Sunday, 18 December 2016

2016: A year of looking to the future

Six major events caused Singaporeans to ponder over the future and what it will bring
By David Chan, Published The Straits Times, 17 Dec 2016

As 2016 comes to a close, it is timely to reflect on the past 12 months, which I would summarise as "a future-focused year" - one filled with events and issues that made people ponder about their own future and that of the country.

It is useful to revisit the way we approached the key events and issues. After all, when it comes to thinking about the future, how we think is as important as what we think.

Let me highlight six major happenings which in my view led many Singaporeans to ask: "What might the future bring?", or "What might the future mean?"


The year started well with SGfuture, a series of dialogues for Singaporeans to share their hopes and ideas for the future. The exercise was government- facilitated but people-driven.

SGfuture is a ground-up and grounded action-oriented movement. People from all walks of life spoke up, shared ideas and came together in community-led projects to do something to make a positive difference to others and Singapore society at large.

Whether the project is encouraging Singaporeans to read regularly, teaching basic life-saving skills in emergencies, or building a dementia-friendly community, what people say and what they do come together. The ideas are translated to concrete actions that make a real impact on people's lives, both now and for their future.

This democracy of deeds and voices benefits the recipients, but it also has lasting positive effects on the givers of help. When people give their time, effort and resources, they experience personal meaning in helping others. They also become more grateful for their own circumstances as they encounter many others who are less fortunate.

As people come together to give, they influence one another with their altruistic acts and social innovation. So giving generates multiplier effects and builds strong communities.


In January, the newly-formed Committee on the Future Economy announced its key areas of work crucial to Singapore's future economic development. Throughout the year, the committee consulted diverse stakeholders, including unions and businesses, and involved experts from different disciplines and industries in various ways.

The committee will release its report early next year. The recommendations should put in perspective the current concerns with low economic growth and productivity, mismatch of skills and job requirements, and unemployment and underemployment.

How do the various industry transformation plans address aspirations of employees and businesses? Is the strategy, and the timeline required, to develop the skills of the Singaporean workforce aligned with the nature and pace of industry and technological changes?

What are the implications of the developments in infrastructure, connectivity and the smart nation initiative, including opportunities, positive multiplier effects and unintended negative consequences?

The committee's recommendations should involve robust strategies and realistic implementation to address these and other future-oriented issues.

Budget 2016 unveiled in March, and the subsequent parliamentary debate in April, highlighted the spirit of partnership for the future. The Government laid out its plans to make economic and social investments to transform Singapore's economy through enterprise and innovation, and to build a more caring and resilient society. The future-focused orientation of the fiscal strategy was evident in the details of the Budget.


Then came the sudden news of Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat's collapse from a stroke during a Cabinet meeting on May 12. He underwent neurosurgery, and remained under close monitoring in the intensive care unit until he was discharged six weeks later after a remarkable recovery.

His being struck down suddenly by illness caused anxiety among those who knew him personally, as well as nationally-shared public concern for his well-being. But the totally unexpected episode also led many to ask two future-focused questions.

One was the future of Singapore's national leadership, given that Mr Heng is a critical member of the fourth-generation leadership. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted the urgency of succession planning in his National Day Rally Speech in August.

It was a potent reminder because he highlighted this when he returned to speak after he faltered on stage and had to take a break three hours into his live televised speech.

There was another question asked by many at the personal level. People were reminded that life is short and fragile. They re-evaluated the way they lived and asked what made their lives meaningful, as experienced by themselves and not defined by someone else.


In the weeks following the Brexit referendum on June 23 when Britons voted to leave the European Union, politicians, analysts and people with high financial stakes were busy responding to, or speculating about, the effects of the historic event.

Meanwhile, some parents in Singapore were focused on the Ministry of Education's announcement on July 13 about changes to the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring system and its use for admission to secondary schools. Many parents see PSLE scores as directly affecting their children's future.

A major change involves replacing the narrow T-scores with eight levels of academic achievement. Small differences in T-scores are not meaningful, and they do not reflect true differences in academic abilities or potential between students. The broader levels of academic achievement are more valid measures, and using them as indicators makes admission decisions to secondary schools fairer.

The changes to the PSLE will be implemented in 2021, so there is sufficient time for parents and schools to prepare for them.


On the morning of Aug 13, Singaporeans shared a common emotional experience as they watched swimmer Joseph Schooling clinch Singapore's first Olympic gold medal in a live telecast from the Rio Olympic Games.

A month later, the nation rejoiced again as swimmers Yip Pin Xiu and Theresa Goh brought back gold and bronze medals from the Paralympic Games.

Beyond national pride in sports achievements, the stories of Schooling, Yip and Goh provided inspiring lessons relevant to different areas of life.

They showed us that the achievement of human potential is not just about talent, but also plenty of passion, practice, perseverance, personal sacrifice and parental influence.

The stories also highlight the spirit of human nature in leadership, role modelling and community support. They tell us about raising a child to be someone who not only accomplishes but also inspires.

Their victories did more than instil national pride in Singaporeans; they inspired hope and determination in individuals. But they also brought to the fore the disconnect between our espoused emphasis on holistic development of the child and the continual focus on academic achievement.


The most contentious issue of the year was the debate on changes to the elected presidency. It intensified after the Government laid out its position in a White Paper released on Sept 15, in response to the recommendations that the Constitutional Commission arrived at after deliberating on many proposals from the public.

In October, the Government tabled a Bill with its proposed changes. The Bill was then debated and passed in Parliament in November.

The most controversial change was the move to reserve an election for a race if no person of that race has been president after five continuous terms.

The issues were interconnected, and there were various practical realities.

All these made it difficult for Singaporeans to agree on how this "hiatus-triggered" provision to safeguard minority representation is consistent with Singapore's multiracialism and meritocratic ideals, or not.

It was clear that the debate was driven not just by politics and the law, but by perceptions, values, trust and notions of fairness. The law has been passed, but Government and the public need to continue to engage on these issues. How the issues are addressed will impact the social harmony between groups and the social compact between the people and the Government.


Be it economic, security, social or political issues, there is much uncertainty in the current global contexts and local circumstances. People are justified in being concerned about what the future holds.

And yet, while there has been tension over some issues this year, such as over changes to the elected presidency or the PSLE scoring system, Singaporeans' responses have also shown evidence of rationality and resilience, compassion and cohesion, and innovation and inspiration.

What lies ahead is difficult to predict but the future is not necessarily bleak. And it is neither predetermined nor random. So the future is still very much for us to make, and there are reasons to believe that a united Singapore society can again turn lemons to lemonade.

Clearly, this requires a national leadership that has competence, integrity and benevolence. And one that will not only get the economics and politics right, but also get the psychology right.

But it will require much more than a good government. It involves Singaporeans living out their espoused shared values, and taking constructive actions to find their own meaning in life and make collective meaning for their communities.

As we approach 2017, we can take ownership of our future by being responsible for and doing something about it.

The writer is director of the Behavioural Sciences Institute, Lee Kuan Yew Fellow and Professor of Psychology at the Singapore Management University.

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