At the Building Our Future Singapore Together dialogue on June 15, 2019, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat spoke about his vision for Singapore: that government and the people can build a shared future, one where everyone will have a part to play.
Here’s his speech in full.
We are here to discuss how we can build our future together.
At the heart of this topic lies the biggest challenge we will face in the coming decades, which is how our politics will evolve. Singapore has enjoyed more than fifty years of constructive politics. This has helped keep us cohesive and united, grow our economy, and build our nation. But how do we remain united despite our diversities; one though we are many?
As in previous leadership transitions, three sets of questions uppermost in people’s minds about me and my team are:
One, who are we? What do we believe in and care deeply about? Two, where do we want to lead Singapore and Singaporeans? How will we continue to improve your lives? And three, how will we lead? How will we work with you?
These are important questions.
As President Halimah Yacob said at the opening of Parliament last year, the right to leadership cannot be inherited. Each generation of leaders has to earn the right to lead by itself, for itself. I know – and my colleagues know — that we have to earn your trust. I mean to do so by working with you, for you, for Singapore. These words express our deep-seated beliefs, the reasons why we decided to enter politics.
I would like to share with you today my thoughts on how we can build our future together.
We have worked hard since 1965 to become one people. We were not one when we became independent. The years before independence were marked by violence and upheaval. During the race riots of 1964, neighbours who had known each other for years, if not decades, suddenly became suspicious of each other solely because of the colour of their skin.
After Separation, Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his team knew that they had to mobilise Singaporeans if the country was to survive. They spoke to Singaporeans frankly, explaining our challenges, the choices we faced, and why we had to take certain tough measures. None of the things we now take for granted – tripartism, National Service, multi-racialism, religious harmony, bilingualism – came easily or naturally.
Mr Lee and his colleagues squared with the people, never hid the bitter truths, and carried the ground. They did not earn the trust of people with empty promises. They earned their trust the hard way – by trusting them with the hard truths and leading from the front. This was how the Pioneer and Merdeka Generations came to support the tough, long term policies their leaders took.
Our founding fathers were revolutionaries who lived in turbulent times. Singaporeans came to trust them because they saw them stand up to powerful adversaries – the communists, the communalists. They never flinched in a tough neighbourhood. Just as soldiers sharing the same trenches in battle come to trust and rely upon each other without reservation, the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans came to give their whole hearted support to Mr Lee and his team. This kind of relationship between leaders and the people cannot be replicated, unless we go through again the same kinds of life-and-death struggles.
As we developed, how Singaporeans related to the Government changed. We came to identify ourselves as Singaporean – not just as Chinese, Malay or Indian, or by language or religion. Slowly but surely, we traversed the journey “From Singapore, To Singaporean”, to quote the words of The Bicentennial Experience.
Singapore became more than a place. It became a home – our home. And as Singaporeans came to feel a greater sense of ownership of their country, they naturally came to want a stronger say in how they were governed. Not just once every four or five years, when they cast their ballots, but also in-between as policies were developed and implemented. The bonds of trust between the founding generation of leaders and Singaporeans were forged in battle. But as our society matured, successive generations of leaders had to win the hearts and minds of Singaporeans in their own way, in accordance with the tenor of the times.
Mr Goh Chok Tong and his team responded to the needs of a changing electorate by creating “a kinder, gentler society”. The Government became more consultative. Mr Goh created the Feedback Unit, even before he became Prime Minister in 1990. The Nominated Member of Parliament scheme was introduced so more views could be heard in Parliament. And various national engagement efforts were launched – among them, The Next Lap, Singapore 21, and Remaking Singapore – to involve more Singaporeans in decision-making.
When Mr Lee Hsien Loong became PM, he took this further with a more inclusive style of governance. He revamped the Feedback Unit to become REACH. Its focus shifted from asking for feedback on Government policies, to getting Singaporeans to share their views on issues that mattered to them. PM Lee listened to what people were concerned about, and he strengthened and extended our social safety nets, including CPF Life, MediShield Life, CareShield Life and the ComCare Fund. PM Lee’s envisioned a “new way forward” in 2013 to create a more just and equal society.
But even as the style of governance changed, a few constants ran through successive generations of leaders. First, winning and retaining the trust of Singaporeans remained the essence of government. And second, explaining the trade-offs and challenges we faced, and telling people the truth remained the essence of political leadership – even on difficult matters like population or tax or HDB leases.
I believe that trust between the people and the Government is absolutely essential. And the best way to win your trust is to first trust you with the truth – no matter how hard or unpopular.
Next Phase of Nation Building
Building on our inheritance, how can the 4G leadership evolve a style of leadership in keeping with our times – one that would enable us to forge a renewed bond of trust with a new generation of Singaporeans?
