Friday, 7 September 2012

DPM Tharman at NTU Ministerial Forum 2012

Inclusive growth 'needs govt hand'
Market forces will only widen Singapore's wealth gap, says Tharman
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 6 Sep 2012

DEPUTY Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam yesterday set out the case for an activist government whose policies are "tilted in favour of those with less".

Singapore's social compact cannot be left to market forces because these will only widen disparities in wealth and income, he told 750 Nanyang Technological University students last night.

Here in Singapore, for example, Mr Tharman said, the bottom fifth workers have not seen any real increase in incomes in the last decade.

He delivered a frank assessment that "the lesson we are learning in the world is that inclusive growth does not come naturally". "Growth itself does not lift all boats, and certainly does not lift all boats equally."

To ensure in particular that those starting off with less have real opportunities to "lift up", what is required is "careful, sustained intervention, and a good dose of compassion".

In his speech, he drew out lessons for Singapore from the experiences of many countries in both the West and the East.

He highlighted that the shift towards more unequal societies was taking place even in countries like Finland and Sweden. Their Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, is not so different from Singapore's before government redistribution.

What Singapore needs is a balancing of two challenges, that of running a vibrant economy and producing a fair and just society for every generation. He outlined four components necessary to realise this.

First, an activist government "focused on social mobility and on guarding against extremes of wealth and income".

Early childhood education is a key area where government must try to boost children starting off from a disadvantaged background, he noted, and niches of excellence must be honed for those young adults who are not as academically inclined.

This feeds into the second component: a work culture that respects and rewards individuals fairly, and gives them chances to advance upwards based on merit, regardless of where they left the education system.

Thirdly, there must remain a strong belief in individual effort and responsibility. The erosion of this by the entrenchment of welfare systems in the West is what Singapore must learn not to repeat, he said.

Finally, a spirit of "community initiative and activism" must thrive, in which those who have succeeded take it upon themselves to give a hand to others who are still struggling.

In the dialogue that followed, Mr Tharman kept the student audience rapt with some bold pronouncements and a string of sharp one-liners.

In response to a question on the lack of Malays in senior positions in the SAF, he said the number has increased. "Singaporeans are basically increasingly Singaporean first at heart, in mind, and everything else. Let's make sure this continues to evolve, and be practical about it," he added.

When another undergraduate asked him about the stress young Singaporean children grapple with early in life, Mr Tharman expressed his belief that less differentiation and competition in the education system will come at a cost of less achievement - "but we must have the confidence, conviction, that it's still the right thing to do, and that people will be able to catch up later".

Children must have the space and time "to do other things, to interact, to be on the playing field three times a week... and even to daydream", he said.

To appreciative laughter, he added: "I spent a lot of time daydreaming when I was young, and I happen to think it was a rather good investment."

Singapore 'must avoid polarisation of politics'
At forum, DPM Tharman stresses need to maintain strong 'central core'
By Goh Chin Lian, The Straits Times, 6 Sep 2012

MORE than once last night, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam stressed the need for Singapore to maintain a strong central core and avoid at all cost the polarisation of politics seen elsewhere.

He reiterated the point after two university students asked him at a forum about Singapore's political scene and chances of survival.

The changing political atmosphere worried Mr Roger Teo, 24, a medical student at the National University of Singapore. He asked what could be done to get people to support unpopular policies, and not "pander to populist American-style politics".

Mr John Ng, a fourth-year chemistry major at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), wondered whether Singapore could defy the odds when almost no city-state had survived over 100 years.

Replying, Mr Tharman cited trends in the West.

Pointing to the United States, he said its experience shows it will get harder to maintain a social and political compact.

Turning to the Netherlands and Northern European societies, he noted that the middle ground in these once-cohesive welfare states has given way to the extremes of nationalism and racism.

"So, avoid at all cost a weakening of the centre in our society where everyone believes in a certain core - what it is to be Singaporean and what it is for Singapore to succeed. That's what we've got to try and maintain."

But in doing so, Singapore needs to overcome two challenges, he said at an annual dialogue organised by the NTU Students' Union, attended by 750 students.

One lies with the younger generation, who did not grow up with the same emotional memories as their elders, who saw their lives improve. But they too can develop such memories by getting involved in the community, he said.

The other challenge lies with the leadership, who must ensure sound social policies and economic strategies without pushing the burden to the next generation.

In the 50-minute session, a dozen students raised a broad range of issues, including further liberalisation of the mainstream media and the nation's public debt.

Mr Tharman sees a much freer debate of ideas in the mainstream media now compared with five years ago. "Should it go even further? I would say let's go further step by step but... keep the political centre and social centre in our society."

A new unknown is the impact of a weakening mainstream media with the rapid spread of online media. While online media can democratise discussion, would it dissipate views and opinions, or hold the centre together, he asked.

As for Singapore's public debt, which is 96 per cent of its gross domestic product, Mr Tharman, who is also Finance Minister, noted the Republic's top credit rating of AAA. This is because the debt is not from government spending, but from government securities, for developing depth in the financial markets or to be issued to the Central Provident Fund Board.

Borrowing proceeds from these securities are, in turn, invested abroad, he noted, adding that the Government's assets are substantially larger than its liabilities.




Meritocracy here should be continuous: Tharman
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 6 Sep 2012

THE kind of meritocracy Singapore must be is a "continuous" one that evaluates people throughout their lives, not one where "things are set" based on academic performance at a young age, said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam yesterday.

This approach requires a work culture with bridges and ladders for advancement in every job, regardless of where someone left the educational system, he told Nanyang Technological University students at a forum.

He has seen how it can be done, he said, by employers who look out for workers' strengths, groom them and let them move up from blue-collar jobs to broad areas of responsibility.

He cited two examples: Mr Zulkifle Jamal, 46, went from being a dispatch driver for logistics company UPS, to leading a team of more than 100 people as its Air Hub operations manager.

Mr Zulkifle declines to give his current salary but says it is 15 times his starting pay 24 years' ago.

Mr Max Ang, 34, left school after his N-level examinations and took a job as a driver with marine company HSL. After a series of courses, he is now one of HSL's marine piling superintendents and earns $3,700 a month - three times his starting pay.

They are ordinary Singaporeans, said Mr Tharman, "with an attitude". He praised the work cultures that paved the way for them to move up, despite their lack of qualifications.

"It's individual effort and aspirations, but it's also a system, a management culture, that grooms everyone that has the potential, regardless of what they start with."

This is important not just for the sake of an inclusive society, he said, but also to realise the Government's economic agenda of boosting productivity by training and upgrading every worker to contribute more.

Mr Tharman criticised systems in France and India, where there is a "perfect meritocracy at age 22", because the elite are determined in tests taken during young adulthood.

In India, civil servants in their 60s are still ranked according to their performance in the admissions examination for the administrative service, he said, adding: "It's remarkable."

Speaking to The Straits Times, both Mr Ang and Mr Zulkifle were adamant that despite slowing social mobility in Singapore, a lack of qualifications can still be overcome through hard work and by seizing opportunities.

For Mr Ang, whose father was a duck rice hawker, it boils down to "whether you want to do it, or you don't want to".

"If this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone," said Mr Zulkifle. "The one thing you need is the willingness to tell yourself what you are going to be in the next 10 years... If you don't get demoralised, you can get there."

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