First-world economy, world-class home: ESM Goh Chok Tong’s 1999 NDR speech

Setting fresh goals  

When I spoke to you last year, the sky was overcast and the outlook bleak. Asia was then in the middle of its worst financial crisis. Fortunately for us, the weather has turned out better than we had feared. The financial storm has subsided. Nonetheless, this crisis has been a major test for Singapore. 

We have distinguished ourselves both by the soundness of our economy, and by the way we have risen to the challenge. We analysed and tackled our problems objectively and rationally. We took effective immediate actions, while not neglecting long-term strategies. Employers, unions and the 

people supported tough measures in a crisis. Together, we quietly showed that Singapore is qualitatively different. 

The experience has strengthened us, and enhanced our competitiveness. Now with the crisis behind us, we should thoroughly reassess our new environment, and set fresh goals for ourselves. 


a. Impact of Regional Crisis 

The regional crisis has changed the outlook for the region. It will be a long time before the region regains the giddy growth and excitement before the crisis. Investors will be more careful and funds will be less plentiful.

Also, eradicating what the Indonesians call KKN – corruption, collusion, and nepotism – will prove very difficult. These and other structural weaknesses contributed to the crisis. If they are not got rid of, the economies will remain vulnerable to future crises. 

b. Globalisation and the Internet 

A powerful force is sweeping across the world: globalisation, because of technology and the Internet. 

Technology has broken down national boundaries. The Internet has turned the world into one global shopping mall. 

Many Singaporeans now buy through the Internet instead of from the shops in Orchard Road or neighbourhood shopping centres. It is not just books and CDs. I know of a sports car enthusiast who buys spare parts for his Porsche through the Internet. He saves 20 to 30 percent of the costs. 

With trade liberalisation, MNCs now look at the world as one single market, not separate markets divided by national borders. They do not supply the whole world from one single location, nor do they produce in each country just for that market. They split their operations into different pieces, and then locate each piece in a different country, wherever it is cheapest and most efficient to do that particular operation. 

Increasingly, MNCs are buying components from suppliers and subcontractors, instead of making everything themselves. This gives them maximum flexibility, and they can cut costs to the bone. 

One Singapore manufacturer who supplies components to MNCs described to the Ministry of Trade and Industry vividly how fierce the competition is. He has operations both in Singapore and China. When MNCs need components, they fax suppliers all around the world to invite them to bid for the 

job. Then suppliers from Mexico, China, Malaysia, and Singapore all submit bids. The job goes to the one who can supply at the lowest cost. The difference in quotes between a Chinese and a Singapore supplier may be just 1 or 2 percent, but that is enough to win or lose a job. For the next job, they all bid again. 

This new business environment means that cost competitiveness is more important than ever. So is flexibility. If we allow our costs to drift up, or restrictive practices to creep into our labour market, we will quickly lose business and jobs.

New target  

a. Not enough to be best in region 

With this regional and global backdrop, it is no longer good enough just to be the best in the region. We have to look beyond the region, and strive to become one of the best economies in the world. 

Our neighbours are breathing down our necks in many areas we are good at. They want to surpass or bypass us. Malaysia is building another port at Tanjong Pelepas, just across the Second Link in Johor, to compete with PSA. 

Hong Kong and Malaysia have similar ambitions as Singapore, to be the IT hub for the region. Hong Kong has announced plans for a cyberport. Malaysia is building a Multimedia Super Corridor. 

Our neighbours’ cost structures are lower than ours. They have more land and people. Their skills will improve. As they open up their economies, foreign investors will bring in technology, management and skills. They will become more efficient and competitive. We must work hard and smart to stay ahead of the competition. 

b. Build a First-World Economy and a World-Class Home 

We have to transform ourselves – from a regional economy to a first-world economy. Our education and training systems must be first class. We must build a world-class home for ourselves, where Singaporeans want to stay, and talent from around the world want to come. 

We must make Singapore an oasis of talent. Many cities are vying to be the key global node in the region – Hong Kong, Shanghai, Sydney, Taipei, Singapore. Who wins depends on who attracts the most talent, and forms a critical mass that draws in still more entrepreneurs, bankers, artists, writers, professionals. 

Our traditional catchment for talent is the region around us. But this has shrunk. Western countries have opened their doors wide to Asian talent. They now take in people who would in the past have come to Singapore. So we must find new ways to expand our catchment, by recruiting directly from all over the world.

Building a first-world economy

A first-world economy means adopting world-class standards, whatever we do and wherever we operate. Our businesses, whether manufacturing or services, have to benchmark themselves against the best standards and practices worldwide. Unless our products and services are comparable to the best, we will be out of the running, and will not be a first-world economy. 

a. Building Singapore Companies 

The first strategy is to build world-class Singapore companies. We have already made the Singapore brand world famous in several areas. Singapore Airlines, PSA and Changi Airport are widely acknowledged as among the world’s best airlines, seaports and airports. 

Singapore companies have ventured into the region. Going regional was the right decision, even though some of our investments had been hit by the economic crisis. We took the risks and have learnt valuable lessons. We now have significant investments in China, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia, besides Indonesia and Malaysia. We have expanded our economic reach beyond Singapore, into many parts of Asia. 

We should now go global by forming strategic alliances or mergers with other major players. Indeed we often have no choice – where the industries are consolidating worldwide, we either become major players, or we are nothing. 

i. PSA 

PSA is doing that. Recently, a port authority in Portugal approached PSA to form a joint venture company to develop a new container terminal. It selected PSA without calling an international tender. That speaks volumes for PSAs quality and efficiency. PSA will be operating and managing the new terminal for an initial period of 30 years. 

