Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong at the Honour International Symposium on 16 September 2022.
Mr. Lim Siong Guan, Chairman of Honour Singapore,
Ms. Chew Gek Khim, Chairman, Panel of Community Advisors of Honour Singapore,
Directors of Honour Singapore,
Ladies and Gentlemen
I am very happy to join you at this year’s Honour International Symposium and I warmly welcome all our overseas guests to be here as well. As I understand, it is the first time that you are meeting in four years. So I think it is extra special that we can come together like this, especially with our COVID rules having eased considerably.
It is extra special for me to be here. Because as many of you also know, when I started work in the civil service more than 20 years ago, I was in the Ministry of Finance and Siong Guan was my Permanent Secretary then. What you may not have heard is that when I was a young officer, a young economist, back then in the Government, I had not yet found my calling in public service. So I was getting restless and private sector beckoned at that time, beckoned with more enticing offers, a better job, more salary. I was very tempted to leave. In fact, I had an offer and I was going to leave. But somehow word got around, I don't know how. Siong Guan heard about it, and asked to see me.
When he saw me, he just told me very gently that I should be patient. There are opportunities in the public service which I may not have found. If I continued on, I would see for myself that I will be able to do things in public service that I would not be able to do in the private sector. And so I heeded his advice. I stayed on, and I soon indeed realised that my job started to grow considerably and I was doing a lot of meaningful work, work that I certainly could never have done in the private sector - work that entailed national policies, or working with fellow Singaporeans to design different schemes and programmes. All of which would not have been possible if I had left and went to the private sector. So I stayed on and it has been 25 years since then, 15 years in civil service and 10 years in politics. So if not for Siong Guan, I probably would not have been here today.
In this past 25 years in the public service, I've experienced a number of crises. I started work in the Asian Financial Crisis. I experienced 9/11 and then SARS. So I have seen challenges, but nothing in that 25 years prepared me for what we have been through with COVID in the last two-and-a-half years. So when we say it was a crisis of a generation, that is certainly not an understatement. We all found it very difficult to navigate through such turbulent times and uncertainties. Fortunately, with the help of everyone in Singapore working together, I think we can say we are now in a much better position than before where COVID is concerned.
Unfortunately, we seem to be lurching from crisis to crisis and we now find ourselves entering a period of greater uncertainty. In the near term, there is considerable economic uncertainty. The war in Ukraine has impacted global energy and food supplies. It has pushed up prices of electricity, fuel and everyday items. It certainly does not look like the war will be resolved any time soon. We must be prepared for continued uncertainty and disruptions in the months ahead. But we are also equally if not more concerned about what we see as fundamental changes in the global order.
The last 30 years, we have all experienced globalisation, trade, investments bring about peace and stability in the world, and it looks like that golden age globalisation is now over. The world is becoming more balkanised and bifurcated. The key factor driving this is the relationship between US and China. That relationship was already strained before the war and it has continued to worsen since then.
Neither side wants a confrontation, but it is clear that they are both in an adversarial relationship which will continue for quite some time to come. Economics, trade and finance being used as instruments of geo-political contestation. As these practices become normalised, they will inevitably lead us toward a decoupling of the global economy, and toward a more dangerous world.
We will need to figure out how Singapore, our little red dot, can continue to thrive in this new environment. Of course, this is not the the first time that we have faced great change and challenge. Singapore after all was born out of adversity and crisis. Independence came to us on 9 August 1965 unexpectedly. It was unplanned, unanticipated, even unwelcome.
Today is actually a good reminder of this. It happens to be, as you know, the birthday of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the founding Prime Minister of Singapore - he was born on this date in 1923. If he were alive, we would be celebrating his 99th birthday.
And even though Mr Lee is no longer with us, his legacy, his thoughts and his wisdom lives on. Mr Lee and his team, together with what we now in Singapore call the “Pioneer Generation” of Singaporeans, rose to the challenges of their time. They were energetic, courageous, united, innovative, non-corruptible, trustworthy, honourable and more.
So as we ponder the future of Singapore, it is worth examining what are the values and convictions that have brought us this far. We must ask ourselves what convictions and values remain crucial for Singapore’s survival and success in the future, which we must preserve and uphold and what needs to be refreshed to suit our new circumstances.
We all know that Singapore’s circumstances are unique. We are very small, a country with no natural resources; an improbable nation, a country that was never meant to be. So in thinking about the future, we should also ask ourselves, how is it that we have been able to succeed over the past decades against tough and seemingly insurmountable odds?
