Saturday 16 February 2013

Lawrence Wong: Campaign country no more?

Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong wants people to shape their own social norms. He tells Susan Long his plans.
The Straits Times, 15 Feb 2013

HIS is known as the Ministry of Happiness. It does not have quantifiable targets, yet its goals are possibly the loftiest. If it does its job well, its effects will be palpably felt for years to come.

From the get-go, Mr Lawrence Wong, 40, the new Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, charged with engaging Singaporeans through the arts and sports, strengthening community bonds and promoting volunteerism and philanthropy, admits he has trouble convincing Singaporeans that the Government cares about happiness.

The charge he hears all the time is that the Government cares only about economic indicators and the gross domestic product.

In fact, the pursuit of happiness is embedded within the Government's objectives, he says, adding: "It's not as though there is an aversion to happiness, because it's in our Pledge to achieve 'happiness, prosperity and progress' for our nation.

"So it's part of the job of Government and it's embedded within the remit of every ministry and it reflects in how we measure outcomes."

Case in point: the Singapore Public Sector Outcomes Review (SPOR) issued every two years, which takes stock of how Singapore has fared in key areas of national interest.

But isn't this tracked to find out the efficacy of policies rather than societal satisfaction levels? Shouldn't there be a Singapore Happiness Index to measure the latter?

He demurs. Having studied various well-being indices compiled wordwide, he feels they are at "best a crude proxy". "What's the value of trying to distil something so complex and subjective into one index? Views can differ but personally I think it will be a simplification," he says evenly.

But it remains a "continuous work in progress" to translate happiness into public policy, understand what matters most to Singaporeans and find ways to measure outcomes related to that. "If we do that, our policies will be better targeted, more focused and indeed lead to better well-being."

But even if he manages to convince Singaporeans that happiness is a national goal, his bigger challenge is getting them to aspire to a higher-minded, others-centred notion of happiness.

"To me personally, happiness is a state of mind, it's not a destination. It's about how you choose, through your actions, to care for others and serve a higher calling. To think of happiness as an end point and say 'OK, if I get this, I will be happy', there's no end to it. Once you get there, you will want something else too. Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw used to say, a lifetime of happiness would be hell on earth.

"The question is: Is happiness the end or a means to an end?"

In 2008, he spent a week trekking in Bhutan, which famously keeps score by its Gross National Happiness Index, and found its people's conception of happiness vastly different from that of Westerners. "It's more about relationships with people and community, something bigger than yourself," he says, adding that he personally identifies with that.

What's absorbing him is how to arrest Singapore's eroding kampung spirit, or social capital, today. "Our forefathers had it because they went through communal strife, communist struggle and independence together. I worry whether we can still have that same sense of solidarity," he says.

Four months into the job, he's decided how he's not going to do it: no top-down legislation, campaigns or National Education. What he plans to use are the arts, sports, youths and volunteerism, which all fall under his ministry's ambit, to rally people and improve their happiness quotient.

Example: Top up funding to the National Youth Endowment Fund to encourage more young people to initiate their own activities which build social capital.

Last National Day, a group of 300 young Singaporeans, led by social enterprise Thought Collective, fanned out on MRT trains, distributing badges to encourage commuters to give up their seats to those who need them more.

He wants to enlist more groups to shape their own positive social norms. He notes that in Japan, signs for fines are not needed. Anyone who litters will be asked by the locals to pick it up. "People are minded to remind one another, including visitors, that this is our space, these are our social norms and we care about them. We should do more of that."

For those who feel adrift here, his ministry will do more to preserve the Singapore identity, spirit and traditions that have been chipped away by the pace of change and immigration. He grew up with vivid memories of watching the Malaysia Cup at the National Stadium and is counting on sports to bring Singaporeans together, like when the Lions won the Suzuki Cup recently.

He wants to bring art and heritage closer to the people, by opening more community museums and making them more "accessible, inclusive and participatory". "They are now a bit didactic, you stand there and read the story board from A to Z. It can be a bit intimidating and aloof," he notes.

In the works are more heritage trails and more markers of "who we are and where we came from", like in cities such as Boston. For example, Yew Tee - which means oil pond in Teochew - was named after the oil stored there during the Japanese Occupation, a piece of historical trivia which could be reflected, say, with an art piece in the town centre.

Rallying people together in this bottom-up way "will take longer and be messier in approach", he says. "But at least we're starting to do something, which is more than we've had before."

