Wednesday 27 January 2021

COVID-19 challenges and 3 resets: Lawrence Wong at IPS Singapore Perspectives 2021

Pandemic calls for 3 major resets in society: Education Minister Lawrence Wong
Singapore should aim to emerge fairer, greener and more united
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 26 Jan 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic has set the stage for Singapore to undertake three major "resets" which could help it emerge from the crisis a fairer, greener and more united country.

This entails combating inequality and ensuring social mobility, said Education Minister Lawrence Wong yesterday. It also means building a greener economy that is more environmentally sustainable, and fostering a renewed sense of solidarity, he added.

Speaking at the Institute of Policy Studies' Singapore Perspectives conference which is themed "Reset", the minister noted that it could take four or five years before the world sees the end of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Singaporeans will have to be prepared to live in an acutely changed world, he said.

To do so, he spelt out three "resets". Singapore has to first reset its social compact by tackling inequality and keeping society fluid and mobile. All over the world, the pandemic has widened the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, he said.

In Singapore, the Government has always aimed to reduce inequality and ensure a meritocratic system, Mr Wong added. To that end, a balance has been struck between free markets and state intervention, with policies tilted towards the lower income.

When the pandemic hit, the country drew on its reserves to save jobs and help those who were hardest hit to tide over.

These temporary measures will taper down this year as the economy improves. However, the pandemic has created added impetus to strengthen the social support system.

"There will be a permanent shift towards further strengthening of our social safety nets, to protect the disadvantaged and vulnerable, and we will have to work out how this will be sustainable over the longer term," said Mr Wong, who is also Second Minister for Finance.

He stressed as well the importance of uplifting children from birth, stressing that meritocracy "must not ossify into a hereditary system, where the condition of your birth determines the outcome of your life".

Schools with a higher proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds would get more help and resources, including some of the most committed teachers and principals, to help all students achieve their potential, he said, noting that he has made it a point to visit these schools since joining the ministry.

On the topic of sustainability, the minister pointed out that Singapore is already one of the greenest cities in the world. It is also the only one to completely freeze the growth of its vehicle population, and one of the few to have closed its water loop.

"But we must go further and build on what we have done to achieve cleaner growth and greener mindsets," he said.

Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling the crisis, noted that the pandemic has also intensified divisions in many countries. While easy access to information has been a boon, it has also meant people now can access raw, instant, unfiltered information, including falsehoods and conspiracy theories.

"So the irony is despite the overwhelming ease of access of information, we are living in a 'golden age of ignorance', he said, warning that as more extreme views take hold, forging a consensus and governing is made more difficult.

The answer is for societies to forge a stronger sense of solidarity, he said, noting that one of Singapore's founding leaders, Mr S. Rajaratnam, had referred to the Islamic thinker Ibn Khaldun's concept of "asabiyyah", or the bonds in a community, which are vital to its sense of cohesion.

Concluding, Mr Wong said: "I am confident that we will prevail and emerge stronger from this crucible. And I do not say this lightly. I speak from my own conviction of seeing the best of Singaporeans over the past year, in the face of adversity and very tough conditions."

COVID-19 pandemic could last four or five years: Lawrence Wong
Singaporeans have to be prepared to live in an acutely changed world
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 26 Jan 2021

It could be four or five years before the world sees the end of the Covid-19 pandemic and the start of a post-pandemic normal, said Education Minister Lawrence Wong.

In setting out this timeframe, he noted that the world is likely to encounter many more bumps along the way in handling the crisis.

While the availability of Covid-19 vaccines will progressively restart global travel, getting the world vaccinated will not be quick or easy.

This means that for the rest of this year - and perhaps a good part of next year - Singaporeans have to be prepared to live in an acutely changed world, Mr Wong said in a speech at the Institute of Policy Studies' Singapore Perspectives conference yesterday.

"The rules around wearing of masks, upholding of safe distancing measures and avoiding crowded places - these will continue to be part of everyday life," he added.

On possible bumps ahead, the minister cited how initial research suggests that current vaccines may not be so effective against the South African mutant strain of the virus.

In a positive scenario, the world ends up developing a vaccine that works against all strains of the coronavirus. Alternatively, vaccination ends up looking like a flu jab, where a new formulation is created on a regular basis.

In the worst case, the world remains always a step behind an evolving virus, he said. "And the bottom line is that we live in a shared world, and no one is safe until everyone is safe."

No one can tell what the post-coronavirus world will look like, although some positive changes may arise, Mr Wong said.

He gave the example of how spittoons and public spitting were seen as unsanitary after the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Similarly, in Singapore, the pandemic has prompted greater awareness of hygiene habits and social responsibility. Even so, some old habits - such as handshaking - may die hard, he said.

"Each time there is a pandemic, there is a call to say, 'Let's have different forms of greeting in order to reduce the risk of transmission,' " he added, noting that this happened when Singapore faced the severe acute respiratory syndrome crisis in 2003.

"But somehow, humans being what we are, we have always gravitated back towards some form of human contact."

In a crisis like this, the natural tendency is to extrapolate the worst from one's immediate circumstances, Mr Wong said. For instance, some have predicted that digitalisation will precipitate a move towards decentralised living arrangements, rendering cities obsolete.