Much has been said about this. People discuss and debate the policies and strategies we have adopted for economic and national development across the past decades, and discuss the merits and pros and cons of the various moves we have made. But at the heart of our success is something that I believe is more intangible, and that we tend to take for granted – that is the critical ingredient of trust.
Singapore is fortunate to be a high-trust society but that did not happen by chance. We built this assiduously.
There is a high level of trust between the Government and the people.
But importantly, there is a high level of trust amongst our people.
Indeed this is what enabled us to get through the last 2 years of the pandemic. This high level of trust, being prepared to comply with Government measures; everyone cooperating together, everyone doing their part.
This virtue of trustworthiness can be distilled to the twin principles of Honour which Siong Guan just described which all of you would be familiar with – honouring our word, and honouring one another.
A commitment to honouring our word means that: We act consistently – be it in domestic or international matters. Which means we uphold the rule of law, with zero tolerance for corruption, so that people and businesses here have confidence that they can be treated fairly in Singapore and can operate effectively here. Because we deliver on our promises as a Government, businesses and people also trust that we mean what we say.
We adopt this approach when we deal with other countries too; dealing honestly with them and holding true to our word and our interests, even if it means having to disagree with bigger powers from time to time. That is why when people ask how are you going to choose sides, it is not about choosing sides. It is simply about upholding Singapore's and Singaporeans’ interest, and being consistent and principled in how we act.
While this is not easy, it is the reason why other countries take our views seriously despite our small size, and see us as a credible and consistent partner. All of this has enabled us to work with countries big and small, some many times our size, and to attract foreign investments and talent over the years – because people know that we are reliable, dependable, and ultimately, Singapore can be trusted.
At the same time, we also strive to honour one another – and we have done this in different ways: We have long recognised that our Singapore’s progress and our people’s well-being go hand in hand. We made uplifting every worker the core of our economic mission, and we have forged a harmonious tripartite relationship and partnership between employers, labour unions and the Government based on this common cause. We have built an education system geared to maximise the potential of very child, regardless of background. We have worked hard to provide affordable public housing to all Singaporeans, so everyone can have a stake in the nation’s progress.
Beyond that, we have learnt to embrace our diversity, and respect our differences regardless of race, language or religion – preserving space for each community to lead their own lives while continually seeking to expand the common ground we share together as Singaporeans. So honouring our word and honouring one another, these are ways in which we have consistently managed to build and strengthen trust in Singapore.
Today, we are grateful for the high level of trust we have in our society. But we also know we cannot take it for granted. In Singapore, we are famous for being rather paranoid. Sometimes we are even criticised for it. But I say, let us embrace it – because I would rather be paranoid and make plans to adapt and thrive in a changing future; than to be overly-comfortable, and end up regretting and become irrelevant or even obsolete.
Unfortunately in this world, when you look at historical experiences all over, the reality is that complacency, inertia and entitlement, these are the biggest obstacles to change and human progress. It is true for us as individuals, organisations and even countries. Just think of our own experience, in everything we do, we will say, I have done my best, but each time you do further reflection, you realise that you really have not reached your own limits. Because it is only when you push yourself and you are at the brink, you realise that you can do that much more. We are always searching to find where our limits are and how we are able to keep on maximising our potential.
That is the reality. It is unfortunate but that is the reality. It is human nature to look for the easy way out. It applies even more so when we are in an environment of affluence and stability. That’s why across almost all cultures, there are variants of the saying that wealth does not last three generations. The Chinese have a saying, “富不过三代“ - wealth does not last three generations. The Scottish have a similar saying – the first generation buys, the second generation builds, the third generation sells, and by the time you come to the fourth generation, they have to beg. It is universal, all cultures have talked about this. It is hard for wealth to sustain across generation, but it applies just as much, perhaps even more so, to trust.
We must never become complacent about the high level of trust we have today, and assume it will always stay this way. As the saying goes “trust is built in drops, but lost in buckets”. When you lose it, it all goes very quickly. We are always at risk of trust dissipating, eroding and plummeting in our society. How can this happen?
For example, one way is if income and wealth gaps were to continue widening. Fortunately, our income gap has been narrowing over the last decade. But let’s say if we had the opposite trend in Singapore and you had sharp increases in income and wealth gaps in our society, if people feel that their lives can’t improve and their children cannot aspire to better, and the system only benefits a few at the top, trust will surely plummet.
