Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Debate on The President's Address, 20 October 2011 at Parliament
Mr Speaker sir
1. This is the start of a new term of Parliament. The people have chosen us to be their representatives and it is our duty to fulfill the trust which they have vested upon us. We have debated the Government’s programme for the next five years. MPs have also raised many issues which affect Singaporeans and voters. But let us take a step back from all these detailed items and to-ings and fro-ings, to address how these all fit into the larger picture.
2. We all know the Singapore story – a dramatic transformation from third-world to first, apparently effortless and inevitable. But it was not by luck or mere passage of time that this happened. It was a result of hard work, strong determination from all parties and concerted, sustained performance over many years. As Ms Indranee said, we are at the crossroads. As we look to the future, we have to ask ourselves: Can Singapore thrive in this new environment? Can we build a stronger society? A more inclusive nation? A better home? Can we achieve what President Tan said in his speech, to provide a better life for all? As the President’s Address puts it, we want every Singaporean worker to hold a skilled, well-paid job; every family to live in an affordable, comfortable home; every young person to develop himself fully and pursue his dreams; every senior citizen to stay active and live with dignity.
3. My answer is yes! We can do it. But to achieve this, we need an inclusive society that lives no one behind. We need a vibrant economy that improves all our lives and we need a constructive politics that puts Singapore first. Let us take them one by one.
An Inclusive Society That Leaves No One Behind
4. What is an inclusive society? It is one where everybody benefits from the progress of the nation. It is one where everyone has a say, a stake and a sense of belonging. And it is one where everyone aspires to do better through their own efforts and feels that he or she has a real chance to move up. Why is this important? Firstly, and most fundamentally, because we are one family, one Singapore family. Secondly, it is a reflection of what we are: our values, what we stand for. When we look at the mirror in the morning, how we see ourselves, how we want others to see us. And thirdly, it is also a practical matter, because if we are inclusive, if we work together, we stand together and succeed. But if not, we fall apart and we fail.
5. Our society is changing. New challenges to creating an inclusive society have emerged. There are more different groups, each with sharper, different interests and concerns – the young, the old, the special interest groups, different socio-economic groups, the professionals, the middle class, those who think of themselves as the middle of the sandwich, those who feel that life has not quite been fair to them. Income inequality is starker than before. The most successful Singaporeans will continue to do very well. Average Singaporeans will be able to make improvements in their lives and are much better off than people in most other countries. But at the lower end, incomes have risen too slowly, far too slowly, especially in real terms.
6. We are seeing our society stratifying, which means that children of successful people are doing better while the children of less successful people are doing less well. And fewer children from lower income families are rising and coming up to the top of the heap. Our society is aging, we are seeing this all over Singapore. We (MPs) see these in our daily lives, we watch out for it because we are shepherds and responsible for Singaporeans. But I think Singaporeans must see it too. I visit schools. I see the bright kids – the sparkle in their eyes, the excitement of their projects, of the things they are planning to do, the places they are going to. I do Meet-the-People sessions. We see families come, desperate, anxious, worried about themselves. But we worry more for their children because when they have no home, no place to go, studying in the void deck, how do you go from that to the kid dreaming in a lab to be the next Nobel Prize winner? It is a big gap. It exists in Singapore, sharper than before. It exists in many other societies but it is something which we worry a lot about.
7. Aging is happening almost before our eyes. I do not just mean when we look in the mirror. Five years ago, I was preparing for a National Day Rally speech talking about aging and I made a special effort to visit Radin Mas, Mr Sam Tan’s ground, because Radin Mas residents were at a more advanced stage of aging than the rest of us. But today, when I go to Ang Mo Kio or many other estates, I do not have to go to Radin Mas anymore. I look at the residents – they are active, happy but visibly greyer than five years ago. And just ask yourself, 10 years from now, where would we be?
8. By 2030, the statisticians tell me, through freedom of information, one in five Singaporeans will be above 65. Today, it is only one in 10. In 2030, that means 19 years’ time, one in five. It is an abstract statistic but what you see is what you can sense in every housing estate, in many hawker centres and when you walk around the streets. This is especially true on polling days when all the old folks come out, either with their walking stick or their quad or their wheelchairs to vote. We are not alone, so there is some solace, but we still are faced with the problem and the question is how do we respond to this.
9. After the General Election, I asked DPM Tharman to review social policies comprehensively. Set up a committee, oversee a comprehensive
whole-of-government exercise. Because this is not an issue just for MCYS but many ministries too. Indeed, it is not just a multi-ministry issue; on some of the major things, you need a national mobilisation, for it to come before the national consciousness as a priority which we have to deal with. So the ministries of Manpower, Education, National Development, Health, MCYS itself, even Home Affairs are involved, because if you are talking about kids with problems, MHA has a vested interest. And we have been meeting, discussing, tossing up ideas, getting a grip on the problem and a sense of how we want to approach these problems. And today, I just want to share some of their thinking with you.
10. The first priority we have dealing with is to strive to maintain social mobility – to create the best opportunities for our people to progress and to encourage people to make maximum efforts for themselves. That is how we have built our prosperity –self-reliance, personal endeavour – and I think that is still the right direction. Because if you want a resilient Singapore, if you want a prosperous Singapore, if you want a Singapore where everybody is doing well, we cannot have passengers. Some will be the stroke, setting the pace. Some will be the main might of the crew, rowing hard. Others, even if you are not able to pull your full weight, do what you can so that nobody is just a passenger.
