Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), at Debate of President’s Address, 25 Jan 2016, Parliament

Published Date: 26 January 2016 12:00 AM

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Faster legs, stronger hearts, wiser minds

1. Madam Speaker, It has been a privilege to join this debate. As a new member of the House, I seek your guidance as I embark on my journey as a Parliamentarian.

2. We have done remarkably well as a society and country from SG01 to SG50. SG51 to SG100 will however be very different, in terms of our external circumstances, our domestic situation and also the outlook of Singaporeans. Today the eyes of people are upon us, the Government. We are jointly committed to the next phase of nation building. Some principles - integrity, meritocracy, being open to the world - we must steadfastly hold onto them, while other things must evolve to suit new circumstances. Today I would like to talk about three aspects of governance which may have to evolve.

3. I choose the word “may”, because the process will never be straightforward, certainly not sudden, and always a gradual and progressive evolution, fraught with tensions even at times. But this process of evolution is absolutely necessary because no city stays successful by standing still. Animals develop sharper claws, longer beaks and harder shells in order to survive. The three aspects of evolution for Singapore I will talk about today are: faster legs, stronger hearts, and wiser minds.

Faster Legs: The Economy

4. First, faster legs, which means how we make a living. At our birth, Singapore wanted, not foreign aid, but Foreign Direct Investments (FDI). The global economic system was then emerging from the old world of colonialism, where country-to-country relationships were hierarchical and benefits unbalanced. We are changing to a new global order based on market forces. Our economic strategy of attracting FDI was conceived in this era of receding colonialism.

5. But the next 50 years will be different. US, Europe and Japan will continue to be major players and important investors in Singapore. But we are also in the midst of the making of an Asian century.

6. China is a major part of that equation. We need to look at China’s trajectory beyond the current stock market sell down and pessimistic talk of soft or hard landing. China’s economic transformation has moved on from growth to addressing the quality of growth. Low value added activities are no longer the China Dream (or the ‘Zhong Guo Meng’). Growth will be slower, but 6-7% growth represents a huge absolute dollar growth, and especially for a small country like Singapore, it represents tremendous opportunities.

7. The major change is that the Chinese economy will be more discerning in allocating capital to more productive uses. It will move up the value added ladder and with greater discipline in allocating capital to production capacity, consumption accounts for a higher proportion of China’s growth than investments today. And consumption is not just of goods, but also of services. That is why services are generating more jobs than manufacturing in China today.

8. With that, ASEAN no longer serves as the major component supplier for China. China now produces those components, assembles them into final products, and ships them globally - including to ASEAN. Because of that, the trade surplus ASEAN used to experience in the early 2000’s - has now flipped to a deficit.

9. India may also feature prominently in our economic fate. By 2050, India is likely to be the largest country in the world in terms of population, and third largest economy globally. It is the fastest growing developing country in Asia.

10. Outside of Asia, Africa’s demographic momentum will be of tremendous global impact. By 2050, about a quarter of the world’s population will be African. Africa will be a major part of the global equation on growth, as well as climate change and even international migration.

11. In this new era, our post-colonial strategy of attracting FDI remains relevant but not enough. FDI has many more places to go to. We cannot look at the value chain of China and try to fit ourselves in, as we did when we outsourced more labour-intensive activities to China. Today China drives that value chain. We must now look at China as a tremendous business and consumer space that we can tap into.

12. Many Asian economies are facing headwinds not because there is slower growth in China, but that a new division of labour is emerging in the world, emerging in Asia, and each economy is finding its footing in this new configuration.

13. For Singapore, I think we must know the markets around us intimately - traditions, customs, taste, language, habits, psychology. We used to encourage Singaporeans to anchor in Singapore. With a stronger anchor now planted, it is now necessary to seek our fortunes in the region. The learning curve will be steep. President Tan has warned that “we cannot expect an easy journey ahead”. This is why institutes of higher education are encouraging overseas internships for their students. We must be able to understand, bridge, operate across different cultures. We must have depth in our knowhow and skills, so that wherever we go, our expertise is valued and can be put to good use. And most of all, as Mr Christopher de Souza said, we must always be grounded in our values, character and ethics.

Stonger hearts: Our national identity

14. The next area of evolution - stronger hearts - refers to our resolve to define Singapore and our national identity.

15. In the beginning, Singapore was regarded as special because we resolved to move ahead together. Fifty years later, one of the greatest achievements arising from that resolve is to have built a national self-consciousness, an emerging, unique Singapore identity, from a diverse immigrant society with hardly any common ground to stand on.

16. But this is a process that will take further decades and centuries. If we look around us - China and India are civilizations; Thailand, Myanmar, Japan, have centuries of history behind them shaping the way they are.

So for the next 50 years, the most important development may well be invisible to the naked eye. With a stronger heart, we will develop a stronger and more distinct national identity, and strengthen the Singapore soul. That will be our monument for the next 50 years. But our identity is not merely derived by a legal fiat that pronounced everyone “Singaporean”. There is richness in the identity, drawn from our diversity, our ancestry and cultural origins. It is derived from that inclusive, generous spirit as Mrs Sun Xueling had mentioned.