But history contains multiple examples of cities that bounced back after pandemics, he noted.

For example, 14th-century Florence flourished after the bubonic plague and launched the Renaissance movement. American cities such as Chicago and New York also saw a boom in the 1920s, after the 1918 pandemic ravaged the country.

"And the reason this happens is that cities are not just buildings and monuments," Mr Wong said. "They are fundamentally about the people who dwell in them, and humans are, by nature, social animals."

Humans are also adaptable, and therefore have the ability to shape their future, he added. "Let's think of the crisis as setting the stage for a software update - a reboot of sorts after the tremendous damage inflicted by the virus."

Singapore can be more relevant as a hub if it responds well to COVID-19 crisis: Lawrence Wong
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 26 Jan 2021

When international investors and the broader global community think about having some presence in Asia, Singapore ought to be the first answer that comes to mind.

Education Minister Lawrence Wong yesterday expressed optimism for such a scenario in a post-Covid-19 future, but cautioned that Singapore's ability to gain relevance as a hub would also depend on it responding well to the ongoing coronavirus situation.

He was speaking at a dialogue chaired by Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez, as part of the Singapore Perspectives conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies.

Mr Fernandez, who is also editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings' English, Malay and Tamil Media Group, had noted that the pandemic-precipitated trend of remote work meant that international corporations could engage employees anywhere in the world, leading to implications for Singapore's hub status.

But Mr Wong, who is also Second Minister for Finance, said that some form of physical presence would still be needed in a "new normal".

"We are not going into a world where it's all just machines, and we stop having face-to-face interaction," he said. "It has not happened across human history and it's unlikely to happen going forward because... humans are fundamentally social animals."

He alluded to the same point earlier when noting that a fully work-from-home model was not doable.

"You cannot function effectively without that human collaboration… you do need a chance for people to come together," he said.

But neither should things go back to the way they were, he added, urging employers to embrace more flexible, hybrid arrangements blending face-to-face and remote work.

Mr Wong later stressed, in response to a question from the audience, that Singapore was in a far better and stronger position to fight Covid-19 today.

He pointed to improved testing and tracing capabilities and "more importantly", the vaccination programme now under way.

"That's a game changer," said Mr Wong, who also co-chairs the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19. "No doubt there is uncertainty with supply, but we have done our best to procure as much as we can. So what we need to do really is to tide through from now until the point when everyone in Singapore is vaccinated."

He also sought to address concerns about the high number of imported Covid-19 cases in recent days.

"We have not increased our travellers coming into Singapore," Mr Wong explained, adding that the two largest sources of travellers are construction workers - to fulfil contractors' needs - and foreign domestic helpers who perform caregiving duties for Singaporeans.

He said numbers have gone up because the prevalence and incidence rate of the disease is higher now, with the virus raging in countries everywhere. Mandatory pre-departure tests for travellers are also not foolproof as the virus may be incubating, leading to negative results for arriving persons who later test positive.

Hence the need for precautions such as a stay-home notice requirement to isolate them from the community, said Mr Wong.

At the end of the dialogue, he was also asked by Mr Fernandez what made him so sure that Singapore could come out for the better in the wake of the pandemic.

For Mr Wong, the answer lay in the tremendous spirit and resilience of Singaporeans rallying together.

Acknowledging the surreal experience of the world coming to a standstill in facing what some have called the "crisis of a generation", he said he was fortunate to have had a front-row seat to how Singaporeans responded to the situation.

He singled out the outbreak in the migrant worker dormitories - "our darkest hour last year" - and how the public and private sectors came together to set up community care facilities in double-quick time.

"We said it would be impossible, but they made the impossible possible," said Mr Wong. "Sometimes, just a few people can change the course of history and change the trajectory in a crisis. This was one of those moments.

"That's why I say I don't speak lightly when I believe with conviction that Singapore can emerge stronger from this crisis."

Education system aims to uplift all, by starting from young
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 26 Jan 2021

Singapore wants to have an education system for life, rather than one that front-loads learning when a person is young, or treats education like a "conveyor belt for the job market".

Outlining these fundamental shifts in the country's education model, Education Minister Lawrence Wong pointed to the SkillsFuture movement, which allows people multiple entry points to reskill, upgrade and improve at various ages.

He added that the Government intervenes early in order to preserve social mobility.

At present, Singapore is making substantial investments in pre-school education to ensure children of all income groups can benefit from quality programmes, he said in a speech on Monday (Jan 25) at the Institute of Policy Studies' Singapore Perspectives conference.

It is also looking further upstream, at the prenatal stage, where the well-being of a pregnant mother can have lasting effects on a child's development.

"Early intervention is effective and we are going all out to do more on this front," added Mr Wong, who became Education Minister after the general election last July.

He added that he has been making it a point to visit schools with a larger proportion of children from lower-income families or disadvantaged backgrounds.

These schools are getting more resources so that these children can get more support, Mr Wong said. This includes learning in smaller classes and exposing students to a variety of programmes - such as learning journeys and public speaking - in order to nurture soft skills.

