Friday 16 August 2013

Policy changes not knee-jerk or populist, says Heng Swee Keat

Policy shifts coming out of dialogues will not sacrifice strategic thinking
By Rachel Chang, The Straits Times, 15 Aug 2013

NOW that a year-long national conversation involving some 50,000 Singaporeans has drawn to a close, the man in charge wants to dispel a few myths about the mass engagement exercise.

The first is that Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) dialogues were a "major meet-the-people session", with the Government collating a wish list and then giving people what they want, said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat in an interview this week.

Not so. The OSC-influenced policy shifts to be unveiled at Sunday's National Day Rally, he emphasised, will not sacrifice strategic thinking for the sake of showing empathy and responsiveness.

The Prime Minister is widely expected to announce more state support for health-care costs and housing affordability. Tweaks to the Primary School Leaving Examination will also be announced.

These changes are not knee-jerk, populist policymaking, Mr Heng said. Rather, they stem from a recognition of the stress on Singaporeans arising from the rapidly changing external environment and ageing demographic.

Reflecting on the process in a final interview with The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao, the OSC chief also said participants in the more than 660 dialogues did not come with just complaints and demands for handouts.

Rather, they largely exhibited a sense of personal responsibility. An example was a suggestion for medical insurance to be "front-loaded" so people pay higher premiums when young for adequate coverage later. This came from a session with university students, he said, evincing forward-thinking and personal responsibility.

He said OSC participants' desire for more assurance in health care and housing was understandable, given global changes and the greying population. "When you think about how Singaporeans have had to adapt and adjust over the past 15 years, it is quite understandable why they feel that this has become a much more competitive, stressful world," he said.

Similarly, the ageing population has sharpened concerns over eldercare and health-care costs. This was why the Government decided the State must bear a bigger portion of health-care costs.

Mr Heng rejected suggestions that the OSC has influenced the Government to move leftward on the ideological spectrum towards accepting a far bigger role for the State in social assistance and levelling the playing field. He said the People's Action Party Government has always balanced growth with equity, as the founding leaders were determined to share the fruits of progress, especially through rising property wealth.

While acknowledging that it was inevitable that the OSC's policy outcomes would get the most attention, Mr Heng tried to direct attention to the broader, intangible impact of the exercise.

It has allowed citizens to appreciate one another's perspectives, put their own in a wider context, and "build a common space".

He added: "As our society becomes more diverse, it is even more important for us to create that common space." This space must rest on a thick layer of trust between the Government and the people, and between different groups of citizens, which can endure amid disagreement, he said.

Racial and religious differences among earlier Singaporeans were overcome because of "great pains and efforts to forge a common space and a common understanding", he noted. As a platform for "meaningful and respectful conversations", he said the OSC has tried to broaden that common space for a new generation.


When you think about how Singaporeans have had to adapt and adjust over the past 15 years, it is quite understandable why they feel that this has become a much more competitive, stressful world. And then when we juxtapose that against our ageing demographics, it is quite understandable the concerns about our elderly have also grown.


I would not characterise (the OSC-influenced policies) as an ideological shift. The founding generation of leaders has made it very clear that you need both growth and equity... We are probably one of the very few, if not the only, nation where (property) wealth is so widely shared among Singaporeans, and that's the reason why we have far fewer tycoons than many developing economies.


The OSC is not about collation of a wish list. And then the Government responding to each and every one, because it's a very long list of ideas which we collected. And some of these ideas contradict each other. It's a process for citizens to come together and appreciate each other's perspectives and then try and build that common space.


I would not characterise it as the Government giving people what they want. I don't think the basic stance of the Government has changed, which is that leadership is about being strategic and forward-looking, and also being empathetic and responsive... That careful balancing must always be a feature of our leadership.

- Education Minister Heng Swee Keat

Heng Swee Keat on...


THE diversity of aspirations of young Singaporeans today both cheers and worries Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) chief Heng Swee Keat.

He recalls sessions where he asked students what they want to be when they grow up. Their answers involve "terms which I am completely unfamiliar with", he said.

They want to be sound artists, fashion photographers and animation character developers - a wide range of jobs reflecting the evolving nature of the Singapore economy and the exposure children now get, he said.

But while he feels cheered by the different pathways and passions on display, it worries him. "Unless we are able to create opportunities, many of our young people are going to be disappointed," he added.

This is not a challenge the Education Ministry can meet on its own, but will require a whole-of-government approach to building an economy that can accommodate the aspirations of the workforce of the future.

- THE OSC dialogues often reveal to Mr Heng gaps between what the Government thinks it is doing and what people perceive it to be doing.

In the education dialogues, he was struck by the wide gap between what schools think they are doing - to develop every child to the best of his ability - and what parents perceive to be going on in schools.

"Unless we bridge that gap, we will always have a problem in terms of how parents perceive education," he said. "And that's why we decided to expand quite significantly the engagement of parents."

Such a perception gap has been written about in Europe and the United States. It is known as the "40-year gap" because parents with children in primary school attended primary school 40 years ago.

"At the same time, our educators are trying to see how we can prepare the Primary 1 child for life, 40 years hence. So you actually have two 40-year gaps to cross," he said.
- ANOTHER worrying gap is in health care. Participants at times decried the system as unaffordable, but when Mr Heng asked if they knew of schemes to defray costs, like the Community Health Assist Scheme (CHAS), they did not.

CHAS gives middle- and low-income Singaporeans subsidised treatment from private general practitioners and dentists, and access to some brand-name drugs for half the price. "Therefore, one big takeaway I have is that the same things have to be repeated over and over again and we really need to do a better job of reaching out to fellow Singaporeans whenever we have important policy changes," he said.

Frank talk, now time for trade-offs
Editorial, The Straits Times, 15 Aug 2013

THERE was a healthy mix of material and higher expectations that surfaced in the year-long Our Singapore Conversation (OSC), an exercise which has just ended. Moving beyond facts, figures and logical assumptions that have long been the staple of public policy, the OSC was an attempt to ask Singaporeans what they actually feel and want for themselves and their children. The need for a national conversation might crop up at different points in a nation's life - for example, it was the existential issue of independence that sparked such an exercise in Scotland a few years ago. Here, it arose out of a sense that there was a need to take bearings and set directions.

Taking the pulse of diverse groups is quite different from picking their brains to elicit policy options. At this juncture, it was necessary to first probe and validate the core aspirations of people. These, as one would expect, ranged from the desire to make a good living, and the assurance that housing, health care and public transport would be affordable; to the search for a life of purpose in a society anchored in common values and bound by abiding trust.

Admittedly, the "soft" nature of the findings might prompt some to ask whether Singaporeans have grown too ensconced in comfort zones to remember the hard trade-offs made decades ago. These may arise when no possible set of policy choices can deliver ideal outcomes in all areas and please everyone alike. For example, treating public housing flats as homes first and then assets would be in keeping with the original purpose of the HDB. However, going too far down this road might leave today's home owners with less capital if they wish to upgrade tomorrow. Similarly, a strong push for green and heritage spaces over infrastructural development could result in congestion that might raise the car usage and ownership charges.

Certainly, these are issues that will have to be tackled when substantive policy options are drafted. The conversation has underscored key public concerns and fed into other discussions like defining success and meritocracy, and the values and structures of education. Now comes the hard part: helping people to be realistic in matching expectations with the reality of available resources and upcoming challenges, and in assessing concrete policy changes.

No doubt, many will be looking to see how their particular concerns are addressed when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivers his National Day Rally speech on Sunday. As the merits of these are debated, Singaporeans should show that they have heard one another, and have a better understanding of the conflicting interests to be reconciled.

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