For policies to make impact, S’pore can’t afford to be caught in fractious politics: Ong Ye Kung

At the Singapore Perspectives 2022 forum organised by the Institute of Policy Studies on Jan 13, 2022, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung spoke how Singapore could learn and draw out key lessons from ancient cities (Jericho); political cities (Rome, Chang An) and present day metropolises (New York). Here’s an excerpt of his speech.

There is also a Chang An in us, even though we are no empire.

This is because we need to run an effective state. In Singapore, our people do not have a choice between a free- wheeling urban economic centre or a quiet life in the suburbs.

There is also no equivalent of Washington DC, Canberra, or Brasilia outside of our global city. This city is all we got. Within these 730 square kilometres, lie all the possible choices for five million people.

The Government of Singapore must defend our city and maintain law and order. It must ensure that all our infrastructure and services – from healthcare, education and transport to utilities and refuse collection, libraries and parks, are all well provided for and working well.

What Singapore has been blessed with is a founding generation that has built up a good Government, with a capital ‘G’.

This includes the various arms of the state – an executive branch that is effective and can get things done; a non-politicised civil service; and a judicial system that upholds the rule of law without fear or favour. It also includes democratic institutions such as parliament, formed through free and fair elections.

But the affairs of the state cannot run away from politics. Therein lies a duality. On the one hand, politics facilitates public discourse, puts the fate of the country ultimately in the hands of people, keeps powers in check and maintains accountability of the executive branch.

On the other hand, politics gone wrong can polarise the population and destabilise societies. We have seen many recent examples.

So a critical factor for good governance, is to get politics right. Rather than endless bickering and stalemates, the political process must be constructive, and help bridge divides.

The objective of politics must be to help the country find a way forward even if the decisions involve very difficult trade-offs.

This is especially important to Singapore. For what we lack in resources and strategic mass, we can make up with nimbleness, and unity of purpose and action. We may be small, but we can move fast and together.

What are the starkest political differences that need to be reconciled today?

Post Industrial Revolution, and throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the biggest conflict has been between the Right and Left. Creation versus distribution of wealth. Socialism versus Capitalism. That was the defining divide that characterised the political struggles of almost every country. An ideological struggle that defined modern history.

However, post globalisation and the Internet, modern societies face new contradictions. Economic and income growth are important and desired by many, but can also stratify society and hinder social mobility. The challenges and stresses of international competition can make people turn against globalisation and foreigners. Resource exploitation depletes the life of our planet.

In other words – inequality, protectionism and climate change. These are some of the biggest issues that nations and their Governments across the world have to grapple with today.

To reconcile the dilemmas of modern societies and deal with these issues, we need a strong state. Otherwise, it will not be possible to do difficult but necessary things such as a carbon tax to reduce emission, or redistributive policies to help the low income, or reform education, health or other significant public programmes.

Our policies need to be consistent for the long term to make an impact. Unlike bigger countries, we cannot afford to be caught in fractious politics with frequent change of Governments and reorientation of policies.

This does not preclude the value of healthy discourse that takes in diverse views, and the proper functioning of checks and balances – both of which can strengthen our health and functioning as a state. The success of the Singapore state depends on our ability to achieve both aims.


But the most crucial aspect of Singapore is the Jericho in us.

The sense that despite being in a global city, we are members of a close-knit tribe, sharing a common fate and destiny. A recognition that by working together and making sacrifices for one another, we have a better shot at a brighter future.

Except unlike the inhabitants of Jericho, we are not a natural tribe of similar origins. Singapore is a far more diverse and complex society than any ancient city.

Having a seat at the table at the United Nations, or a flag to compete under in the Olympics, does not a nation make. The litmus test of what it means to be a nation is in our Pledge – ‘One United People’.

This makes nation building a long term, subconscious process. A nations’ people will need to have common experiences, and go through trials and tribulations together. Over time, this togetherness will forge common ideals that transcend primordial tribal instincts, and overcome forces that deepen social fault lines.

Then something mysterious emerges, beyond security, beyond making a living, beyond creature comforts – like, the soul of a nation.

For ancient civilisations like India and China, the sense of nationhood is almost second nature, having been borne of millennia in time. In Europe, religious beliefs played a big part in forging the sense of togetherness over centuries. The United States of America is a relatively young country, held together by the ideals of individual freedom and liberty.

In Singapore, we are working on what it means to be Singaporean, day by day. Students singing Majulah Singapura daily at school assemblies; different communities living side by side in HDB estates, visiting the same hawker centres and public parks; cohorts of youngsters performing National Service together; total strangers instinctively connecting with a Singlish phrase, even thousands of miles away from home, like our shared secret code; and, battling crises like the Covid-19 pandemic together. These are all acts of nation building.

Many of these come through deliberate policies and programmes implemented by the state.

Take our bicentennial commemoration in 2019 for instance. We wanted to figure out what best describes the Singapore DNA. After consulting widely, we shortlisted three descriptors – openness, multiculturalism and self-determination.

At the end of the exhibition at Fort Canning, members of the public were asked to vote for the descriptor that resonated with them most.

By a wide margin, we chose self-determination.

It is not surprising. Cities don’t need it; many states don’t even think about it; but a young nation like us dreams of and cherishes self-determination.

It was a pity Covid-19 disrupted the process and we could not take the exhibition further. But we should, because there is a growing consciousness about why we exist as Singapore and what makes us Singaporean.

To put that consciousness into words, it is perhaps: That we are not just a key node of the globalised world, but the one that connects East and West, and different parts of the vast continent of Asia, creating vast opportunities that surpass the limits of our borders, for our people and future generations.

That the consistent strengths of the institutions of state will always strive to ensure justice and fairness to all, uphold meritocracy, bring out the best in everyone, bridge our divides and put us on the right path for the long term.

That therefore in this nation, there is a solemn commitment to give every community that calls Singapore home a place under the sun, where everyone also exercises a spirit of give and take rather than pushing for their own agenda at the expense of others, and in so doing, provides space for something that we collectively own as Singaporeans, to evolve.

With all of these, we will determine our own future, and be a city, state, and nation that continues to thrive for many years to come.

Cover photo credit: Ong Ye Kung’s Facebook page and photo by Mike Enerio on Unsplash