Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong at the IPS 35th Anniversary Conference on 12 June 2023.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I’m happy to join you for the IPS’s 35th Anniversary Conference, and to discuss the topic of “revisiting our social compact”.
The social compact sets out our shared understanding of how everyone in society relates to one another; it’s about the roles and responsibilities of different groups – government, employers, community and individuals.
Today, I’d like to highlight the importance of having a compact that is deemed fair by all segments of society – why that is needed to hold our country together, and what we must do to achieve this.
We can start by looking at the experiences of other countries, and what everyone is grappling with.
All governments understand what happens when their citizens are excluded from the country’s progress. People lose faith in each other, and the result is more fractured societies.
In particular, advanced Western economies have faced more challenges over the recent decades of globalisation. They’ve seen their industrial bases hollowing out, and median incomes stagnating. And that’s why you now see countries, US and Europe, shifting towards more domestic and worker-centric approach in their policies. E.g. US: “buy American” and “foreign policy for the middle-class”. But even in China, which has benefited significantly from globalisation, the focus is on “common prosperity”.
What about Singapore? We have always worked hard to ensure that everyone can share the benefits of our country’s progress. Among the advanced economies, we are one of the few where people in the middle have enjoyed significant increases in real incomes in the last 20 years. In particular, median household real income growth over the past decade was higher than what the middle-income in the US and most other European societies experienced, and well above other Asian societies like Japan and Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, our income inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, has been steadily declining, as a result of deliberate policy moves like Workfare and the Progressive Wage Model.
So on the whole, at least based on some of these macro indicators, we have been doing well. But we certainly should not rest on our laurels.
We are in a more dangerous and troubled external environment. We face rapid technological changes which will bring about more disruptive impact for workers. Domestically, we have to deal with social trends with long-term consequences, including a rapidly ageing population, concerns that social mobility, while still strong relative to other countries, is starting to slow down, and greater anxieties and stresses felt by various groups in society.
Refreshing our Social Compact
That’s why we embarked on the Forward Singapore exercise to update our social compact for our next bound of development.
We have engaged many Singaporeans over the past year. Through these conversations, there is an emerging consensus on what our refreshed social compact could look like. It’s centred around several key shifts and I’ll highlight three today:
i. A new approach to Success and Skills
ii. A revamped system of Social Support
iii. A renewed Sense of Solidarity
New Approach to Success and Skills
Let me start with the new approach to success. What is the “good life” we aspire towards, and what does the Singapore Story mean to all of us?
In the past, people talked about the 5Cs – cash, car, credit card, condominium, and country club membership. Nowadays, we’ve moved on from the 5Cs; very few people talk about them.
Yet, as a society, we still tend to converge around certain material definitions of success – e.g. the size of the paycheck, the property we own, or the prestige of a brand-name school.
To be clear, everyone is concerned about the basics in life – we want to be meaningfully employed, to have a home, and provide for the family, be it our children, or our parents. These are important and certainly must be provided for. But how far should we go in pursuing our material goals? How much is enough? How do we avoid getting trapped in a vicious cycle of endless competition, just to keep up with the Joneses or to get ahead of others?
In the end, success is really for each one of us to define. There is no single measure of achievement. But the message we get from our engagements with Singaporeans is quite clear: success is less about the pot of gold at the end of the road, and more about our sense of purpose and fulfilment along the way.
In other words, success is less about means, and more about meaning. For example, we are used to celebrating those who move to the top of certain professions; or cheering for those who launch start-ups and new enterprises. But we should equally embrace those who choose to spend more time with their families, because they want to be better parents or caregivers.
We should equally recognise those with talents in diverse areas, e.g. those who excel in the arts and sports; those who serve in retail, hospitality or social services; or those who take great pride in their work as skilled tradesmen and artisan craftsmen.
Our refreshed Singapore Story therefore must be more inclusive. It cannot be limited to a few selected pathways of advancement; with some pathways accorded higher status than others. We must value the success of every individual – each one pursuing his or her own path. We must provide many more ways for our diverse talents to be the best possible version of themselves; to make a difference in their own ways, all deserving of equal respect in our society.
This more inclusive approach towards success must also shape our thinking on education and skills. We have been making changes in our education system over the years – we’ve done away with PSLE T-scores, and we’re phasing out streaming, for example, just to name some changes.