17. This is why it is critical we make - and continue to make - great effort in living together, side by side, to understand and appreciate each other and build even larger common spaces. As MPs, we knocked on the doors of many HDB units. Just within one block, I stood before homes with Quran verses, crucifixes, joss stick urns, statues of Ganesh fixed around the front doors. Nowhere in the world can we find this. And I think our HDB flats also deserve UNESCO recognition. Not that we applied, but this is truly our heritage.

18. The President has said that “to remain special, we must first resolve to move ahead together.” While we do that, I say - let us not be afraid of the old - things of old are part of history and part of our soul. Even as we continue to develop physically, we must take pride and care to preserve special buildings, our art pieces, historical artefacts, and our beautiful old trees that provide glimpses into our soul. More young Singaporeans are curious about the paths we have travelled, interested in our history, and proud of it. We should celebrate this because this is a new generation trying to discover their sense of self.

19. Like the National Gallery and Botanic Gardens, as we preserve them, we also modernise them and take a leap forward. Our national journey is not measured in artificial laps of decades, 50 or 100 years, but it is a continuous chain and cycle of preservation and renewal, of understanding history and inventing the future.

Decisions: Wiser minds

20. The third area of evolution is wiser minds: the way we make decisions.

21. I have vivid memories of conversations in my family when I was a child when we were living in our little flat in Bukit Ho Swee. Getting demerit points for bad driving or a summons for late utilities payment were major family affairs involving family conferences. We will gather around and the adults would discuss whether to appeal to the authorities to waive the summons. Inevitably some auntie of mine would say there was no point in appealing because ‘The Government operate ‘law by law’’. That is the most often cited argument. As a kid, I hardly knew any English, but even then I know that that made no grammatical sense. But gradually I realised it means that rules are transparent, consistently applied with no quarter given.

22. Similarly, throughout the government administrative system, decisions are often made by strict adherence to rules and criteria, or comparing scores and numbers. We allocate school places, and we are quite used to this, by PSLE T-scores and aggregate scores, and award tenders at the lowest price if we are buying - or highest price if we are selling.

23. At a time where our nation was nascent, certainty of rules and consistency in application were critical. It is an approach that leaves little or no room for personal favours, and hence no scope for corruption.

24. We must continue to emphasise integrity and stand firm against corruption. But we must also exercise judgement and discretion. This is because the world is now too complex to be reduced to rules and numbers. Rules are made for Man, not Man for rules. Abiding by rules is part of standard operating procedure, but so too, must be the exercise of judgement.

25. Singapore is successful today partly because at the crossroads of our nation’s history, our founding fathers and pioneer leaders made the right and important judgement calls. In time to come, robots and computers will take over many human functions. But one thing they can never take over is our ability as humans to exercise judgement.

26. There is also the risk that we excessively view ourselves in numerical terms - whether it is scores or rankings. This is our society and culture today. What we need is a clear focus on what truly matters - the worth of an individual, the standing of institutions, of people, of country, which can only be captured in part by numbers.

27. Indeed, we are already seeing greater exercise of judgement today. Social assistance schemes, for example, they are means-tested with criteria, but on the ground lots of qualitative assessment and judgment are taking place. Who is to say a person earning $2,500 with two aged and sick parents to support is less deserving than someone living alone earning $1,500?

28. Similarly, in many public tenders now, the consideration is no longer just price, but how compelling and attractive the entire proposals are. Such contests can only be decided by judgement.

29. Judgement is most needed when it concerns people. I have spoken of a need for a broader definition of merit. All the qualities, attributes, interests, achievements and moral grounding of a person cannot possibly be expressed in one metric.

30. One big caveat - judgement and discretion sounds good but can cause great discomfort, because when things are not ‘law by law’, when there is no comfort in numbers, there is always the fear that the system is not transparent and therefore unfair. But relying on one number to make decisions when life is so complex cannot be fair, cannot be just. A well-calibrated, greater exercise of judgement must permeate throughout our system.

31. Exercising human judgment does not mean we simply use our gut, or bend rules willy-nilly. Good judgement is exercised through training, years of experience, and assumption of accountability. This is far more difficult - but far superior - than simply sticking to rules and numbers. Our human resource system must recognise people who are able to exercise judgement, who know when it is time for man or woman to make rules. This involves courage, heart, purity of intentions and a very human touch.


32. Madam Speaker, if we see the world as a living habitat and Singapore as a living and dynamic creature, then we have to consider nation building in evolutionary terms. Sometimes what we need are not billion dollar schemes, but perhaps new survival traits to adapt to a more complex and competitive environment.

33. The President has said that ours should be “a society where the bonds of kinship run deep and people look out for one another.” Today and in this House, we must answer the President’s call, to continue to improve ourselves, to develop faster legs, stronger hearts, wiser minds, and to renew our resolve to march towards our common destinies. Madam Speaker I support the motion. Thank you.

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