PSA has become an international player since 1996. It has already invested in 8 port projects in 5 countries: two ports each in China, India and Italy, and one each in Yemen and Brunei. PSA has expanded Singapore’s economic space by going global. 

ii. DBS 

Other major Singapore companies are also taking active steps to go global. DBS Bank aims to be a leading bank in the Asia Pacific region. Compared to other Asian banks, DBS is already one of the

best. But it is not yet a world-class bank in terms of its range and quality of products and services, its depth of management and returns to shareholders. The competition is not just from Asian banks but from banks like Citibank and HSBC. They are much bigger than DBS and among the world’s best. They also have ambitions in the region. So DBS must upgrade itself to match their standards. This will not be easy. But unless DBS succeeds, it may even lose ground in Singapore. 

The key prerequisite for success is first-class management. Though DBS had a core of outstanding officers, it did not have them in sufficient numbers to realise its ambitions. The bank also had few with extensive experience in other banking centres or in international banks. So DBS started by hiring a new CEO: John Olds, an American. He in turn has attracted other able bankers to join the DBS team. 

DBS has acquired stakes in banks in Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Indonesia. It still has a very long way to go. But I am confident that DBS will become one of the best managed banks of the region, if it continues to recruit and retain the quality of senior staff, and gets them to mesh in as a team. 

We hope local banks will follow the DBS example. We will give them full support. 

b. Innovation and Entrepreneurship 

The second strategy for building a first-world economy is to promote innovation and entrepreneurship. We need to create our own products to sell in global markets, not just buy and sell what others have produced. Creative Technology has set the example. Its best selling multimedia product, the Sound Blaster, has more than 50 million users worldwide. 

We need more success stories like Creative. We must foster an entrepreneurial culture in Singapore. We have to create a “Silicon Valley” state of mind in Singapore – creative and willing to take risks, setting up start-up companies and getting venture capital. We must accept the inevitable failures, and rejoice with the winners who collect a pot of gold. 

i. Singapore Start-ups in Silicon Valley 

When I visited Silicon Valley in May this year, I was encouraged to find a number of Singapore companies already there. Some are contract manufacturers which service IT giants there. Others are IT start-up companies, including spin-offs from the Kent Ridge Digital Labs (KRDL).

One promising Singaporean start-up is called the Third Voice. It was founded by three National Computer Board scholars. When working in KRDL, they came up with the idea of giving websurfers a way to post their comments on websites – an electronic version of the sticky yellow post-it notes. They then decided to commercialize their idea. With KRDL’s blessing and financial support from a venture capitalist, they set up the Third Voice in Silicon Valley. Fortune magazine recently featured 12 start-ups that could do well in the coming year. The Third Voice was one of the 12, and was the one featured on the cover. 

But making it big time is far from a certainty. In Silicon Valley, only one in twenty start-ups succeeds in getting funding. And of those who do get funded, perhaps one in ten or twenty will do very well. So we must generate many more promising start-ups, in order to end up with a few successes. 

ii. Technopreneurship 21 

It is good to have Singaporeans working in Silicon Valley. But we also want start-ups to locate operations in Singapore, and contribute directly to the Singapore economy. We want to promote entrepreneurship in high growth technology industries like IT, communications and media and life sciences. We hope to create a vibrant environment for such companies to start and grow. This is the aim of our Technopreneurship 21 programme. 

Under Technopreneurship 21, we have set up a venture capital fund with US$1 billion for start-ups in Singapore. We will fund not only Singaporean entrepreneurs, but also foreigners who come to launch start-ups in Singapore. Otherwise we would have far too few entrepreneurs and start-ups. 

iii. Non-high tech small companies can too 

You do not always have to be big to go global, or high-tech to show entrepreneurship. Small companies can do it too, even in non-high tech areas. 

When I visited Korea in June this year, my business delegation included a 30-year old young man who exports ornamental fish. He sources exotic ornamental fish from South America, Africa and Southeast Asia, breeds them in Singapore and sells them in the world market. 

Very few of us are aware that we have a 30% market share of the world market for ornamental fish. Our breeders are SMEs. Last year, they exported some 600 varieties of fish, worth $72 million, to 68 countries. One of their top exports is the dragon fish or arowana. It is very popular among the Japanese and Chinese because their scales resemble shiny gold coins.

Fish breeding is also a knowledge-based industry. You must know how to pack and condition the fish so that they can survive the air journey and arrive in good shape. The water temperature and acidity level have to be right. You have to stop feeding the fish 1-2 days before the shipment. Otherwise, they will produce waste during the trip and other fish may fall sick. 

c. Attracting MNCs 

Important as it is to build outstanding Singapore companies, and promote entrepreneurship and start-ups, we must never forget that MNCs will always be an important component of our first world economy. We can never have enough local start-ups and world-class companies. 

Out of the 500 Fortune Global 500 companies, almost half (229) either have operations in Singapore, or site an operational HQ here. They include General Motors, Mitsubishi, Exxon, General Electric, Royal Dutch Shell and Citigroup. These are among the biggest companies in the world. No Singapore company is on the Fortune Global 500 list, not even Singapore Airlines or Singapore Telecom. 

Singapore Telecom is our largest company in terms of market capitalisation. It is worth S$41 billion (US$24 billion). But SingTel ranks only 20th in size among telecoms companies worldwide. Creative Technology’s market capitalisation is US$0.9 billion. In comparison, Microsoft has a market capitalisation of more than US$400 billion, or 400 times bigger. So we must be realistic. 

It is not just a matter of size. These major MNCs have organisational strength, technology, access to global markets, and a worldwide network. In time, a few of our companies should make it to the Fortune Global 500. But even then we cannot afford to give up the exports, jobs, and linkage that the MNCs bring us. EDB must continue to work hard attracting MNCs, and the Government must create an environment where MNCs can prosper in Singapore. 

i. Pursuing Consistent, Rational Policies 

One important consideration for MNCs is whether the Government pursues consistent, rational policies. A country may offer them low wages and free land, but if government policies are erratic, investors will be scared away.