11. Therefore, we have put a major emphasis on education and training, on the Ministry of Education, on the continued education and training which MOM is overseeing. And that is one of the reasons why we have put a very strong team into the Ministry of Education. When Ng Eng Hen moved to Mindef, I thought carefully and decided to put Heng Swee Keat into MOE, who has been there before, who understands education and has experience in the Government at very senior levels and would be able to get going, hit the ground running. And I supported him with a strong team - Mr Lawrence Wong, Mr Hawazi Daipi, Ms Sim Ann, so that education is right up there on the front burner. And education, not just doing well at what we have already done, but taking new initiatives, moving into new areas and starting early in life so that children can get ahead and do better than their parents. So we are focusing on good quality, affordable pre-school education – how to support that, how to make sure that all Singaporeans can get there. We are making sure that every neighbourhood school is a good school. It is not a slogan. It is a reality and we make sure that every neighbourhood school is a good school and any MP who feels that his school is not quite up there, please let us know and we will do something about it.
12. We are putting in learning support programmes at Primary One and Primary Two, because when the kids start with a deficit, we want to close that deficit. We do not want the gaps to widen and have them falling further and further behind. And we are helping children with special needs, specialised learning and therapy, expanded capacity and higher quality in their special education schools. I think that it is the right thing to do. I heard Ms Denise Phua speaking on Tuesday with great passion. I agree with her, we need to do more. I do not agree with her that it should all come onto the Government’s plate. But we will do more and with people like her, I think we will achieve more. Ms Low Yen Ling also spoke about this and how there are children in pre-primary or pre-school who have learning difficulties and need to be diagnosed and identified and helped early. And these are all very sensible, very practical approaches which we will pursue and pursue aggressively.
13. Even then, some kids will get into trouble. It is in the nature of kids, especially boys, and we have to tackle these youth problems early because we want to nip the problem in the bud before they get into their first dip, first brush with the law or second brush with the law. Once they are exposed to hardcore drugs or criminals, then they are on a lifetime of crime, wasted. And that again is multi-ministry, because it cannot just be done by good intentions in MCYS. So we must get people to move. We must start early in life and we must keep the avenues open for people to move up. If you are talented, you are hardworking, if you have drive and determination, however poor your background, there must be no financial or social impediment for you to move. And I think we can say that institutionally, we have that. Schools, bursaries, fee remissions, universities – if you are able, you are willing to study and you show the performance, the door is open.
14. We are widening access to higher education; particularly university places, where we have 25 per cent, going on to 30, of each cohort in state universities. We have Mr Lawrence Wong with a committee studying how we can widen access further, in one form or another, so that more students can make it to tertiary education. More bursaries and scholarships will be given, and beyond the university, better places, better facilities in the polytechnics and the ITEs, at every level, to let students move up and achieve their best.
15. The principle is meritocracy. The most capable, the most reliable, the one with the most potential to go into the most crucial job. Because we want to put the person who is going to do it best so that the rest of us can be assured that nothing will go wrong. But we have to see meritocracy widely. Not as a narrow, one-dimensional definition of success as being examinations and results, but a broader range of abilities, many models of achievement, many ways to make your mark. Whether it is the arts, whether it is sports, whether it is science, whether it is as a businessman, an entrepreneur or in the public sector, whether as a leader or a specialist. There are many ways to do well and society should recognise and celebrate all the different people who do well.
16. We also have to set the tone for our society if we want to keep our system open. Because the rules may be there, the scholarships may be there but if there is a social gap between the lower end and the higher end, if you are not accepted, you do not feel comfortable, you are awkward or a magic circle forms and you cannot get into the magic circle, I think that is very damaging. So we must keep our society open, egalitarian, informal. People socialising together, mixing freely together, getting to know one another, integrating into one Singapore team – in our state schools, during National Service, in life, in our hawker centres.
17. We have done this so far; there are many examples of students who have come up from poor homes who have excelled. We have kids who took part in theatre for the first time, discovered an aptitude, talent-spotted, and who are going into SOTA next year. We have a badminton player who developed his academic and athletic potential in the Sports School and will be representing Singapore in the upcoming SEA Games. We have got budding talent in the NUS Maths and Science School excelling in Mathematics or Biomedical Olympiads, flying the flag for Singapore. We have a son of a taxi driver winning an SAF scholarship to study in Imperial College in London. There are many more of such stories and we must make sure that every time there is a young boy or girl with the potential who was from a poor home, we identify him and we smoothen the path for him and we help him to make it.
18. So the first approach towards dealing with our social problems is to strengthen the ability for people to succeed. But the second approach, which must complement the first one, is to strengthen our social safety nets because there is a yin and a yang. The yang is what you try to do for yourself, to compete, to achieve, to thrust forward. With the yin, you are looking out for one another, giving your peer a helping hand, helping the person who cannot quite make it, come along and help to take the next step. We have been doing more of this, especially for the low income and disadvantaged families. In the last five years, we created Workfare and ComCare. During the economic crisis, we implemented the Jobs Credit scheme aimed mainly at the lower end. And with Workfare, the Government is providing significant wage top-ups. Every year, 400,000 workers benefit. Every year, they receive more than S$400 million all in. It means about S$1,000 per worker. S$400 million of benefits to the lower end - it goes into their Medisave, their CPF, to them in cash payments. A very substantial measure. Not a minimum wage, but better than a minimum wage and something which we will enhance as we gain experience, as we understand how it works, as we see where we need to do more. This is just as how we are enhancing ComCare, as Mdm Halimah informed members a couple of days ago.
