Saturday 11 May 2019

DPM Heng Swee Keat at the 49th St Gallen Symposium

Dialogue key to fostering trust between Government and people: Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent In St Gallen (Switzerland), The Straits Times, 10 May 2019

For Singapore, the key to fostering trust between the Government and the people lies in dialogue, partnership and always keeping the promises it has made to the citizens, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday.

This is a legacy, he added, handed down from founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who had said the Government must never, in an election, pledge what it cannot deliver.

"Credibility is important. What we promise, we must do our very best to deliver," said Mr Heng, who had been the late Mr Lee's principal private secretary.

The DPM, whose appointment to the No. 2 position this month signals his standing as the next prime minister, was responding to a question at the 49th St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland on how the Singapore Government builds trust with its citizens when in other countries, this trust has broken down.

One key element is dialogue and interaction with the people by MPs at weekly Meet-the-People Sessions, and via platforms like Our Singapore Conversation, said Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister.

He hoped the next round of the conversation will focus on imbuing in people a take-charge attitude when they see a problem that needs fixing. This, in turn, will require leaders at all levels of Singapore society, he added.

Building trust also involves working in partnership, like what is being done in Singapore's tripartite system, the DPM said.

For instance, when the Government was working on restructuring the economy, it gathered together business leaders, business chambers, large trade associations and unions to talk about what should or can be done, he said.

Trust is also about honesty, even when undertaking difficult decisions, like raising the goods and services tax from 7 per cent to 9 per cent. This is to take place some time between 2021 and 2025.

"Some people said, 'You are mad to announce a tax increase so far ahead'. I said our projection is that we have an ageing population; if we want to keep our healthcare system sustainable, we each have to do more to take care of our seniors."

He added: "We believe it is better to be honest with our citizens than to say we have solved the problem."

Mr Heng was speaking at a public dialogue with the symposium's chairman Dominic Barton, a former managing director of consulting firm McKinsey.

He attended the symposium as part of a five-day study trip to Switzerland, where he visited Swiss companies and research institutes to learn more about productivity, R&D and industry development efforts there.

At the symposium, he took part in various closed-door events as well, including chats with participants and Singaporeans studying at the University of St Gallen.

At the open dialogue, Mr Heng also said that even as Singapore presses ahead with economic transformation, it must protect workers and help them adapt.

"Economic transformation has to continue; we can't just stop," he said. "The key is how do we do it and not protect jobs, but protect workers. How best do we prepare our workers for jobs of the future?"

He stressed that the Government does not pursue economic growth and innovation for its own sake, but to improve the lives of people.

"In whatever we do, as political leaders, it is critical that we put people at the centre of all that we do."

Lessons from Swiss on how to harness tech and create value
DPM Heng also notes how Swiss firms collaborate to tackle challenges, and their emphasis on workers' welfare
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent In Zurich, The Straits Times, 11 May 2019

Repeating the phrase like a mantra, the Swiss told Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat often this week when he toured their research institutes and companies: "Switzerland has only humans, rocks and snow."

It is this knowledge of its limitations that has spurred the small nation of 8.5 million people to constantly innovate, harness technology and aim for high quality in everything they do, an approach that has left a deep impression on Mr Heng.

"What I heard very often from chief executives was: 'We understand we are a high-cost location, and to be able to justify this high cost and higher salary, you need to create value in ways which allow you to stay competitive'," he said yesterday.

"So, there has been a relentless focus over the years on building up capabilities in technology, innovation, in the way they do their marketing and branding. It is not just one or two companies, but right across (all sectors)."

In March, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked the Swiss cities of Zurich and Geneva among the world's top five expensive cities to live in. Singapore, Paris and Hong Kong tied for the No. 1 spot.

Mr Heng, who is also the Finance Minister, was speaking to Singapore journalists at the end of his five-day work trip to Switzerland to study its approach to such issues as productivity and industry development.

He was accompanied by officials from his ministry as well as the Trade and Industry Ministry, Economic Development Board, Enterprise Singapore and the National Research Foundation, which he chairs.

The DPM was also struck by how Swiss companies would collaborate to overcome common challenges.

"They compete fiercely with one another. But in areas where they have common interests (and) need the scale to solve these problems, they have been willing to come together."

And even as they transform their businesses, the companies place a great emphasis on workers' welfare, he said, adding that it is an important lesson that Singapore can learn.

The approach is reinforced by the country's education system, with its emphasis on vocational training and belief that companies play an important role in upgrading workers' skills.

"In many of the meetings I went to, I asked them how they do that," Mr Heng said. "Every company was able to articulate how they were training their workers... even as they automated, as they changed their business models."

While in Switzerland, Mr Heng also spoke at the 49th St Gallen Symposium on preparing citizens for future challenges, as well as Asia's growth and its implications.

The annual conference brings together young people, thought leaders and key decision-makers from around the world to typically discuss politics, economics and social issues.

He noted the event exposes young people to different cultures and he believes it is very important, "especially for young Singaporeans to build that cultural awareness across the world".

He said: "One reason the Swiss have been successful is their ability to stay neutral and yet connect with people from around the world."

Pointing to the range of people who came to St Gallen to share their views and thinking, he said such exchanges have brought vibrancy to many sectors and areas of Swiss life.

Fake news law not an attempt to suppress opinions: Heng Swee Keat
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 11 May 2019

ZURICH • The new law to combat online fake news is not an attempt to suppress different opinions, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday. But such differences in opinion must be grounded in fact in order for "good discourse" to take place, he added.

Speaking to journalists at the end of a five-day study visit to Switzerland, Mr Heng was asked about opposition to the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, which Parliament passed on Wednesday.

MPs debated for 14 hours over two days on the Bill, which has drawn concerns that it could potentially be abused by the Government to stifle criticism and have a chilling effect on free speech.

"To expect that 100 per cent of people would agree on a particular course of action is not realistic," said Mr Heng, noting there will be people who have concerns and think a different course should be taken.

"But when you think about it, as Minister Shanmugam made very clear, as well as several other ministers who have spoken, this is not an attempt at suppressing different opinions," he added.

Mr Heng recounted a recent meeting with a group of Americans during his work trip to the United States, who told him they were taught as children that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion.

"But these opinions have to be grounded in fact, in truth," Mr Heng said. "If you and I disagree because we have completely different assumptions on what the facts are... we don't actually have good discourse, because we can't debate (the topic's) merits based on verifiable facts.

"Worse still, if one party bases an opinion on an entirely erroneous set of facts, we will come to the wrong conclusion."

Heng Swee Keat will be Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister from 1 May 2019

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