Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Parliament debate on President's Address 2016: Day 1

World has changed and Singapore needs to change with it: MPs
Relook economic growth strategies, decision-making style: Ong Ye Kung
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 26 Jan 2016

Singapore needs to evolve to keep up with the changing world and cannot cling tight to the old ways that have brought the country to where it is today, said MPs in Parliament yesterday.

As the country enters its next phase of development, it should relook its economic growth strategies and style of making decisions, said Acting Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung.

Mr Ong, first of the next-generation leaders to speak in the debate on the President's Address, added: "Evolution is absolutely necessary because no city stays successful by standing still. Animals develop sharper claws, longer beaks and harder shells in order to survive."

Likewise, Singapore must develop new traits to survive in a more complex and competitive world.

But as it evolves, it should hold fast to some principles, and he cited three: integrity, meritocracy and an openness to the world.

Mr Ong was among 17 MPs who spoke yesterday, the first day of the debate. Keenly aware of the global economic slowdown and the terrorism threat around the world, they suggested ways for Singapore to deal with these challenges.

Mr Ong noted that Singapore's top trading partner and export destination - China - is transforming its economy, with the focus shifting from growth to quality of growth. Also, it produces more of its own goods and imports less from South-east Asia, and this has hit Singapore exports.

Singapore needs to find its footing in this new configuration and look at China for new business opportunities, said Mr Ong."We must be able to understand, bridge, and operate across different cultures. We must have depth in know-how and skills, so that wherever we go, our expertise is valued," he added.

Agreeing, Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) said this was crucial if Singapore was to keep growing in the "global economic malaise".

Amid these shifting sands, Singapore must make the right judgment calls. Mr Ong urged the Government to exercise greater discretion and adhere less strictly to rules, as "the world is now too complex to be reduced to rules and numbers".

Such changes are happening, he noted, citing how social assistance schemes are means-tested but each application is also qualitatively assessed. "Who is to say a person earning $2,500 with two aged and sick parents to support is less deserving than someone living alone, earning $1,500?" he said.

Similarly, while awarding public tenders, officers look at not only price, but also the overall proposal.

This well-calibrated, greater exercise of judgment must permeate throughout government over time, said Mr Ong.

He and other MPs also spoke of the need to reinforce a common national identity, shared by all.

This common identity is drawn from Singapore's diversity, he said, calling on Singaporeans to live together harmoniously.

"As MPs, we knocked on the doors of many HDB units. Just within one block, I stood before homes with Quran verses, crucifixes, joss stick urns, statues of Ganesh fixed around the front doors," said Mr Ong.

Security was a top concern among most of the 17 MPs, eight of whom were fresh faces from last September's general election.

If a terror attack happens here, Singaporeans must stand united and not let community relations fracture, said Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Amrin Amin and Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC). The debate resumes today.

Security and unity are key to safeguarding Republic
Current geopolitical climate highlights need to counter extremism and nationalism, say MPs
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 26 Jan 2016

The threats of extremist violence, and rising tensions and nationalism in the region highlight the need for Singapore's security agencies to be well-equipped, several MPs told the House yesterday.

MPs also called for greater emphasis on strengthening trust and understanding between the various communities, so that extremism does not take root and society remains united if an attack happens.

Security was a top concern for Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) who opened the debate on President Tony Tan Keng Yam's Address to Parliament.

Dr Tan had cited the Jan 14 terrorist bombings in Jakarta in his speech two Fridays ago. Yesterday, Mr de Souza also cited the recent arrests of 27 radicalised Bangladeshi workers, as well as competing claims over territory in the South China Sea, in calling on members to support a strong security budget.

"A quick look at our neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia, and even ourselves, shows that there are some individuals who become radicalised domestically," said Mr de Souza. A well-equipped Home Team and a proficient Internal Security Department are thus necessary, he added.

He also said he found it "odd", given the security climate, that some quarters had recently called for a reduction in the defence budget - an allusion to calls by the Singapore Democratic Party in last year's General Election to cut the defence budget by more than 40 per cent to fund its healthcare proposals.

"This is totally at odds with the geopolitical situation presented to Singapore today," he said.

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) said besides terrorism, rising nationalism and a hunger for resources also mean a strong armed forces is needed to protect Singapore's sovereignty.