19. We also want to encourage employers to help low-end workers to upgrade to be able to earn more. And that means what NTUC’s Mr Lim Swee Say calls
“best-sourcing”. It is jargon. It means that when you outsource and you award a contract to a firm to do work – cleaning or maintenance or security – you want a firm who will have workers who are properly trained, properly equipped, properly paid. And not just a firm which will give you the lowest tender and then, having made the lowest tender, offer the lowest possible wage to the workers and do as little as he can without getting into trouble on the contract.
20. This is something which the unions are very focused on. Mr Zainal Sapari spoke at length on this a couple of days ago and the Government supports this. And I think the Government itself, as an employer, has to see how we would do this. I think we have a problem with the lower-end workers because in the old days, the lower-end workers were unionised. We had daily-rated employees, they worked for the PUB, they worked for the Government, Environment Ministry but progressively, this unionised generation is not there anymore. The daily-rated employees are not there anymore. And the low-end workers today, the ‘sua gang’ (Hokkien for odd job labourers), the people who are the cleaners, they are not unionised. So there is nobody to speak for them, there is nobody to fight for their rights, nobody to argue, advocate on their behalf. It is not easy to organise them but I think it is a problem we have which we have to find some way to solve. We owe it to these low-end workers to make sure that they too can earn a decent living in Singapore.
21. Our focus is on the low-end but we will extend the support beyond the low-end, selectively where it is deserved and justified, also to the not-so-poor. The lower-middle income, the middle income workers, people who are not so poor that they need help every month, but from time to time run into difficulty and then they need some assistance to tide over that period. And that is why we are paying attention to long-term care for chronic sick and elderly, because I think many of the families in the middle have elderly parents. If they are working and their parents are well, that is fine. But if they are working and their parents get ill, that can be quite a burden. And if the illness is catastrophic, for instance if they have cancer, that is even more difficult, drugs are expensive and it can carry on for many years. So these are problems we have and which we are focusing on, and I think we understand that in an environment where incomes are stretching out, where the middle-income are sometimes having to struggle to make ends meet, some helping hand will be necessary.
22. The most important thing we do for Singaporeans of course is to help every family own a home, a HDB flat. Mr Khaw Boon Wan spoke at length about it yesterday and I am sure that will not be his last speech in this House on this subject. I would just like to add a few words that the house is much more than a secure roof over their heads. The house, in Singapore, is also a major way for us to level up the less successful and to give them a valuable asset and a retirement nest egg. We are using the HDB flat as a means to give every Singaporean household a stake. This (the house) belongs to me, this is what I am going to work for and help pay for, this is what I am proud of, this is what I will defend and this is what I really should keep until retirement. So that is why we are making sure that HDB flats are affordable, even to lower-income households. If you earn S$2,000, you can buy a flat. If you earn more than S$1,500, it may be a bit harder but we will help you to do that. Already, we are giving the poorer households more support when they buy flats. The new MPs who may not have heard of such jargon, should know that there are additional housing grants if your income is not so high and if your income is quite low, there are special housing grants on top of the additional housing grant. And maybe one day, we will have an extra special housing grant. But the purpose of this is to target the subsidies, the assistance, the Government support, so that I give the lower-end an extra helping hand up. Here, this (the house) is yours, please take good care of it. We do have a problem because a minority is not always taking good care of it. Some of them, having bought a flat, are getting into debt. Their flat is protected. In fact, the creditor cannot foreclose and take a flat away from you. But a creditor can put enough pressure on you that you feel that you have no choice but to sell the flat and clear your debts and go and see your MP and ask for another one. That is a very serious problem and that is one of the important reasons why we have a long queue for rental flats. Not because they did not have a house in the first place, but because they lost the house which was theirs, the money is gone and now they are homeless and it has become the Government’s problem again. And we must find some way to address this problem. It is not easy but to be honest, I think we have to acknowledge that there is a difficulty here which has to be tackled.
23. The third aspect of making an inclusive society is to enable Singaporeans to age with dignity and grace. We are going to have a silver tsunami coming and we need a national effort to plan ahead to be ready for it so that it does not wash us away. We need elderly people to be able to work longer, to help them to work longer, to help employers to keep them at work productively. And I think if you look at the numbers, the proportion of elderly Singaporeans who are working longer is going up and will continue to go up. But most importantly, I think mindsets are changing. People are beginning to understand that it is good to work and employers are beginning to understand that older workers have their advantages. They are steadier, they may not be quite so strong and resilient, but they are reliable and if you can keep them for a long time, they can be productive for a very long time.
24. To prepare for the silver tsunami, we need to contain and share healthcare costs. This, also, the Ministry of Health is doing. Mr Gan Kim Yong has been focusing on that. We need to build up care services so that there will be more hospitals, many more nursing homes but, beyond hospitals and nursing homes, also community facilities and home care. Because for old folks, if you can stay at home, it is always much better than if you have to go to a nursing home or have to be at a hospital, because you want the elderly to enjoy their care and the love of the family and to be near friends and the community.
25. So these are major national initiatives which will be necessary over the next 10 years. I say national because it cannot be done just by the Government. You will need VWOs, you need community groups, you need households, parents, families all to participate and do their part. We can help to orchestrate this but it is something which has to be a national effort.