But we still, as a society, focus too much on who gets the best grades, who makes the cut for brand-name schools, or which courses they qualify for. Not surprisingly many students feel caught in a rat race from a young age.
Not easy to change these very entrenched mindsets. We recognise that every student (perhaps more so their parents) will have their preferred schools. But if these preferences draw us unwittingly into an education arms-race, we will end up worse off as a society.
That’s why I keep telling people about my own experiences in the primary and secondary schools near my home. You may be tired of me saying this: but the point is every child can be assured of a good education whichever school they go to, as was my experience. I’ve benefited from this personally, and I’m determined to make sure every school remains a good school.
Another key mindset shift is to recognise that formal education early in life is not the endpoint of our meritocracy. Our refreshed meritocracy must be a continuous one, with learning opportunities across multiple junctures of life. All must have the chance to try again, do better, and move forward in life, years after leaving school.
Success is not about your grades or academic qualifications. Success is about lifelong learning – always learning, always improving and always doing better, in school and beyond school. After all, the world of work today is no longer linear – it’s not about a single employer, a single profession or even a single skill-set. It’s about being comfortable with multiple roles, which will themselves evolve over time.
That’s why we are looking at major changes to strengthen SkillsFuture, and to provide every Singaporean with many opportunities to re-skill and up-skill themselves. No one should be stuck at the highest formal educational level attained in their youth; everyone should be able to update their skillsets, pivot to new careers, seize new opportunities, and keep moving forward in life.
In short, a key part of our refreshed compact is to make sure Singapore becomes a full-fledged Learning Society, so that every citizen is equipped and well positioned to pursue their own version of the Singapore Story.
A Revamped System of Social Support
Second, we will review and update our system of social support.
Some countries talk about a cradle-to-grave welfare system. It’s an attractive ideal – to provide universal assurance for all citizens, throughout their lives. But there are age-old problems in realising this ideal: Who pays for the system? How to keep the system going as the population gets older? How to provide help without encouraging dependency and entitlement?
That’s why in Singapore, we have been careful in designing our social safety nets for housing, education, healthcare and retirement – we want these to be effective in helping the vulnerable groups, and we do so in a way that boosts their sense of ownership and agency over their own circumstances.
As we enter a more volatile and unpredictable environment, we will do more to assure both the broad middle and the vulnerable that they can meet their needs in life, and not be left behind.
In fact I’ve touched on this on previous occasions, so instead of going through the specific areas of policy reviews, let me just briefly outline some key areas we are currently looking at:
i. Support for the unemployed – how can we help them with their day-to-day needs, while they go about their skills training and job search, to ensure that they find a good match instead of simply accepting the first role that comes along their way.
ii. Support for lower-income families – how can we enable and empower them to move forward, uplift their wages and especially to close the early gaps in their children’s lives, and making sure the disadvantages do not multiply as the kids go to school.
iii. How can we provide support for vulnerable groups, including persons with disabilities, as well as their family members and caregivers.
iv. How should we provide more support for seniors – not just their health, but also their long-term care and living arrangements, and ultimately, their retirement needs, so we can all have peace of mind as we grow old.
These are areas of review which we are undertaking. As we update and enhance our schemes and programmes, we will ensure that whatever we do is fiscally sustainable.
But overall, it’s likely that the Government will have to spend more, focussing our resources on those with greatest needs. Right that we do so, and enhance the assurances we give to every Singaporean: in this harsh, unpredictable world, we will always have your back. No one will fall by the wayside. We will support you, so you can strive to achieve, do your best, and bounce back stronger should you encounter any setbacks in life.
A Renewed Sense of Solidarity
Third, we need a renewed sense of solidarity to underpin our refreshed social compact: this sense of solidarity means we need to be less about ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’, more about ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘ours’.
In our system of meritocracy, we tend to reward and celebrate individual efforts and hard work, and that is appropriate. But if we take this too far, it can lead to the mistaken notion that our achievements are entirely our own efforts. E.g. some people may think: if we succeed, it’s on us; if we fail, it’s also on us. So I’ll be a “self-made” man or woman, and I don’t need to owe anyone anything.
