Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at The NUS115 Distinguished Speaker Series on 13 August 2021.
Mr Hsieh Fu Hua, Chairman, NUS Board of Trustees
Professor Tan Eng Chye, President of NUS,
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
A very good morning. Let me start by congratulating NUS on your 115th anniversary. During this time, NUS has made remarkable progress. For both Singapore and NUS, one consistent feature has been our practice of thinking long-term and anticipating what lies ahead. So it is fitting that today’s lecture is on the “Future of Singapore”.
This lecture takes place as we learn to live with COVID-19. Even before this pandemic, the world was becoming more complex and uncertain. COVID-19 has further disrupted our lives, put the global economy in a tailspin, and accelerated ongoing structural shifts. Post-COVID-19, we can expect greater disruptions and challenges – from rising sea levels, the next pandemic, greater US-China tensions, an ageing population, and more.
Singapore is in a better position than many countries to tackle the crisis and face the future. We experienced a few waves of COVID-19 infection. But we managed to contain the outbreaks each time. More than 70% of our population is fully vaccinated, one of the highest in the world, and we continue to maintain a good momentum on vaccination. Despite the anxieties and hardships, our people have remained united, standing in solidarity with one another.
Learning from the Past, to Build a Better Future
We are also in a much better position today than we were at Independence in 1965. With no resources to tap on, using only their grit and ingenuity, our founding leaders pulled everyone in the same direction, and did the impossible. They turned our disadvantages into strengths. These strengths put us in a good position today.
Whether in 1965, the present, or in the future, one thing is certain – we will continue to face new challenges. Throughout history, societies around the world have been faced with challenges – from internal strife, to wars, to famines and pandemics. Some societies came out of it better. Others disappeared or were absorbed. So challenges are inevitable for any society. The critical point is whether a society has the adaptive capacity to confront these challenges, and in the process develop new strengths.
Contemplating the “Future of Singapore”, I mulled over how Singapore had built up our adaptive capacity and developed the strengths that we have today that have given us an edge today. I also reflected on how we can build on them for a better future. Let me now touch on three of these strengths, and how we can build new strengths.
Sense of Unity
The first strength is our sense of unity – regardless of race, language or religion. Singapore became a nation by accident. We do not have the ballast of common ancestry, or centuries of shared traditions, language and religion that many other societies have.
But our founding leaders were determined to create a new nation that had an equal place for all races. This was why we parted ways with Malaysia. Through years of careful nurturing, today we are not only one of the most diverse societies in the world, but also one of the most united.
Our way of life – embracing diversity and living in harmony – is not the natural order of things. Many societies – including those with long and proud histories, have seen tensions between races. Our multiracial harmony cannot be taken for granted. Recent racial incidents remind us of the undercurrents that still exist. While such occurrences are thankfully not the norm, they have provoked much public debate and reflection.
It is heartening that Singaporeans care deeply about issues of race and religion. We are repulsed by these incidents. We clearly desire to do better as a society. How can we make progress? As with most social issues, there are many different perspectives and different views on this. We should be prepared to discuss these frankly, but sensitively. It is useful to appreciate that we not only have different opinions on these issues, but also different ways to approach them.
The communal strife in the early years of nationhood left a deep impression on our early generations, myself included. We saw first-hand how issues of religion and race can easily agitate and divide a society. Or worse still, get exploited by those with a political agenda. So we were determined to rally behind the bold vision of creating a multi-racial, multi-religious society. Along the way, we acted on this vision, with each community making sacrifices and accommodation.
Things will not stay static. Every generation bears the responsibility of bringing us closer to “one united people, regardless of race, language or religion”. Our youths are proud of our sense of unity. You have a different lived experience, and your generation will face new challenges that mine did not. While you have not experienced the chaotic years, many of you are better educated, and more exposed to global events and trends. You have had opportunities to understand and discuss the difficult issues surrounding race and religion, not just locally but globally. I know many among your generation tend to be more comfortable expressing your views on these issues, especially on social media. I hope that the sense of unity that we have built so far will stand you well. I am confident that you will grow this further, if you continue to approach these issues with humility and forbearance.
The humility to recognise that each of us have our biases and blind spots. Being mindful of our biases and correcting them is a constructive step towards progress. Indeed, we should be firm in calling out transgressions when we see them, but also have the humility not to assume the worst of every action or comment. We should exercise forbearance when engaging with such issues, given the deep and emotive undercurrents. Progress cannot be made by advocating loudly for a single viewpoint. We should instead seek out the different perspectives and expand the space for convergence. These apply not just to our youths, but to all of us.
Our sense of unity is a tremendous strength for Singapore. This unity is precious, but also fragile. And if every generation – including all of us here – embrace this strength, and handle differences with humility and forbearance, I am confident that Singapore can flourish in the coming decades.
The second strength I would like to share is our creative capacity and our willingness to go against the tide. Creativity is not something that is often used to describe most Singaporeans, although we do have a vibrant creative sector. Singaporeans are generally better known for being hardworking, honest and resilient. But if not for the creativity of our early generations, we would not be where we are today.