We are more diverse now than we were in 1965. For one, we have become more diverse in terms of our needs. The fastest growing segment of our population are seniors. Their needs are very different from that of the young. While the vast majority of our families have seen their lives improve by leaps and bounds, some segments of our society have not made the same progress, and will need other forms of support. To support these differing needs, we have to consider new policy trade-offs, including how best to allocate our resources. Otherwise, society can fracture along the lines of class and backgrounds, as has happened in other advanced economies.
Our views have also become more diverse, as the range of life experiences of Singaporeans have also become more varied. As a result, we see sharper debates on many issues — from LGBT rights to freedom of speech, from the welfare of foreign workers to nature conservation. A contestation of views and ideas is good for Singapore. But it can also divide us. Singaporeans can end up living in self-enclosed silos on social media, perpetuating their own versions of reality in narrow echo chambers. Singaporeans are also exposed to and can be influenced by exclusivist and extremist ideologies from other parts of the world, which can be especially damaging in our context.
We must not allow our differences to divide us. We have seen how social stratification and ideological differences have splintered the social compact in many countries.
But our increasing diversity means it will become increasingly harder to maintain our common space. We will have to nurture that deliberately – something that the Government cannot do on its own. Singaporeans will have to be open to views that are diametrically opposed to their own. We must build a culture of respect and tolerance – and some measure of patience as well. For often, we may simply have to agree to disagree, and allow time for a consensus to evolve on difficult or controversial issues.
It is critical that we stay united, as we will have to navigate some serious challenges ahead. The global order is undergoing transition, as the United States and China adjust to each other, and hopefully find a new equilibrium.
Meanwhile, technological advancements are gathering pace, dramatically changing the ways we live, work and interact with one another. And we will need to confront longer term existential threats – like climate change and serious pandemics.
But at the same time, there are many exciting opportunities ahead. We are an oasis of stability in a turbulent world. We are at the heart of an economically vibrant, growing Asia, and on the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Our people are better educated, technologically savvy, and have the cultural underpinnings to connect with all parts of the world. We have some of the best systems and infrastructure in the world; and are continuing to invest in a big way to transform our city.
Navigating these challenges and grasping these opportunities will not be straightforward. We will need the wits and will of all Singaporeans to explore these issues, experiment with possible solutions, and act together if we are to successfully overcome these challenges and seize the opportunities that are out there.
Working with you, for you
This brings me to the heart of today’s discussion. In the next phase of nation building, the 4G leadership will strive to harness our diverse strengths, and partner Singaporeans to take Singapore forward.
Allow me to share with you my own experience early on in my public service career. My first appointment was in the Police in the 1980s, at a time when the Police was exploring a more effective model of policing. Several of us were sent to study the Japanese Koban system, where police posts were placed close to communities. We saw that the police officer in Japan is not a distant representative of the Law, there to just ensure law and order for the community. Instead, he is part of the community, working with the community to maintain law and order.
We learnt from the Japanese, and applied the same principles in Singapore. We started community policing, the most visible part being the Neighbourhood Police Posts. The Police built trust with residents, and residents in turn helped the Police keep everyone in the community safe. The Chinese idiom, 守望相助, looking out and helping one another, describes this approach well.
Later on, I entered politics. Like all my 4G colleagues who entered politics – most of us in 2011, some earlier, some later – I walked the ground and engaged Singaporeans at various levels. I myself led “Our Singapore Conversation” (OSC) from 2012 to 2013. We heard the views of Singaporeans from all walks of life, both their concerns about bread and butter issues, and their hopes and aspirations. It was a humbling yet gratifying experience. I was not sure when we started where these open-ended conversations would lead. Many Singaporeans were also sceptical at first. They were not sure if their opinions would be taken seriously. But not only were they heard, we were able to translate their inputs into significant policy changes.
For example, many Singaporeans said they wanted more inclusive healthcare coverage. The Pioneer Generation Package was a direct outcome of this process; the transformation of MediShield into MediShield Life was another. Something else that came out of the OSC process is especially close to my heart – the upcoming changes to the PSLE scoring system. Many OSC participants felt that our education system had become too high stakes at too young an age. So the PSLE system was changed, and we will see the impact soon. Above all, I was heartened by the spirit and passion of Singaporeans. There was a diversity of views, some starkly opposed. But despite the differences, we were able to have open and constructive conversations.
Everyone fought on the same side, and wanted Team Singapore to succeed. When Chun Sing and Grace led the “SG Future” series of engagements in 2015, they too were encouraged by Singaporeans wanting to take charge of their future and make their own contribution to society.