He pointed to tensions between China and Taiwan, between the two Koreas and with Indonesia, for naming a warship after two saboteurs responsible for the 1965 MacDonald House bombings here, as examples of such rising nationalism.

"The South China Sea dispute, for example, has seen a number of countries, all of whom are friends, fighting over a few pieces of stone," he added. "But it isn't really the pieces of stone they're fighting over, but the larger economic zones that come with them."

MPs Low Yen Ling (Chua Chu Kang GRC) and Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC) also stressed the importance of strengthening social cohesion and national identity across the various races and religions in the light of the terror threat.

Both noted that the fight against extremism was not just about hardening physical security measures, but also one for hearts and minds to safeguard Singapore's harmony.

Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef (Marine Parade GRC) said the coordinated nature of attacks, such as that in Paris last November, were also a reminder for Singapore to review the strategies, resources and capabilities of its agencies.

She noted that frequent exercises prepared Paris' public hospital systems to deal with the crisis and these were issues Singapore had to think about as well.

Prof Fatimah also noted that the Muslim community had faced the challenge of terrorism calmly and worked to correct misperceptions about Islam that others might have.

"Islam has never condoned such actions and, in fact, condemns it," she said.

"But this is the global situation now - more complex, ever-changing and unstable. It will be with us for years to come," she added.

Cohesion in Singapore 'key to combating terror threat'
By Joyce Lim, The Straits Times, 26 Jan 2016

When terrorists brought down New York's World Trade Centre on Sept 11, 2001, Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Amrin Amin (Sembawang GRC) was an exchange student at Columbia University in New York.

Recounting this yesterday as he spoke about how a crisis can destroy Singapore's unity, he recalled how the 9-11 attacks had spread fear in the United States, driving people to exact revenge on Muslims and those who resembled Muslims. If a terrorist attack should happen in Singapore, he said, "we have to make absolutely sure that the terrorists' agenda to create chaos and sow discord does not prevail".

"Brick and mortar can be repaired and rebuilt easily. Fractures in our community cannot be fixed so readily," he said.

“Brick and mortar can be repaired and rebuilt easily, but fractures in our community cannot be fixed so readily”: In his first #Parliament speech, MP Amrin Amin says that as a nation, Singapore has to make sure terrorist agenda to "create chaos and discord does not prevail".Live updates from Parliament:
Posted by Channel NewsAsia Singapore on Sunday, January 24, 2016

In his maiden parliamentary speech, Mr Amrin emphasised the importance of a cohesive community in fighting terrorism.

While the Government has been working to enhance Singapore's first line of defence - by tightening checks at the borders, increasing closed-circuit television surveillance of public areas and upgrading weapons - it is not just physical security that matters, he said. "Internally, we have to strengthen our mental and emotional borders to ensure they are impenetrable to invidious elements. The key entry points that can tear our social fabric are our hearts and minds," he added.

Speaking in Malay later, he urged Malay-Muslims not to take the community's solidarity for granted. He said: "We are able to perform our obligations as Muslims peacefully without any interference from anyone.

"This is in contrast to certain countries whereby the Muslim population faces disturbances from their neighbours and colleagues just because they are Muslims."

In other countries, he said, those spreading terrorist ideologies in the name of Islam have sparked Islamophobia, dividing communities. "We must protect our country from such incidences by having a moderate stance that is in line with multi-racial Singapore."

Parliamentary Secretary for Trade and Industry and Education Low Yen Ling (Chua Chu Kang GRC) yesterday also called on Singaporeans to "close ranks to build a fair, caring, cohesive and inclusive Singapore that leaves no space for the weeds of terrorism to grow".

She noted that disaffection and anger could make people vulnerable to the "lies" of terrorists and called on Singaporeans to care for the marginalised and weaker members of society to guard against the spread of such sentiments.

She also urged Singaporeans to develop a new mindset towards failure and success, adding that having more avenues for people to realise their aspirations could neutralise the risks of disaffection.

But she pointed out that radicalisation was not limited to those on the fringes of society, and one of Singapore's first self-radicalised men detained in 2007 was a lawyer. As such, she said, it was also important to educate people on the right understanding of Islam.

Ms Low also said forging a stronger national identity could make Singaporeans feel more rooted and encourage them to defend their country.

"It may sound antithetical, but celebrating our Singapore culture, identity and uniqueness is soft power to fight the harsh and cruel sting of terrorism."