In this respect, Singapore has done well. Our performance during the financial crisis has helped. Last year, a European banker called on the MAS Chairman. He told Lee Hsien Loong that his bank had decided to concentrate its global treasury operations in three centres. One was in London and Paris covering Europe. The second was in New York covering the US. And the third would be in Singapore covering the whole of Asia. 

The banker gave three reasons for his decision. Firstly, Singaporeans speak English. Secondly, MAS’ measures to liberalise the financial sector. And thirdly, the most significant reason: Singapore’s good track record in reacting to unexpected events. He said that the international community closely watched how countries reacted to unexpected events. He expressed confidence in Singapore. 

So whether we realise it or not, investors and analysts track our policies and reactions closely. We are always on show. We have been seen to be a good place for them to invest and do business. As the crisis recedes, we must continue to do so. 

ii. Maintaining Cost Competitiveness 

One important signal that we must send is that although our economy is recovering, we are pressing on with our cost reduction measures. The government rebates on taxes, rentals and levies will continue as committed. We should also continue exercising wage restraint. 

If the economy continues to pick up strongly, companies will run short of workers, the labour market will tighten, and we are bound to face wage pressures. In that situation it is better to begin restoring employer CPF contributions earlier to moderate these pressures, and continue to exercise restraint on wages. The alternative is to leave the CPF rate low, and allow wages to rise sharply. This is worse, because after wages have gone up, it will be more difficult for us to restore the CPF rate on top of that. 

This is why the Government is considering starting to restore part of the CPF rate next year, instead of 2001 as originally intended. However, we have to study this very carefully. 

Firstly, we must make sure that employers and workers accept that wage and CPF adjustments must be taken as a package, so that an earlier CPF restoration translates into lower wage settlements. Otherwise, we will add to the cost burden of employers, before they are ready for it.

Secondly, we must be mindful that some industries are under severe cost pressures, such as the disk drive and PC manufacturers. They have told us that had we not cut CPF and other costs last year, they would have retrenched many more workers by now. 

Such industries still need time to adjust. We too need time to retrain and reskill their workers, in case they are retrenched and must find new jobs. Already Western Digital has announced restructuring plans. Western Digital is retrenching 2,500 workers. Such rationalisation may be unavoidable. But we should not inadvertently push companies into cutting back their operations here even more quickly. 

The Government will take all this into account when it decides later this year whether to start restoring the employer CPF rate next year, and if so, by how much. 


The underlying strategy to build a first-world economy is to create a first-rate education system. Our students must know how to use existing knowledge, but that is not enough. They must also learn how to create new knowledge. That is why I have put a strong team of Ministers in the Ministry of Education (MOE). 

a. Schools 

i. A Robust and Academically Successful Education System 

We already have a very good education system. It helps every pupil to develop to his potential, and equip him with the knowledge and skills he needs for life. Singaporeans, especially parents, often complain about their children’s difficulties in school. But internationally we compare very well with other countries. 

When Teo Chee Hean first went to MOE, he and his team decided to visit other countries to look at their education systems. They found these countries doing things very similar to ourselves – reviewing curricula, re-looking university admission systems, introducing IT into schools, re emphasising holistic development. 

They also found admiration and respect for the Singapore education system. For example, their counterparts in California asked them for our Mathematics syllabus and textbooks for reference. They wanted to learn how such a small country could achieve such good performance in Mathematics and Science.

While we can be proud of these achievements, we cannot rest on our laurels. There is much to do to improve the education of our children. 

ii. Supporting and Empowering Principals and Teachers 

One key MOE policy is to give more autonomy to schools and school clusters. We must support and empower principals and teachers. We must give them the authority to make their own decisions, and the resources to try out new ideas and bring out the best in their students. 

This is working. We have unleashed the collective energies and enthusiasm of our teachers and students. The schools and educational institutions are buzzing with activity. They are coming up with new and better ways to teach Science, Mathematics, English, and the Mother Tongue Languages. One primary school has installed a solar power system to power its garden lights, and teach its pupils Science in a fun and practical way. A secondary school has transformed its Science workshop into a corporate enterprise, where students had to design useful products with the limited resources provided. 

iii. Enrichment Programmes 

We are providing not just a good basic education, but also enrichment programmes. Every school has an annual Edusave grant, which the principal can spend at his discretion. So the schools are hiring specialist instructors to coach students in dance, music, and life-skills. These activities are not in the exam syllabus, but they help schools to turn out more rounded students. 

It is not just the top schools which have enrichment programmes. Neighbourhood schools are doing remarkable things too. For example, when Teo Chee Hean attended the 10th anniversary celebrations of Loyang Secondary School in his constituency in Pasir Ris, they put up a Dick Lee musical! The musical may not be quite Broadway standards, but the effort and enthusiasm of the students, the teachers, and the theatre community who helped them, was outstanding. 

In music too, many schools are doing well. The top 5 secondary school bands at the Singapore Youth Festival this year were one Independent School (RGS), one autonomous school (Tanjong Katong Girls’), one SAP school (River Valley High), one aided school (St Andrew’s Secondary) and one neighbourhood school (Yuhua Secondary). It just happened like that – there were no quotas.

Having won the band competition here, the Yuhua Secondary School band will be representing Singapore in the Symphonic Band International Competition, in Thailand. 

So although our children study hard in school, they are no bookworms. I only wish schools had had such programmes and facilities when I was a student. Then at least I might have learnt to play the drum, or if that was too difficult for me, the cymbals. Now I play nothing. 

iv. Information Technology 

Our IT Masterplan for our schools and junior colleges is progressing well. The response has been overwhelming. Initially, some schools and teachers were sceptical and fearful of IT, and quite willing to let others be the guinea pigs. Now, the schools not yet on IT are asking anxiously when their turn will be. They do not want to lose out. 