Our founding generation was creative in forging our own path and bucking conventional wisdom. We welcomed MNCs to invest here, when critics saw MNCs as the new colonialists. These investments went on to propel our rapid growth. We developed a new airport in Changi, against the advice of external consultants, which gave us an outsized presence on the world map.
Our businesses too have been creative, venturing into the region when Asia’s economy took off in the 1980s, adding an external wing to our economy. Singaporeans also ventured abroad, taking on new opportunities. Today, there are over 200,000 Singaporeans overseas.
If there is one common thread running through this, it is our openness to the world. No matter how brilliant our plans were, we would not have succeeded if we had insulated ourselves. As a land-constrained nation, with no natural resources, we had no other choice. Our openness to the world enabled us to ride the wave of globalisation. Salaries improved, job opportunities grew, and Singapore became a vibrant city full of energy and ideas.
In the coming years, the entry of millions of university graduates each year in Asia alone will add significantly to the global talent pool. The pace of technological change will further accelerate, quickening the pace of disruption.
The reality is that it is not possible to “bubble wrap” our workers from foreign competition and still expect to succeed. The COVID experience of working from home, has made remote work more commonplace now. But “working from home” is just one step away from “working from anywhere”. And if workers can work from anywhere, employers can easily seek out the best skilled workers from all parts of the world. In fact, some cities are starting to market themselves as the destination of choice for global remote workers. Even more physical jobs – such as port crane operators – can now be done remotely, in the comfort of a control room. And the control room can possibly be located thousands of miles away. This means foreigners do not have to be in Singapore to compete with us. It would be increasingly difficult, if not impractical, to confine opportunities by geography.
But embracing openness does not mean leaving our companies and people to fend for themselves. We are doing all that we can to transform our companies and equip our people to take on new opportunities. We have a head start on economic transformation, having embarked on our Industry Transformation Maps since 2016. We are refreshing our ITMs – developing new strategies for a post-COVID world, and helping our companies digitalise and adapt. We are more closely integrating our economic transformation efforts with research and innovation. We are supporting our start-ups – and NUS has nurtured quite a few including Patsnap, Carousell and Shopback. We are putting an even greater focus on jobs and skills – growing the SkillsFuture movement, and strengthening our tripartite effort on retraining and upskilling. There is certainly room to adjust our foreign manpower policies. And there is scope to strengthen our laws on fair treatment at the workplace. But closing our doors is ineffective and provides a false promise of security.
We must not box ourselves into a false choice. Instead, we should embrace both openness and equip our people with the experience and skills to succeed – this is how we will thrive in a rapidly evolving world. This way, our workers can remain confident about their position in the world, and know that they can continue to make a difference – not just when they are fresh out of school, but throughout life. To all of you in the audience – your future is brimming with promise. Your education is preparing you well. Your multicultural upbringing gives you a great advantage in a diverse world. It gives you a better appreciation of our region, and enables you to better pursue new opportunities that Asia has to offer. I urge all of you to make the best of the opportunities out there, and unleash your creative capacity. Think beyond just ourselves, but also how we can make a difference to the world. This is the best way for Singapore and Singaporeans to continue thriving in a more inter-connected, inter-dependent and technologically advanced world.
The third strength I would like to share is our social compact. In Singapore, our founding leaders knew that for all Singaporeans to feel a sense of belonging and ownership, everyone must have a stake in our country. Education was a basic starting point. Our investment in education enabled our people to take on the better jobs that came with investments, and better pay. Through our public housing scheme, most families – including lower-income households – could own their homes. Their HDB flat became a vital asset. As we grew, we layered on additional safety nets and invested more in our people.
We took a different path from more developed economies, partly because we had very limited resources. We forged a social compact that is fair across generations, while providing strong support for those who need it. We did not blindly copy the generous welfare systems in many developed economies, created during the exuberance of the postwar economic boom, which soon became unaffordable. Countries that did piled on unsustainable debt. Unfunded pension liabilities are in the trillions of dollars. These societies now face hard choices of scaling back benefits or ballooning future tax burden – difficult choices, which often have a divisive effect on society. Unlike many developed countries, we inherited a social compact that has endured the test of time and that has united – rather than divided – our people.
But how do we further strengthen our social compact, at a time when societies around the world are facing intensified stresses and divides? Let me highlight a few areas, and how we need to approach issues differently. One key area of focus is on our lower-wage workers. We top up the incomes of the bottom 30% of our workers through Workfare. But we did not stop there. Through the Progressive Wage Model, we set and raise their basic wages, and provided a ladder for them to take on larger roles. We are currently in the process of rolling out PWM to many more sectors.
But this is not something that Government alone can do. Everyone must play their part. Employers must help their workers upskill, and create better working environments. Consumers must also be prepared to pay a little more to uplift wages.
