What do pies, stone boats & water have to do with sustainable growth?


Singapore needs sustainable growth — growth that’s bearable, recurring and (this is important) leaves enough to keep future generations comfortable.

After all, where’s the wisdom in building towards instant gratification and a dead end? It’s wiser and better to seed plans and projects which not only keep us doing well today and bear fruit for future years.

“This will enable Singapore’s economy to continue to grow over the longer-term by finding innovative solutions to overcome our land, labour and carbon constraints,” said Senior Minister of State for Finance Chee Hong Tat at the 37th Singapore Economic Roundtable on Dec 5.

Source: Chee Hong Tat Facebook

“And to rise above the near-term challenges that we face with a slowing global economy due to geopolitical conflicts and trade restrictions, higher interest rates and also rising inflation around the world,” continued SMS Chee.

How should we here in Singapore do this, though?

For SMS Chee, this is a three-part answer: an international outlook, innovation and inclusivity.

And this answer also involves pie, boats made of stone and solving the downsides of meritocracy.


“Stay open and connected.”

That’s SMS Chee’s key tip for these difficult times.

“If we close our doors to the world, we will end up shooting ourselves in the foot because the world will just move on, bypass us and use any of the competing hubs,” he explained. 

“We will then not have the resources to support future generations of Singaporeans.”

There’s been a pushback against globalisation recently though. As well as issues like Brexit and populist xenophobia rearing their divisive heads.

Source: Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

So one way is through discussing Digital Economy Agreements with like-minded international partners like Australia, Korea and the UK — these can become win-win collaborations.

It’s the exact reverse of how xenophobia is ultimately a losing game for everyone.

Because openness lets the Government enlarge Singapore’s economic pie and there is more for everyone to share.

“The alternative is to have a zero-sum game. Or worse a shrinking economic pie when we lose competitiveness, and when businesses decide to shift their investments elsewhere,” said SMS Chee. 

“This will be a worse outcome for Singapore and Singaporeans.”

The PAP Government is also addressing the root causes of this ugly antagonism, such as through SkillsFuture upgrading courses and lifelong learning.

“Many Singaporeans understand why we need to remain open to talent and stay connected with the world,” said SMS Chee.

“But they also have genuine concerns that if there are too many foreigners coming to Singapore over a short period of time, it will impact Singapore’s social fabric and it could affect our cohesion.”

“The more we can assure and equip our people to have the skills and confidence to face the competition, the more ready we will be to welcome a complementary foreign workforce and also to integrate new immigrants into our society,” he said.


Singapore is vibrant on this front.

Our long-term investments in R&D are bearing fruit. More venture capital funds are based here. And students are keen about becoming start-up entrepreneurs.  

Now to innovate and level up even more.

Key here is that society deems failure a normal part of the innovation process.

“In an earlier speech in Parliament, I spoke about a stone boat built by Emperor Qianlong in the Summer Palace in Beijing,” recalled SMS Chee.

“He hoped that the Qing Dynasty would be like the stone boat – unshakeable and with zero risk of sinking. However, it is also a boat that is un-sailable and remains firmly stuck in the Summer Palace lake.”

Source: Postcard History

“And we know what eventually happened to the Qing Dynasty, because it became an inward-looking society that was risk-averse and resistant to change,” SMS Chee noted.

“When we build ships, it is not to anchor them in the harbour or in some lake in the Summer Palace. It is to sail out to the oceans and reach new lands. 

“In doing so, we have to take calculated risks and be prepared to enter uncharted waters.”

“One way the Government can help is to reduce our risk exposure by setting up regulatory sandboxes, so that we aim for safe-fail rather than fail-safe,” he noted.

Here, safe-fail — rather than fail-safe — can increase the amount of pilot projects, which in turn increases the number of successful trials.

“We can then scale them up quickly across the system to achieve a bigger impact,” said SMS Chee.


And there’s also a need to look at the downsides and blind spots of meritocracy.

“Left on its own without government regulation or redistribution, a market-driven economy will likely end up with unintended consequences such as widening income and wealth inequality and declining social mobility over time,” said SMS Chee.

“This will breed discontent and erode social cohesion. We cannot successfully move ahead if we are unable to stay together as one united people.”

So Singapore’s meritocracy needs to be continuous and compassionate.

“Continuous in the sense that an individual’s success is not determined by one or two high-stake events in his or her life, whether it is a national exam, academic qualification or job opportunity, but a lifelong journey with multiple opportunities to shine and demonstrate one’s talent and capabilities along the way,” elaborated SMS Chee.

“And compassionate in the sense that when a person does well, he or she will understand that success is not just because of one’s talent alone, but also due to the support and recognition from society,” he added.

This compassion can nurture a spirit of helping others through philanthropy and volunteerism.

Source: Adonyi Gábor, Pexels

“When we drink water, we remember the source of where the water came from,” said SMS Chee.

So the PAP Government has the Progressive Wage Model and Workfare Income Supplement for boosting the earnings of lower-wage workers and narrowing Singapore’s income gap.

The Government also provides good and affordable childhood education which ensures that children from lower-income families will have a strong foundation early in life.

And every tax dollar is multiplied in benefits for most people; a lower-income family in Singapore will receive about S$4 in benefits for every dollar paid and a middle-income family will receive around S$2.

The effects of the GST hike are being delayed five years for middle-income families and around a decade for lower-income ones too.

Progress for our nation

SMS Chee invoked our National Pledge in his speech as well.

“Sustainable growth is important for Singapore,” he said.

“And this growth needs to be anchored on a few key elements: international, innovation and inclusive; so we can improve the lives of our people and achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation.”

It’s appropriate.

Source: MINDEF

The Pledge puts people first and foremost: “We the citizens…”

And, for all this work towards sustainable growth, there’s a purpose towards this pursuit.

“We view economic growth as a means to improve our people’s lives and not as an end in itself,” said SMS Chee.

Cover photo credit: Wikimedia Commons