Remarks by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong at the NTUC Youth Taskforce LIT DISCOvery on 14 July 2023.
NTUC President, Sister Mary Liew,
NTUC Secretary-General Brother Ng Chee Meng,
Members and Partners of Young NTUC,
Brothers and sisters,
Ladies and Gentlemen, and students,
I'm glad that I can join you this afternoon for this LIT DISCOvery event. I will show some slides on the screen (during my speech). Hopefully, the slides will be of some interest.
I was last here last year and I spoke about our Forward SG initiative, an exercise that we are embarking across Singapore to chart our new way forward. Since then, the external environment has become more volatile and uncertain. I’m sure all of you have read about this in the news.
A superpower rivalry between US and China is gathering force. It is impacting finance, trade and investments. And there will be wider implications for peace and stability in Asia. So it's something that we all watch with great concern, because when it comes to the external environment, we have very little control. We can’t tell America and China what to do. And so whatever actions they take, this will have great impact on us.
The good news is both sides have started to talk. You might have seen this picture recently, when Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen arrived in Beijing, there was a rainbow that appeared over the plane. So if you're superstitious, you might say this is a good omen, a good sign that after all the dark clouds, rain and stormy weather, hopefully we can see signs of a better day ahead of us, particularly between the two countries. But the reality is that there is still a long and difficult road ahead. Because there are many areas of differences between the two countries. And there's still a very low level of trust, a lot of mutual suspicion. So it will take time for both US and China to rebuild trust and work together.
These are troubles that are taking place externally, impacting countries everywhere. But within countries, there are also many challenges. Just look at many developed societies around the world. Survey after survey will show a growing sense of anger and pessimism about the future in many places. And as people lose hope for a better future, they start to blame one another. As a result, society becomes more divided and fractured. You can see this happening in many places. I will cite some examples.
In France for example, you would’ve seen the news that there was a tragic death of a teenager and it sparked many days of riots across different cities. The flashpoint for this incident was a police killing a teenager. But in fact, it reflects a deeper sense of anger and resentment amongst the disadvantaged communities in France. There are underlying problems of high unemployment in these community, especially amongst youth, and a feeling that there are a lack of opportunities. And so while the immediate incident was the police incident, the riot spread widely because of the deeper sense of resentment and injustice, fuelled by these underlying concerns that have been brewing for some time.
If you are in the UK, there have been continuous strikes by doctors, nurses, train drivers, and other professions. Because they are unhappy about pay and work benefits, which they feel have stagnated for many years. And so many basic services have been disrupted because of these strikes.
In US, we also see similar scenes. Just yesterday, in Hollywood where they produce movies and TV shows, actors and writers have gone on strike. So your favourite movie or drama series may be delayed. The actors and writers feel that the movie companies and CEOs are making so much money while they are not getting better pay. They are also worried that Netflix streaming and AI will disrupt their jobs. Because nowadays, you can use AI to write a script and you can write a very good script. So there are real concerns that wages will not catch up.
Workers in other sectors also have been protesting against job cuts and low wages. In the US, it may come to us as a surprise, because we often hear about the success of the big American tech firms like Amazon and Google. But unfortunately, the economic success of these firms are not always broad based, and are not always shared with every worker in the city. Take the example of San Francisco. San Francisco is the home of many big tech firms. This is the bay area where a lot of innovation is taking place. Yet in the heart of San Francisco itself, they have problems of rising crime, drug addiction, which is a very big problem, and homelessness. All this is contributing to a hollowing out of the city centre.
I have shared what is happening in three places around the world. It is not to single them out. But it is to give us an appreciation and understanding that these are the realities that countries all over the world face. Fortunately, Singapore is in a relatively sound position. But we cannot afford to be complacent. Because we are not immune to the same powerful dark forces that we see around us – inequality, anger, resentment, cynicism, pessimism. They can impact us too, we are humans like everyone else in this world. We are not any different. And we know from our own painful history in Singapore, how easy it is for finger pointing amongst different communities to be politicised, and lead to confrontation and worst, conflict. And this is not just imaginary, because even in recent years during the last three years of tackling COVID-19 for example, we have seen incidences of people blaming certain groups or making them scapegoats for different issues, whether it is foreigners or racial minorities. And these sorts of issues can easily get people worked up and unhappy – when there's resentment and frustration, it can easily lead to a division and polarisation of our society.