Teachers and pupils in IT-enabled schools are discovering whole new worlds of learning. They are using IT to teach Mother Tongue Languages, including Chinese and Tamil, which do not use the Roman alphabet. They are applying IT far beyond the usual places, including Chinese brush painting. 

Pupils of Radin Mas Primary School collaborated with pupils from Hawaii to create a virtual zoo. Luckily for Mandai Zoo, the virtual zoo cannot replace the real animals. And in fact the pupils still need to make field trips there to collect information and ideas. 

One of the most IT-savvy schools is Kranji Secondary School, a young, neighbourhood school which started in 1995. Every student has an Internet account. The school delivers assignments and reading materials to students via the Internet, encourages parents to keep in touch through e-mail, and has just launched its e-commerce web-site. It received the National IT Award for Excellence in IT Training. 

v. Foreign Students in Schools 

While our students interact with students from other countries and expand their horizons using IT, there is nothing like face-to-face interaction. Education is a human enterprise. Top schools like RI and RGS are distinguished not only by good teaching, but also by the quality of their students. If we can have more outstanding students, they will partner, challenge and motivate other students to excel. So we should attract bright foreign students to study in Singapore. It will help us to build more good schools.

Top students from overseas do know about the excellent schools in Singapore and want to come here. Currently, 1,800 foreign students study in our schools. They add to the intellectual vibrancy of our schools, and enrich the educational experience of Singaporean students. 

Chinese High School has many students from China. When I opened the school’s enhanced campus in March this year, the Principal introduced one boy to me. When this student first came from China, his English was perhaps a Primary Two standard. But within two years, he was scoring distinctions in English in Secondary 4. 

I spoke to him in English. I asked him how he managed to do this. He said that he spent a lot of time reading, listening and practising English. I then asked him how much time he spent on mathematics. “Hardly”, he said. Mathematics was easy for him. So was Chinese. 

Then I asked him what he intended to do after finishing his ‘A’ levels. He said, “Try and get a scholarship to study in the United States.” An alarm bell rang in my head. He may not return to Singapore. 

I then asked a Singapore student what his plan was. He too wanted to get a scholarship to study in the United States. So we have a problem. Not only may we not get the bright Chinese boy back, we may even lose our own bright Singaporeans. 

Looking across the road at the new Nanyang Girls’ High School, an idea struck me. I suggested to the Principal to hold joint activities between his boys and Nanyang Girls’. If his boys have girl friends in Singapore, that may pull them back to Singapore! But what if the girls too go overseas? 

b. Technical Education Best in Class 

One important part of our education system which we are very proud of is our technical education sector – comprising the four polytechnics offering Diploma courses and the Institute of Technical Education offering certificate courses in engineering, technology and business areas. 

Early this year, MOE invited a small team of distinguished educators from Germany, the UK and the US to take a look at these institutions. The visitors, including university heads, were highly impressed by the “can-dream, can-do” attitude of our polytechnics and ITEs. 

These institutions are truly “best in class”. Collectively the polytechnics and ITEs admit two-thirds of the cohort. They will be the source of many technopreneurs, technologists and managers. Sim Wong Hoo, of Creative Technology, is an outstanding example. He graduated from Ngee Ann Polytechnic in 1975. There are many others. 

c. Universities 

We also want to make NUS and NTU first-rate universities. 

NUS and NTU have already achieved high standards. They do not lack facilities and resources. Their constraint to doing better is talent. 

Top universities in the US like Harvard and MIT recruit from the top 0.25 percent of a cohort of nearly 4 million, taking just over 1,000 students each per year. Only the brightest students have a chance. Furthermore, they recruit not just from the state they are in, or even the whole of the US. 

They draw outstanding students from the world over. So they attract top-rate professors, which in turn makes more top students want to enter these universities. 

Harvard and MIT can do this because they are private, not state universities. They do not have to look after all the students from the state of Massachusetts. They also have the advantage of long histories, and huge endowment funds from alumni and well-wishers. There are other state universities, which take the many other good students who do not make it to the elite institutions. 

NUS and NTU are state universities. They have a responsibility to take in all Singaporeans who qualify. They admit about 20% of every population cohort, thus catering to a wide range of talent and ability. Together they take in 8,000 students. 

To upgrade themselves, NUS and NTU must systematically enrol bright students from the region. Though they can never match the academic excellence of Harvard and MIT, they can emulate Harvard and MIT, and try and attract top students from Asia. 

Not every bright Asian student can afford to go to Britain or the US. Singapore is cheaper and closer to home. We do not expect all these students to stay on in Singapore. Many will go back and contribute to their home countries. Over time, they will form a regional network of old school ties, people who are well disposed to Singapore and whom we can do business with. 

Last year, foreign students made up 16% of the total undergraduate intake in NUS and NTU. The two universities will increase their intake of foreign students to 20%. This increase in foreign students will not be at the expense of Singaporeans. We will always provide enough university places for local students who meet the admission standards. 

d. An Education Hub 

We have also set out to attract top foreign universities to set up branches in Singapore. Our goal is to make Singapore an education hub, like Boston. Boston has many good universities besides Harvard and MIT. It has become a centre of excellence for higher education, attracting students and talent from far and wide. 

INSEAD, the European institute of business administration based in France, and the University of Chicago Business School, are setting up branch campuses in Singapore. Another top US business school, Wharton, is collaborating with the new Singapore Management University to set up the Wharton-SMU Research Centre. 

For engineering, MIT will conduct postgraduate courses in Singapore jointly with NUS and NTU. The Georgia Institute of Technology has linked up with NUS to set up the Logistics Institute – Asia to undertake research, industry consulting, education and training. 

The medical school in Johns Hopkins University is setting up Johns Hopkins Singapore, a postgraduate medical research and education centre at NUS. 