It’s good to be self-reliant. As a society, we should continue to value and reward individual effort and hard work. But let’s be careful not to take this to an extreme.
Because in fact, no one succeeds alone. Every success story is a shared story. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. If we look at anyone who realises their dreams – there’s always someone who motivated them, supported them, inspired them, and gave them confidence to move forward.
So we have to adjust our attitudes and mindsets about success in our meritocracy. Success is not I; success is we. Success is not individual; success is collective.
Our social compact must build on this deep sense of kinship and trust in one another. Those who have succeeded must do their part to help uplift others in society. We must never be a society where people feel that they are left to fend for themselves.
Instead, we want every Singaporean to know and feel they have a stake in our society, and we all have a sense of obligation and responsibility toward one another.
In fact, we saw this, we experienced this during the last three years of the pandemic. How Singaporeans rallied together to support one another; how we upheld trust amongst our fellow citizens and that was what enabled us to find our way through the pandemic.
We must never take this for granted – trust is precious; it takes time to build, but can be lost very quickly, especially in a diverse society likes ours, where dangers like communalism and racialism can never be fully eradicated.
Just think of what happened during the height of the pandemic, when we saw a sharp rise of racist incidents t when people were starting to accuse one another falsely and we saw racist incidents breaking out in quite a short period of time.
Since then, the situation has improved, and the number of such incidents have come down. Surveys we conducted, including external surveys, suggest that overall trust in Singapore remain high; but there’s still scope for improvement at the local and neighbourhood level.
We must continue to find ways to strengthen this sense of trust between Singaporeans, between people in Singapore. Our starting point is that every community – no matter how small – will always be valued and have a place. We want every group to celebrate their own cultures and traditions, as these are part of your roots and identity.
At the same time, we encourage everyone to look beyond your own communities, to come together, and expand our common ground as Singaporeans. We must do this deliberately and purposefully, to facilitate more inter-group interactions.
Such interactions are deeply personal decisions; the government cannot force it to happen and there are therefore no easy policy interventions. But we should continue to find ways to strengthen our sense of community and human connections.
We will see how we can do more to facilitate volunteering opportunities at the local level, e.g. empowering residents to participate in community building in their neighbourhoods, and hopefully catalyse more ground-up initiatives. Continue to promote more social mixing amongst our young, through CCAs, and other inter-school activities.
Ultimately, our social compact is not forged by confrontation or coercion or asserting the rights of one group over another. Instead, it is built through regular interactions, through accommodation and compromise, and a spirit of mutual respect and fellowship. The Singapore way is not insular or tribal; it is always open, inclusive and big-hearted.
Everyone Can Do their Part
So far I have spoken a lot about the changes that the Government is thinking about to reshape our social compact. But policy shifts alone will not be enough.
We must all do our part to bring about the changes that we want to see in our society. We can all take steps to engage and connect with our neighbours, especially those from different ethnic groups, and strengthen our kampong spirit.
Employers can better value and reward their workers. Ensure fair employment practices. Invest in skills training for your workers, and enable them to progress in their careers.
Consumers can treat service and technical staff with dignity and respect; recognise the important work our fellow citizens undertake and do our part to help uplift their wages.
Parents can give their children more space to develop and discover their dreams; and instil in our children the right values to learn and try out new things.
Those of us who have benefited from society can give back – through volunteerism and philanthropy, helping the less fortunate, or mentoring and nurturing the next generation.
Those who are passionate about issues can get involved in policy making, contribute your ideas, co-create new initiatives by participating in our Citizens’ Panels and Youth Panels.
We can all contribute in our own ways to refresh and update our social compact, and build the Singapore we want for the future.
These are some of the ideas we are looking at for Forward Singapore. Forward Singapore is a bold agenda, and it depends on all of us to realise. Our refreshed social compact will be our compass for the road ahead. Though we will not see change overnight, we can each start to embrace the new social compact today.
If we all do this, if we all do our part, we can be assured that we, too, will benefit when others feel a deeper sense of responsibility towards us and towards our society. We can then sustain, hopefully, a virtuous circle of uplift, progress, and confidence; and we can strengthen our solidarity and trust as a nation. As a whole, our society will grow stronger and fairer; more just and more united. That’s how we can keep the Singapore Story going, and we can continue to move forward together as one people.
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