More allied educators, counsellors and welfare officers are also being deployed, especially for students with special needs, he added.

"We want to ensure we continue to uplift these students and help them achieve their full potential."

Beyond such policies, a broader mindset change is needed, he said, noting that societies today place too much of a premium on cognitive abilities, and do not sufficiently value those engaging in other forms of work.

"As a result, merit has become narrowly defined by academic and cognitive abilities," Mr Wong said. "But in fact, there's a wide range of abilities and aptitudes needed for societies to thrive - we need the craft skills of artisans and technicians; the creativity and imagination of artists; and the human touch of those doing care jobs."

He noted that the pandemic has again thrown the spotlight on this imbalance, and that the country has to ensure that remuneration is fair for essential workers.

This is why Singapore is rolling out the progressive wage model across various sectors, and reviewing polytechnic and Institute of Technical Education pathways to ensure that graduates get better jobs with higher pay and good career progression.

"If we attach more value in terms of prestige and income to people who excel across a wide range of fields and not just cognitively, incomes will naturally spread out more evenly across society," he said. "And we will go a long way in advancing our cause towards a fairer and more equal society."

Yes, there is racism, but Govt committed to improving situation: Lawrence Wong
By Justin Ong, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 26 Jan 2021

Is there still racism in Singapore today? A resolute "yes, of course" was Education Minister Lawrence Wong's answer yesterday during a dialogue at the Singapore Perspectives conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies.

But he also affirmed the Government's commitment to improving the situation - and to avoid at all costs the sowing of identity politics in the country.

Mr Wong was responding to former senior minister of state Zainul Abidin Rasheed, who asked whether he saw multiculturalism and multiracial cohesion as a big issue, and if Singapore was equipped to handle changes in future.

"It is a big issue. Let's acknowledge it," said Mr Wong. "But is the situation today better than it was 10 years ago, 20 years ago? I would say it is too.

"But is it perfect? No. So our aim must be to continue trying to reduce the imperfections, year after year after year."

This includes reviewing and evolving policies such as ethnic integration quotas in housing and race-based self-help groups, said Mr Wong. "None of these should be cast in stone or regarded as sacred," he added.

"We must do our very best to ensure that identity politics that is polarising never gets a chance to take root in Singapore," he said.

"When that happens, it really fuels the worst tendencies in people; it breeds hostility and divisions."

Earlier, dialogue chairman, Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez, asked Mr Wong how modern-day ideas being rapidly propagated through social media, such as "woke" culture and cancel culture and privilege, could be better understood in Singapore's context.

Mr Wong, who was previously Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, said access to new information was good but not without risk.

Citing conspiracy theories and falsehoods as dangers, he said: "These ideas tend to sharply divide people into different social and political tribes… You become very resistant to hearing from the other side. You self-select information to reinforce your own blind spots and biases."

He said schools would continue efforts in cyber wellness and helping students navigate the Internet.

He also agreed with Mr Fernandez's observation of the inherent tension in managing Singapore's diversity and plurality, while trying to achieve greater unity.

The key, said Mr Wong, was to build consensus around a common good and common destiny for Singapore - regardless of individual, aspirational or political differences, and rather than the alternative of a contentious society where it is every man for himself, or with groups lobbying for their own interests.

Here, the Covid-19 pandemic has presented a silver lining of an opportunity, he added.

"A crisis like this does force us to reflect more deeply on what our shared values are," said Mr Wong. "What kind of life do we want for ourselves and our children? What is that purpose in our limited duration on this planet? What would we like to achieve?

"And if that reflection in Singapore leads to a coming together of shared values... I think we will be able to move forward better, faster and with a renewed sense of purpose."

COVID-19 challenges and 3 resets: Lawrence Wong
At the Institute of Policy Studies Singapore Perspectives Conference 2021 yesterday, Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who is also co-chair of the Multi-ministry Taskforce on Covid-19, highlighted three resets that must be made in policy thinking, lifestyles and mindsets. Here are edited excerpts of his remarks:
The Straits Times, 26 Jan 2021

The theme of the conference is aptly titled Reset. There's still great uncertainty about how the coronavirus will reshape our society in the coming years. But there is no doubt that Covid-19 is the most serious crisis the world has faced in a long time. The virus has already changed our world, and we have to be prepared for more changes to come.

I think it's useful to think of these changes over different timeframes. For this year and maybe even a good part of next year, we must be prepared to live in an acutely changed world, meaning that the rules of wearing masks, upholding safe distancing rules and avoiding crowded places will continue to be part of everyday life.

Beyond that, the availability of Covid-19 vaccinations will progressively restart global travel. But getting the world vaccinated won't be quick or easy. It will take time for vaccines to be manufactured and distributed, and even longer before the world gradually builds up immunity.

Post-pandemic world

What will this new post-Covid-19 world look like? No one can tell. Some positive changes will certainly arise.

In Singapore, the pandemic has prompted greater awareness of hygiene habits and social responsibility. Singaporeans have become more conscious about washing and sanitising their hands.

In a crisis like this, the natural tendency is to extrapolate the worst from our immediate circumstances. For example, some predict that digital technologies will accelerate the move towards less dense living and working arrangements, and render cities obsolete.

