Tuesday 13 August 2013

S'pore must change to avert crisis: ESM Goh

He says some policies need overhaul; Govt and people must reinforce trust
By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 12 Aug 2013

SINGAPORE is at a turning point and needs to change to avert a mid-life crisis, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said yesterday, in a speech that also laid out the constraints ahead and the need for trust between the state and citizens.

Some policies which served Singapore well before need an update or overhaul amid a more competitive global landscape, and the "even greater" domestic challenges of slower economic growth, an ageing population and a younger generation with higher expectations.

A new social compact between the Government and the people needs to be forged, he told guests at a National Day Dinner in his Marine Parade constituency.

"Otherwise, I fear that Singapore will begin to go downhill," he added starkly.

Political leaders have already begun reviewing and improving policies on issues that cause the most anxiety.

He cited three examples: health-care costs, keeping flats affordable and ensuring that Singaporeans have access to good jobs. These were the top concerns among Singaporeans across most income groups, in a survey conducted as part of the recently ended Our Singapore Conversation.

Mr Goh's comments on the pressing need for change were made three days after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his National Day message that the Government will play a bigger role to build a fair and just society and help everyone succeed.

It also comes a week ahead of Mr Lee's National Day Rally speech, where he will announce changes to health care, housing and the education policy. One expected announcement involves help for the pioneer generation's medical bills.

"It's going to be an important National Day Rally which sets out the agenda for the coming years," said Mr Goh. Even as policies are tweaked, what must also evolve is the way Singapore's leaders govern, he added.

Governance today is not just about solving problems in a "practical, ruthlessly efficient, bureaucratic way", but about winning hearts rather than just arguments.

The former prime minister likened the government to an architect designing a common home, adding that individuals have to play their part.

"To build our common home together, we need to reinforce our trust in each other.

"Singaporeans must... support the Government in areas that will ensure Singapore's long-term success, even if it involves certain sacrifices sometimes."

The "crucial ingredient" of trust was also a key plank of Education Minister and Our Singapore Conversation chairman Heng Swee Keat's speech at an event on Tuesday.

Mr Goh said it is important that citizens recapture the ruggedness and can-do spirit of earlier generations.

He related an anecdote of how a resident asked his town council officials to go to her house to kill two cockroaches from the rubbish chute, drawing laughter from his audience. "This is hardly the resilience we are advocating," he said.

Whether Singapore can change and adapt, he told the crowd in Mandarin, will decide whether it celebrates its golden jubilee or is trapped in a mid-life crisis in 2015.


In two years’ time, Singapore will be 50 years old. We have progressed far as a country but we seem to be trapped in a mid-life crisis. I say this because according to some surveys, Singaporeans are amongst the world’s wealthiest but are also the most pessimistic.

Changing to deal with new complexities

We are now at an inflexion point of our development as a society. I dare say that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his Cabinet are having a tougher time governing Singapore than Mr Lee Kuan Yew and I had. And it is not going to get easier.

This is because today’s external environment is more complex, competitive, and uncertain than in the past. Our region will be affected by how US-China relations develop. The growing prominence of major emerging economies, tension in North-east Asia and whether ASEAN can integrate and stay relevant are only some of the major external challenges that will affect us. On the economic front, before, we could make a good living as an entrepot port and by manufacturing low-valued goods like shoes, tyres and TV sets. Now, we have to compete harder against the whole world for jobs, investments and markets.

But our domestic challenges are even greater. They include: rising costs of living; slower economic growth; aging population; not having enough babies; a shrinking Singaporean population from 2030; continued high reliance on foreign workers and new immigrants; a more diverse and less cohesive population; and a better educated younger generation with higher expectations of life.

How should we as a government and people respond to these challenges and avert a mid-life crisis?

Simply put, we need to write a new and inspiring chapter of the Singapore Story. Some policies and programmes that had served us well in the past need updating, or maybe even an overhaul, to ensure that they continue to serve their intended purposes. A new social compact between the people and the government will also have to be forged. Otherwise, I fear that Singapore will begin to go downhill.

The government has already begun reviewing and improving policies on issues that cause the most anxiety to Singaporeans. I shall single out a few key areas.

First, jobs. This is most crucial for Singaporeans. The government is trying to ensure that growth is inclusive, and the workplace progressive; this means ensuring that Singaporeans have access to good jobs. To help low-wage workers, the government has widened the coverage of Workfare this year. As we restructure our economy to be less reliant on foreign workers and to ensure sustainable growth, the government has promised to find ways to help affected workers, including PMETs, as well as the SMEs. In particular, we have to continue trying to raise the wages of the lower income workers.