'Govt must work at keeping people's trust'
Lack of trust can lead to divisive politics and gridlock which will hurt Singapore, MPs say
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 26 Jan 2016

Trust between Singaporeans and the Government, once broken, can lead to divisive politics and gridlock, said several MPs yesterday.

They urged the Government to work at maintaining the people's trust, which they said has been the bedrock of the country's progress over the last 50 years.

On the first day of the debate on the President's Address, Mr Christopher De Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) and Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten) said it was trust that led the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) to win 69.9 per cent of the vote at last year's polls.

The result was a 9.8 percentage point bounce from the PAP's worst post-Independence electoral showing in 2011.

Mr Sitoh Yih Pin (Potong Pasir) credited it to the Government's mindset change and efforts to cut red tape and communicate directly with the people.

Going forward, the Government should "reciprocate and do its utmost to maintain this trust".

But he also proposed a shift in focus, saying it was more important for the Government to trust the people, than win the trust of the people.

"Trust that the people will fully support the Government even when things are imperfect or when times are difficult.

"Trust that good communication is the key, that Singaporeans are discerning and able to accept the good, the bad and the ugly news," he said.

He noted that an absence of trust has led to political gridlock elsewhere, a theme that some other MPs also spoke about.

"Where there is a need to relearn skills or work with others, are we able to put our egos aside to form new collaborations and break new ground?": Sun Xueling urges a "generosity of spirit" in Singapore. #ParliamentLive updates from Parliament:
Posted by Channel NewsAsia Singapore on Sunday, January 24, 2016

Two of them, first-time MPs Sun Xueling (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) and Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC), said constructive politics can help Singapore navigate the challenging road ahead.

Dr Tan cautioned that if politics turned divisive, it could contribute to a "perfect storm" that can threaten Singapore's existence.

In Britain, Greece and Germany, divisive politics had led to a "fractured national consensus", he said.

Political parties in these "major economies", such as the UK Independence Party, Syriza and Alternative for Germany, "do not need to do exceptionally well to win", Dr Tan said.

"Just by becoming a political force, they hollow out and poison the political centre."

He added that a good, constructive opposition is needed for good politics and robust debate.

To that end, Singapore must have a contestable system where "you need not be a millionaire to step into the ring or have the right friends", and opposition parties should also be open about their position on contentious issues, he said.

Dr Tan added that there are also "poisonous forces" to guard against: money politics, where political parties feel the need to reward supporters with kickbacks, favours and contracts; politics built on anger, envy and hate, where politicians urge voters to "destroy what has been built over decades and generations... without a vision for what comes the day after"; and intellectual dishonesty, where politicians sell voters an ideal "without saying how they will get you there" or contemplating the risks and side effects.

With a review of the political system on the horizon, several MPs yesterday also spoke about how policies, such as the group representation constituency (GRC) system, have encouraged good politics.

Dr Tan, Dr Fatimah Lateef (Marine Parade GRC) and Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) said such safeguards in the political system are needed to preserve diversity and fairness in multiracial Singapore.

“Expand and make the NMP scheme more robust, more structured”: MP Fatimah Lateef on one of the changes she’d like to see – a stop to the “lacklustre” #NCMP scheme. #Parliament
Posted by Channel NewsAsia Singapore on Monday, January 25, 2016

Dr Lateef listed three things she would like to see in a review of the political system here: smaller GRCs and more single-member constituencies, an expanded Nominated MP scheme to "offer Singaporeans more opportunities for political participation", and for the Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) scheme to be scrapped.

On the scheme, which offers parliamentary seats to the best-performing losing opposition candidates, Dr Lateef said: "I find it a little bit lacklustre."

She added: "Our political system can be better.

"We owe it to ourselves and our future generations to make the positive changes and evolve the system further."

Social assistance schemes should be assessed based on income, not home or asset type: Mountbatten SMC MP Lim Biow Chuan in #Parliament
Posted by Channel NewsAsia Singapore on Monday, January 25, 2016

Tackling slowdown with help in job searches, worker levies
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 26 Jan 2016

MPs gave several ideas yesterday on ways to help retrenched workers, struggling companies and the tepid economy.

Mr Chong Kee Hiong (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) wanted retrenched professionals, managers and executives (PMEs) to be made more aware of the National Jobs Bank, run by the Singapore Workforce Development Agency. The site had listings for more than 56,000 jobs with monthly salaries ranging from $800 to $30,000. Yet many vacancies were unfilled, he added.