These experiences have crystallised our goals as a leadership team. They have strengthened my own belief that along with working for you, government needs to work better with you. We need to shift from a government that focusses primarily on working for you, to a government that works with you. Working with you, for you.
We will work with Singaporeans to build Singapore together. In some areas — like national security and foreign policy— the Government will continue to lead decisively with clear-eyed realism. But in many other areas, there is plenty of room to debate and deliberate, and establish partnerships with Singaporeans. When I was at MOE, the phrase I heard most often is ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. Indeed, one reason why our children do so well is that it’s a whole of society effort – involving parents, teachers, and the children themselves. Our educators believe deeply that ‘every parent a supportive partner’, ‘every teacher a caring educator’, and ‘every school a good school’. And all are essential to develop ‘every student to become an engaged learner’, for life.
During OSC, many of you told us that you wanted to move from talking, to walking the talk. You wanted to think together, work together, and build Singapore together, in partnership with the Government. We can realise this aspiration. This will strengthen the bonds of trust not only between the Government and the people, but also among different individuals and community groups.
We will do this in two ways. First, the Government will partner Singaporeans in new ways, to design and implement policies together. Second, beyond partnering you in specific areas, we will work with you to create a shared future, one where every Singaporean will have a part to play.
First, the Government will partner Singaporeans in new ways. We want to draw on the diversity of passions and expertise among Singaporeans to improve policies and programmes to better meet our needs. As importantly, we want to work with you to implement these policies, so we can better deliver solutions on the ground. To do this, we will find new ways to tap on your ideas and perspectives, as we already have. Some of you, like Dr Kalpana Bhaskaran, participated in MOH’s Citizens’ Jury for the War on Diabetes and gave many valuable recommendations. Indranee and the UPLIFT Taskforce are working with community support groups to help disadvantaged children overcome the challenges they face. And Josephine will soon launch a Citizens’ Panel to look at ways to improve work-life harmony, an issue close to the hearts of many Singaporeans.
We will work hand-in-hand with more of you to design and implement solutions across a wider range of issues and policy areas. These include environmental sustainability: an issue that many Singaporeans, especially our young, are passionate about because they will be inheriting the consequences of our actions today. Masagos and his team in MEWR are engaging citizens, civil society and businesses to come up with concrete action in this area. Housing: Lawrence and his MND team will work more closely with residents to shape their living environment and build a stronger sense of community. Young Singaporeans: Grace and MCCY are working with our youths to create a vision of Singapore 2025 through the Youth Action Plan. Social Mobility: Desmond and Ye Kung will be leading their respective Ministries to work with community groups to support the disadvantaged and give them a good start in life.
I have also been working closely with Chun Sing, Iswaran, Josephine, Ye Kung, Chee Meng, as well as with our business leaders, trade associations and chambers, and unions to build our future economy, to create good jobs for our people, and help our businesses succeed.
We are also reaching out to many Singaporeans with the help of thousands of volunteers, and we can do more. For example, through the Community Network for Seniors led by Kim Yong, to build a community of care and support for our seniors; through SG Secure led by Shanmugam, to better galvanize the community and make Singapore more resilient; and through our Smart Nation Ambassadors led by Vivian, to help every Singaporean use digital technology in a human-centered way.
We will encourage and support individuals and groups to come together for the common good. We have already seen the pace of such people-to-people partnerships picking up over the years. Like-minded people are coming together to contribute to a common good. The Friends of Ubin Network is one example. Residents, youths, educators, researchers, volunteers and members from the heritage, nature and other communities came together to brainstorm and develop new initiatives for the island. They even developed a code of conduct for environmentally and socially responsible behaviour on Pulau Ubin known as the ‘Ubin Way’.
We are also seeing organisations working together to make a difference. The Singapore Youth Impact Collective is a good example, where six companies, foundations and VWOs came together to find ways to help disadvantaged youths across different stages of life. They realised early on that multiple stakeholders are needed to help these youths, and working together allowed them to build on each other’s strengths.
The Government is also working with VWOs to match aspiring volunteers and social causes through the SG Cares app. The app makes it easier for Singaporeans to find volunteering opportunities that are near them or interest them. The app also contains many stories that have inspired Singaporeans to take up volunteerism.
I welcome all groups and individuals to join these efforts. We may have different views but so long as you have the good of Singapore at heart, we can work together. For example, you may think the Government is not doing enough to help families in rental flats to become home-owners. Or you may think our current ideas to improve the performance of children from lower-income families are not sufficient. I encourage you to work with us to solve these problems, as so many volunteers and non-governmental groups are already doing.
