Sunday 19 October 2014

Long-term policy issues must be studied objectively: Lawrence Wong at LKY School's 10th anniversary conference

This is an excerpt of a speech by Lawrence Wong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy's 10th anniversary conference yesterday where the book, The Big Ideas Of Lee Kuan Yew, was also launched.
The Straits Times, 18 Oct 2014

LOOKING back, one cannot help but be struck by the tremendous courage that former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his colleagues showed in the face of great adversity.

The sheer audacity of what they did was breathtaking - from deciding it was possible to have a formidable military, to creating a Garden City and cleaning up the Singapore River; from deciding to make Singapore self-sufficient in water, to deciding to take on the communists when they were in their 30s.

Mr Lee holds firm convictions, but he is also a pragmatist who sees the world as it is.

He had "big ideas" but he also knew when to adapt to realities.

As we move into Singapore's 50th anniversary of independence, our Golden Jubilee, it is timely to look at some of his important ideas.


ONE "Big Idea" is that small states are inherently vulnerable and require a strategy to survive. Mr Lee himself reminded us that "small countries have little power to alter the region, let alone the world. A small country must seek a maximum number of friends, while maintaining the freedom to be itself as a sovereign and independent nation".

In the era of the Cold War, Mr Lee and his colleagues practised this principle decisively in securing multilateral alliances, building ties with major powers and countering the communist threat on home ground. The struggle waged against the communists is an important reminder that there is no clean line dividing foreign and domestic order. This remains the case today.

The world is in flux and borders are more porous than ever. Events and conflicts far away can affect us. Take the situation in the Middle East, and the expansion of the ISIL threat (ISIL is also known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or ISIS).

Even if Singapore is not a direct target, foreign interests may be targeted. And we know that a handful of Singaporeans have journeyed to Syria to join the conflict there. So while the events and conflicts abroad may seem far removed from the daily lives of Singaporeans, they can easily fray the fabric of our society, and pose domestic threats to our national security. As a small country, we must always stay vigilant and keep looking outwards, because the changes in the external environment can have a big impact on us.

Sustainable development

A SECOND "Big Idea" is related to the first principle of security, and that is success, not just in the short term, but on a sustained, long-term basis. To survive as a small state, Singapore must make ourselves relevant; and to be relevant as a small state, we must make ourselves exceptional. So the success of Singapore is not a good-to-have, but an existential question. The world is far more competitive today than before. The rate of change has accelerated vastly. We need courage and fresh ideas to stay ahead of the curve.

The point is that we've not reached the limits of our potential as a nation. There is still much more to be done and new ground to conquer.

All this must be done with a view to maintaining a fair and just society, with equal opportunities for every Singaporean. Singapore was founded on democratic socialist ideals.

Mr Lee was against welfarism as a blunt instrument of redistributing wealth, and rightly so. But he recognised, and, indeed, passionately believed in, the necessity of a society in which "regardless of wealth and status, everyone has an equal opportunity to make the best of his potential".

In Singapore today, the Government is increasing social transfers, spending more, and strengthening our safety nets. So it's no longer an issue of whether the Government should or shouldn't spend more. We will be doing more.

The real issue is how best to spend the revenue that we get from taxes, in a fair and sustained manner. It's not so useful to think of the Government as a separate entity from the people, with its own source of funds, as we sometimes tend to do. Rather, government is about the things we decide to do together as a people. Through fiscal policy, we contribute money into a central pot through taxes and we spend that money to give expression to the shared values we wish to promote as a society.

Singaporeans must always have this motivation to try for themselves, with the promise of a better life, and with trust in a system that recognises the necessity and dignity of work and personal responsibility. This is the only sustainable and responsible way forward for Singapore.


THE third "Big Idea" is the need for an orderly society that functions in the best interests for all. Many countries aspire towards interracial and inter-faith harmony. But in Singapore this commitment to secular multiculturalism runs so deeply that it forms a part of our core national identity. We have always emphasised a common national identity, within which there are protected havens for different groups to live and practise their identities.

This rich diversity coupled with strong social cohesion is something precious that we must always cherish. It will not take very much to tear apart the trust and mutual respect that we have developed over the years.

This challenge has become greater for several reasons: the impact of globalisation and technological innovation, which is putting tremendous strain on the workplace; the ease in which radical propaganda and inflammatory remarks can circulate online; and the need for us to socialise new residents and migrants who have come to our shores.

These challenges are not unique to Singapore. Countries around the world are confronting very similar issues.

This is at least partly why we see the rise of populist movements everywhere, tapping on widespread social discontent, as well as nationalist and xenophobic sentiments, to mobilise the masses.

As a result, politics in many mature First World democracies is now more fractured, chaotic and unpredictable than it was just two or three decades ago.

We are not immune from these pressures in Singapore. In our population debate, for example, we had groups that called for "zero foreign worker growth" - it made for a good slogan, never mind the consequences it would have on the economy, local businesses, and more importantly Singaporean jobs. But opposition for the sake of opposition will not promote or strengthen our democracy.

Mr S. Rajaratnam once noted that it's easy to win attention by disagreeing with the Government. If the Government says "white", and you write letters or articles in the newspapers advocating "black", then your column will be read and you will be hailed at the next cocktail reception as an original and bold thinker. This was many years ago, but perhaps it still rings true today. But how does this sort of discourse help us in solving the real and vital problems affecting our nation?

This goes beyond partisan politics. It's about the kind of democracy we want to be, and that I hope we can be - a democracy of integrity, and a democracy of deeds, made up of an active citizenry who get involved in developing solutions for a better society.

As men and women of our academic and intellectual community, all of you play an important role in this effort. I appreciate your commentaries, including the ones where you disagree with the Government.

May I also strongly urge you to present the full complexities and trade-offs of the challenges that lie ahead for Singapore. There are many difficult long-term policy issues that need to be thoroughly and objectively explored: population, on immigration, on the income gap, or on social programmes.

A detailed exposition of the policy options needed to address these issues may not get as much publicity as arguments made by professional oppositionists. But it will go much further in strengthening our democracy of deeds.


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