Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat at the Singapore Perspectives Conference 2020 on 20 January 2020.
Mr Janadas Devan,
Director, Institute of Policy Studies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am very happy to be back in your good company.
When I was preparing for this speech, I looked back at the themes of the past three Conferences I attended.
In 2014, the theme was “Differences”.
In 2016, it was the word “We”.
And in 2018, it was “Together”.
“Differences; We; Together”. These themes are highly relevant to our discussion today.
“Differences” have come to define politics today.
Across the world, existing fault-lines have deepened, and have been exploited.
This has in turn put stress on the sense of “We”, stressing social cohesion and weakening mutual trust.
In many places, this has severely undermined society’s ability to forge a common path forward.
As Singapore is not immune from these pressures, the key imperative for our “Politics” should be to manage our “Differences”, expand our common purpose to engender a greater sense of “We”, and ensure that society can progress as one – “Together”.
I will address each of these themes in turn.
The first word: “Differences.”
Over the last decade, many countries have seen their political consensus fracture.
The state of the world did not use to be this way.
After the Second World War, the major players in the world forged a new global order, based on the ideals of multilateralism, the market economy, and free trade.
The expansion of trade and investment enabled economic growth at an unprecedented pace.
Advanced economies led the charge on global economic growth and globalisation, while cascading technology, skills and capital to the developing economies.
Global trade boomed, investments poured into developing economies, and billions of people saw their lives improve. Singapore is one of those countries that has benefitted significantly from globalisation.
But the last decade has shown that not all countries have kept pace with the changes confronting them.
In some societies, globalisation has exposed workers to greater competition, while technological advancement has disrupted jobs and livelihoods.
The developed world is feeling the competition, as a number of developing economies, including those in Asia, move rapidly up the value chain.
In some instances, these countries have leap-frogged the developed world in areas such as e-commerce and e-payments.
Income and wealth inequality have grown, and the consequences have been more severe for countries that have failed to restructure their economies, and upskill their workers.
Societies with rapidly ageing populations are feeling the strain, because many pension plans are underfunded, and welfare spending is at an unsustainable high.
The ripple effects of these changes have resulted in many people becoming anxious and resentful.
They have become increasingly pessimistic about their future, and upset about the lack of progress in life, they have amplified much of their discontent on social media, in narrow silos and echo chambers.
More worryingly, they have come to view their governments and institutions with distrust.
This has ushered in an era of “anti-politics”.
Insurgent political parties – including far right parties – have exploited these fears and frustrations for their own political gain, campaigning along nativist and protectionist lines, and further undermining trust in public institutions.
These divisive forces have washed over many societies, including Europe and Latin America.
In the US, bipartisan consensus over important issues has evaporated, as the Democrats and Republicans each move to shore up their own base ahead of elections at the end of the year.
And in Asia, it has been more than seven months since mass rallies and violent protests erupted in Hong Kong.
While we have fared better than most, we are not immune to the same divisive forces that have swept across the world.
In fact, we have already seen some semblances of nativist tendencies here in Singapore, such as some of the public discourse around foreigners.
If we do not act decisively, and if we allow these forces to creep up on us, our hopes and concerns can be exploited to create fear and anger.
Our diversity can be turned against us. Our unity can fray, and our society can wither.
Therefore, as we close the decade, we need to bear in mind lessons, such as:
The importance of making sure that differences do not become entrenched, and corrode social cohesion.
The dangers of political parties using divisive rhetoric to gain support in a fractured landscape, and
The risks of falling prey to the pull of populism.
We cannot assume we will be immune.
This brings me to the second word: “We”.
Amidst these disruptive forces, can Singapore be different?
Can Singaporeans strengthen our sense of “We” in the coming decade and beyond?
The notion of “We” as citizens of Singapore is relatively new. We are a young nation, and as our Bicentennial last year reminded us, our present existence as a successful, sovereign nation is a historical anomaly.
That’s because for most of our history, this place was a part of larger kingdoms.
We were buffeted by global and regional forces, and our fate was determined by powers beyond our control.