But predictions about the decline of cities, I think, are premature. Throughout history, pandemics have not dampened the waves of urbanisation nor the flourishing of innovation taking place in cities everywhere.

After the yellow fever pandemic hit Philadelphia in 1793, Thomas Jefferson said this would "discourage the growth of great cities in our nation". Now look what happened in the United States after that. After the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, we saw the Roaring Twenties and a boom in major cities like Chicago and New York City. If history is a guide, it has shown that cities can bounce back from catastrophe and emerge stronger than before.

The reason this happens is that cities are not just buildings and monuments, they are fundamentally about the people who dwell in them. Humans are by nature social animals. We are naturally drawn to participation, collaboration and social interactions. We are also adaptable and capable of adjusting to new situations.

So we have the ability to shape what our future looks like, and as suggested by the theme of the conference, let us think of this crisis as setting the stage for a software update - a "reboot" of sorts after the tremendous damage inflicted by the virus.

Beyond the immediate task of protecting lives and livelihoods, I would like to highlight three resets that we must make in our policy thinking, our lifestyles and our mindsets, even as we tide over the immediate season.

A fairer and more equal society

First, we must reset our social compact to emerge as a fairer and more equal society. The pandemic may be indiscriminate about who it infects, but its impact is anything but equal. It has in fact widened the gulf between the haves and the have-nots.

Globally, we see poorer segments of society paying a heavier price - be it in terms of economic impact or access to healthcare. That's why governments all over the world have had to spend huge sums to help their people cope.

In Singapore, it's always been at the top of the Government's agenda to reduce inequality and ensure a meritocratic system that works for the good of all.

We recognise that markets are incredibly powerful - they inject dynamism, transform societies, and give people from all backgrounds a chance to better their lives.

But free markets have their flaws. They create anxieties and stresses about technological change and foreign competition, and we see a continued stretching of incomes and wealth.

So we need a combination of open markets and effective state intervention - to level the playing field at the starting point, provide support and buffers for every citizen to help them bounce back from setbacks, and to equip them to excel in an uncertain environment of global competition and technological change.

We started this journey more than a decade ago when we tilted social policies actively in favour of the lower-income group, for example, through Workfare, and through a whole range of support programmes in education, housing and healthcare, and more recently by providing more retirement assurance through the Silver Support Scheme.

Income inequality in Singapore as measured by the Gini coefficient has in fact been trending downward.

Last year, we rolled out a significant package of emergency measures. We are luckier than most countries in that we do not have to borrow to fund these measures. We were able to draw on our reserves to save jobs and tide over the Singaporeans who are hardest hit. These temporary measures will have to be tapered down this year as the economy improves, and to ensure our finances remain sustainable.

But the impact of the pandemic has created added impetus to strengthen our social support system. So there will be a permanent shift towards further strengthening of our social safety nets to protect the disadvantaged and vulnerable, and we will have to work out how this will be sustainable over the longer term. The bottom line is that we aim to give Singaporeans more assurance in an uncertain post-Covid-19 world.

Beyond tackling inequality, we must keep our society fluid and mobile. Meritocracy in Singapore must not ossify into a hereditary system where the condition of your birth determines the outcome of your life. How do we achieve this?

We start by intervening early and uplifting our children from birth. That's a key focus and priority for me in the Ministry of Education. That's why we're making significant investments in pre-school. We want to make sure you don't need expensive private enrichment classes. Instead, all can benefit from quality programmes in Ministry of Education (MOE) kindergartens and across our anchor and partner operators, where fees are kept affordable and regulated.

We're now looking at the earliest years of childhood, even at the pre-natal stage, where the well-being of a pregnant mother can have lasting effects on a child's development. Early intervention is effective, and we are going all out to do more on this front.

We are continuing this strong support in schools. Since joining MOE, I've made it a point to visit schools with a higher proportion of students from lower-income and disadvantaged family backgrounds. Some of our most committed and dedicated principals and teachers serve in these schools.

We are giving them more resources so they are able to provide additional support for their students - for example, learning support in smaller pull-out classes. And beyond academic support, exposure to a whole range of different activities and programmes, so that it's not just about improving their academic results but also nurturing soft skills, for example, through public speaking, through learning journeys, through overseas trips.

We are also deploying more allied educators, counsellors and welfare officers to support students, especially those with special needs.

We are also making fundamental shifts in our model of education. We don't want to front-load learning when someone is young, or treat education as a conveyor belt for the job market.

Instead, we want to have a system of education for life, which is what we are doing through our national movement, SkillsFuture. We want to have multiple entry points across the age distribution and across the entire skills spectrum.

Besides intervention in education, a broader mindset change is required. Societies everywhere today place too much of a premium on cognitive abilities, and do not value sufficiently those engaging in other forms of work.

As a result, merit has become narrowly defined by academic and cognitive abilities. But in fact, there's a wide range of abilities and aptitudes needed for societies to thrive - we need the craft skills of artisans and technicians; the creativity and imagination of artists; and the human touch of those doing care jobs.