All these institutions will help us prepare Singapore for the knowledge-based economy. 

e. Speaking Good English 

i. Communicating with the World 

If we want to be an education hub, attracting good students from the region, then we must provide a good English-speaking environment, i.e. one where people speak standard English, not Singlish. Our schools must teach standard English, and our children must learn and speak standard English.

Most of our pupils still come from non-English speaking homes. For them, English is really a second language, to be learnt almost like a foreign language, and not their mother tongue. For them to master just one version of English is already quite a challenge. If they get into the habit of speaking Singlish, then later they will either have to unlearn these habits, or learn proper English on top of Singlish. Many pupils will find this too difficult. They may end up unable to speak any language properly, which would be a tragedy. 

Gurmit Singh can speak many languages. But Phua Chu Kang speaks only Singlish. If our children learn Singlish from Phua Chu Kang, they will not become as talented as Gurmit Singh. 

We learn English in order to communicate with the world. The fact that we use English gives us a big advantage over our competitors. Parents send children to English language schools rather than Chinese, Malay, or Tamil schools, because they hope the children will get jobs and opportunities when they grow up. But to become an engineer, a technician, an accountant or a nurse, you must have standard English, not Singlish. 

We don’t have to speak English with British, American, or Australian accents. Most of us speak with a Singaporean accent. We are so used to hearing it that we probably don’t notice it. But we should speak a form of English that is understood by the British, Americans, Australians, and people around the world. 

Nicholas Lee, who plays Ronnie Tan in Under One Roof, wrote a letter in the Straits Times [1 Jun] which hit the nail on the head. He had been criticised because Ronnie Tan did not speak Singlish. His reply was that the programme Under One Roof was shown overseas as well as in Singapore. Programme series are very expensive to make. If they are only shown in Singapore, they will surely lose money. If the characters spoke Singlish, viewers overseas would not understand it. 

Nicholas Lee cited one local production, “Forever Fever”, which could not be released in the US market because American audiences would not understand the Singapore English. So now they are considering removing the Singlish, and dubbing “Forever Fever” in English that Americans can understand. His conclusion was: “We should all be aware that the only way forward is to look outward, and if the future of Singapore entertainment lies in ‘Beng culture’, then I am afraid it is a very bleak culture.” 

What Nicholas Lee said about sitcoms applies to many other activities. Whether we are publishing a newspaper, writing a company report, or composing a song, does it make more sense to do so for a 3 million audience, or for the hundreds of millions who speak English around the world? We cannot be a first-world economy or go global with Singlish. 

ii. Pidgin English 

Singapore is not unique in having a local flavour to the English it uses. Local types of English often sprout up in places where non-English speakers come into contact with English speakers, or where people speaking different tongues use simple English as a common language to communicate with each other. These languages are called pidgin English, or Creole. Eventually pidgin develops into a new language, which uses many English words, but mixed with non-English words, and using different grammar. 

Different kinds of pidgin English or Creole is spoken in Africa, in the Caribbean, and in the South Pacific. For example, in Jamaica they say: “Him go a school every day last year; now sometime him go, sometime him no go” [Jamaican Creole]. In Samoa when a person is very ill, he says “Mi siksik” [Samoan Plantation Pidgin English]. 

These examples are not to make fun of anyone. This is simply the way people speak in these countries. The examples have a serious lesson for us: if we carry on using Singlish, the logical final outcome is that we too will develop our own type of pidgin English, spoken only by 3 million Singaporeans, which the rest of the world will find quaint but incomprehensible. We are already half-way there. Do we want to go all the way? We would be better off sticking to Chinese, Malay or Tamil; then at least some other people in the world can understand us. 

I know that many of us do not speak English perfectly. We studied in Chinese, Malay or Tamil schools, or came from non-English speaking homes even though we went to English schools. We cannot help it, and it is nothing to be ashamed of. But we should nurture the next generation to have higher standards of English than ourselves. We can help them by discouraging the use of Singlish, or at least not encouraging it. 

iii. Upgrading English in Schools 

Schools already organise many programmes and activities to encourage the use of proper English. They have Speak English Campaigns, they fine pupils caught speaking Singlish, and they run speech and drama programmes to promote good English. 

MOE has been working hard to upgrade standards of English in schools. First, it is revising the English Language syllabuses, to make them more rigorous and to strengthen the teaching of grammar.

Second, MOE will conduct a 60-hour course for 8,000 teachers who teach English Language in primary and secondary schools, to strengthen and update their skills. The course will lead to the award of the Singapore-Cambridge Certificate in the Teaching of English Grammar. 

Third, MOE is working with the Regional Language Centre to produce a handbook on common errors in English usage in Singapore. 

MOE gave me some examples of improper written English found in schools: “He is very sporting.” to mean “He is very active in sports.” 

“I became boring.” when the writer meant “I became bored.” 

“He turned into a new leaf.” instead of “He turned over a new leaf.” 

As for spoken English, how about this: “Quick, quick. Late already. You eat yourself, we eat ourself”. 

iv. Phua Chu Kang 

One of the problems MOE has getting students to speak standard English is that the students often hear Singlish being spoken around them, including on TV. So they learn wrong ways of speaking. 

Teachers complain that their students are picking up catchphrases like: “Don’t pray, pray.” and using them even in the classroom. The students may think that it is acceptable and even fashionable to speak like Phua Chu Kang. He is on national TV and a likeable, ordinary person. The only character who tries to speak proper English is Phua Chu Kang’s sister-in-law Margaret, and she is a snob. Nobody wants to be a snob. So in trying to imitate life, Phua Chu Kang has made the teaching of proper English more difficult. 

I asked TCS why Phua Chu Kang’s English is so poor. They told me that Phua Chu Kang started off speaking quite good English, but as time passed he forgot what he learnt in school, and his English went from bad to worse.