Eventually, our self-determination set us on a different course. We became an independent nation, and we were able to find success as one united people. There are two key questions here – “How did our forefathers beat the odds, and turn an island of mudflats into a multicultural metropolis?” and, “What must we do to keep our nation successful and sovereign?”
I believe a strong sense of "We" was key to this. Our improbable success was made possible by exceptional governance – capable leaders, working together with a united people.
In the decades after Independence, our founding fathers fostered a sense of nationhood by introducing policies that gave people a stake in Singapore.
They welcomed foreign investment and decided on the path of rapid industrialisation, creating jobs for the tens of thousands of young Singaporeans entering the workforce each year, and enabling people to provide for their families.
They invested heavily in education, and ensured each generation had more opportunities than the last.
For example, only 22% of those born in the 1940s received post-secondary education.
For young Singaporeans today, that figure is more than 95%!
Through their housing policies, our founding leaders turned a city of squatters and slums into a nation of home-owners in just a few decades.
Together, these policies meant that every Singaporean, regardless of race, language or religion, had a chance to live well, age well, and a chance to make the future better for their children.
This shared experience of progress united the founding generation of Singaporeans, and strengthened the trust between the people, and the Government.
Over time, a virtuous circle was established.
The Government had a strong mandate and was able to never stop planning for the future.
They realised their bold political vision through sound, sustainable policies.
In turn, Singaporeans trusted their leaders, because they saw their lives improve in real ways, and they had a strong sense of optimism for the future.
This nurtured the reservoir of trust between Singaporeans and the Government, and this gave them the confidence to make sacrifices for the greater good, and for future generations.
This is the formula behind our success, and this has kept Singapore exceptional.
This approach must remain core to the Government’s mission, especially as we grapple with longer-term issues facing us.
In an era of rising inequality, we will strengthen our fundamentals, and ensure no Singaporean is shut out of opportunities because of their family circumstances.
This is why we have been increasing our investments in pre-school education, and doing more to level up children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
In an age of disruption, we will step up efforts to encourage lifelong learning for our workers. We are currently developing the next bound of SkillsFuture, and we will make a further push to help workers pick up new skills, and to seize new opportunities.
One such group is those in their 40s and 50s. Some among them completed their education more than two decades ago, and might not have had the opportunity to upskill.
In a period of widening generational divides, we must continue to give hope to our young.
Public housing will continue to remain accessible and affordable to all Singaporeans.
As our people live longer and our society ages, we will take care of older Singaporeans.
Our seniors should not only have a roof over their heads, but also have enough for retirement and their healthcare needs.
The Pioneer and Merdeka Generation Packages were tailored to help older cohorts meet their healthcare needs for life.
We are now studying how we can better help lower and lower-middle income Singaporeans, including current and future seniors, to meet their retirement needs in a sustainable way.
I will provide more details in the coming Budget.
Our unity as a nation, and as one people, has been strengthened by our sense of shared mission.
This was not achieved by closing ourselves off to the world, or by looking inward.
Instead, as we turn our gaze to the next decade and beyond, we must continue to be creative and agile in charting our way forward, and we must stay open and connected.
This is especially because in the coming years, we will be confronted by
The continued strategic competition between the US and China, and an even swifter pace of change in the nature of jobs and the economy.
The rapid ageing of our society, and the increasing manifestation of existential threats, like climate change. But there are bright spots.
Southeast Asia is growing rapidly
Geographically and culturally, we are in a good position to contribute to the region’s growth.
More broadly, we are also well-placed to serve as a node between Asia and the world. As a small island nation, we are nimble.
We are ready to innovate, test-bed and scale new solutions. In this way, we can continue to stay relevant to the world. And because we are small, and non-threatening, we can be friends with all, even in a turbulent world.
This is how we can turn our constraints into opportunities, and create opportunities in the face of disruption.
The way ahead will not be easy, but you have the unwavering commitment of the Government, and from the 4G leadership – my colleagues and I will make every effort to build a future of progress for Singaporeans in the coming decades.
A future where we can continue to prosper as a nation, where all Singaporeans have opportunities to succeed. A future where the benefits of progress will be shared with all, where no one will be left behind if they give their best.
A future where we pull together as one, turning our differences and diversity into our strength.