And the pandemic has thrown a spotlight on this imbalance. We've come to better appreciate the contributions of our essential workers, who help to keep our lives going - our allied health workers, contractors, security guards, food and beverage operators, transport workers, just to name a few. We must honour them for their work and accord them the dignity and respect they deserve.

And that's why we are pushing on with moves across different jobs through our Progressive Wage Model. We are also reviewing Institute of Technical Education and polytechnic pathways to ensure graduates from these institutions get better jobs with higher pay, good career progression, and a strong foundation for lifelong learning.

If we attach more value in terms of prestige and income to people who excel across a wide range of fields and not just cognitively, incomes would naturally spread out more evenly across society, and we will go a long way in advancing our cause towards a fairer and more equal society.

A greener Singapore

Second, new habits from the pandemic show us that we can and must push for a greener Singapore. When human activity came to a standstill this year, carbon emissions around the world dropped significantly.

As the economic activities begin to pick up, we have to figure out a way forward. We cannot go back to the status quo ante. Aside from dealing with the crisis of the pandemic, climate change will be the existential emergency of our time. We must build a greener economy and society that is more environmentally sustainable.

This idea of sustainability is not new to Singapore. We are one of the greenest cities in the world. We are the only country in the world to freeze the growth of our vehicle population. We are one of a few countries to have closed its water loop, and to re-use every last drop of water. But we must go further and build on what we have done to achieve greener growth and greener mindsets.

So we are deploying more renewable energy like solar power, we are exploring regional power grids and investing in new capabilities like hydrogen and carbon capture, utilisation and storage. We are transforming our industries to be more sustainable and investing in research in new energy- and resource-efficient technologies.

Beyond that, we have other ambitious plans. We are going to phase out vehicles with internal combustion engines and have all vehicles run on cleaner energy. We are making sustainable living a key feature of all Housing Board towns - where they incorporate features to reduce energy consumption, recycle rainwater and cool our towns. We will significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions and seek to achieve net zero emissions as soon as we can.

Sustainability can also be a new source of competitive advantage and open up new opportunities for growth and job creation. There is potential for Singapore to be a carbon trading and services hub in Asia, for example, in areas like sustainability consultancy, verification, carbon credits trading, and risk management.

We can also be a leading centre for green finance in the region and globally.

The greatest promise of going green, however, is not what it will mean for us today. It's about building for the future - for our children and the next generation. We must embark on a sustainability movement, so that we can leave Singapore in a better shape for our future generations, just as previous generations have done for us.

A stronger spirit of solidarity

Finally, one silver lining in Covid-19 is that it can present an opportunity for us to strengthen our sense of social solidarity.

Throughout history, we've seen societies rise and fall. What is it that enables some societies to thrive, while others go into decline? It's a big question.

One of our founding leaders,

Mr S. Rajaratnam, used to ponder over this, and he would refer to the ideas of 14th-century Islamic philosopher and historian Ibn Khaldun, who wrote about the concept of asabiyyah - it's an Arabic word that describes the bond that exists in a community. In his view, it's this sense of community and solidarity that explains the rise and decline of society.

When a community starts out, everyone is prepared for austerity and discipline together, people are prepared to make sacrifices for the common good, and society prospers. But as life becomes more comfortable, this sense of solidarity is weakened. People lose their social anchors and seek to advance their own individual interests. When that sense of community and common purpose is eroded, things start to fall apart.

In fact, before we were struck by Covid-19, there were already powerful forces chipping away at social cohesion - both here and in countries everywhere. Even today, in the midst of this pandemic, there are significant minorities around the world who think that Covid-19 is a hoax and does not really exist. This is a pandemic where 100 million have been infected and more than two million have died. When we do global surveys, it is not just 1 per cent or 2 per cent, it's a significant percentage who think it is a hoax.

And this is the great irony. We are living in an age where everyone can access information so readily. People can access raw, instant, unfiltered information from multiple sources, and unfortunately, salacious falsehoods and conspiracy theories tend to gain circulation over facts. So the irony is, despite the overwhelming ease of access to information, we are living in a "golden age of ignorance".

We are also seeing the downgrading of expertise because experts are seen as out-of-touch elites, and expert knowledge is sometimes portrayed negatively as a conspiracy by the elites to perpetuate their dominance.

With easy access to information, everyone can claim to be an "expert".

In a way, this is healthy, as experts do not always get things right, and you do need to have some level of questioning. But when you disregard expertise altogether, that's when the trouble starts. Or when we have a tendency to view expert advice from the narrow prism of our own social and political tribes - we end up self-selecting information to support and reinforce our own points of view. As a result, it makes it very hard to find consensus.

At the same time, going through a crisis like this can lead to renewed strength. Because we are forced to reflect deeply on our own values, we develop a more acute sense of shared memories and common destiny. We go through difficulties together, and we forge a stronger sense of group solidarity and social cohesion.

So which path will apply to Singapore? How will the pandemic change us? I am confident that we will prevail and emerge stronger from this crucible. And I do not say this lightly. I speak from my own conviction of seeing the best of Singaporeans over the past year, in the face of adversity and very tough conditions.

I've seen front-line workers both in the public and private sectors giving their all, round the clock. I've seen many ground-up initiatives - people stepping out of their comfort zone to look out for the vulnerable, and to help those in need. And I've seen the resilient attitude that Singaporeans have shown, affirming the values we have nurtured since the founding of our nation.