26. All these measures are essential if we are going to help the lower-income Singaporeans earn more, if we are going to enable more of their children to do well, if we are going to prepare for an aging society. The trends themselves will be hard to reverse but what we do will make a major difference and will help to ensure that nobody is left behind.
27. Social spending by the State will grow. As Ms Indranee reminded us, these programmes all cost money and some of this money will have to come from the State and the Government is prepared for this. We made major revisions to our revenue streams in the last term of this Government and I think we will be okay for this term of the Government. But it is not just having enough money, you must have programmes which are properly designed and must yield results. I wanted to say the programmes need to be cost-effective. I was told that the phrase “cost-effective” shows inadequate warmth but the programmes have to be effective. We have to worry about the cost, the programmes have to work and at the very least, they must not make things worse. And in social spending, it is quite possible for more money to make things worse. If you look at the way families have completely broken down in the West, it has a lot to do with the way the welfare state was implemented and the money which was spent supporting single mothers. So we must make sure that we spend the money well and the money goes to effective projects and they really are investments in our people. We would like to think so, we would like to try our best to make it so. But if you look at the US healthcare system, if you look at the problems which the Europeans have with their welfare state – the Greeks are the worst, but so too many other European countries – you know that more spending is not always better and just calling it an investment does not mean it is going to yield you a positive return.
28. So, we have to make sure that somebody is keeping our system straight and sustainable. The next five years, I am quite confident we have adequate resources, we can do what is necessary. Beyond that, it will depend on how much our needs and our programmes go. But I can tell you that if we do all the things which have been mooted over the last few days in this chamber, we will not have to wait five years before you think about raising taxes. We would have to think now where the money is going to come from and so I think we move, but have a care and make sure that we get results.
29. By building an inclusive society, we will strengthen our social compact and we will build a Singapore where we care for one another; where we can treat one another with grace, with courtesy and respect, where we understand the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and a society which represents the best of Singapore and the best of Singaporeans.
A Vibrant Economy That Improves All Lives
30. Social cohesion and intangible aspirations are important. But so too is a vibrant economy. We need a vibrant economy if you are going to create jobs, if you are going to raise wages, if you are going to generate confidence in a brighter future. Because if the economy is slow, if nothing is happening, it is very hard to be optimistic, to find new opportunities and to have a zest for tomorrow. You look at Japan – high level of income, high technology, very disciplined, very well-educated people. What is missing? A certain zest because their optimism is not there that they can grow, that tomorrow would be better and it is an exciting journey we are on. And I think that is why growth is important to us. Without growth, as many members have pointed out, including Ms Amy Khor, the poor will be the worst hit. So when members say, well, we have over-emphasised growth, I would say have a care. Focus on social issues; I have spent a lot of time talking about them. Focus on intangibles, focus on emotional connection, but do not forget that we need to feed our people and we need to grow our economy.
31. We aim for high-quality and inclusive growth. But we must also recognise that competition is fiercer than ever. Every year, the Chinese produce seven million graduates. Indians produce another three. That is 10 million, equal to two Singapores. They are going to have an impact in the world, not just at the lower-end and blue-collar professions, but middle-income white-collar professionals everywhere in the world. It is a tide and we have to ride it.
32. Competition is threatening entire industries and jobs. They call it hyper-competition. With the Internet, it pervades every nook and cranny and it is reaching out to the world of what are called ‘PHDs’ – poor, hungry and driven people. There are many PHDs in the world like that: poor, hungry, driven. We are not poor, we are not hungry but I think we have to be driven. It used to be called outsourcing. You find a company in India or China, you give him the job, he does it for you. Now, they call it crowd-sourcing. I put it on the Internet, whoever can do the job, come and take the contract, you do the work. Some are simple jobs like webpage design or writing a review. You can go to freelancer.com, crowdsourcing.org. If you have spare time and want some pocket money, you can just take a job like that and do it. Others are complex projects. The US Department of Defence Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA) has got a website which is devoted to crowd-sourcing the design of a UAV, an unmanned aerial vehicle. It did not give a contract to Boeing or to Lockheed or to Airbus; they put it up on the web and you form your own teams and you post your design and people will vote on it and the best design will get a prize and there is a chance they will build the thing.
33. So it is a different kind of world. We would like to keep the competition away – not have so many foreigners here because they compete against us, give ourselves a bit more pay because cost of living is high. We would like to improve our lives but we cannot wish away the competition just by doing that. It is there and “there” is not across the ocean, there is one mouse-click away and that is the world which we live in. Whether you vote for the PAP or the Opposition, that is the world we live in. So, we have to recognise that.
34. If you look within Singapore, you have to recognise another very important fact and that is that our growth is likely to slow down. Our economy is more developed, it cannot expand in the same adolescent way as it used to – seven, eight per cent a year effortlessly, year after year. We have domestic constraints of population and space. Our population is growing, Singapore is getting crowded, space is being allocated. We have to scramble to find new workers, dormitories, new factory land, new space for highways, for parks, everything which you put in, something else has to be displaced. We are slowing down the inflow of foreign workers and immigrants. But that means squeezing out more businesses and reducing more growth. There is a very high opportunity cost. There is a trade-off. Already, many employers are feeling it, especially small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), especially those which are run by Singaporeans because they tend to be the less generous paymasters and the first ones to run into difficulty when they are unable to get workers. But it is not just the SMEs, it is also industries staffed mainly by foreigners serving Singaporeans like nursing homes because if you cannot find staff from the Philippines or from Indonesia or wherever the nurses come from, we will not find enough Singaporeans to do this. So we are going to face slower growth over the next ten years. We have made 5.5 per cent growth over the last decade, over the next ten years we have set a target of 3-5 per cent but I would say if we can make 3-plus per cent per year consistently over the next ten years, we have had a good decade. We have to moderate, adjust our expectations, understand what is possible within those parameters to the best that we can and do it as intelligently as possible.
