equitably and sustainably over time, and strengthen our people’s capacity to not only succeed throughout life, but help others succeed too. These are the values that we must strengthen, even as we adapt.
Affirming Our Values as a People
How we can best ensure the survival and success of Singapore, and improve the lives of Singaporeans, depends on how well we adapt to change. As we adapt, and in some cases make major adjustments because the circumstances we face have changed significantly, we must stay rooted to our values and identity, and above all, our unity as one people.
I have been encouraged to see how COVID-19 has strengthened our sense of common purpose, and brought out the best in us. Many have stepped up to support others. One example is the Masks Sewn With Love project, a community effort that has sewn more than 250,000 masks for vulnerable families, which some of our MPs were very deeply involved in.
This sense of unity, through both good times and bad, is rooted in the values enshrined in our Pledge, and the distinct Singaporean identity we have evolved through the years.
During SG50, we honoured those who have brought us this far, in our journey since independence.
In our Bicentennial last year, we explored how we progressed from Singapore to Singaporean by holding true to the values of openness, multi-culturalism and self-determination, and sharing the conviction to stand united and defy the odds as one people.
It will take more effort to maintain this sense of common purpose as our society becomes more diverse. Our society will face new differences along the lines of identity, socio-economic status and political beliefs. There will always be different perspectives on subjects like race, language and religion, and the rights and obligations of citizenship.
It is essential that we rise above our differences, and find common ground. Occasional setbacks need not trip us in our perseverance to continue to make progress. Harmony in diversity will always be a work in progress. We may not always agree, but we cannot afford to let our disagreement turn into division. Otherwise, change will cause a rupture in society, as we have seen elsewhere.
Singapore Together as the way forward
We launched the Singapore Together movement in June last year precisely to harness our diversity as a strength, and create a shared future for everyone. We wanted to build on our experience from Our Singapore Conversation, to engender deep understanding and partnerships among Singaporeans, and between our people and the Government. We know many Singaporeans are keen to play their part, and to make a difference.
Two weeks ago, I met Samantha and a group of volunteers who clean up our beach at East Coast Park regularly. Kiat How, Desmond Tan and I had a follow-up discussion with them via Zoom on Saturday, to discuss how we can create a more sustainable Singapore. I am very impressed by their passion and commitment. We agreed to work together to turn their good ideas into action.
The process of working together will help to foster a culture of respect, and expand our common space. This strengthens our capacity to adapt and change together, and will take time to build up.
We want to build on these efforts too, as we recover from COVID-19. So we have convened the Emerging Stronger Conversations, which give Singaporeans a shared opportunity to reflect on their COVID-19 experience, and articulate how we can take Singapore forward together. These Conversations are ongoing and will lead to action, through our Singapore Together Action Networks and other partnerships.
The better we adapt to change, and stay true to our values, the stronger we can emerge from this, and future crises. The stronger we are at home, the more confident we can be to stake our place in the world and create value with others. This has been our formula for survival and success.
We are determined to uphold a rules-based global order, which has taken us to where we are today. As a small nation that threatens no country, we want to be friends with all, and to work with all.
We are both a city-state and a global metropolis. Maintaining this “dual identity” will not be easy. But as long as we are clear about our values and what holds us together, it will be a source of strength that opens up new opportunities. This is our Singapore premium. Let us continue to work with like-minded partners to build a better world, for Singaporeans, for people around the world, and for our future generations.
Since our independence, we have weathered one crisis after another, from the withdrawal of British forces and the ensuing massive unemployment, to the 1973 oil crisis, the Asian Financial Crisis, SARS, the 2001 IT bubble collapse, and the Global Financial Crisis. All of us in our 50s and older would have lived through these turbulent periods. Each time, Singaporeans would have been called upon to show fortitude and resilience, and work in unity with our fellow citizens. And each time, we have risen to the challenge, adapted, and emerged stronger.