This renewed sense of solidarity is critical as we recover, and it will enable us to build a better society together. And that's why the Government is intentionally creating more opportunities for our citizens and stakeholders to be part of the decision-making process - including in policy and implementation.

Through the Emerging Stronger Conversations, we are bringing together Singaporeans to share their hopes for a post-Covid-19 society and discuss how we can partner them to get there. We are also strengthening our engagements with young people on the SG Youth Action Plan, starting with their vision of Singapore in 2025.

We are convening more Alliances for Action - action-oriented coalitions with a mix of government, community and business stakeholders to solve our problems and co-create solutions together.

We hope all this will pave the way for much higher levels of participation in shaping our future Singapore together.

Hard truth

We've just crossed the one-year mark in our fight against Covid-19. This fight is far from over. There are still many uncertainties ahead of us.

Even as we focus on the immediate battle at hand, we must look ahead to the task of resetting for the future. My hope is for Singapore to emerge as a fairer, greener and more equal country, with a much stronger spirit of solidarity and shared purpose.

We all know the hard truth from this crisis: Singapore remains a perpetually vulnerable country. We are ultimately a tiny little red dot. Many things can still go wrong which we have no control over. For example, we cheer that we have managed to procure vaccines for everyone in Singapore. But anything can go wrong with the manufacturing, distribution or even disruptions in the supply chain.

But crisis has also shown that we are not without our resources and resolve - we have the nimbleness, ingenuity and gumption to solve our problems and move forward. Most of all, we have seen that as "one united people", we can achieve exceptional things together. So that's how, as one united people, we can realise our aspirations and ideals, and build a better Singapore together.

S. Rajaratnam: What will hold Singapore together in a time of change?
Education Minister Lawrence Wong in recent remarks on post-pandemic resets alluded to then Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam’s views on the future of Singapore in 1979. In his speech, Political Developments Towards The Year 2000, Mr Rajaratnam explored the issue by referencing the work of 14th-century philosopher Ibn Khaldoun, in particular the concept of asabiyya or group solidarity, that makes or breaks civilisations. Here are edited excerpts from the speech.
The Straits Times, 30 Jan 2021

Let me at the outset clarify my views on speculations about the future. There are the practical men who maintain that such speculations are a waste of time and they have no bearing at all on solutions to immediate day-to-day problems. This may have been so in earlier periods of history when changes were few and minute, and were spread over decades and centuries. The day-to-day problems that the son had to tackle were not basically different from those that his father or even his grandfather had to cope with.

Therefore in earlier societies, the passing of time was experienced in a two-dimensional way - the past and the present. This was an advance on a still earlier period, as in primitive societies today, when men lived in a timeless world. The people lived only for the moment. They had no sense of the past unless it was a legendary past of mythical heroes and improbable gods.

This two-dimensional experience of time cannot help us cope with the problems of the coming centuries. Mankind has entered a phase of history radically different in all its essentials from preceding periods of history. One of the distinctive facts about contemporary history is that it is world history and that the forces shaping it cannot be understood unless we are prepared to adopt worldwide perspectives.

Not only should contemporary history be considered as a distinct period of time with characteristics unlike any we have known before but we must also add a new dimension to the concept of time if we are to deal effectively with day-to-day problems.

This three-dimensional awareness of time is necessary and vital because we are not only living in a world of accelerating change but also of changes which are global in scope and which permeate almost all aspects of human activity.

The consequences of change can flow only in one direction - towards the future. It cannot affect the past because the past is beyond change, we may turn to it to guide future actions and this we must do because it can offer us many valuable lessons - what errors men of earlier times made, why they created civilisations that still overawe us and why succeeding generations were reduced to scrambling about their ruins unable even to tell us what the ancestral civilisations were all about.

Look to the future

Since change is about the future, then only a future-oriented society can cope with the problems of the 21st century. You must learn to cope with day-to-day problems not in terms of the present or the past but of the future. The present too, like the past, is unchangeable. What has happened has happened and there is nothing you can do about it. What is more important

is what you are going to do about the consequences of what has already happened.

The practical man would say: "Let us think about the immediate consequences and let tomorrow take care of itself." This, in my, view, is not a practical approach because in the kind of world we live in, the consequences are of infinite duration and ad hoc solutions without long-range calculations are a gambler's approach to human problems.

In thinking about the future, we should approach it more like a chess player than a gambler. The chess player plans his every move by thinking many steps ahead. A one-move chess player is cut by the time of the second move.

I admit that the game of life is far more complicated than a chess game. In the game of life, the chess pieces run into billions and, unlike chess-men, the pieces that make up the life game have unpredictable wills of their own. Therefore in the real world, thinking many stops ahead cannot be precise as in chess. This comes very close to fortune-telling and prediction, and no genius, not even a super computer, can predict what the consequences of an action or an event would be five, 10 or 20 years from now.

On the other hand, I do not subscribe to the view that the consequences are capricious and that we cannot make informed guesses about their general drift. We do it most of the time, for if there were not some measure of predictability about what human beings would do tomorrow or even the next year, all societies would be in a state of total anarchy.