PMEs traditionally turn to placement agencies and headhunting firms, he noted. "Can more be done to make JobsBank the go-to site for those seeking employment?" He suggested more frequent advertising on television and in newspapers.

Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten) called for Singaporeans to be given priority over foreigners.

The duo were among seven MPs who spoke on the impact of the economic slowdown, during the first day of the debate on the President's Address.

For small and medium-sized enterprises, or SMEs, Mr Yee Chia Hsing (Chua Chu Kang GRC) urged the Government to review foreign worker levies, as the quantums were set "in better economic times".

In the property market, Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) called for the removal of the Additional Buyer's Stamp Duty (ABSD) for Singaporeans.

He felt that other home loan curbs were enough to ensure citizens are not over-stretched financially.

Others took a big-picture view of the economy.

Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung - the only minister to speak yesterday - highlighted the need to refine economic strategies to keep up with changing times.

In the midst of the "Asian century" that is unfolding, Singapore must learn to tap China's potential as a market, and gain an intimate knowledge of neighbouring markets in general, he said. "We used to encourage Singaporeans to anchor in Singapore. With a strong anchor planted, it is now necessary to seek our fortunes in the region."

That is why institutes of higher education are encouraging overseas internships for their students, he added.

Dr Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC) warned of potential dangers, like the economic sluggishness in China and the United States, and the pace of Singapore's restructuring being too slow.

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) spoke on the opportunities offered by the Asean Economic Community, which came into force last month. "I believe that if we can open a new market into Asean at the same time the global economy is slowing, this could provide a promising platform for Singapore businesses to find growth even in a difficult economic climate," he said.

Help millennials succeed at home and work
MP calls for more progressive work practices to help young Singaporeans
By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 26 Jan 2016

New mothers should be given greater flexibility to make alternative work arrangements when they first return from maternity leave, said Mr Desmond Choo (Tampines GRC) yesterday in his Parliament debut.

He also called on the Government to encourage more employers to give fathers an additional week of paternity leave.

In a speech focused on young Singaporeans born between 1981 and 2000, Mr Choo said the Government and employers should help these "millennials" succeed at work and at home, as they are the ones who will shape Singapore's next 50 years.

Millennials, aged between 16 and 35 now, form about 22 per cent or 1.2 million of the population, he said.

"The crux is perhaps to put young Singaporeans at the centre of this common future that we will want to build and empower them to succeed," he added.

Mr Choo, who is director of NTUC's youth development unit, suggested legislation that will give new mothers the right to opt for eight weeks of flexible work arrangement. This is on top of the 16 weeks of maternity leave they are entitled to.

Said the MP, whose wife gave birth to their first child four months ago: "This will help a mother to ease her transition from caring for a newborn full-time and having to return to work."

Mr Choo added that young fathers also believe in "shared parenting". He asked if the National Population and Talent Division could do more to boost the take-up rate of a scheme that offers fathers an additional week of paternity leave, paid for by the Government.

These progressive work practices can help young Singaporeans realise their aspirations of raising families while also building their careers, he said.

It is important to help the young succeed as "talent rather than capital" will drive productivity, Mr Choo added.

"If we harness the strength of our young workers and are willing to look for ways to support them, they can take us boldly and purposefully into SG100": Desmond Choo in his maiden #Parliament speech Live updates from Parliament:
Posted by Channel NewsAsia Singapore on Sunday, January 24, 2016

Addressing the criticisms often levelled at millennials, Mr Choo cautioned against generalisations about specific generations.

For instance, he said, their concern for work-life balance, could be a result of them wanting "social and family successes" as much as career success.

As "digital natives", they are "comfortable producing work anywhere, not just in the office", Mr Choo said.

Employers also often lament that millennials do not stay in a job long enough to learn sufficiently, he added, suggesting it could be because the youngsters believe in "chasing growth and learning curves".

Many millennials have told him they are likely to leave a job when they feel they are not learning; when career paths are unclear; and when they cannot identify with the company's work, he said.

But with more guidance, this group can adapt and thrive, he added.

He suggested tapping the labour movement's links with professionals to build networks of mentors that students can access easily. Also speaking on the topic of talent yesterday was Mr Chong Kee Hiong (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC), who noted that the number of overseas Singaporeans has gone up from 157,800 in 2004 to 212,000 in 2014.