I therefore asked TCS to try persuading Phua Chu Kang to attend NTUC’s BEST classes, to improve his English. TCS replied that they have spoken to Phua Chu Kang, and he has agreed to enrol himself for the next BEST programme, starting in a month’s time. If Phua Chu Kang can improve himself, surely so can the rest of us. 

World-class home  

Education is important for making a living. But earning money is not the sole objective of life or education. A community of any quality should have a whole range of skills and interests. Its members should take part and excel in sports. They should paint, write, perform, visit art galleries and enjoy world-class concerts. Only then will they form a vibrant, rounded, interesting community. 

a. The Soft Environment 

Singapore should be a fun place to live. People laugh at us for promoting fun so seriously. But having fun is important. If Singapore is a dull, boring place, not only will talent not want to come here, but even Singaporeans will begin to feel restless. 

Luckily our efforts to create a wholesome, lively soft environment are succeeding. Places like Boat Quay and Clarke Quay bustle with life, especially on Friday evenings. Orchard Road at night is full of young people, who seem to be there just to enjoy the crowd. When we finish developing the banks of the Singapore River, we will have a beautiful promenade where Singaporeans and visitors can relax and enjoy themselves. 

The National Parks Board has done a wonderful job keeping Singapore green and beautiful. We have a Garden City Action Committee which meets every month to plan, implement and track projects to beautify Singapore. Senior Minister and I read the minutes of the Committee meetings. We must be the only leaders in the world who monitor the work of a gardening committee! 

Time magazine, better known for criticizing Singapore for being a sterile, authoritarian, nanny state that bans chewing gum and canes Michael Fay, now swoons over Singapore being “funky” (19 Jul). London’s Financial Times in a July supplement coos over “cool Singapore”. 

I am amused that they are surprised over the change. Had they read Vision 1999 which we outlined long ago, they would have discovered that we had every intention of making Singapore a fun place.

b. Sports 

Beyond fun and providing more and better facilities, we should aim for excellence in sports. Our sportsmen and women have done well in the recently-concluded SEA Games in Brunei. But let us not be satisfied with just SEA Games victories. Let us set our sights higher, and aim to do well in the world arena as well. A first-world economy should produce a few world-class sportsmen. 

People of my generation will remember Wong Peng Soon, Ong Poh Lim, Ismail Marjan and other great Singaporean badminton players of the 1950s. Wong Peng Soon is a legend in badminton circles. He played competitive badminton from 1937 to 1955. He won the All-England singles title 4 times and was in the Malayan team which won the Thomas Cup in 1949, 1952 and 1955. 

We should try to produce another Wong Peng Soon. I have set the target for Singapore to qualify for the Thomas Cup final in 2012. 

Sailing is another sport Singapore can excel in. Height and size are not important factors in sailing. Intelligence and quickness of thinking are. Siew Shaw Her, who won an Asian Games gold medal, told me that in a sailing race, the competitor has to make over 1,000 decisions. The wind shifts constantly. The current flows at different speeds in different parts of the sea. The sailor has to watch the waves while keeping an eye on the other competitors. A competitor can literally steal the wind from his sail. 

Singapore has never won an Olympic gold medal. We have a chance in sailing. I have told our sailors to bring back one by 2008. If Hong Kong could do it in the 1996 Olympics, surely so can Singapore. 

Whether in sailing, badminton or football, we can only do well if we systematically identify and groom the promising players from young. Foreign talent helps. Our table-tennis team won six golds in the Brunei SEA Games because it had imported talent from China. 

c. Arts and Culture 

We have not devoted much resources and attention to developing arts and culture until recently. We had other more urgent priorities, like upgrading our economy and building up the SAF. But in recent years, the arts scene has taken off, especially after we formed MITA under George Yeo in 1990. There are now many groups staging plays and musicals, putting up exhibitions and concerts.

Lee Yock Suan tells me that MITA is developing a vision for Singapore to be a renaissance city. Artistic creativity is an important element of a knowledge-based economy. He will get more funds to promote the arts. 

I asked MITA for a list of Singaporeans who have made their mark in the arts. MITA could produce just over 30 names, many of whom are based overseas. Violinist Siow Lee Chin, who performed at this year’s National Day Parade, is in the US. Glen Goei of M Butterfly fame is in the UK. Dick Lee, the “Mad Chinaman”, works out of Hong Kong. 

Among those based in Singapore we have playwright Kuo Pao Kun, painters Liu Kang and Tan Swie Hian, actor Lim Kay Siu and writer Catherine Lim, whose novels have been translated into several languages. Her latest book, “The Teardrop Story Woman” is a best-seller in London. 

A number of Singapore works have toured internationally in the last two years. Ong Keng Sen’s ‘Lear’ combined Japanese noh, Beijing opera, Vietnamese dances, Sumatran martial art forms and Singaporean talent. This powerful production was a big hit in Japan. 

‘Chang and Eng’, a musical about the famous Siamese twins, performed to full houses in Singapore. It toured Beijing in December 1997. The producer, Ekachai Uekrongtham, is a Singapore PR of Thai origin. He studied in NUS on an ASEAN scholarship more than 10 years ago, and stayed on in Singapore after his graduation. 

How many outstanding musicians, artists, directors, dancers and actors can a 3-million population produce? We are not like the Israelis, who are already naturally talented, and furthermore draw on a large pool of talented Jews from all over the world, to be artists, musicians and writers. After the Soviet Union collapsed, 600,000 Russian Jews emigrated to Israel. Every Russian immigrant coming off the plane in Tel Aviv carried some musical instrument – either a violin or cello, or perhaps a french horn. Occasionally you would see somebody carrying nothing. He was probably a pianist. 

An oasis of talent  

So in the arts, as in everything else, it is talent that counts. We can be neither a first-world economy nor a world-class home without talent. We have to supplement our talent from abroad.