Mrs Wong's son

HIS growing up years were placid - with a few ripples. At nine, he and his brother, who is two years older, had just returned home from a trip to the neighbourhood coffee shop when two knife-wielding robbers pounced on them at the door, tied them up and emptied out their Marine Parade five-room flat.

The cerebral second son of a roofing material sales executive and teacher spent most of his weekends in church, where he was a guitar-strumming worship leader who led the youth fellowship and organised church camps, or in the library, buried in books.

He went to Haig Boys' School, where he was known as "Mrs Wong's son", after his mother who taught there. Whenever he passed up a shoddy piece of homework, he was rapped sharply on the knuckles, like everyone else.

He and his brother (now an ae-rospace engineer) were among the school's top boys but it simply "never crossed our minds" to go anywhere else but Tanjong Katong Secondary next door, then Victoria Junior College. He got his bachelor's and master's degrees in Economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor on a government scholarship.

He later set up a youth mentoring initiative, called PromiseWorks, with friends in 2002, to help neighbourhood school kids fulfil their potential.

In 1997, he had become an economist at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, running forecasting models. He considered venturing out into the private sector to do the same thing, "possibly with better remuneration". But work got more engaging after he moved to the Ministry of Finance and was absorbed in 2003 into the Administrative Service, about five years after his peers.

Then, at the Health Ministry, he helped roll out MediShield reforms to provide better coverage of large hospital bills. That was followed by 31/2 years as principal private secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, where he saw up close the tough challenges of government. In 2009, he became chief executive of the Energy Market Authority, where he explored more sustainable energy options, secured new gas contracts for Singapore and spearheaded the building of the country's first liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal facility.

Mr Bob Tan, 60, chairman of the board of SLNG Corporation, credits his "persuasive powers" and "uncanny ability to forge consensus" with getting the fraught LNG project off the ground.

His former colleague Donald Low, 39, now a senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School Of Public Policy, says Mr Wong has always been public service-oriented. "He is patient, listens hard, and connects well with people. He's also intellectually honest and welcomes vigorous debate."

Most eligible man

WHEN Mr Wong decided to run for office in the 2011 General Election, he was just months shy of qualifying for his pension - given to those who have completed 15 years there - when he resigned from the Administrative Service.

On what motivates him, Mr Wong, who was a Methodist lay leader, attributes it to his faith and upbringing. "I grew up with a strong sense of wanting to be responsible, to stay true to my word and do my best, such that at the end of the day, I can say that I've fought the good fight, run a good race and kept the faith."

He factored in the fact that his personal life, not without setbacks, would be open to scrutiny. He married at 28 and divorced "amicably" after three years due to "incompatibility". His ex-wife has since remarried.

The most eligible man in the Cabinet, who plays recreational golf (handicap 24) and tennis and sings for fun, says he is "still open" to marriage. He would like to settle down and have a family, "though it is more difficult, given current circumstances".

After he came in on the winning team in West Coast GRC in the 2011 General Election, he has been put in charge of coordinating publicity for the People's Action Party. He has tried to centrally coordinate messaging and decentralise the job of reaching out to people. For the PAP, he's pushed its branches to be active on the ground on various platforms - Facebook, website, newsletters.

How will he know he is making headway? By the quality and tone of political discourse, he says.

He describes his ideal scenario: "As New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, 'Every-one's entitled to his opinion but not to his own facts.'

"I would like a situation where we have richer policy discourse, whether online or face-to-face, without resorting to attacking the other side.

"Even if we disagree on policies, it doesn't mean that one side is for Singaporeans and the other side is not. We can agree to disagree and have differences in policy approaches, and that's fine."

Lawrence Wong on...

Authentic engagement

"We used to do it with courtesy campaigns, which shaped some positive outcomes. Singa was a good icon to have and reminds us of what we did and where we came from. But today's approach must be different to fit expectations of a new generation. We cannot rely on slogans or propaganda. It must be authentic and honest engagement, which gives people a sense of purpose."

A delicate balancing act

"In the past, the Government could look beyond the short-term electoral cycle and concentrate on long-term planning. Today requires a delicate balancing act of addressing immediate issues and long-term perspectives. During the recent by-election, there were criticisms about the privatisation of power plants and the impact on utility bills. Let's say we go back and superimpose today's political context in the time when we privatised, it would have been very difficult. If you ask me: Are we better off today as a nation? I would say definitely, yes; the efficiency gains are there for all to see. My worry is, can we make that kind of decision any more today?"

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