Sunday 15 December 2013

Lawrence Wong: To be a fair, just society that is also sustainable

He had a key role in writing the new resolution that the People's Action Party adopted this week which stressed its democratic socialist ideals and desire for an open and compassionate meritocracy. Acting Minister of Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong tells Rachel Chang that the party is not shifting leftward under pressure, but adapting its founding ideals to new circumstances.
The Straits Times, 14 Dec 2013

We get activists, even seasoned ones, asking: "The first generation of activists was fighting for independence. The next was about bringing Singapore from Third World to First. Today, we are mature, what is our cause? What does the PAP stand for?"

It's a valid question, which requires reflection on what are our values, objectives. Certainly, the external and domestic environment has changed, our political environment has become more contested. It's a good time to reflect and have a clearer resolution of what we stand for. Now when people ask, we can be very clear - we stand for our democratic socialist ideals, a Singaporean Singapore, an open and compassionate meritocracy, a fair and just society and a democracy of deeds.

Don't people usually find out what the party stands for before joining it? If activists ask this question, that seems to have things in reverse.

Not that it's reversed, but every now and then, you need some fundamental re-examination. We may have known what we stood for in the past, maybe it was "Third World to First". Or "Swiss standard of living". It was very clear. But now we have arrived at this stage, what is the next phase?

The last time the PAP adopted a resolution was in 1988, also after an electoral setback. Then, the national vote share dropped 13 percentage points. This history makes party resolutions seem like a reaction to losing votes.

When you do face challenges, it's always a good opportunity to get people to sit down and say, let's reflect, and see how these challenges can be turned into opportunities. When everything is hunky- dory, people are not always in the mood to do that. Part of it is just, at points of crises, in every organisation, political or otherwise, that's frequently a good opportunity to rally people and ask, are we on the right track? I don't see this as unique or reactive.

I wouldn't call the electoral setback a catalyst. The changing external environment is posing challenges regardless of politics and GE 2011. Therefore, at the national level we had the fundamental review of politics - the Our Singapore Conversation exercise. So at the party level it's the same thing.

In the past, the PAP set the vision with some of the lines you've mentioned. This time, some believe the shifts are concessions extracted by a more assertive public.

It's not so much concessions that have been extracted or moving under pressure, but a reflection of where we are in terms of our development.

People say you are shifting left. But if you look at it, we've always been a party that's a democratic socialist party. Our view has always been to have a fair and just society. It's become more challenging now because of external factors like globalisation and technological advances, but also because our population is ageing.

Given this phase, we are shifting the focus and recognising that, because of where we are today, the Government has to do more to uphold the same ideals of a fair and just society.

Some feel that this is too little, too late. Income inequality first started to grow in the late 1990s. Why did this decisive shift take so long to come?

Whether we should have done it earlier, it's always easy to see with 20/20 hindsight.

You don't want to swing to the other extreme. It's always a judgment call. If you swing too far too quickly, then what about the responsibility part of the equation? To ensure this is not just for one or two electoral terms but generations?

That is the challenge. We want our fair and just society to also be sustainable. It's not that we do little (social assistance) because ideologically we are against (it). It's because we want to make sure that whatever we do maintains our social ideals in a way that's fair for future generations.

That's not easy to do, because when people talk about a fair and just society, they immediately relate that to their present-day circumstances. For the Government and governing party, we want to do that across generations.

What we can do for the people (immediately) is provide flexible and responsive assistance from the network of PAP branches. (Minister of Social and Family Development Chan) Chun Sing talked about his kueh lapis of social assistance, that has 18 layers. In many ways, the party provides a 19th layer of support that is more localised.

Do you think this new resolution can be a rallying cry or the heart of the social compact like taglines in the past were?

For PAP activists, yes, this can distil what the party stands for.

For the public at large, it's beyond the resolution. We need to think through what's a good package of programmes that reflects our ideals. That's a work in progress.

The resolution needs to be translated into concrete action. If you're asking if the resolution is able to restore or strengthen the sense of confidence or trust in the Government, it's certainly important because you need to start with that, but it's not going to be the solution on its own.

You won't find a tagline in the resolution that is like, for example, Swiss standard of living.

Partly that was a communications exercise, but it's more than that, it reflects the fact that it's more difficult now to describe where you're heading.

It's a more complex environment now and the population is more diverse. It's not such a straightforward exercise for any organisation to define a national narrative that's compelling and attractive. That's something we have to continuously try to engage in. One example is the National Conversation.

Was there a story or a tagline you could easily pull together and market after that whole exercise? It's much more difficult to pull together a single narrative that captures the imagination the way it used to.

For that matter, one has to ask whether, truly, did those taglines really resonate so strongly at that time? We tend to look at the past with sentimental value and say, those were the lines that worked. But was it the tagline really?

Not the tagline, but the vision.

We do not have the same sense of shared experience now. It was very much the context that people grew up in and the shared experiences they had that helped shaped our vision together of what we want to achieve in the future.

What have you had to give up in your personal life since entering politics?

It's not about giving up, but the quality of time spent is reduced and that's the compromise.

Recently, it sort of hit home because my dad had a major heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery. He spent a month in hospital and is still in community hospital doing physiotherapy. I can't go to the hospital as often as I want.

Are you dating? (Mr Wong is the only single man in Cabinet.)

I won't answer that question, because it's personal!

What has made you feel that this is all worth it?

It's not so much about whether it's worth it or not. I decided this is a worthy cause and I'm happy with it and at peace with myself. I knew there would be compromises made and having made the choice, indeed it's everything I expected it to be.

Highlights: There are policy parts I'm more involved in as a minister than I could have been as a civil servant. The political part of seeing residents' lives change because of initiatives I could put in place - that's very rewarding.

What's for supper

BGain221 coffee shop Block 221 Boon Lay Place
- Indian rojak: $5.60
- Kopi-c: $1.10
- Milo: $1.20
- Total: $7.90


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