35. So how can we grow in this environment? MTI has been pursuing this strategy for some time now – restructure the economy. What does that mean? Turn over the industries, phase out those which are lower value-added, phase out those which are low margin, not profitable without a bright future, phase in new industries, new technology, new know-how, new skills, new trained workers and therefore, raise productivity in every sector and therefore we can share the benefits amongst all Singaporeans who have good jobs.
36. What is the silver bullet to do this? There is none. With hard work you can do it. Hard work educating our young, up-skilling our workers, therefore raising our level and raising above the competition. Not meeting them head on or trying to be cheaper than them, but rising above them, to be better than them and at the same time, making a special effort to help the older workers and the PMETs because I think we are going to see more problems with them in the next ten years as Ms Low Yen Ling and Mr Patrick Tay reminded us yesterday. With the good workers you can get investments, you can get good productive jobs and then you can have the wealth, you can have social measures which will help the yin complement the yang. And we can get through and succeed economically.
37. One advantage which we do have when it comes to the economy which is unique to us and very valuable, and I am afraid often underappreciated by Singaporeans, is that in Singapore we can make our whole system work well, not just individual pieces but the whole system. Our unions work with our employers and the Government; we have tripartism. Our business environment – everything clicks, you can register your company, two dollars and 20 minutes, it is done. You want telecoms, you can have it. You want an SIA flight, you can have it. You want utilities, it is there. It is a tight, high-functioning system where the whole is more than the sum of its parts. It is because of this that Singaporeans enjoy wages beyond what they would earn if the same person with the same skill goes to work somewhere else. You cross the Causeway, you work somewhere or you just go overseas, work somewhere, one of neighbouring countries, any of our neighbouring countries, no one gets the same wage. In fact many people come here to work from those neighbouring countries because they are taking advantage of our whole system performance, our entire system excellence and we are taking advantage of that because they add to our numbers. So we have to keep that and, through that, I think our Singaporeans can have a premium and if they can strengthen that advantage, that premium can go up. Many business leaders recognize that there is this special Singapore premium, it is not just a figment of our imagination. Therefore they put major projects in Singapore even though we are not always the lowest cost location or even the biggest market or their home countries. But they see us, they decide they have confidence in us, they explain to their boards Singapore’s performance and track record and, even though yesterday somebody said past record is not a promise of future performance, in Singapore they say you have this past record, I think we bet on them, we have confidence that they would make the future work. They come here and that is why now we have high quality investments even in a quite difficult global environment and when they meet me which we often do, I have met quite a number of them recently, they strongly advise me to uphold the fundamentals, stay the course and never lose this advantage. And what they do not tell me which I know is that of all the economic factors, this entire system performance is the one which most depends on our getting our politics right.
A Constructive Politics That Puts Singapore First
38. So underpinning a harmonious society, inclusive society, underpinning a vibrant economy, we must have a constructive politics which puts Singapore first.
39. Our politics is not constant; it is evolving, it happens in every country, it is happening in Singapore. Nothing is permanent, no situation is forever, no solution works indefinitely. Our politics is evolving in response to new economic and social realities because our economy is facing challenges for the future, because our society is having greater income gaps. It is becoming more diverse therefore our politics is reflecting the social and economic conditions. There are more diverse interests and perspectives among different segments of the population. We have a better- educated population, they want to hear more alternative voices, they like closer engagement and they believe in a different relationship with the Government. As one of them said in the old days we were here, the Government is here (PM uses his hands to show a gap between the people and Government), now we are here, the Government is here, the gap is not so big (PM narrows the gap between his hands). So therefore the relationship has changed and I think that is correct and the relationship ought to change.
40. The internet is playing a role, it is not just a passive medium but it also shapes our interactions and it redefines our sense of belonging and affinity because, on the internet, you are not necessarily interacting with your neighbour or your fellow Singaporean or even your classmate in school. It could be a special interest group who may live in California or Australia, it could be a World of Warcraft opponent who might be in eastern Europe or Russia or China farming for money. It could be a tiny little interest group collecting stamps or building model aeroplanes. But each person, each group, is fragmented into your little narrow-casted sub-sub-society, not one inclusive cohesive Singapore society. That makes for different politics and we saw the effects this year in two elections, in May at the general election and in August at the presidential election. I think it is necessary and healthy for politics to adapt to changes in our society and to be up to date and in sync with the times. Because if you do not adapt as a society, it goes brittle and one day it will break. But we cannot assume that just because you are changing, you are moving forward. You could be going the wrong way, you could get into a dead end. We have to consciously find the right way forward so as to avoid problems which other countries have run into.