One of our founding fathers, Mr S Rajaratnam, used to speak of a “democracy of deeds”, and not just of words. Partnership is about more than contributing feedback, suggestions or ideas. It is about following through on ideas and suggestions and making things happen. Our future Singapore – the Singapore we are building together – must be an expanded democracy of deeds, with citizens taking action to make a difference.
Which brings me to my second point. We will work with you to create a shared future, one where every Singaporean will have a part to play.
We all know many Singaporeans who have pursued their passions and given back to society. For example, Ms Pamela Chng, who founded Bettr Barista – a coffee academy that helps marginalised women and youth-at-risk become certified baristas. Or Mr Richard Kuppusamy, President of the Disabled People’s Association, who has been working with BCA to ensure that our built environment is accessible to wheelchair users. Or Ms Mizah Rahman, who founded Participate in Design, a non-profit to help neighborhoods and public institutions design community-owned spaces.
This is how this little red dot remains a successful country. Generations of Singaporeans — of all races, religions, ages and genders — chipping in to improve the lives of their fellow citizens.
Many more Singaporeans today want to play a bigger part in nation building – not just contributing to specific areas, but also contributing to shaping our shared future. Younger Singaporeans in particular have been widely exposed to the world, and as a result are passionate about shaping the society that they live in. Older Singaporeans too, having benefitted from the fruits of our progress, want to contribute to the success of our future generations. Many Singaporeans overseas also are stepping forward to give their views and to contribute. So too friends of Singapore — who have lived here for long, or have visited us often — and want to see us succeed.
As we enter our next phase of nation building, I encourage more Singaporeans to come forward to envision our future, to propose ideas for shaping our future.
To do so effectively, we also need to enlarge and safeguard our common space and build trust among communities. This can happen only if we keep an open mind. Look at issues not just through our own lens, but also through the perspectives of others. Recognise that other viewpoints, even if they are not in line with our own, may be just as valid, and that not all our ideas can be taken on board wholesale or even accepted.
The Government must also be prepared, if necessary, to step in if particular groups pursue their agenda in ways that divide society or impede the good work of other groups. Otherwise, we will run the risk of alienating other Singaporeans, especially those who are unable to organise and speak up for themselves.
In the coming months, the 4G leaders will be engaging our people on how we can build this future Singapore. For a start, we will touch on four themes. First, how do we remain a resilient nation, in the face of major developments around the world – from geopolitical shifts, to climate change? Second, how can we remain a city of possibilities, by transforming our economy, harnessing technology, and building our future city and home, where sports, arts, culture and heritage can flourish? Third, how can we build a society with more opportunities for all? How can we provide strong foundation for all our children, and create multiple pathways and careers, so all our people are able to fulfil their potential and aspirations? Fourth, how can we build on the strong foundation of a multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural society, to build an even more caring, gracious, kind and cohesive community, and strengthen our identity as one people?
For each of these themes, my team and I will share more with you what we want to achieve for our country and people. We will set out not just our vision for the future – where we want to go – but also how we can get there. We will be frank about the challenges we face, the trade-offs we will have to make, the hard truths confronting us.
We will listen to your views and explore together what the Government can do, what each of you can do, and how we can create partnerships to take good ideas forward.
In the process, I hope you will know better who we are, what we believe in. And as we jointly figure out where we want to go, I hope we will get to know each other better.
This is how my team and I will take Singapore forward – by charting our future together, levelling with you, expanding the common space, and journeying towards a better future. This is how we will expand our democracy of deeds. This is how we will build a society where every Singaporean has a strong sense of belonging, and a part to play in building our shared future together.
What I have spoken of today will be the work of a generation. We must not expect partnerships to proliferate overnight in every policy domain. It will be a learning process for all of us. Government agencies will have to learn to better engage and rally different groups of Singaporeans. And accept good ideas wherever they may come from, while continuing to exercise leadership, act in the long term interest of our country, and not abdicate their responsibilities. At the same time, community groups and individuals will have to learn to better engage with each other and with the public sector, always keeping the interest of Singapore and your fellow Singaporeans at heart.
On some issues, even if we share the same aim, we may have different views on how the policies are to be designed and implemented. For example, there is a range of views on how best to help lower income groups. My team and I will listen carefully to all views, and decide on the best trade-offs that will serve all Singaporeans well. And we will welcome Singaporeans to contribute to implementing these policies to realise our shared future. This is what I mean by a democracy of deeds – contributing not just ideas but also effort. I am confident that many new and exciting ideas, and many constructive actions, will surface. As long as we persist, learn from each other, we can forge a new way forward, step by step.
So let us take the next step today. Join us in walking this journey. My team and I are committed to working with you, for you.
Your support, your ideas, your energies, your partnership, will be our strength. And with this strength, we will build Singapore Together.
June 15, 2019.