So these are the big challenges we and all countries around the world face and we should be aware of them. We are starting from a better position than many others. But we face similar challenges. And that’s why we are undertaking the Forward SG exercise which we started last year, and we have been deliberating and engaging different groups. And the purpose it to refresh and strengthen our social compact as a nation, and also importantly, our compact with every worker. We have been engaging many Singaporeans on how best we can do this. And I’m glad that there is an emerging consensus on the way ahead.
What are we trying to achieve? Essentially, our ultimate goal is to ensure that everyone feels a stake in our society; whatever the challenges ahead of us, we are in it together. And at the same time, we also feel a deep sense of duty and obligation to each other. Because we are all in this together, we move forward as one country. That's what we are trying to achieve.
But what does that mean? There are several building blocks to this social compact. First, from the government part, we will do more to help every citizen to address their key concerns, e.g. in jobs, housing, healthcare, education for their children and retirement security. I think these are key concerns that every Singaporean families and individual faces and the government will do more to help citizens address these concerns. Second, the government will also think about how we can strengthen our support system to help citizens bounce back from setbacks. Because in a world that is volatile and constantly changing, inevitably from time to time, people will face setbacks in life. You may get retrenched, you may lose your job and you may bump into difficulty, and we need a good strong support system to help everyone tide through these setbacks and bounce back faster and stronger. And that's what we will think about doing. And third, we want to empower and enable every citizen to pursue their own version of a good life. And that's very important. Everyone has different views of success, aspirations and ambitions. You don't have to follow the dreams of other people, because it's your own dream and aspirations. But we want to empower each individual to pursue your aspiration and maximise your potential.
So the Government will do more across these three areas, to provide more assurance and opportunities for every Singaporean across all stages of life.
But a renewed social compact isn’t just about the Government doing more. It’s also about all of us doing our part – fulfilling our duties and responsibilities as citizens.
And a good example of this is what we are doing with Healthier SG. The government will spend more and do more to get our healthcare system to support preventive health. That means supporting our GP family doctors to do more to take care of everyone in Singapore, not just when you're sick because health care is not sick care. It's supposed to be health care. So we want you to maintain good health and the government will put in more resources. But citizens also have to do their part, which means you enrol with a family doctor, you don’t hop from GP to GP just to get an MC. You enrol with one family doctor who is familiar with you and go for regular health screenings and make an effort lead more active and healthier lifestyles. This is part of the compact, all of us in this together, moving forward with the same goals with the same vision for what we want Singapore to be, and what a better future for ourselves and our children. Healthier SG is just one illustration. But if you think of this across the entire Singapore, this is the kind of compact we want. The government will do more, but we also need everyone in Singapore, including our community groups, individuals, to do our part to shape our new compact together.
And that's why through this Forward SG exercise, we invite all our partners and stakeholders to step forward and join all of us in Singapore, in co-creating our refreshed compact and building a better future together for all.
And I'm very glad of course, that NTUC itself is taking the lead in this exercise. Sec-Gen (Ng Chee Meng) himself launched the #EveryWorkerMatters conversations a year ago, shortly after we announced the Forward SG exercise. And as part of this #EveryWorkerMatters conversation programme, NTUC has launched a Youth Taskforce at this forum last year, chaired by Assistant Secretary-General Mr Desmond Choo.
I believe many of you were involved because the Youth Taskforce, as I understand, has engaged over 10,000 students from our Institutions of Higher Learning. They have just released the Youth Taskforce report, it was in the news today, I'm not sure if you have seen the copy of the report. I was given a copy of it. I've read through it thoroughly, there are very many good and concrete recommendations in the report about mentorship programmes, quality internships for students, financial literacy, peer support, and mental wellness at workplaces. They are all very good ideas, and they will provide valuable input for our Forward SG exercise. So I think we should give the Youth Taskforce a big round of applause and commend them for their work.
