DPM Heng Swee Keat at the IIAS-LIEN 2019 Conference

DPM Heng Swee Keat | 19 June 2019

Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat at the IIAS-LIEN 2019 Conference: Effective, Accountable and Inclusive Governance, on 19 June 2019 at Nanyang Technological University.


Professor Ling San, Provost and Vice President (Academic), Nanyang Technological University,
Mr Laurence Lien, Chairman, Lien Foundation,
Professor Geert Bouckaert, President, International Institute of Administrative Sciences,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

A very good morning to all of you. It is 4am in Brussels now, so a very early morning to all our friends from Europe and a warm welcome to Singapore.

Thank you for inviting me to join you at the inaugural International Institute of Administrative Sciences (IIAS)-Lien Conference.

I congratulate the NTU Nanyang Centre for Public Administration (NCPA), IIAS, and the Lien Foundation, for bringing the IIAS Congress and Lien Conference together today.

This collaboration marks a milestone for you. IIAS held its first Congress in Brussels in 1910, more than a century ago[1]. Then, there were representatives from 22 countries. Over the years, the conference’s annual membership has grown. Now, IIAS gathers more than 300 academics and policy makers each year, in a different part of the world to discuss issues relating to governance. The NCPA, supported by the Lien Foundation, has organised the Lien International Conference on Good Governance since 2013.

Bringing thought leaders in academia and public administration from Europe, Asia, and beyond, together, is a very good partnership. As Professor Bouckaert said, this is a good way to build bridges.

The theme for this Conference is Effective, Accountable and Inclusive Governance. This cannot be more timely.

Societies around the world are experiencing rapid social, economic, technological and political changes. These rapid changes have presented new challenges for governments around the world.

For one, many people in developed economies feel that they have not benefitted from global economic growth. Real wages have stagnated for them. Workers are concerned about their job security.

The growing anxieties are fuelling the rise of nationalist and protectionist sentiments.

Second, a number of countries, such as China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea, are ageing rapidly. In fact, the UN just released a report today that ageing is now a global phenomenon. There are very few countries in the world that are not facing an ageing problem. This is partly because average life expectancies are going up around the world, and it will continue to go up. At the same time, the number of babies that are born are also coming down. So, the global population pyramid is changing very rapidly in many parts of the world. The increase of life expectancy is a good thing, in that people are living longer. But at the same time, longevity can put a strain on social safety nets and healthcare spending, as well as on caregivers. It has significant implications for pension funds, insurance companies and institutions that look at the long term savings of people.

Third, societies are becoming more diverse in terms of aspirations, life experiences and values. These have led to sharper debates across issues, and it’s worse when these debates are conducted on social media, and very often on dark media which is among a small, closed group. This is affecting the social compact in many countries.

Good governance is critical to the development of any country, and even more so in our complex and interdependent world. In this much more interconnected world, global governance is critical to tackling global challenges. But how do we define good governance?

There is no single definition.

This term means different things to different countries and groups. Rightfully so, because the model of governance of a country is shaped by her history, present circumstances, needs, culture, and values amongst others. No two countries are identical. What is regarded as good governance differs across countries. What works well in one country might not be as suitable in another But we must share our experiences, learn and draw inspiration from one another, and adapt good ideas to our own context where applicable. This is why we are gathered here today, and over the next few days.

In this context, the organisers approached me to share my thoughts on governance in Singapore. Singapore is a young country with a very short history. This year, we are fifty-four years old as an independent nation. This year, we are also commemorating our Bicentennial. It was 200 years ago that Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore, founded a trading post that developed into a busy trading port, and plugged us into a very different global economic network. This built on what we have had in terms of several hundred years of history as a regional trading emporium.

By some measure, we have made good progress. Good governance has enabled a small island nation without any natural resources, that depended solely on its people, to succeed. While we have made progress, there is much more that we can learn from others, and much more that we need to do.

So I hope that in sharing the Singapore experience, we can also learn from one another and stimulate our thoughts about what else we can do in each of our nations, as well as together in the global community.

Instead, I’ll touch on three principles of governance, amongst many others, that have served Singapore well:

  1. First, enabling our people to reach their fullest potential;
  2. Second, harnessing strength in diversity; and
  3. Third, thinking long term and planning for future generations.

Enabling our people to reach their fullest potential

First, we must enable our people to fulfil their potential, regardless of their backgrounds and starting points in life. The future of every society depends on how we develop our people. This is especially so for countries with no natural resources, like Singapore. Our people will shape the future of our society. For our young, we must help them discover their passions and develop their talents.

In Singapore, we believe in giving every child a good start in life, and to provide him or her with good opportunities to progress throughout life. Starting from early childhood, the Government ensures that every child has access to a high quality and affordable education. Research has shown that children who attend pre-school perform better later on in their lives.[2]

The effect is even greater for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Hence, the Government is doing more for children from disadvantaged families through the KidSTART programme that was started in 2016. In developing KidSTART, we had learnt from other countries with similar programmes. This follows from earlier efforts in investing more in our pre-school education.