So while thinking many steps ahead may not ensure success in every case, it is nevertheless true that those societies which think many more steps ahead than others are more likely to do better in the uncertain decades ahead than those which only think one step at a time or who, frightened by the future, take one step back towards the lost and unrecoverable Golden Age.

In a small and modest way, Singapore has demonstrated the efficacy of thinking many steps ahead; of thinking in terms of the future than of the past. Of course we are fortunate in that Singapore has no Golden Age to lure it away from the future. If there were such Golden Ages, then we must inevitably trace them back to India or China or Indonesia and since we have decided to be Singaporeans, we can do this only surreptitiously and without great feeling.

This brings me to... the question implicit in the topic you have set out for me. And it is this: Granted that Singapore is future-oriented, is that enough to see it through into the 21st century?

My answer is: No, it is not enough. Something far more important than being able to make informed guesses about the future is necessary to see Singapore safely through the turbulent and dangerous decades ahead. Even if you can make correct guesses about future trends and developments and even if you stumble on the correct solutions, the decisive factor is not knowledge but the determination and courage to act upon them.

Without this will to action, knowledge and perception about the future are useless. There are nations which have perished because they did not know how to save themselves. They should enlist our pity. But it is a tragedy of greater proportions when people perish not out of ignorance but because they lacked the will to respond to the dictates of their wisdom. The rise and fall of great civilisations can eventually be traced not to irresistible, impersonable forces of history but to a single human factor - failure of nerve.

Fortuna and virtu

Here I must turn to the past for guidance - to those great thinkers who had watched with dismay, sorrow or anger the unnecessary disintegration of their civilisations - Plato, Confucius, Thucydides, the Jewish prophets and Machiavelli to name a few. All of them tried desperately to educate their rulers on how to cope with the problem of change; the crises of their times. They proved, alas, to be incorrigible students.

Machiavelli in the 16th century, deeply concerned by the strife and turbulence of petty tyrants who were undermining the greatness of Florence, offered the following advice to a Saviour Prince. He said all societies were moved by two forces. He distinguished between what he called fortuna - the capriciousness of history - and virtu - the ability of a ruler to show mastery amidst the flux of things. Fortuna are the objective forces of history stemming from economic, social, cultural, political and technological changes. These are like winds. They are unpredictable; they are impersonal and they can be destructive.

But a ruler or people who have virtu can harness and tame these winds to serve men's needs; to build great civilisations. It is the presence or loss of virtu in rulers and people which decides the fate of societies and civilisations.

So the question arises: "How is virtu acquired and lost?" This fundamental of all questions has fascinated thinkers since time immemorial.

I too have been thinking about this problem since receiving your invitation to address this seminar. I happened at the same time to be also thinking about Ayatollah Khomeini. Since the Ayatollah claims to be spearheading an Islamic Revolution, I decided to supplement my meagre knowledge of Islamic civilisation by studying its rise and fall a little more closely. I therefore sought the advice of Professor Hussein Alatas who promptly loaned me a massive three-volume work entitled Muqaddimah: An Introduction To History.

It was written by a man called Ibn Khaldoun whom I had never heard of and who is rarely mentioned by modern historians. Moreover, the work was completed in 1377. Of what relevance, I asked myself, could the outpourings of a man from over 600 years ago be to our times, let alone the year 2000.

I was never more wrong in my life. This 14th-century Berber, a descendant of one of the Prophet's supporters, is so contemporary that many modern historians in comparison appear traditional.

It is incredible that this 14th-century man should have anticipated ideas about man and society, about jurisprudence, geopolitics, power, religion, war and peace, and many of the great themes about the rise and fall of civilisations centuries before thinkers like Vico, Marx, Spengler and Toynbee elaborated them with greater wealth of detail.

The wrappings which conceal his basic ideas are admittedly mediaeval and unacceptable to modern minds.

He nevertheless looks on his environment with a detachment and objectivity that was not to be surpassed until centuries later by Western man. He states facts. He observes.

He knows the glorious past of his own civilisation. But he is aware too that it is gone and he does not want to restore it.

Lifespan of civilisations

What then has Ibn Khaldoun to say about the rise and fall of civilisations that is relevant to us?

He allots to all civilisations a finite lifespan of about 120 years spread over three generations of 40 years each. In the fourth generation, the end is reached and by the fifth, the final death spasms.

He says that this is the invariable and predictable course of history, though sometimes he seems to offer an escape. For why, he asks, has civilisation proved to be so much stronger in the East than in the West, in Persia and Iraq,

Syria and Egypt than in the Maghreb which was the focus for his great work.

He had also seen the merchants of Europe who came to the Barbary ports, and had marvelled at their wealth and splendid way of life. He did not pursue this fertile path, for had he done so he might have guessed that Western Europe would soon light its torch of civilisation from the glowing embers of Islamic culture.

What sparks off a civilisation in the first place? He attributes it to a special human quality which he calls "asabiyya". It means group solidarity but it takes different forms and meanings at different stages of civilisation.