But importantly, NTUC and the Youth Taskforce are not just giving ideas and recommendations. I mean, everyone can give ideas and recommendations. And we welcome them, don't get me wrong. But NTUC is going further. They are actually implementing many of these suggestions, mobilising partners like businesses and companies and institutions of higher learning to introduce and implement new programmes to specifically address the concerns of our young people. And these will also better prepare all of you for future careers in the workplace. So thank you to NTUC for doing this. I think credit must go also to the Young NTUC team for your hard work over the past year, especially the Youth Taskforce itself. I understand that not everyone is in this picture because the Youth Taskforce is much bigger. But you can see from the picture that they are a very passionate group. Sec-Gen mentioned Ms Wendy Tan just now, who is the head of Youth Development at NTUC. I also want to mention Ms Jeslyn Chua, the lead coordinator. She has spearheaded efforts to bring the Youth Hub Exhibition into campuses, held dialogues, surveys and focus groups to reach out to youths, and also rallied NTUC partners behind the new initiatives.
The entire Youth Taskforce has been working very hard throughout the past year, I think they deserve a good break. As I understand they’ve been working very hard day and night, burning the midnight oil over the past year just to conduct all these different engagement sessions, and to put together the recommendations and the report. So thank you all once again for your contributions. Let's give them another big round of applause.
All of these initiatives that the Youth Taskforce has put out, reflect the important role that NTUC continues to play in our economy and our society. NTUC’s slogan is “Every Worker Matters” and it’s not just a slogan to them; it’s something that they believe in, a deep conviction. And they're working very hard to service and to help every worker in Singapore. So while the current report is about youths, in fact there are other worker segments being covered by NTUC and its #EveryWorkerMatters conversation, including mid-careers and older workers. And I look forward to hearing from NTUC and seeing these additional recommendations in due course. All these also illustrates why it is so important to have a strong NTUC. And why a strong NTUC is a critical part of our social compact in Singapore. We value the work of the labour movement, they keep in touch with businesses, but importantly with every worker, and they ensure the well-being of every worker in Singapore.
At the same time NTUC itself continues to adapt, innovate and reinvent itself, because it wants to maintain its relevance for a changing workforce and the broad base of our society. That’s why NTUC had set up Young NTUC 18 years ago, which has now young NTUC become a leading youth movement in Singapore. And today, as you heard from Sec-Gen (Ng Chee Meng) just now, NTUC has come up with yet another new membership innovation. They are targeting youths in IHLs, NSmen and young working adults below the age of 25. So they have come up with a membership with a price-point that is very friendly to young people, as I understand. It comes with a package of curated benefits to address the needs of young people, including in areas like mentorship, careers, and mental wellbeing, things that you care about. So when you apply and you get this membership, you can also look forward to many of these benefits. NTUC calls this the Starter Membership, and we are happy to launch it today. I see many young people in this room. All of you below the age of 25 will qualify. So I would encourage you to sign up and I'm sure NTUC will put forward membership booths and forms everywhere for you to do so quite quickly, even today.
The reason why our system works in Singapore is because of a very strong sense of trust and a very close tripartite partnership we have in Singapore. The tripartite partnership means the government, employers and workers all coming together, joining hands together to work for the good of every Singaporean and for our country. This is Singapore’s unique formula for success. Everyone in the world will talk about partnership, solidarity, working together, but it's very hard to make it happen in reality. But in Singapore, decade after decade, year after year, we have been able to forge a strong tripartite partnership, a strong sense of solidarity. It's how we overcome crisis, like what we have been through in the last three years of COVID-19, and emerge stronger from every challenge. It's how we uplift every worker, and take our nation forward.
The basis for our tripartite partnership is a very close symbiotic partnership between NTUC and the PAP. And this is also what makes this tripartite partnership possible. The government works very closely with NTUC and the labour movement. This is a special relationship that has been built over the decades and it's been forged through many trials and tribulations, but it is anchored in a deep, deep sense of duty and shared responsibility amongst all of us to serve Singapore and Singaporeans to the best of our abilities.
So to conclude, when you look around the world, sometimes when you look even within Singapore, people may feel that there are challenges and dark clouds around us, but let us not be too demoralised. Let us take heart because Singapore is on the right track. Our foundations are strong, and we have a lot going for us. And as long as we stay united as one people, work together with our partners and stakeholders, we can build a better nation, and a better life for all Singaporeans. Thank you very much.
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