In fact, when I was Education Minister, I got a call one day from Mr Lee Kuan Yew. He said he had been looking at the evidence on the effect of early childhood exposure to languages.

One of the books that he wrote is called “My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore’s Bilingual Journey”. It documented what he had been struggling with to provide bilingual education in Singapore. Evidence has shown that early exposure to languages has a significant impact on the ability of the child to learn at least two languages or more.

Many of our friends from Europe will testify to this. But in the Singapore context, learning two languages is a lot harder because the languages have very different roots. But the early investment has been helpful, and we are continuing to monitor the effects of this.

We hope to learn from everyone on what we can do better, whether it is the learning of languages or the learning of Mathematics and Science.

In school, Singapore’s education system provides every child with a strong foundation in literacy and numeracy, with different pathways to success. When I was the Minister for Education, I worked with my colleagues to make “Every School a Good School”. This represents our commitment to bring the best out in every child and in every school.

Beyond a strong academic foundation, we help students apply their learning of basic concepts in science to the real world problems through the Applied Learning Programmes. By 2023, all primary and secondary schools would have Applied Learning Programmes. We continue to invest in a student-centric and values-driven education.

Beyond ten years of basic education, students have different pathways to choose from at our Institutes of Technical Education, Polytechnics and Universities. We’ve invested significantly in higher education and research universities. Earlier, Professor Ling San mentioned about the latest QS World University Rankings, and NTU has moved up to be the 11th in the world. Congratulations to NTU again. Singapore has also set up specialised schools for students seeking to pursue their passion in arts, sports or science.

The large majority of our students attain a post-secondary education qualification before entering the workforce, and this has enabled them to take on good jobs that are well-suited to their aptitude and skills.

Beyond schools, we started the SkillsFuture movement to help our people embrace life-long learning, so that they can take on new jobs, and keep up with technological advancements. SkillsFuture initiatives enable Singaporeans to develop new generic skills as well as to build industry-relevant skills throughout their lives.

Many other countries also have their own programmes to support their people. For example, in China, the Government announced the launch of a 100 billion RMB vocational skills training initiative this year[3], to help their people upgrade their skills or switch industries.

Critically, to bring out the best in everyone, we need to work together as a society. The Government is also working in close partnership with the community. Many contribute their time and expertise to help and mentor children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Government also partners the community, including social workers and voluntary welfare organisations, to design and implement policies to help children with specific needs. The Lien Foundation has done much in this area.

Together, we can help our people reach their fullest potential and build a more inclusive society.

Harnessing strength in diversity

This brings me to my second point. Good governance also requires us to draw strengths from diverse individuals. In every society, individuals hold different and multiple identities. Beyond race and religion, individuals may also identify with their gender, generation, socio-economic status, and the interests and causes that motivate them.

As societies become more diverse, our people may have different expectations, concerns and needs. If we group exclusively along our own set of identities, diversity can become a point of division.
In some countries, intolerance and extremism are growing, breeding distrust and even violence. In the first half of the year, there were several terrorist attacks on places of worships around the world. In some cases, there were retaliatory attacks, resulting in more innocent lives lost, compounding the tragedies.

If we have a common core and draw strengths from our differences, diversity can be an advantage. By drawing diverse ideas and perspectives to explore issues, experimenting with possible solutions, finding common grounds, we can overcome challenges and seize opportunities together.

In Singapore, diversity has been growing as a source of strength, and not a point of divide. Singapore is the most diverse country in the world by religion,[4] and is home to many races, cultures, and languages. Since independence in 1965, the Government and different communities have worked hard to build a multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-religious society.

Singapore’s approach aims to integrate, rather than assimilate our people. No race or culture in Singapore is coerced into conforming with other cultures or identities. Instead, over time, each race has retained and evolved its own culture and heritage. At the same time, each has also integrated some of the customs and traditions of other races into their culture, and expand our common space.

Today, this conference brings together a whole community who share a common interest in improving governance. And yet, all of you come from very diverse backgrounds, diverse perspectives and experiences. I welcome our foreign visitors and friends to experience our diverse cultures, and in particular to try the different food in our hawker centres and in our food courts.

Now, while societies are diverse, it is important to maintain and grow common spaces and shared experiences.

In Singapore, our Ethnic Integration Policy ensures a balanced mix of ethnic groups living in HDB flats. Shared experiences such as the National Service bind us together.

Our shared values – (i) commitment to openness, (ii) embrace of multiculturalism, multi-racialism, and a multi-religious society, (iii) self-determination and (v) care for one another and sense of responsibility towards one another – enable our people work together for a common future.

Building common understanding and common spaces requires effort not just from the Government, but also from the community. We need to guard against forces that can tear us apart. As Singapore continues to develop, there will be a greater diversity of needs and viewpoints.

We are pressing on to partner our community and draw out the strengths in our diversity. For example, one such initiative is the community-driven “Ask Me Anything” series, where people of different beliefs engage in meaningful and authentic exchanges. This series provides a safe space for people to discuss sensitive issues on faith, and seeks to foster respect and better understanding.