One of Hong Kong’s advantages over Singapore is that it has more talent. Not only is its population double ours, but it draws on a huge reservoir of talent in China. 

Hong Kong has long been a magnet for ambitious, energetic, adventurous young people from across the border. Some come legally, while others sneak in. They become valuable assets to Hong Kong. Hong Kong will be tough to beat. It continues to draw talent from China. 

a. We Need More Top Talent 

Foreign talent will not take away jobs from Singaporeans. They will create more jobs and prosperity for all of us. Our neighbours want to catch up with us in manufacturing. They will try to protect their services sectors, and prevent Singapore firms from serving their domestic markets. But if we have top quality talent, and operate with high efficiency, either on our own or with top international services companies, it will not be so easy to block us. 

How many of our own can we produce? About 40,000 babies a year are born in Singapore. Of these, perhaps 40 to 50 grow up to show exceptional promise, judging from the numbers recruited into the Administrative Service, and into the SAF and SPF on overseas scholarships, plus those who did not join the government. 

Our economy is growing. Many more than 40 challenging jobs need to be filled each year with top talent, both in the government and the private sector. If we can get the right people to fill them, then the whole organisation will flourish, and maybe become a world-class player. But if we fill key posts with people who are not up to the job, the whole organisation will suffer, and perform far below what it is capable of. 

Not all our talent is deployed where they can make the best contribution. Too many still want to become doctors and lawyers. We need good doctors and lawyers, but we need people more in many other areas. 

We must deploy our talent properly, where they are most needed. Schools should counsel pupils before they enter university, so that they know where the opportunities are, and choose courses which help them pursue challenging and rewarding careers in Singapore. 

Furthermore some of our brightest go abroad to study or work, especially to the US. They feel the powerful pull of the booming US economy. Some stay on, employed by high-tech firms before they even graduate. Others are offered generous scholarships and research funds by outstanding universities, to continue their post-graduate studies. 

This growing problem is the downside of globalisation: able Singaporeans speak English, have talents and skills, and are totally mobile. Inevitably some will go abroad. But enough must come back, both because Singapore offers them opportunities, challenges and rewards, and because they feel an obligation to their own country. Otherwise we will be depleted and become a second-class country. 

b. Never Stop Attracting Talent. 

This is why we must continue to attract talent, whatever the state of the economy, and even when our unemployment numbers go up. 

Investors take careful note of our attitude towards foreign talent. In March this year, when the issue was raised in Parliament, we had a spirited debate. The International Herald Tribune reported it in a front page story [30 Mar]. It said that Singapore had always had a policy of welcoming foreigners, since the time of Stamford Raffles, until today, when rising unemployment prompted more Singaporeans to demand protection against foreign competition. It reported that Dr Tan Cheng Bock had raised the matter, and reflected what it called “a view that has found significant support among Singaporeans”. It also quoted what Lee Hsien Loong, George Yeo and I had said in response, defending the Government’s position. So IHT readers knew that the Singapore Government had not shifted its position. 

Tan Cheng Bock has clarified with me that he had been misunderstood. He said that he was not against the import of foreign talent. He was only against our harping on it, especially during a recession, as this would cause us political problems. 

Analysts give us high marks for our policy on talent, because it is the right policy for us to grow. PERC, a Hong Kong-based consultancy, recently issued a report [Asian Intelligence, 14 Jul] on how we are liberalising our services sector – banking, legal services, telecoms. It noted that we are opening up, like other Asian countries. But unlike them we are doing it as a result of a conscious decision, and not because the IMF is forcing us to do it. 

PERC commented that apart from Hong Kong, Singapore has the most open economy in the region when it comes to participation of foreigners in the services sector. It reported that DBS and OCBC now have foreign CEOs, and that we have appointed foreigners to top management positions in GLCs like Singapore Airlines, NOL and Pidemco Land. 

Attracting foreign talent may not be the popular thing to do, but it is the best way to protect the interests of Singaporeans. 

Will Singapore endure?  

a. Samuel Huntingtons question 

Our plans to build a first-world economy and a world-class home are ambitious. Whether we can realise them depends on a more fundamental question: Can Singapore endure beyond the first generation? 

In 1996, in an article discussing the merits of democracy, American scholar Samuel Huntington wrote: 

“The freedom and creativity that President Lee has introduced in Taiwan will survive him. The honesty and efficiency that Senior Minister Lee has brought to Singapore are likely to follow him to his grave.” 

Huntington’s point was that without the western brand of democracy, Senior Minister’s high standards of government would not last beyond him. 

What must we do to prove Huntington wrong? 

b. Stay United Tripartism 

The first requirement is to keep ourselves united and cohesive. We need to maintain the strong tripartite relationship among the Government, employers and workers. This will allow us to act decisively and rationally in the interest of all Singaporeans, and not waste energies quarrelling among ourselves. 

The Government could not have implemented the cost cutting package last year, especially the CPF cut, without close co-operation and understanding from workers and union leaders. 

Many foreign leaders envied our ability to cut wages with seeming ease. They have asked me how we managed it. In their own countries, there would have been demonstrations, street protests and riots. It would have been political suicide. 

Lim Boon Heng, Lim Swee Say and other union leaders needed little persuasion that our wages had become uncompetitive. They understood the problem. They did an excellent job in explaining to workers that it was better to save jobs than to hang on to higher wages. 

Why did union leaders and workers believe Lim Boon Heng, Lim Swee Say, and the Ministers? Partly because of logic, but more because of trust. The Government has led them through many previous crises. They are convinced that the Government is on their side, and will not let them down. Therefore the unions play constructive roles as partners in development, working together with employers and the Government to improve the lives of their members. 

Foreign employers new to Singapore take a while to understand that our unions are different from unions elsewhere. But sometimes something happens which drives home the point quickly. 