41. Singapore is not quite the same as other countries. Many things have changed but one thing has not changed and that is that we still need a capable and effective government. We are a small country. We are successful but our success remains an act of will. Levitate, stay there, do not fall down, do not lose that determination to keep levitating and keep performing and rise higher. If we have bad leadership, if you made the wrong policies or do the wrong thing, you can easily fail. Therefore we are different from other countries. We cannot have a low-key government unlike, say, Switzerland where you just have a council of ministers and the ministers take turns to be the Prime Minister or like the Scandinavian countries where it is a very homogenous society, your neighbours are also successful societies similar to yours and the society can run itself, civil servants can run it and the politicians, well, you add to the system but life can go on. Least of all can we afford in Singapore gridlock or malfunction, which happens in many first world parliaments. Belgium is a very interesting case. In 67 years, they have had 45 governments. So about once every year plus and for the last 500 days, since the last election, they have had no government at all because they have not been able to form a coalition. There is no vote of confidence, so there is no government but the old Prime Minister is still there and he is still conducting business and life goes on. Japan, a much more established society than us, has had six Prime Ministers in five years. I think if that happens to Singapore, we are in serious trouble.
42. So how do we respond to this new political situation? I think first of all we have to take a much more open approach to government and to governance. The way we organize ourselves, the way we conduct our affairs. We need to welcome different views, reach out to diverse groups, including critics, hear them, exchange with them, pick up ideas from them, persuade them. We will share more information with the public, whether it is information on population trends, whether it is information on our employment figures or foreign workers, even GIC investments. We are publishing more information now than we used to do, whatever we can. Not everything can be disclosed – we do not want to tell the world the overall size of our reserves and we cannot publish our defence plans. But wherever possible, we would disclose more rather than less. As we go forward, we will review the rules and what we are putting out and I am sure over time we will do progressively more. We need to engage citizens more in the decisions affecting them across a wide range, from special groups, VWOs, helping special needs children or nature groups or animal welfare groups, to specific issues which are important but where there are specific groups which are concerned like looking at the CPF which concerns workers, employers and older workers. They want their CPF rates revised and the Government is working with NTUC and with employers to review the rates. But even on broader issues, like population, like immigration, I think it is constructive of us to have a discussion, to debate, to examine the facts, to understand what the tradeoffs are, to focus minds. A month or two ago, the Institute of Policy Studies put out a paper showing various projections of how Singapore’s population will grow or shrink over the next decade, based on different assumptions. It is not a conclusive last word but it was a very helpful contribution to the public debate. I think it helped to educate people and make them understand what this is about and I think over the next year, we will put out more papers, we will discuss them, get people to focus their minds and to understand that we actually face very serious tradeoffs. There is no free lunch, you can say you want to have fewer, but if you have fewer, there are serious consequences. But the public debate is not a free-for-all and there are risks. The French tried this. They had a debate on what it meant to be French because they wanted to close over some of the fault lines in society – between the immigrants, the Muslims and the non-Muslims in France. But it took a nasty turn, it became a xenophobic discussion, the Government had to try and smooth things down and distance themselves from the debate. So while we debate sensitive issues, we have to be very careful not to let sensible, moderate, thoughtful views be drowned out by unthinking xenophobia.
43. So that is the first thing we do. Take a more open approach to government. The second thing we must do is to have more space for civic society and pull the Government back wherever possible so as to have Singaporeans take the lead and act on their own. I spoke about this at the National Day Rally and I described the Yellow Ribbon project and how volunteers were doing a lot of good work helping prisoners rehabilitate themselves. But there are many other examples. Many are talking about an aging society and preparing for that. There of all places we will need lots and lots of civic society to be involved. And some of them are already actively doing good things. For example, there is a Young At Heart! Community College, some of you may have heard of it, it is in Marine Parade, started by the Marine Parade family service centre and Southeast CDC. They call it YAH! Community College. So although it has to deal with aging, they are young at heart. And the idea is to help the elderly learn more about being self-reliant and leading an active lifestyle. The people who come for the courses are trained as community ambassadors and then they go out and they promote awareness of wider issues. So then bringing in old people, giving them some useful knowledge and skills and then they can go out and they can be active in their community and do good and feel useful. I think this will probably improve their mindset and their health. So we need many more of this. One in every constituency times 88 constituencies and even more.
44. Thirdly, we need to emphasize how our policies impact Singaporeans and are seen by Singaporeans. Government is not only about doing things, government is also about making people understand what we are doing, getting people to support what we are doing and knowing what people would like us to do so that we can do the right thing for them. And everything the Government does is to benefit citizens. Why else would we want to do that? We are voted by citizens, our responsibility is to them, what we do must be for them. But government is complicated and very often the link from the measures to the benefits are indirect and not obvious. And so the result is anxiety, sometimes opposition, sometimes a lot of angst. And we try hard to communicate, we make speeches, we have dialogues, we listen, we talk, but as members have not tired of telling us and I hasten to tell members I have heard you, we do not always do it as well as we could and we need to communicate better. To listen, to engage, to explain, to be close and sense one another better, if the policies are wrong or circumstances have changed, then say so. A change of policies, we are on a new tact. But if the policies are not wrong and we have to persevere and the perceptions are mistaken, then I think we have to have the courage of conviction and preserve the core principles. We can be flexible on the implementation, we can be flexible on the details and we have to work hard to persuade Singaporeans that we are doing the right thing. Take the ERP for example, I believe it is the right thing. I think the Minister for Transport believes it is the right thing. I think some members of the House believe it is the right thing and more members understand that it is although they wished it were not so. But it is something which we cannot avoid doing. At the margins, we can adjust. If I can stop (the ERP in) Chinatown earlier in the evening, and the shops feel that maybe the customers are less deterred, well, why not? Let us do that. Central Expressway, people are going home, they are prepared to be stuck in a traffic jam a little bit longer, well, alright, we can compromise at the edges, let us turn it off at eight o’clock. I am not sure it will solve the problem but if people feel that there is angst, it makes our policy more acceptable, I think it is the right thing to do. Preserve the principles, adjust the details. Politics is the art of the possible.