Last weekend, I spoke about our next phase of nation-building, and building our future Singapore together. The Government will partner Singaporeans to design and implement policies together and create a shared future. We aim to build a democracy of deeds, where everyone in Singapore does his part to improve the lives of others. This is a democracy of deeds, and not just of debate and talk. We will have to take action, if we care strongly about something.

Other countries have made similar efforts, which we can all learn from. For example, earlier this year, France went through a national public consultation, seeking proposals to “build a new contract for the nation”[5].

If we can empower individuals to reach their potential and harness their diverse strengths, our societies will become stronger and more united.

Thinking long term and planning for future generations

The third principle is that we need to think long term and plan not just for the current generation, but also for future generations. We must tackle the immediate challenges and concerns, but we must also strive to leave a better tomorrow for our children and grandchildren.

This is not easy. Political leaders all over the world are facing enormous pressures meeting the needs of citizens today. Children today and children of future generations who are not born yet, do not yet have a voice or a vote. But each of us today owe a responsibility to future generations as much as we do to the current generation.

As Minister for Finance, I am keenly aware of this, because many public spending policies today, can have implications which last beyond the current generation.

Different countries adopt different practices. Some raise taxes to fund current expenditures, so that their burden is not passed onto future generations. Others have taken to borrowing to fund recurrent needs and expenditures, passing the burden to future generations.

Today, some countries are undertaking public spending that are at risk of burdening future generations with unsustainable debt and interest payments. Ultimately, the most effective check must come from citizens with the right norms and values to make informed choices and the necessary trade-offs.

In Singapore, the single largest revenue for our budget is not from any single category of tax. It is not personal income tax, nor corporate income tax, nor the goods and services tax. The single largest contributor is what we term as the Net Investment Returns Contribution.

Under our Constitution, we cannot spend more than 50% of the expected long-term returns from investing our national reserves. We have an Elected President that safeguards this. I have been asked very often on our reserves. How did we do this?

Our reserves have been built painstakingly over half a century, by our pioneers and previous generations. Each generation of Singapore leaders has upheld this discipline – of running balanced budgets, setting aside surpluses, and having professional managers manage our reserves for the long term.

Over time, Singapore will need to meet growing needs such as healthcare expenditure, given our ageing population.

It may seem relatively less painful to spend more from reserves, compared to raising taxes. But if we over-rely on our reserves, it will hurt our ability to respond to changing circumstances in the future, especially given our lack of natural resources. Earlier, I announced that the Government will raise the Goods and Services Tax from 7% to 9% sometime in the period from 2021 to 2025.

Each generation strives to pay for its own spending through sustainable means, instead of drawing more than is prudent from the reserves, or passing on the cost of current spending to future generations. In this way, we are responsible stewards of reserves, and provide our future generations with the resources to meet future needs.

Planning for future generations is neither new nor unique to Singapore. We earlier heard from Mr Laurence Lien on how his grandfather came to Singapore as a young man, succeeded and set up a philanthropy, the Lien foundation. Today, we are beneficiaries of his grandfather’s long-term thinking and vision.

Many countries’ governments around the world are also doing this. In Asia, for example, the Japanese Government has adopted a forward looking 100-Year Life as a national directive[6]. The Chinese Government not only has five-year plans, but also “two centenary goals”.

I am glad that the global community is also rallying together to tackle long-term challenges facing humanity, such as climate change. It is encouraging that around the world, we are able to agree to the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. We have made some progress. But more can be done.

Countries must continue to learn from one another and work together to build a brighter future for all of us.


Let me conclude. Good governance is critical to the development of every country, especially in a rapidly changing and more complex world. At the end of the day, each country will need to develop a model of governance that is best suited to improve the lives of the people, and build a better and brighter future.

Good governance is always a work in progress. We must continue to innovate and evolve. We can better do so by learning from one another. Through sharing our experiences, we can gather new ideas and inspirations. Together, we can work towards more effective, more accountable and more inclusive governance. This is not just for ourselves, but for all nation, and not just for the immediate generation, but for future generations.

We need good governance to tackle the challenges that we all face. All of you come from different parts of the world, with interesting experiences and perspectives. I am sure you will learn much from one another, from your exchanges.

So let me thank all of you again for inviting me and for participating in this conference. I wish all of you a fruitful conference ahead. Thank you.

[1] Source: https://www.facebook.com/IIAS.IISA/
[2] Source: “The Current State of Scientific Knowledge on Pre-Kindergarten Effects”, Brookings Institution (2017)
[3] Source: Government Work Report 2019, presented by Premier Li Keqiang at the National People’s Congress in March 2019
[4] Source: Religious Diversity Index by Pew Research Center, April 2014
[5] Source: Embassy of France in London “President Macron’s open letter to the French people”, 13 Jan 2019
[6] Source: The Financial Times, “Japan begins to embrace the 100-year life”, Aug 2018