Addressing the House for the first time, he said: "We must do what we can to provide the most attractive work and living environments so that we can retain as many talents that we have nurtured as possible."

Meanwhile, newly minted labour MP Melvin Yong (Tanjong Pagar GRC) reinforced the importance of the three-way partnership between the Government, unions and employers in his maiden parliamentary speech, calling tripartism an "often overlooked factor to the success story of Singapore".

The National Wages Council, set up in 1972, formulates wage guidelines in line with long-term economic growth and has laid the foundation for tripartism here, said Mr Yong.

But tripartism should move beyond the national level and be expanded to different sectors of the economy, he added.

The former senior police officer cited the public transport sector as an example: When a new bus operator entered the public transport industry, the union, operators, and the Land Transport Authority came together and hammered out guidelines that called on the new operator to offer bus drivers employment terms that at least match their current packages.

He also suggested tripartism be taught in schools so that children "would know, appreciate and continue to nurture this key competitive advantage" of Singapore.

Educate Singaporeans to dream big, says Sylvia Lim
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 26 Jan 2016

Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) believes that Singapore's education system needs to change in order to get Singaporeans to dream big, be unafraid to fail and feel they can make a difference in the country's future.

It has to provide the right environment for students to take risks and not fear failing.

Assessment of students "should nurture a spirit of exploration, and encourage students to think out of the box and to have differing opinions", she added.

For instance, extra credit can be given to students who give alternative solutions that are not the exact "model answers".

They should also learn that "some things may be worth doing even if one fails", she said, suggesting that they be given case studies of people who failed to achieve what they set out to do, but were pursuing an important cause.

Ms Lim also noted that the Government has been fostering "collaborative governance" by promoting cooperation among the public and private sectors and the people.

But Singaporeans will feel that their opinion matters only when they are equal partners.

So, "the Government needs to let go and devolve more power" by reducing its presence in matters of "non-core government functions".

This will allow "real power centres outside the Government - in local enterprises, in the private sector, in civil society, in the people sector, so as to effectively check and work with the Government". 

Reiterating an issue she raised while campaigning in last September's General Election, Ms Lim repeated her call for professional bodies and national sports associations to be managed without government representatives or MPs on their boards.

"Empowered Singaporeans will not blame others when the going gets tough, but will face difficulties squarely," she added.

Similarly, Ms Lim's fellow Aljunied GRC MP Faisal Abdul Manap spoke in Malay about the need to engage people in dialogue on "hotly debated issues, such as the threat of radicalism".

He said other communities, besides the Malay/Muslim community, should be included in the discussion on the tudung, or Muslim headscarves, not being allowed to be worn in uniformed service.

Mr Faisal also said a system was needed to monitor the social assistance schemes and find ways to improve them.

Rebutting his point, Dr Fatimah Lateef (Marine Parade GRC) said the aid programmes were being monitored by the Government Parliamentary Committees.

The opposition, she added, should not only question government schemes but "step forward with new ideas that are substantial and practical".

She also countered Ms Lim's point on collaborative governance, arguing that collaboration was about joint efforts to achieve a goal, and not about "equal contributions, equal partnership".

"I would also be glad to say that I will contribute more than my fair share if I can, if I know how to, and if I am capable," she said.

Charles Chong, Lim Biow Chuan elected Deputy Speakers
Mr Charles Chong and Mr Lim Biow Chuan will make good deputies in discharging their duties given their expertise and experience, says Mr Seah Kian Peng, the Deputy Speaker in the previous Parliament.
By Loke Kok Fai, Channel NewsAsia, 25 Jan 2016

At the start of Monday’s (Jan 25) session of Parliament, Punggol East MP Charles Chong and MP for Mountbatten Lim Biow Chuan were elected as Deputy Speakers.

MP for Marine Parade Seah Kian Peng, who was Deputy Speaker in the previous Parliament, had raised the proposal, with Senior Minister of State for Finance & Law Indranee Rajah supporting the proposal.

He told the House that Mr Chong was an experienced backbencher, having been elected to the House since 1988. Mr Chong was also a Deputy Speaker in the previous Parliament. Mr Seah added that Mr Chong had also sat on previous Select Committees, and has led various Government Parliamentary Committees.