45. Finally, we need to harness the power of the new media. To use it better to engage and connect with citizens. To manage it better, to encourage responsible and constructive behaviour. We need to strengthen what is called digital judgment. And we need to set new norms and rules. What is digital judgment? That means a good sense to know that what you saw on the website doesn’t mean it is real just because it is on a website. Just because it is in Wikipedia, does not mean it is true. Ask, find out, verify. We did not invent the term digital judgment. The British talked about it because they did surveys and they found that actually people do not have good digital judgment. When they see something on the web, they tend to believe it. If they hear it from the Government, they tend to disbelieve it. They do not have controlled media, neither do we. But they have a problem, so do we. And we have to get people to be more sophisticated to understand the internet is very good, the internet is very interesting, many good things there. And you need norms and rules to deal with a new situation, not envisage in the norms and rules which had to do with print media, with speeches in person, where now you have anonymous stuff going around, where now you have instant stuff which can proliferate and go viral. So the British and other countries – the Americans too, they have laws on cyber terrorism, cyber bullying; they have laws to prevent people from misusing the internet to sometimes very bad purposes. You would have heard of one American woman who pretended to be a young girl and befriended another young girl and tormented this other person until the little girl committed suicide. Why? Because there was some conflict between that girl and this woman’s daughter, so the woman pretended to be a young girl and did this on the internet. Are existing laws adequate? Not yet. Do we need something? I think we have to study how we can do this. It will not be one hundred per cent foolproof, but it will be necessary and it is something which MICA is fully focused on.
46. Finally we need to enlarge the common space shared by Singaporeans. This is a broad, continuing effort. The internet is pulling us in different directions, the world is pulling us in different directions. So many opportunities in so many countries, so many exciting possibilities for different people to pursue. How do we pull everybody together so that we feel Singaporean together, that we are anchored and feel that “this is home truly”, as the song says? We have to make maximum use of our schools, national service experience, our HDB communities, our national day parades, events, major developments which we share, things we go through together, whether SARS or economic crisis, so that we have shared reference points, shared memories, so that we feel one together. But it is a continuing effort and it is something which we must pick up. Again, the Government cannot do this alone. Really, it is a national effort.
47. The Government, at the end of all this, in a new norm, in a new environment, still has a duty to run Singapore. Having heard all views, let us decide: what are we going to do, this is the way we go. It is what we are elected for, it is what the electorate expects of us – to produce results and to present our record to voters at the next election for them to judge whether they are satisfied or not satisfied.
48. The Government is one of our political institutions. The Parliament is another, the presidency is another, and we need strong political institutions to have a good government to work well. And they have to be strengthened and brought up, kept up to date. Several MPs have talked about this. Ms Denise Phua and Dr Janil Puthucheary suggested reviewing the NCMP scheme, the NMP scheme, the elected presidency scheme, and asked whether they still relevant in the new environment. We have amended these not long ago – the NCMP and the NMP schemes we last amended in the last term, that is why there are at least nine Opposition MPs in this house. That is why we have permanent NMPs and we will be appointing NMPs, so that they will be enough alternative voices in Parliament. That is why we now have three NCMPs in this Parliament because it is our intent to make it so. And the NCMPs come from parties which do not believe in the system, but clearly not believing in something does not stop them from benefiting from it. But we have just changed the rules in the last term, so we will see how it works out before deciding whether further changes are needed.
49. On the elected presidency, we have just held the first contested election in 18 years. It was hotly contested. After the election, there has been much thoughtful commentary which has been published on the internet as well as in the print media. And the question is: how can we strengthen this important institution of Singapore’s government? In fact, Mr Chen Show Mao interestingly argued the same the day before yesterday, which I note is a change from the Workers’ Party position that the elected presidency is wrong and should be abolished. But I take him seriously and this is something which we have to consider very carefully.
50. Parliament itself is a key institution. The Government is accountable to Parliament and we welcome vigorous questioning and debate in the House, so we look forward to joining issue with the opposition and I am sure the opposition looks forward to joining issue with us too. They declare that they will be responsible and constructive; we will hold them to their word. Do not just criticise what the Government does, put up serious alternatives to be considered. Argue your case, be scrutinised as you scrutinise us. And do not just support popular measures like increasing social spending or building more HDB flats or asking the Government to deliver more. Anybody can do that. Also acknowledge that these measures cost money and explain how proposals would be funded. Speak up for measures which may be necessary but are unpopular, like immigration. Being principled does not mean not being afraid to offend the Government, because the Government is not the emperor and does not chop heads off. Being principled means not being afraid to tell unpalatable truths to Singaporeans, because voters are the sovereign and they can vote against you. But if you have conviction and passion, if you believe in it, then persuade people to follow you. Do not lead from the rear.