Another way is if there are different groups in our society that have their own anxieties and concerns that are not addressed. For example, if students who continually feel that they are pigeon-holed in a system where stakes are very high from early in lives. Or older workers who struggle after being displaced or retrenched and unable to find jobs. Those who do not meet the traditional yardsticks of merit in our society may feel beaten down by early failure, and feel discouraged from trying again.
If we don’t tackle their concerns adequately, they will certainly feel estranged from the rest of society, and feel that the system is not on their side. That is how trust gets eroded. Or consider more broadly – how do we balance the competing demands of diverse groups while maintaining a cohesive and harmonious society, where everyone is equal and everyone has a place, regardless of their backgrounds? It can’t be about every group pushing their own causes to the maximum, because this will only end up with all-out confrontation, even war between groups - something that we have seen in other countries. But how do we then find ways to accommodate and compromise, to expand the space for agreement, and to appeal always to the better angels in all of us, rather than instigate a “them vs us” dynamic. If we fail to do so, then again, trust can easily plummet.
There are no easy answers or solutions to the issues I have just raised. Bottom line is that we must always engage all Singaporeans and listen to their views, especially to views that may be different from what we believe in. We must have honest conversations about our concerns, and how we can tackle them together. We must do everything we can to make sure that the Singapore dream remains alive and well for every citizen.
This is why we are embarking now on what we call the Forward Singapore exercise. It is a national conversation to bring people together, to refresh and strengthen our social compact, and to chart our new way forward together.
Since independence, we have forged a social compact built on common values and beliefs – on justice and equality, and the opportunity for all to lead a fulfilling and dignified life, no matter their starting point, regardless of race and religion.
Based on these principles, successive generations in Singapore have worked tirelessly, selflessly, and purposefully to build Singapore to be a home we are so proud today.
Looking forward, it is now our turn to build a Singapore where our children can pursue their dreams with confidence, raise their families with hope and optimism and look forward to a better future.
That is why we are examining all aspects of our social compact – meaning to say how do we relate to one another, between the Government, employers, businesses, workers and individuals, all of us in the society. What are our expectations of each other? What are the duties and obligations and responsibilities we expect of one another? How we can create more opportunities, provide greater assurance and strengthen that sense of solidarity amongst Singaporeans going forward. It is also very important to recognise that this is certainly not just a government exercise because it applies to all of us. The social compact is about how what all of us can do for our community and for one another. We all have roles to play and responsibilities to fulfil.
For example, the Government can certainly and will do more to support the lower income groups. But as a society, we must also learn to value the contributions of every worker – recognise them, pay them well, and accord them a greater sense of dignity and the opportunities to improve their lives. We can reduce income gaps but the Government cannot reduce status gaps. Status is a mindset and all of us have a part to play to change status gaps and maintain Singapore as a more egalitarian society.
So through Forward Singapore, we are engaging different groups and communities, to arrive at a consensus on how we can build a better, fairer and more inclusive Singapore. That is why, I hope all of you here today will participate in this exercise, and share your views on what more each of us can do. As the theme of your conference says, get involved not only in giving views but even better, in delivering solutions for a better future.
You may ask, what are my own views about Singapore’s future? I would like to see a Singapore that is innovative and creative; a nation where we can do cutting edge solutions for ourselves and the world, where every one seeks to be the best that he or she can be and is helped to get there; I would like to see a fairer, more just and inclusive Singapore where we continue to look out for each other, where we are our brother’s keeper, and our sister’s keeper, and we move ever more closer to our ideal of “one united people”.
What I am describing about our future is really about attitudes and approaches – it is about a capacity for imagination, a tenacity to tackle the unknown, a courage to try the new, and a humility to learn from failure and to get better and better.
The government can seek to facilitate and nurture these attitudes and mindsets. But in the end, it is only the unity of spirit and the conviction of our people that can get us there. We must always remember Singapore did not just happen. It has been an act of creation, of Singaporeans working together, caring for one another, not just hoping for a better future but willing to try, even to fail, and always learning and pushing on.
So at the end of the day, it is this people factor that will make our future possible, for it is people that make the Singapore identity, our national character and our core strengths. Ultimately, it is all of us who will decide on how we want to chart our way forward together as a nation.
Today’s conference is therefore about forging success with the abilities that each of us hold, through integration, innovation and involvement and co-creating the future that we want to seetogether. I thank Honour Singapore for putting together this event, and I wish you a most fruitful conference as you discuss how we can together advance our hopes for a Singapore worthy of the generations to come.
Explore recent content
Explore related topics