As for Mr Lim, Mr Seah highlighted his work in various parliamentary committees and his role as Singapore's regional representative in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association's Executive Committee.

"With their expertise, their experience and their character, I'm confident that both Mr Charles Chong and Mr Lim Biow Chuan will make good deputies in discharging their duties,” said Mr Seah.

Power and politics in the House
By Chua Mui Hoong, Opinion Editor, The Straits Times, 26 Jan 2016

I watch Parliament less for the details of what each MP says, and more to get a feel of the timbre of a debate and even the tenor of an entire House.

This is in part because I've covered many debates as a journalist since 1991, and tend to have heard it all before - go beyond grades in education, help businesses with rising costs and shortage of manpower, help retrenched middle-aged workers get reskilled for another shot at the workplace - which MPs again raised yesterday .

It is also because I believe that each crop of new MPs represents the voice of a new generation, and each new session of Parliament gives voice to, and shapes, the direction the country should go.

Yesterday, the 13th Parliament sat to debate the President's Address delivered a week ago, when President Tony Tan Keng Yam spoke about the need to adapt the economic and political system.

The 5 1/2 hour session had 17 MPs speaking, including eight first-term MPs. The most impressive was Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung.

He might be a parliamentary novice, but speaks like a seasoned politician - he campaigned and lost the 2011 General Election in Aljunied GRC, and won last yearin Sembawang GRC.

His background in the civil service and unions, his ease in public speaking, coupled with a natural air of authority, will catapult him to the top rungs of the political leadership quickly.

His speech was couched in a catchy package: Singapore needs to grow faster legs, stronger hearts and wiser minds.

But it is also a substantive call for a rethink on the economic policy of relying on foreign investment, and on the civil service penchant for following rules.

All politics is a contest - of ideas, for votes, for power - so you get votes to translate your ideas into action. In the House today are MPs who will form the "nucleus" of the fourth-generation leadership.

The first generation had Mr Lee Kuan Yew, a clear leader who won over a strong-willed group of peers. The second generation chose collegial Mr Goh Chok Tong as their consensual leader. The third generation has Mr Lee Hsien Loong, first among equals, who also had the benefit of family pedigree. The fourth generation competition for leadership will, I reckon, be more intense. It will all be polite and cloaked, but will be no less serious.

So, my first impression of the 13th Parliament is that it will be a Chamber where the true contest will be within the PAP, not between the PAP and the opposition. My second impression is that the power of the people will feature prominently in debate.

Several PAP MPs highlighted challenges - economic, terrorism, social - and stressed that the Government can't tackle them alone. Let alone one with a strong mandate, as new MP Tan Wu Meng (Jurong GRC), said.

Mr Sitoh Yih Pin (Potong Pasir) went further, saying that the Government must not only be deserving of people's trust, it must also trust the people - trust that people support it even when things are imperfect or difficult, and trust "that Singaporeans are discerning and able to accept the good, the bad and the ugly news".

Opposition MP Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC), said for Singapore to be exceptional, its people must be empowered. "To truly empower citizens, there must be real power centres outside the Government - in local enterprises, in the private sector, in civil society, in the people sector, so as to effectively check and work with the Government...

"For true collaboration, no partner should be dominant. The Government needs to let go and devolve more power first, so that there is real and meaningful collaborative partnership among equals."

Engagement will feature in the 13th Parliament, as Singapore embarks on a series of SGfuture dialogues to discuss the future. And if the above MPs' rhetoric is anything to go by, there will be much talk about empowering citizens - and, hopefully, beyond talk, policies and action plans.

If I may speak of something as tenuous as the feel of a House, I would say this one already has a settled feel, although it is in only its first month.

The 12th Parliament was a palpably hurting one, reeling from the shock of GE 2011 . The 11th Parliament opened amid great expectations with a crop of 24 new MPs touted as "non-conformist", representing diversity. It was alas a label they found hard to live up to.

This Parliament comes after voters gave the Government a strong mandate in September last year, with a 10 per centage point rise in vote share. PAP MPs in the House are no longer under siege; they can justifiably feel comforted that they won back voters' trust.

And therein lies the greatest risk for this Parliament.

In the world outside the quiet Chamber, the financial markets are roiling. Terrorism strikes closer to home. The Zika virus threatens. To be sure, MPs did stress the need for unity in tackling challenges, and the need for a secure Singapore.

