Speech by Deputy Prime Minister, Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies and Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) Ministerial Forum on 16 April 2021.
President, SUTD, Professor Chong Tow Chong
Provost, SUTD, Professor Phoon Kok Kwang
Ambassador Chan Heng Chee
All our students in the auditorium and online A very good afternoon to all of you
It is always very special for me to be back at SUTD, and as Tow Chong mentioned, I had the privilege of attending SUTD’s inaugural convocation ceremony in 2015 when I was the Minister for Education.
Since I last spoke to SUTD at your 10th anniversary in 2019, COVID-19 has disrupted the world in more ways than one. Borders today remain largely shut, and the virus continues to rage around the world, with almost 140 million confirmed cases, and almost 3 million deaths so far. There is a glimmer of hope with vaccination in progress, but we must be prepared for a prolonged crisis. Economies and workers have suffered, and economic recovery will likely be bumpy and universities, including SUTD, have had to adapt in the past year to cope with the limitations posed by the pandemic.
Challenges for Youths Amidst COVID
Against this backdrop – what does it mean to be a young person in the world today, pursuing your education and your dreams? Globally, there is concern about a “lost generation” of youths, whom some have described as “triple losers” of the pandemic: First, their education could be affected due to prolonged school closures. UNICEF reported that more than 168 million children have not gone back to school for almost a full year. The impact on all children, but especially on lower income children with less home support, will be severe. Second, COVID has exacerbated youth unemployment in many countries, and this has triggered dissatisfaction, unrest and protest in many parts of the world. Third, with governments taking on huge debts to inject fiscal stimulus, this could crimp the capacity for them to invest in the future.
In Singapore, we are fortunate to be in a better position. We have largely kept our schools open, and made an extra effort to ensure that children from lower- income families do not fall behind on their education. Our universities and schools transited well to Home-Based Learning during the Circuit Breaker, thanks in part to the Student Learning Space. I was very glad that NUS Professor Ben Leong agreed to lead this project after I spent some time convincing him when I was the Minister for Education. The SLS was launched after I left MOE several years ago, and it has helped to enable online learning, especially in this pandemic. The other issue that will affect our people is unemployment. Unemployment has risen in Singapore, but we have managed to mitigate the impact, such that unemployment is not worse than during the Global Financial Crisis. The graduating cohort from our institutes of higher learning last year did relatively well, 9 in 10 graduates who entered the labour force found jobs or traineeships within 6 months of graduation. This was underpinned by a major effort to put out strong measures to create new jobs, internships and traineeship opportunities, and to avoid economic scarring.
We also provided robust support for workers, businesses and households, amounting to $100 billion, we did so by tapping on our past reserves which previous generations have carefully set aside for a rainy day like this. The COVID-19 pandemic was not just a rainy day, but a huge storm. Because of the prudence and wisdom of our pioneers, we were able to fund these measures without having to borrow a single cent. Why is this important for young people like yourselves? It means that you will not be saddled with debt in the future. Most importantly, social cohesion and trust have remained strong in Singapore throughout the crisis. Many of our people, including many young people, stepped forward, reaching out to those who are more vulnerable or disadvantaged.
I know that many of you are concerned that COVID has closed off some doors. Some overseas opportunities have to be deferred. Or some industries that you are interested in, might have fewer opportunities at the moment.
But remember – for every door that is closed, a new door opens – so do keep an open mind and open your eyes to new opportunities. The pandemic has accelerated structural trends such as digitalisation and green growth, and there will be new exciting opportunities. I believe that you are well-prepared to seize these new opportunities and fulfil your aspirations. As Tow Chong mentioned earlier, your curriculum has been very carefully designed and you have a lot of opportunities to learn new things. For our young, you received a well-rounded education from a young age, and you also have the unique advantage of growing up in a multi- racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural society, which will give you the confidence to engage with the world. In a world that is more contested, more fractured, this is a very unique advantage that Singaporeans have, which I hope you will fully develop.
The New 3 “Cs”
Every generation has their own aspirations. I grew up in the 60s, when Singapore just became Independent. It was a time of grave economic uncertainty, and it was not clear that Singapore would survive. Many of my generation had very simple and practical dreams – to find a job and feed our families.
As Singapore found our footing and developed rapidly, aspirations started to rise. When I started work, a popular phrase was the 5 “C”s – cash, car, credit card, condo, country club. That captured the essence of many people’s material aspirations at that time. It is a natural logical progression.
Aspirations evolve, and your generation have your own aspirations. In my conversations with many youths, including my younger colleagues in the Ministry of Finance, I found that the old 5 Cs do not resonate as much with them, and I think that many of you may feel that way too. With our heavy investments in public transport infrastructure, many have told me that it is now better to go car-lite. And it is better for the environment too and with the rise of e-payments, many do not even own credit cards or wallets. All you need is a mobile phone. Your aspirations will be shaped by your own experiences, you have grown up in a different phase of Singapore’s growth and development and you would have been exposed much more to global cultures and influences, and to social media. But I believe that the fundamental aspirations will still matter to most of you – a good meaningful career, close friendships and family relationships, and eventually starting a family of your own. But at the same time, through my interactions and conversations with our young people, I know that many of you have a strong interest in driving change, and making an impact on society.