The differences and divisive forces I described earlier will continue to challenge our notion of “We”: Our national identity and our sense of rootedness.
But apart from these forces, Singaporeans ourselves are also becoming more diverse in terms of our needs, aspirations and views.
Singaporeans born after Independence do not share the bonds of war and struggle that the Pioneer and Merdeka Generations experienced.
The digital era has allowed for an exchange of diverse perspectives.
But there has also been a proliferation of more extreme opinions, and a narrowing of views in echo chambers.
Our demographic profile is also changing.
Last year, more than one in three citizen marriages involved trans-national couples.
In the face of all these changes, it is now even more crucial to: maintain our sense of who “We” are as a people, focus on what we have in common, and work “Together” to build our shared future.
How do we do this? We must first make sure that we continue to have strong political leadership. This means having political leaders of integrity, who are deeply committed to the well-being of Singaporeans and the future of Singapore.
The political leadership must have the trust and support of Singaporeans.
They must also have the ability to craft strategies to take Singapore forward, amid the seismic changes around the world, and to partner our people to deliver outcomes.
They must have the moral courage to do what is right for the people, and not just what is popular.
We cannot be all things to all people.
Since our independence, Singaporeans have worked together with their political leaders to turn an improbable nation into a land of opportunities.
We must continue to do the same, by strengthening trust between the Government and the people, and also among Singaporeans.
In this regard, what I learned during the 2012 Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) exercise, was both instructive and heartening.
OSC was not just a forum for the younger leaders to better understand the aspirations and concerns of Singaporeans, but also a platform for Singaporeans to hear and better understand each other’s perspectives.
My experience working with Singaporeans showed me that they understand the trade-offs and the need to make hard decisions for the collective good.
They are also willing to find common causes, and work together to overcome the odds, to make the impossible possible.
This collective “can-do” spirit has been forged over the decades, as we faced challenges together.
Time and again, crisis after crisis, we have shown that every Singaporean will rise to the occasion and do his or her part, and that no one will be left behind.
Some may not think much about what we have achieved together.
But I believe that our people can see, understand and draw their own conclusions.
They can see that this Government will always strive to understand their needs and concerns, work hard to address them, and deliver on our promises.
We are upfront about the hard truths facing Singapore, and also about our mistakes, even if they are politically inconvenient.
Nevertheless, in a society increasingly flooded by information and misinformation, it is critical that we find ways to deepen understanding and relationships among our people, and to redouble our efforts to maintain a balanced perspective.
We must reject extremist views that will fray our social fabric, and be discerning about falsehoods and irresponsible promises that cannot be fulfilled.
Most importantly, we must find new ways to come together, reaffirm what we hold in common, and work collectively towards a shared future.
This is why I launched the Singapore Together movement in June last year.
I believe that each of us can make a difference, and by acting together, we can make a bigger difference, and achieve what may seem daunting or impossible.
Therefore, my 4G colleagues and I are committed to go beyond just working for you, to working with you, to build our future Singapore.
We want to mobilise the passion, creativity, and can-do spirit of Singaporeans, as we find common cause, experiment with new ideas and solutions, and beat the odds together.
Our partnership efforts have gained momentum over the last six months.
Ministers Desmond Lee and Indranee Rajah gave a comprehensive progress update on the Singapore Together movement earlier this month,
So I will just highlight a few areas.
Co-Creation: Designing and shaping outcomes together
First, we are opening up several areas for Singaporeans to get directly involved in designing policies, and putting them into action. We started new platforms, like the Citizens’ Panel and Citizens’ Workgroup, where we engaged Singaporeans on their ideas on making different aspects of life better, such as improving work-life harmony and encouraging household recycling.
The ideas are well thought-out, and we are working to put their ideas into action.
We are also involving Singaporeans in directly shaping our physical environment.
These include the Somerset Belt, our parks, and also the Geylang Serai cultural precinct, which I visited over the weekend.
Singaporeans of all ages will have a hand in developing ideas, evaluating the options, and shaping the eventual designs.