The COVID-19 pandemic could be our most severe test so far. To overcome this crisis, we will have to once again draw upon and build on this capacity to adapt and remain united and stand through to our values. We can navigate this period of great uncertainty and change, but our politics must set the right tone for the rest of society.
This House must fulfil its duty, to articulate and debate policy options, to build a better life for our people, and to advance Singapore’s place in the world. This is the mandate that has been entrusted to us by Singaporeans. I trust that all of us, whether in Government or the Opposition, will share this common sense of mission, to serve in the best interests of Singaporeans and Singapore.
My colleagues and I in Government have listened to the voices of our people. We have heard and share our peoples’ anxieties. We acknowledge the concerns and unhappiness that some have voiced. As the world, and our society changes, there will be a greater divergence of views. We will continue to understand your concerns and improve your lives. We will have to adapt to these changes but stay true to the values. The same values that have enabled us to stay united and succeed against the odds.
We welcome our 31 newly-elected MPs in this Parliament and look forward to hearing from them in this debate. For those who are office-holders, I have encouraged them not just to speak about their ministry work, but also to share more about their personal convictions and beliefs. They are giving their maiden speeches, and I believe Singaporeans would want to know about who they are and what they stand for.
Let me also express my appreciation to the MPs who have retired, and the NCMPs who have stepped down. The longest serving is Mr Goh Chok Tong, who served for nearly 45 years, including almost 14 years as Prime Minister. Mr Goh’s years as PM from 1990 to 2004 are remembered as a time of stability, peace and growth, during which we became a kinder, gentler society and a more confident people.
He steered us through two major crises – the Asian Financial Crisis and SARS. He continued to contribute in many areas, even after stepping down as PM. Over the years, I had the privilege of working closely with Mr Goh, including on many trips., His rapport with leaders around the world enabled us to forge many new agreements and partnerships, which in turn expanded our external space. I remembered vividly his advice to me during the Global Financial Crisis, when I was the Managing Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore. He was then our Chairman. Banks around the world were in trouble. So when we had to make a momentous decision on whether to seek approval from the President for a $150 billion guarantee on all bank deposits backed up by our past reserves, I was glad to have his wise counsel. Mr Goh taught us that we must face difficult decisions head-on. It was a lesson that stayed with me and continues to guide much of my work, especially during this crisis.
After I entered politics in 2011, ESM Goh continued to be a good mentor, with his signature mix of humour and wisdom. Mr Goh has left an indelible mark on many Singaporeans, especially those of us in this House. When I last met him, Mr Goh told me he was spending more time with Mrs Goh and their children and grandchildren. Let us all thank Mrs Goh and their family for being Mr Goh’s staunchest and closest supporters all these years. I wish our beloved ESM a happy retirement.
I would also like to pay tribute to other long-serving Parliamentarians, including Boon Wan, Hng Kiang, Swee Say, Yaacob, Charles, Lily, Ho Pin, and Cedric. Boon Wan and Hng Kiang were my bosses at MTI. I learnt a lot from them, and they have done much to advance our standing in the world and create new opportunities for our people. They may have left Parliament, but I am confident that they will continue to contribute to nation-building in other ways.
Let me also thank Mr Low Thia Khiang, who has served as an opposition Member of Parliament since 1991. He’s a fiery speaker at election rallies, but when it comes to the crunch, when our national interest is at stake, he stands together with the Government. He has deep convictions about language, culture and heritage, and the long-term success of Singapore. When I last spoke to him, he told me he was very happy playing with his grandchild. I am glad he has recovered from his fall and wish him good health.
Mr Pritam Singh has taken over as Secretary General of the Workers’ Party and has been appointed Leader of the Opposition. I trust Mr Singh will, like Mr Low, put our national interest first.
As we face the months and years ahead, let’s stand united to weather this crisis. Even though we were sworn in at two different physical Parliament Houses – the old and the new – we must always be Members of one House.
Singaporeans have elected us as their representatives. We must put our minds and efforts together, resolve to each do our best to serve Singaporeans and Singapore, so that we can emerge stronger from this test of a generation.
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