51. And that applies to PAP MPs too. Speak your minds, speak frankly, vigorously, passionately. We have heard many heartfelt views over the last few days, many of them passionately argued, each in his own way. You have expressed the aspirations and concerns of your voters, but I also encourage the PAP MPs to keep close to other groups in society who will see you as their voice in Parliament - people for whom you are their natural conduit, whether the young, the old, community organisations, clans, sports groups, nature groups, etc. Each of us comes with our own interests, our own connections, our own constituencies, outside of the people who voted for you. Nurture those links, broaden your contacts, cover the natural ground and together, cover the whole ground comprehensively. But as I said, also stand up for your convictions, do what you believe will benefit your voters and what is right for Singapore.
52. Singaporeans themselves play a critical role in making our democracy work. They have to be active citizens, working for causes which they believe in, but united by a larger common cause, which is to make Singapore grow and prosper. Interests will not always be aligned. It is not in the nature of human beings or human societies that we are all clones of one another and all have exactly the same ideas and interests. Therefore we need to work harder to build consensus, to compromise, to give and take for the common good. And I think as incomes go up, as people become more educated, this will take more work.
53. Take for example the recent story, which many of you would have read, about the nursing home which needs to be built in Bukit Batok. The residents are concerned; they would prefer not to have a nursing home next to where they live. The concerns have some basis and their emotions are understandable. And yet if every neighbourhood in Singapore rejects having a nursing home nearby, then there will be no nursing home built in Singapore and I think we will all be worse off. It is not just Singaporeans who have such a psychology. It happens in many countries. There is even a word for it, it is called NIMBY – Not In My Backyard. You have bought a house, the house is worth something, somebody puts a facility next to your house, property value may be affected, please put it elsewhere. Next block is all right – then it’s not too far for me to walk, but downstairs affects my amenities. And this will crop up repeatedly, especially in a crowded city like Singapore. Mr Zainuddin has a similar problem in Bishan because at Marymount Terrace, home owners are affected by the North South expressway acquisition and it is not easy to resolve. I think Mr Hri Kumar is also affected. We are discussing, we are trying our best to help. We have to find fair and practical compromises and if some group has to give up something, then we try to help them in some other way where possible. To make every deal win-win-win, I think it is very hard. But on each deal, you win some, you lose some, overall, painting it over the big picture, we all win, I think that is possible. And if we have good faith, if we trust one another and we work together with one another, I think we can make that possible. We cannot afford to let every local objection block important projects because otherwise, on healthcare, on transport, on housing, on many issues, we will be gridlocked, frozen. And we will be stuck like some developed countries are stuck, where they have no powers to do what is in the public interest. So we need the spirit of compromise and it is this sort of spirit which has to be part of our maturing democracy. So when you say a democracy is maturing, it is not just the Government taking an attitude or your institutions being right; it is also how the people relate to one another, relate to the Government, relate to the community.
54. By building an inclusive society, a vibrant economy and constructive politics, we can face the future with confidence. The next decade, we must expect a challenging environment. Nobody can tell what the next 10 years will bring. It will be a more uncertain and volatile world. Look at the last decade. In 2011, 10 years ago, if you had looked forward for 10 years, would you have predicted 911 or SARS or the global economic crisis? Nobody had heard of Osama Bin Laden. Nobody had invented the term SARS. Nobody knew what subprime debt was – had not been invented probably. But in 10 years, three big surprises, world changed. What are the surprises we must expect over the next ten years? Nobody can say. We can see certain serious problems in the world economy today - America with its fiscal problems and political gridlock so they can’t decide whether they are going to raise taxes or cut social spending; the EU with Greece in deep trouble, with Spain and Italy worrying whether they also may have a run and a crisis of confidence, and the eurozone not certain whether it goes forward to be more integrated or goes backward and comes unstuck. These are very deep and structural problems which are not going to be resolved soon and there is a real risk of a protracted global slowdown, stagnation. Just like the Japanese after 1990 was stagnant for now 20 years without being able to get the economy moving, something like that could happen in Europe, something like that could happen in America. We hope not but it is possible.
55. There are opportunities too. China and India are growing, not without problems and likely to be affected by the world, but a bright spark of light. Southeast Asia is not doing badly, we are friends with our neighbours, our neighbours are prospering, we can work, there are opportunities. And when I receive western visitors and they ask me how things are and I tell them some of our problems, they say, but you all sound so optimistic compared to where we come from. Because if you really were at ground zero in Washington discussing the budget or in Europe discussing the euro, then you know what gloom is. And so we have reason for hope and for confidence.
56. Faced with such an uncertainty, I think our course is quite clear. We work to build Singapore, to create a better future for ourselves. We will not have one hundred per cent foresight, we will not get it exactly right every time, but we will move in the right direction and if things turn out better, well, we seize the opportunities. If things turn out worse, we adjust course and we take it in our stride. But we stay nimble, flexible, resilient. And in such a future, where not everything is always hunky dory, we seek Singaporeans’ understanding. Please fasten your seatbelts but we are flying safely, take the bumps, let us continue to try and climb higher.
57. In the President’s Address, President Tan challenged us to give all Singaporeans a better life and a brighter tomorrow. I am confident we can make this happen. Why? Because I believe in Singapore, I believe in Singaporeans. We have changed before, we have made it worked before, we are better prepared now, we can make it work now. We have energy and spirit, we have courage and resolve, we have commitment to the country and to one another. So let us ride this next chapter of the Singapore story together. Ensure that every Singaporean leads a fulfilling life; give every child a chance to do better than his parents or her parents; be a caring and compassionate community where we all look out for one another and work together to keep Singapore a special, warm and successful home for many more years to come. Thank you very much.
. . . . .
Explore recent content
Explore related topics