Based on the aspirations that our youths have shared with me, I find that perhaps our young resonate with 3 new “C”s. Let me share these, and we can discuss this later if these 3 new “C”s define a shared future for your generation and for Singapore - to “Create”, to “Care”, and to “Chart” the way forward.
First, “creating” more value for society, through innovation and enterprise, not just in the economic arena, but in every area of life. There used to be a time when youths were described as the “Strawberry Generation” – they grew up in comfort, and lacked drive and grit but from my interactions with our youth, especially when I was in the Ministry of Education, I think this is an unfair caricature, at least in Singapore. Many of you are dynamic and enterprising, pursuing your passion, starting your own ventures, and not afraid to try new things. This spirit of innovation and enterprise will be increasingly important going forward, if we want to deal with the challenges of a post-COVID world, which will be very different. For example, digitalisation has been accelerated by COVID-19. SUTD has prepared you well to ride the big wave and make a difference. I was glad to hear that all SUTD students are trained in the areas of programming, statistics and probability, data analytics and AI and your skills have also contributed in the fight against COVID. For example, Janice Tan, an SUTD alumni, was part of the pioneering team and one of the lead iOS engineers who worked on TraceTogether. SUTD and the Government will continue to help you to grow in different ways, to discover new opportunities abroad, when the borders reopen; and to also hone your skills throughout life and if your passion leads you to start-up new ventures and enterprises, we have a vibrant start-up eco-system that can support you. For example, I recently met SUTD alumni Pek Yun Ning. She founded an agritech firm, SGP Foods Private Limited, which seeks to improve our food sustainability and security. Another example is Bifrost, which is a promising start-up by SUTD alumni Charles Wong and Aravind Kandiah. It uses AI to create virtual worlds to simulate events such as traffic accidents and natural disasters, allowing preventive measures to be developed. It came in as one of the top teams at Start-up SG’s pitching competition in 2019, and has since worked with SMRT on algorithms to help improve train safety.
Second, “caring” about the people and the environment around us. It is encouraging that many of you want to make the world a better place, a better place by design; Whether it is about building a more inclusive society, or protecting the environment to improve sustainability. Our youths aspire to have a society where no one is left behind. Many of you are involved in social enterprises and volunteer work, including in East Coast where SUTD is located and whom I am a Member of Parliament for. And I am encouraged that many of you stepped up during COVID- 19. For instance, Youth Corps volunteers rallied to help food charities prepare and deliver meals to vulnerable communities. During the circuit breaker, the SUTD Rotaract Club also mentored underprivileged primary school students using Zoom. I also know that many of you and your friends are passionate about the environment. Some of you have started your own initiatives; Or are actively participating in shaping our policies.
For example, there is a Youth Circle working with MSE on minimising food waste.
I want to encourage all of you to do more - there are many opportunities for volunteering. For example, the SG Cares app provides these opportunities at your fingertips. You can also work together on issues that you are passionate about, as part of our Singapore Together movement. One way you can do so is through the Alliances for Actions, which are action-oriented, multi-stakeholder collaborations. For example, the Mentoring Alliance for Action was recently launched, to promote a culture of mentoring in Singapore and help our youths fulfil their potential. You can also join the Youth Action Challenge. With projects spanning a range of topics, including uplifting the vulnerable; environmental sustainability; and mental well-being. Or you can rally others and start your own initiative. For example, SUTD alumni organised an effort to print 3D “ear savers” last year, to make it more comfortable for healthcare workers to wear surgical masks. This spirit of working together, and taking action to make things better, is the essence of Singapore Together.
Third, it is “charting” the way forward. When you look across the world, it is worrying that many societies face deepening divisions. In many countries, there is a sense that some groups have not benefited as much from globalisation, and the social compact is fraying as a result. Identity politics is also sharpening, further weakening social cohesion. Singapore is in a better position to navigate these tensions. In recent years, we have a made a decisive shift to strengthen our social safety nets, to take care of those who are more vulnerable. As a multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious society, we have also carefully tended to our common spaces, to ensure that our diversity makes us stronger, rather than divides us. But to chart the way forward, we need collective participation from every single one of you. Previous generations built the society we see today through careful consensus and accommodation. This work is never done – I hope that your generation continues to forge a way forward, even as you have open and frank discussions about issues you care about.
Empowering You – Generation of Trailblazers
We will support you on this journey, and empower you - giving each young person in Singapore a strong foundation in life through education, and through uplifting people regardless of their family circumstances; providing opportunities for you to explore and acquire new skills; and working with you to effect change. You are the future of our nation and it is in your hands that the next chapter of our nation’s history will be written. Not only will there be no “Lost Generation” in Singapore, I am confident that you will be the Generation of Trailblazers. I urge you to work together, with the rest of our society, to create, to care, and to chart the way forward, and make Singapore and the world a better place by design.
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