On this note, I was very happy to find out that at the "New Forms and Movements" panel in the afternoon, you will get to hear from change makers like social entrepreneur Mr Cai Yinzhou, Ms Nor Lastrina - who is passionate about tackling climate change, as well as Ms Carrie Tan, who founded the charity Daughters of Tomorrow almost a decade ago.
I hope their sharing will inspire all of us!
Secondly, we have also been making a more concerted effort to engage Singaporeans on the upcoming Budget.
Just last weekend, I attended a session with youth leaders.
We explored the challenges and opportunities for Singapore, and how we can partner one another to create a better future for all.
It was a rich learning experience for everyone, and I certainly learnt a lot.
Voicing their own ideas and putting them into action
Third, Singaporeans are also sharing their ideas about making our home a better place, and putting these ideas into action.
During our Bicentennial year of commemoration, I attended many events by various religious groups, clans, schools, businesses, and charities.
I learnt so much about the imagination and commitment of each group, to uplift the lives of people they are serving.
Businesses are also doing their part.
In a span of three short years, the Company of Good initiative has grown into a network of more than 1,400 companies.
This network has enabled companies to learn from one another, to form partnerships, and to bring corporate giving to the next level.
Many Singaporeans are letting their actions speak for themselves.
Total volunteer hours has increased from 45 million hours in 2008 to 122 million hours in 2018. And under SG Cares, there are many more opportunities to contribute than before.
Singaporeans are gradually taking charge and doing good, at all levels of society.
Each, in their own way, mobilising the people around them to make Singapore a better place.
The creativity, energies and commitment of our people is most inspiring.
It encourages us to take the next step, to invite Singaporeans to tackle bigger “Challenges” and seize more “Opportunities” in the coming decades.
What are some of these Challenges and Opportunities?
Some are existential – like addressing climate change and rising sea levels,
Others are issues that can benefit from a fresh approach, such as how we can keep our seniors active and healthy, as our lifespan increases.
There are many possibilities for us to work together: such as keeping Singapore safe and secure, developing the full potential of our people, growing our economy to create more opportunities and resources for our people. Or making sure Singapore will become a green, sustainable, and liveable city, and building a caring and cohesive community.
I am inviting all Singaporeans to work with us, and with each other, on these key challenges and opportunities. We will announce more details in the coming months.
Reflecting on our journey thus far
These are the early days of our Singapore Together movement.
What we see forming is a new model of partnership, between government and Singaporeans in owning, shaping and acting on our future.
In this process, government agencies are learning to develop and deliver policy solutions in a more collaborative manner.
At the same time, Singaporeans too, are gaining a deeper appreciation of the challenges and trade-offs in making national policy.
And collectively, we are learning to understand different viewpoints, to distinguish truth from falsehoods, and to find a way forward in the midst of diverse and often conflicting opinions.
However, the Government will continue to exercise leadership in areas where we are expected to, such as in security and defence, and in ensuring that we plan and act for the long-term.
Above all, I am confident that our partnership efforts to date will set the foundations for the work of a generation.
Just as our founding leaders made home ownership their cornerstone policy to give Singaporeans a stake in Singapore and a share in our progress,
Singapore Together will be our new cornerstone of nation building; a way of working that reflects and strengthens our shared ownership of Singapore’s future.
Our approach to politics and governance has served us well over the past 55 years. As we embark on a new decade,
We will face a world marked by ‘Differences’.
As a small nation, we will be buffeted by these forces.
We must continue to work with like-minded countries to bridge divides between countries, and to tackle global common challenges.
There is no doubt that our sense of unity as one people and our cohesion as a nation will be tested.
But I am confident that going forward, Singapore can continue to excel and thrive, and shine brighter as a little red dot.
“Singapore, Together.” This is our way forward.
Our way of ensuring that we progress together, and that the benefits of progress are felt by all Singaporeans.
Our way of harnessing our diversity as strength, so that we are greater than the sum of our parts.
Our way of creating a shared future and finding common ground, so that we remain united as one people.
Our way of ensuring Singapore remains exceptional, as we ride the winds of uncertainty and waves of disruption.
I invite all Singaporeans to join us on this journey, as we continue to chart our shared future together.
Thank you, and I look forward to hearing your views during the dialogue.
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