NMP Cyrille Tan, who is General Secretary of United Workers of Electronic & Electrical Industries, told this story of one US company, which has operations in Singapore and other Asian countries. The company had a union problem in another Asian country. It sent an executive there to try to sort it out. The workers not only refused to negotiate, but they turned violent and threatened his life! He fled. After that, the executive came to Singapore and met Cyrille Tan. Cyrille Tan became his best friend. 

c. Bonding Cosmopolitans and Heartlanders 

We also need to maintain cohesion between cosmopolitans and heartlanders. As Singapore becomes more international, two broad categories of people will emerge. One group I call the “cosmopolitans”, because their outlook is international. They speak English but are bilingual. They have skills that command good incomes – banking, IT, engineering, science and technology. They produce goods and services for the global market. Many cosmopolitans use Singapore as a base to operate in the region. They can work and be comfortable anywhere in the world. 

The other group, the heartlanders, make their living within the country. Their orientation and interests are local rather than international. Their skills are not marketable beyond Singapore. They speak Singlish. They include taxi-drivers, stallholders, provision shop owners, production workers and contractors. Phua Chu Kang is a typical heartlander. Another one is Tan Ah Teck. If they emigrate to America, they will probably settle in a Chinatown, open a Chinese restaurant and call it an “eating house”.

Both heartlanders and cosmopolitans are important to Singapore’s well being. Heartlanders play a major role in maintaining our core values and our social stability. They are the core of our society. Without them, there will be no safe and stable Singapore, no Singapore system, no Singapore brand name. 

Cosmopolitans, on the other hand, are indispensable in generating wealth for Singapore. They extend our economic reach. The world is their market. Without them, Singapore cannot run as an efficient, high performance society. 

The challenge for us is to get the heartlanders to understand what the cosmopolitans contribute to Singapore’s and their own well being, and to get the cosmopolitans to feel an obligation and sense of duty to the heartlanders. If cosmopolitans and heartlanders cease to identify with each other, our society will fall apart. 

d. Political Leadership 

Secondly, to prove Huntington wrong, we must continue to have high standards of government. We can only do this if we continue to produce capable, committed leaders, people who can govern the country well and win the support of Singaporeans. 

The PAP has never left self-renewal and succession planning to chance. We already have the core of a third generation leadership. From my observation of the interaction among the Ministers, it seems clear to me that there is a leader among them. By the time I take a step back, Lee Hsien Loong will be over 50 years old – mellowed and experienced. Other younger Ministers will be pushing 50. 

So finding more leaders in their 30s and early 40s to field in the next general election in 2002 is now already an urgent task. There is not much time to get them in, to gain experience to lead as Ministers. We must continue to find able, dedicated men and women to come forward and lead the country. This is the only way for Singapore to get the quality of leadership that it has become used to, and that it deserves. 

e. Building up Institutions the Elected Presidency 

Thirdly, we must institutionalise our system of government, so that it becomes less dependent on personalities – on having the ideal person to occupy a post. The persons will always matter. It is impossible to design a system which will run properly even if incompetent or dishonest people are in charge. But we can build the institutions, so that it is easier for honourable, reasonably competent people to make them work. 

In the early stages, when the institutions are still new, we must take special care to find the right candidates for the job, who will test out and develop the institutions before they are firmly anchored. One such important institution is the elected Presidency. 

In less than two weeks, Singapore will swear in a new President. I am confident that Mr S R Nathan, our incoming President, will build on what President Ong has done. 

The President has two distinct roles. The first is ceremonial. As Head of State, the President is a symbol of unity amongst Singaporeans of all races, religions, social strata and political persuasions. 

The second role of the President is custodial. Here, he has blocking or veto powers in two main areas: safeguarding past financial reserves and ensuring key appointments are made on merit. 

The Government has an interest to ensure that whoever becomes President has the competence, strength of character and balanced judgment to perform his custodial functions. He should also have the personality and bearing to fulfil his ceremonial role as Head of State. 

When Cabinet decided in April to look for a new President, I asked Ministers to suggest names of people they considered suitable. After several discussions, Cabinet came up with a short list of eligible names. However, not everyone short-listed was available. 

Of the available potential candidates, the Ministers unanimously chose Mr S R Nathan. They did so on merit. He was on the short list of many Ministers, not just Senior Ministers. Being a member of a minority community was a point in his favour, as the previous two Presidents were Chinese. But race was not the prime consideration in our choice. Mr S R Nathan’s overall qualities were. I look forward to a sound working relationship with him. 

f. Commitment

Finally, to endure beyond the first generation, Singapore needs the commitment of its citizens. It is not enough to have good jobs, a safe environment, exciting entertainment, or delicious food. We must feel passionately for Singapore. 

Singaporeans have to be convinced that there is something special and precious in our way of life, in what we have built against the odds. We must want to defend it, build upon it, and pass it on to our children. And indeed we have achieved something remarkable, that others admire and sometimes envy. 

Commitment is especially needed from those Singaporeans who have done well. They must feel an obligation to contribute something back to society, to help give others the same opportunities that they themselves benefited from. Only then can we become a close-knit civic society with volunteer groups, community leaders, grassroots leaders, MPs and Ministers, motivated by a sense of duty and responsibility to their fellow citizens. Otherwise we will just be so many individual Singaporeans, no more than loose sand in a bucket. 


So the answer to Samuel Huntington’s question lies not in any argument we may produce now, but in what we will do as a nation over the next few decades. I believe that Singaporeans are proud of our country, especially Singaporeans who have travelled overseas and know what the world is really like. I am confident that we will stand up for Singapore, not just in the song, but in real life. So let us work together, to make Singapore a First-World Economy and a World-Class Home, for ourselves and for our families. This way, the Singapore heart will beat on and we will flourish in the new millennium.