Another well-known challenge is our ageing population. We have increased healthcare capacity and subsidies. We also gave more to early generations through the Pioneer and Merdeka Generation Packages. But the key point is that the well-being of our seniors goes beyond these. It is also about whether our seniors remain actively engaged in the community. And to reach out to those facing social isolation.This requires each of us to play a role in making Singapore a great place for our seniors to live in – as their children, their friends or their neighbours.
This brings me to the next point – we must also do more to tackle the emerging challenge of mental well-being. Many of us face pressures from different fronts – at school, at work, or at home. And having to deal with societal expectations. The pandemic has added further strain. As a society, we can better tackle mental well-being – raising awareness and de-stigmatising the issues, and better support those who need help. Each of us can also do our part to show care and concern for those around us and create a safe space for those who need support to come forward.
A stronger social compact requires a collective societal effort. I am greatly encouraged that many of you – in the audience and out there – are doing your part, working with others, to make a difference to the lives of others. We must continue to strengthen this. Increasingly, this will have to go beyond Government measures and redistributive policies. Each of us will have a part to play and every effort counts. This is the only way we can strengthen our social compact, and build a better future for everyone.
I have outlined the three strengths that we have forged as a society. Looking at all these strands, one common thread is my deeply held belief that to build a better future, every Singaporean has a part to play – by working in partnership, putting values into action, and making things happen. This conviction is shaped by my personal experiences in my first job as a policeman. As an undergraduate in the UK, I spent some time with the London Metropolitan Police during the summer holidays. It was soon after the Brixton riot, a series of violent clashes between the new immigrant community and the police. To visit the scenes of these riots, we had to take a special reinforced vehicle. To go on foot or by car was too dangerous, as there was a deep animosity in the people on the streets. The trust between the authority and people had broken down. Two years later, I was in Tokyo to study the koban system, where police posts were placed close to communities. A police officer there was part of the community, supporting and mobilising the community to maintain law and order. When the Singapore Police Force embarked on community policing in the 1980s, I embraced it fully, and helped set up our Neighbourhood Police Posts. These two contrasting experiences taught me that laws cannot substitute for the heart and soul of a community. This goes beyond policing. If relationships can be built up over time, if people care for one another, they will look out for each other, and we will have a more cohesive society. The opportunity to advance this deep conviction was one of the reasons I agreed to enter politics in 2011.
I put this belief into action when leading Our Singapore Conversations in 2012. Not only were Singaporeans heard, we were able to translate their inputs into policy changes – including MediShield Life and changes to the PSLE scoring system.
Encouraged by these experiences, I launched the Singapore Together movement two years ago – to go beyond inviting feedback and suggestions, to encourage our people to put ideas into action. When COVID-19 struck, we saw an outpouring of support for those on the frontline, and for fellow Singaporeans who have fallen on hard times. If we are able to tap on this sense of care and concern to forge an even stronger partnership of action, I am confident that we will build new strengths, beyond the three that I have mentioned. Compared to 1965, our people are now better educated and better travelled. There is also a greater desire to contribute to nation building. Our central opportunity is to mobilise these diverse strengths in complementary ways, to tackle the growing range of challenges we face.
Through the Singapore Together movement, I hope that different groups will share more of their aspirations and resources, and find creative ways to work together. Whether it is through volunteering your time or initiating something new, forging effective partnerships enable us to achieve more. I am also glad to see our newest form of partnership - the Alliances for Action - taking off. This is a nimbler way to collaborate, with a strong bias towards action. Let us continue to grow new strengths, especially among our young.
Let me conclude. As we look towards a much more uncertain and complex global future, we can build upon three key strengths in our society: our sense of unity, in a multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-cultural society; our creative capacity in forging our own path in our national development; and our social compact that allowed us to give every citizen a stake in the country.
But there is nothing intrinsically enduring about these strengths. Our founding generation built these strengths from nothing, through their wits and will. As quickly as these strengths have blossomed, they can also wither if we do not adapt. To have a better future, we must build on these strengths, and be prepared to grow new ones. Our ability to adapt depends on whether we can harvest lessons from our past, tend to the present, and seed the future. If we do, Singapore can continue to flourish for generations to come, much like the beautiful trees that can be found throughout your campuses.
This will require hard work and constant commitment. The strengths that I have described emanate from every one of us. To cultivate our sense of unity, we must embrace harmony in diversity. To grow our creative capacity, we must remain open to the world to reinforce our social compact, we must each be prepared to play a part. Each of us must continue to deepen our own values, grow our adaptive capacity, and build meaningful relationships with the people around us. Above all, we must commit to growing new strengths.
NUS has come a long way since your founding. From a modest medical school with 23 students, you are now a world-renowned university with almost 40,000 students. You have developed generations of youths, provided them with a first-class education, and inculcating in them the right values that will grow our strengths. You have also worked in close partnership with companies, government and other institutions, in Singapore and abroad, to make new discoveries and breakthroughs. You are well positioned to tackle the major challenges ahead and contribute to shaping our future. The future is exciting and bright for NUS and for Singapore.
Congratulations once again on your 115th anniversary. Let me also take this opportunity to wish everyone a Happy National Day! Thank you.
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