Second, it is good that the government has pledged to make HDB flats affordable. I consider this as a very big commitment of the government. It will go a long way to help young Singaporeans plan for the future and start a family.

The third area is in the affordability of healthcare. The government is trying to lessen our anxiety over medical costs as we grow old. Medical costs are indeed a burden, not just for the old but for their children as well. Many Singaporeans dread the prospect of being stricken by serious, chronic illnesses, even if they lead healthy lifestyles. While the future old will have more Medisave and insurance to help pay for their medical needs, the current old – the pioneer generation that built the country – are less able to cope. I am glad that the Ministry of Health is conducting a comprehensive review of the healthcare financing and delivery framework.

These are all reflected in the themes that arose from the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) process. I am sure that PM will provide an update and lay out plans for these and other areas next week, during his National Day Rally. I hope that Singaporeans will deliberate on the changes to be implemented, and support the government’s agenda to chart a new and exciting course for the country.

Strengthening our common home together

For me, the government is like an architect designing and building a common house for all Singaporeans. But a house is only a physical structure and as we all know, a house is not a home. Singaporeans look to the government to build this home, when in fact the government cannot build it alone. The reason is simple. A home is about relationships, love, warmth, care and security between the occupants. We as individuals will have to build this home along with the government.

Politics is more pluralistic in Singapore today. People want more freedom to choose their lifestyles, and to have a say on policies and influence decisions in their favour. This is not wrong and we see this in every family too. The question is: how do we align our common interests while having different opinions; how do we express our differences without impairing the progress of home-building; how do we stay united as a family in the same home while retaining our individualism?

Both the government and citizens have to play their part. In my Chinese speech, I said that it is good that the government is changing its approach in governance. To solve problems in a practical, ruthlessly efficient bureaucratic way is not enough anymore. The government must also win the hearts of the people. It has to look at problems from the people’s perspective, and help them in a fair and realistic way, even while it keeps an eye on the big picture and continues to govern in the collective interest.

Citizens are entitled, and indeed, encouraged to give their views and suggest improvements where the government can do better. But we must not pile unrealistic demands on the government. It is not in the country’s long-term interests if the government does not have the time and political space to plan and think strategically and long term for Singapore. Singapore had managed to do well in the first few decades of our independence primarily because of our ability to think ahead, and put in place long-term policies that benefitted the country, even when it meant some short-term pain. We must not lose this edge, especially at a time when the world around us is changing rapidly. We will all be worse off if the government of the day is chased from pillar to post, forced to apply band-aid solutions to complex problems or to flip-flop policies to stave off populist pressures.

I also hope that Singaporeans will become more resilient and self-reliant, even as the government does more to share their burdens. As a people, we need to develop these traits to meet unexpected challenges or shocks. Recently, our Marine Parade Town Council officials told me that one woman insisted that they go to her house to kill two cockroaches. She claimed that the cockroaches came from the rubbish chute and it was therefore the Town Council’s responsibility to deal with them! This is hardly the resilience we are advocating.

Be a rugged, can-do society

When I was in my early 20’s, I was struck by the phrase “rugged society” which then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew sought to build. We must not lose the drive, self-reliance and ruggedness of our parents and first generation leaders. Given our more complex environment, we must recapture that ruggedness and positive, can-do attitude.

This is fundamental. As a country, no one owes us the right to exist and to prosper. We should ask ourselves: what services and products can we produce that other countries, with more educated and hungrier workers cannot? Increasingly, our workers will be competing against robots and software that can do the jobs humans used to do, and much better, faster and cheaper. The government can provide a conducive environment to educate our young, train our workers, and help prepare Singaporeans for the rough world outside. But it cannot guarantee success or ensure a comfortable, sheltered life for individuals. For individuals to succeed, they must help themselves, making full use of the conducive environment which the government has created. The world will leave behind those who become complacent. If we as individuals do not face reality squarely and make the effort to do better ourselves, we risk becoming like the proverbial frog in water being boiled, slowly “cooked” by an increasingly competitive environment.

Reinforcing trust, moving mountains together

To build our common home together, we need to reinforce our trust in each other, and focus on challenges to our collective interests.

I can see that the government is doing its best to meet the hopes and aspirations of Singaporeans, while addressing their fears and anxieties. But Singaporeans must also support the government in areas that will ensure Singapore’s long term success, even if it involves certain sacrifices sometimes.

As a country, we must not get stuck in a mid-life crisis. Instead, we should seek to recapture that ruggedness, can-do spirit and sense of purpose which united our society. We must dare make fundamental changes to deal with the new global and domestic challenges. When we do that and when the hearts of government, community and individuals beat as one, we can move mountains!
Happy National Day.


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