But I would have liked to see, feel and hear, more concerns from the world outside reflected in the House - stories of real-life struggle, jeremiad cries, bolder ideas. I know the year is young, many MPs are new, and the House is just getting into its stride. But I thought a greater sense of urgency about the challenges facing us would have been in order.

Speech of the day

Evolving to suit the times
The Straits Times, 26 Jan 2016

Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung spoke about three aspects of governance that may have to evolve to suit new circumstances. Here is an edited extract:

No city stays successful by standing still. Animals develop sharper claws, longer beaks and harder shells in order to survive. The three aspects of evolution for Singapore I will talk about today are: faster legs, stronger hearts, and wiser minds.

First, faster legs, which means how we make a living. Our post-colonial strategy of attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) remains relevant, but not enough. FDI has many more places to go to.

Many Asian economies are facing headwinds not because there is slower growth in China, but that a new division of labour is emerging in the world, emerging in Asia, and each economy is finding its footing in this new configuration.

For Singapore, I think we must know the markets around us intimately - traditions, customs, taste, language, habits, psychology. It is now necessary to seek our fortunes in the region. This is why institutes of higher education are encouraging overseas internships for their students. We must be able to understand, bridge, operate across different cultures. We must have depth in our know-how and skills.

The next area of evolution - stronger hearts - refers to our resolve to define Singapore and our national identity.

Our identity is not merely derived by a legal fiat that pronounced everyone "Singaporean". There is richness in the identity, drawn from our diversity, our ancestry and cultural origins.

This is why it is critical we make - and continue to make - great effort in living together, side by side, to understand and appreciate each other, and build even larger common spaces. As MPs, we knocked on the doors of many HDB units. Just within one block, I stood before homes with Quran verses, crucifixes, joss stick urns, statues of Ganesh fixed around the front doors. Nowhere in the world can we find this.

Even as we continue to develop physically, we must take pride and care to preserve special buildings, our art pieces, historical artefacts, and our beautiful old trees that provide glimpses into our soul. More young Singaporeans are curious about the paths we have travelled, interested in our history, and proud of it. We should celebrate this because this is a new generation trying to discover its sense of self.

The third area of evolution is wiser minds: the way we make decisions. I have vivid memories of conversations in my family, when I was a child, when we were living in our little flat in Bukit Ho Swee. Getting demerit points for bad driving or a summons for late utilities payment were major family affairs involving family conferences. Inevitably, some auntie of mine would say there was no point in appealing because "the Government operate 'law by law' ". As a kid, I hardly knew any English, but even then I know that that made no grammatical sense. But gradually, I realised it means that rules are consistently applied, with no quarter given.

Similarly, throughout the government administrative system, decisions are often made by strict adherence to rules and criteria, or comparing scores and numbers. We allocate school places by PSLE T-scores and aggregate scores, and award tenders at the lowest price if we are buying - or highest price if we are selling.

At a time where our nation was nascent, certainty of rules and consistency in application were critical. It is an approach that leaves little or no room for personal favours, and hence no scope for corruption.

We must continue to emphasise integrity and stand firm against corruption. But we must also exercise judgment and discretion. This is because the world is now too complex to be reduced to rules and numbers. Rules are made for man, not man for rules. Abiding by rules is part of the standard operating procedure but so, too, must be the exercise of judgment.

There is also the risk that we excessively view ourselves in numerical terms - whether it is scores or rankings. What we need is a clear focus on what truly matters - the worth of an individual, the standing of institutions, of people, of country, which can be captured only in part by numbers.

We are already seeing greater exercise of judgment today.

One big caveat - judgment and discretion sounds good but can cause great discomfort because when there is no comfort in numbers, there is always the fear that the system is not transparent and, therefore, unfair. But relying on one number to make decisions when life is so complex cannot be fair, cannot be just. A well-calibrated, greater exercise of judgment must permeate throughout our system.

Exercising human judgment does not mean we simply use our gut, or bend rules willy-nilly. Good judgment is exercised through training, years of experience, and assumption of accountability. This is far more difficult - but far superior - than simply sticking to rules and numbers.

If we see the world as a living habitat, and Singapore as a living and dynamic creature, then we have to consider nation-building in evolutionary terms. Sometimes, what we need are not billion-dollar schemes but, perhaps, new survival traits to adapt to a more complex and competitive environment.

No comments:

Post a Comment