Monday 31 March 2014

Seah Kian Peng: Paying more heed to the short-term humps in life

Marine Parade GRC MP Seah Kian Peng, 52, introduced the term "hyperopia" to Parliament early this month, when he devoted his Budget debate speech to warning of the dangers of being too far-sighted in policy planning. The two-term MP and Deputy Speaker in Parliament talks to Charissa Yong about striking the right balance, passionate Singaporeans, and how he is open to the idea of dipping into the reserves for the right reasons.
The Straits Times, 29 Mar 2014

Why is extreme long-term planning something that can be a weakness for Singapore?

Too much long-term planning is not good. Make no mistake, I'm not saying we should discard long-term planning.

But if we're overly weighted towards long-term planning, with not enough weight given to short-term goals and medium- term goals, I think the balance is not right. We're all human beings, you tell me the end point is there, but I need to go through shorter-term humps along the way. It's natural for me to worry about these humps.

I think for the present generation, they still look at the long term but I don't think they think so far ahead.

There's no right or wrong, it's just the way they are. We need to make sure we strike a right balance, and recognise that there are certain short-term (concerns).

In what ways have you seen young Singaporeans starting to think more short-term?

Anything that affects them first and the community second. And for that matter, me first, their family and extended family second, and the community third.

If you roll back the clock, I think the previous generation will think first of their family. But I think now, most will think "me" first.

People are so passionate about each of the things that matters to them. Very, very passionate! There are a myriad of issues: how we care for our planet, how we treat animals, amenities, what are we doing for the elderly and the poor? That's a good thing, but at the same time, it also means there is a lot more tension... fault lines open up and this creates a more contentious society.

How can Singapore's policy planning be more short-term?

For example, a very hot issue is overcrowding in transport. We'll be a lot more interconnected with all the new MRT lines coming up... which is a long-term project, 10 to 20 years down the road. But what do we do in the short term?

The Government is funding big bucks (with the $1.1 billion Bus Service Enhancement Programme) for the benefit of commuters in the immediate short term. So these are precisely the things I talk about. We're actually taking money out of the Budget.

You are open to the idea of using the national reserves for some of these programmes to help people in the short term?

I see the current demographic changes of an ageing population, coupled with the low total fertility rate, as danger signs of a crisis in the making. And if you see that coming, are there things that we can do in the short term, while addressing these long-term implications? We have said many times, the reserves are for rainy days, and I consider this as a rainy day in the making.

I support dipping into the reserves for these purposes. We are in a good position to do so. You want to be able to handle problems when you are strong, not weak. You don't want to handle crises when you have no choice.

Our reserves are strong. That doesn't mean we fritter them away. I'm just saying we should entertain this kind of thought.

How would maybe using more of the reserves help us to cope with this demographic crisis?

As it is now, we're short of certain things. Nursing homes, for one, even step-down (care) facilities. We're building more hospitals and community hospitals, but we need to accelerate some of these. Beyond facilities, we also need people. All these will require a major rethink of how to operationalise and execute things, and it will definitely cost some money.

Why did you propose the Government more freely fund ideas from the community?

I see a lot more young people now are very passionate about many social causes like caring about our planet, and that's a very good sign. I talked about giving more space to the community and people, because no one has a monopoly of knowledge and ideas. Good ideas can come from anyone - from groups, individuals and certainly the community.

In your speech, you also mentioned that there could be more Singaporean academics in context-sensitive subjects like political science.

A few months back, I had asked a question in Parliament and was a bit shocked to find out that a significant majority (18 out of 25) of the National University of Singapore's political science faculty members are not from Singapore.

This is a subject I thought needed more locals - people who have been through it here, who can understand all the nuances, who have gone through the experiences themselves.

It goes back to what we want our Singapore to be. What we want our political system to be like, what we want our values to be, must be defined by locals, not non-Singaporean academics.

What do you consider your biggest achievement as chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Social and Family Development?

I don't have a scorecard. But one of the highlights is when we pushed for the amendments to the Maintenance of Parents Act (in 2010) as a team (which encouraged elderly parents and children to resolve their problems with each other through conciliation, and to turn to a tribunal to claim maintenance only as a last resort).

The statistics show that the outcomes are in line with what we set out to do so.

First, the number of cases being heard at the tribunal is down. Second, most of the cases are being settled at the conciliation stage. There is a lot of satisfaction when you see that the results are what you and your team intended.

Is there any area you feel you could have done a bit more in?

If anything, it's paternity leave (married citizen fathers were granted seven days last year). I asked for it (in Parliament) for six years in a row since 2007.

Am I disappointed it took us six years? I'm just glad that now fathers have it. I focus on the glass being half-full. I don't want to spend an inordinate amount of time reflecting on the ifs or buts.

You're known for your gelled-back hair. What gel do you use and why?

The brand doesn't matter, I just need a gel that is strong. I need it because my hair is super soft. Someone told me it's the type that ladies will like. But if I don't have gel, there's really no form to my hair and it'll be just all over the place. So it's an advantage and disadvantage. I can't just wake up and go. Those who sell gel will be quite happy with me because I do use a fair bit.

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