What Khaldoun means is that asabiyya has to be built up through hardship and great austerity. That is why, says Khaldoun, the Prophet Moses deliberately kept the Israelites whom he had led out of Egypt for 40 years in the desert. As slaves in Egypt, the Israelites had become subservient and fatalistic. They had been drained of asabiyya. It took a generation of exposure to the hardships of the desert to renew their asabiyya.

In more modern times, it was in Hitler's ghettos that the Israelites of today built up asabiyya. It was in the desert too that Prophet Muhammad conjured up the asabiyya which inspired the great Islamic conquests. Though Ibn Khaldoun wrote of the nomads with detestation as destroyers of culture... he admired their asabiyya - their courage, toughness, their self-reliance and above all their solidarity and fellowship.

The men with asabiyya, headed by a great leader or prophet... take over a dying civilisation and thus begins a sedentary culture - a city culture. Khaldoun makes clear that while the desert generates asabiyya, only the city can create civilisation.

As long as the spirit of asabiyya prevails, the first-generation ruler exercises power justly and wisely. The law is fairly applied. Taxation policies are designed to stimulate prosperity and personal initiative. The ruler, says Khaldoun, "does not claim anything exclusively for himself because (such an attitude) is what is required by group solidarity". Given this kind of ruler, order prevails and art and learning flourish. Out of the ashes of the old civilisation, a greater and more vibrant culture emerges.

Declining stages

The next four stages are of progressive decline. The easy democracy of the first stage vanishes as the new ruler claims total authority over his people. Authority is no longer shared. He becomes a tyrant demanding subjects who must manifest servility and unquestioned obedience. The asabiyya is being drained out of them. Discontent and resentment dissolve group solidarity. The tyrant is succeeded by vainglorious rulers also lacking in asabiyya. They build monuments and palaces...They hire mercenaries to protect themselves from a people they now fear and no longer trust. Nepotism and corruption become the rule of law. The burden of taxation grows and incentive for creation of wealth consequently dies. Then comes the ruler "who is content with what his predecessors have built". Since his civilisation has lost its capacity for growth, the ruler tries to arrest its decline by reviving and adhering strictly to old rituals and meaningless traditions.

And finally the death pangs of a great civilisation. Here I can do no better than quote Khaldoun himself: "The fifth stage is one of waste and squandering. In this stage the ruler wastes on pleasures and amusements (the treasures) accumulated by his ancestors through (excessive) generosity to his inner circle at their parties. Also he acquires bad, low-class followers to whom he entrusts the most important matters (of state) which they are not qualified to handle by themselves... Thus he ruins the foundations his ancestors had laid and tears down what they had built up. In this stage the dynasty is seized by senility and the chronic disease from which it can hardly ever rid itself, for which it can find no cure, and, eventually, it is destroyed."

He goes on to add that the end of the dynasty is clearly in sight when the hard-up ruler, unable to squeeze his subjects any further, takes part in trade and commerce and tries to monopolise it to the detriment of his trading subjects.

By then the asabiyya, bred in the desert, has been drained of its last drop.

What happens then? A new lot of desert nomads bursting with asabiyya take over the dying city to once again restore vigour and once again to suffer the same fate.

Singapore's destiny

In a way, Singapore was built by nomads though none of us came from the desert. Our forefathers had asabiyya and this has seen us through for a little over the 120 years that Khaldoun allotted a dynasty. On second thoughts,

he was not all that wrong because it took that many years for the British dynasty to retreat from Singapore.

So in a manner of speaking, Singapore's destiny is in the hands of only the first generation of rulers. It is today prosperous, thrusting and dynamic. But as Khaldoun warns, the comforts, distractions and ease that a prosperous city offers its peoples and rulers can exhaust the asabiyya so necessary to nourish it.

Khaldoun says that there is no way of bringing about a fruitful co-existence between the city civilisation and asabiyya - civic solidarity. Asabiyya is also Machiavelli's virtu. At the heart of both these lies the question of human will.

Despite Khaldoun's assertion to the contrary, it can be bred, I think, in cities as well as in the desert. Khaldoun's dismal cycle can be broken if the people so will it.

In any case, we are not today dealing as Khaldoun had to with an isolated regional civilisation but with a world civilisation. World civilisation is too pervasive for it to collapse and vanish totally. In the 21st century, there may be collapse of individual states which have not woken up to the facts of life about the 21st century. But those who are awake to it and do not squander their asabiyya or virtu... can break the circle that Khaldoun said could not be broken.

By telling us in his enthralling Introduction To History how and why civilisation suffers mortality, he has also offered a prescription for its immortality. If you know why you went wrong, you come closer to doing things right.

As far as I can see, civilisation building has really never stopped. Only its builders and architects have changed from time to time.

For Singapore, the next two decades will be a matter of learning to steer safely through fortuna - the capricious play of world forces. To steer successfully, we need what Machiavelli called virtu, what Khaldoun called asabiyya and, if I may add my widow's mite, a future-oriented outlook.

Given these qualities, I see no reason why Singapore should not find its way successfully into the 21st century. And if some time during that century I should happen to run across Ibn Khaldoun in that timeless region, I think he would be delighted to hear from me that his vicious circle had at last been broken.

If not, I shall most certainly avoid him.

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