Speech by Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Mr Ong Ye Kung at the 3rd International Conference on Public Policy

Published Date: 29 June 2017 12:00 AM

News Speeches

A Bellwether of Public Policy

ESM Goh Chok Tong, Chairman LKYSPP

Professor Marleen Brans, Vice-President IPPA

Professor Kishore Mahbubani, Dean LKYSPP

Ladies and gentlemen

1. Welcome to Singapore.

2. Tonight’s dinner is held at a very special location. Where we are standing now, used to be the sea. Through reclamation, the entire Marina Bay area has become one of the most prime areas of Singapore - part financial district, part tourism destination, and also a public park – truly a labour of love - for everyone to enjoy.

3. Back in 1987, Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew, painted a vision to dam up the Bay, turn salt water to fresh water, making this an urban reservoir. That vision is now a reality. It added 10,000 hectares – one-sixth the size of Singapore – to our water catchment area. It is in fact within the study of hydrology and the taming of rivers that public policy was born in China, with a concrete notion of bureaucratic systems and responsibilities. That was some time before Harold Lasswell.

As Technology and Social Science Intersect

4. A project like Marina Bay illustrates how amazing we humans are. We form complex communities and societies, and harness our collective physical and cognitive abilities to accomplish things, advance science, and achieve what we think is unthinkable.

5. But this is also part of an endless cycle. Because with each breakthrough, each leap in science and technology, we upset the existing social make up, and we have to make significant adjustments to re-organise and rebuild societies.

6. History is peppered with such examples. Farming techniques enabled nomads, hunters, and gatherers to settle down to plough their lands, and that changed the relationship between the ruler and the ruled. When kings advanced their battle techniques and armaments, people coalesced around their protectors, and in Europe, that gave rise to guilds. When engines and machines replaced labour, farm workers moved to cities and into factories, and formed labour unions to secure their own interests. Guilds and unions continue to be critical social institutions today.

7. This is the story of human progress: technological advancement, disruption, balance, counter-balance. At this messy intersection of science and technology on one hand, and with social sciences and humanities on the other, lies public policy. Everyone here tonight is a writer of the story of humankind.

The Challenge of Our Times

8. Looking ahead, we expect technology to advance exponentially, requiring even faster responses from societies to deal with disruptions and challenges. I would broadly classify these challenges into four areas.

9. The first is an economic dilemma: as we are driven by curiosity to breach technological frontiers, we also threaten existing livelihoods.

10. The phrase “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is a good reminder that this is not a new phenomenon - we have dealth with this for centuries. Today, machines are not just replacing human labour. Computers with cognitive abilities are substituting brain work and can make complex decisions. Beating human masters at chess and Go is just the start of what is to come.

11. Second, a social challenge – when technology takes a leap, some benefit from it, while others don’t and can be worse off. How should public policies help those who do not benefit from the advances of technology? It is a complex issue – and in fact, a central issue that divides the political right from the left.

12. There are at least two aspects to tackling this issue. One is more straightforward - government help should reach those who need subsidies, and not spread over all and sundry in the name of fairness. No government can afford that.

13. The other aspect is more complex - the behaviour of people is not exogenous and in fact depends on Government policies too. People can become less self-reliant if welfare becomes indiscriminate. When the safety net is not properly structured, moral hazard can take root if there is no consequence to over consumption. Providers of services can supply to those who can pay rather than those who need the services. The American healthcare system is mired in some of these problems.

14. The question of our times is: In a world where inequalities are growing, how do we strengthen the social compact, yet ensure it is sustainable and efficient?

15. The third challenge is, the quest for a stable global order. The most dramatic story of our times is the rise of China – the sheer weight of China pulls the centre of gravity of the world towards the East.

16. Yet to think that China’s motivations are to disrupt and overturn the existing global system will be a mistake. If that is the case, China would not have joined the World Trade Organisation, and undertaken market reforms. Similarly, it is also a mistake to think that existing world powers are out to contain China's legitimate ambitions to improve lives for its people and gain a more influential global voice. Almost every country in the world has a big stake in China's success.

17. Other than China, we must expect Africa, India, parts of Latin America and Southeast Asia, to also grow and prosper in the coming decades. The quest of our times is for the world to embrace what might be called ‘the rise of the rest’, while maintaining peace, stability, and a benign global environment.

18. The last challenge is political. With the economic, social and external relations questions I just posed, we need stronger, better, more decisive governments that can do the right things.

19. Yet politics is at risk of becoming more myopic and short term in orientation; pressures are increasingly about relieving pain here and now; politicians, instead of leading people, can end up being led by opinion polls. What caused this? Perhaps globalisation and exposure to immigrants, perhaps the immediate access to information, or the echo chamber effect of social media.

20. What is evident is societies are grappling with social media being a core feature of our political system. Traditional political configurations of left versus right cannot fully reflect the rifts in society today, and representative politics is undergoing rebuilding and reconfiguration.

The Constant Striving of a Small Nation

21. Like all countries, Singapore grapples with these challenges.

22. To help all Singaporeans adapt to the changing economy, we made lifelong learning a national movement. We have mass education for children and mass tertiary education for young students and youths, and now we set ourselves to bring about mass training for adults. All our education institutions are providing opportunities for lifelong learning as part of their core mission.

23. We adopt a very active labour market policy to re-skill workers and move them to growing industries. We are developing a lifelong learning system that combines the Asian emphasis on education, with the Western tradition of developing deeply skilled craftsmen and masters.

24. We are promoting innovation and entrepreneurship. Even though we are a tiny market, we managed to forge Free Trade Agreements with many countries in the world, including India, China, the US. We established infrastructural connectivity. We have developed depth in our financial markets, so that capital flows to good ideas.

25. At the same time, we are strengthening our social safeguards. Healthcare is a particularly important area, especially given our ageing population. We recently enhanced our national health insurance scheme for major illnesses, to ensure that no one, including those with pre-existing conditions, falls through the cracks.

26. We could do this quite effectively because we have kept healthcare costs relatively low, by requiring co-payment from patients, and limiting subsidies to specific proven treatments. We are therefore able to achieve both market discipline and universal coverage. Some say this is a combination of the best US Republican and Democrat healthcare philosophies.

27. In almost all our financial assistance schemes, we target subsidies at where they are most needed – based on income, savings, and types of housing. After taxes and Government transfers, Singapore’s Gini Coefficient today is at its lowest level since data first became available.

28. In external relations, our small city state has to navigate an evolving geopolitical environment. This must include constructive engagement within our region, across the Pacific and Atlantic, within a rules-based global system grounded in international law and institutions.

29. We find common cause with our fellow ASEAN members, all of which have historically depended on global trade to survive, and have benefited from a strong India, China, Europe, and America. With a united ASEAN, we are a sizable market of 600 million people, and have a stronger collective voice.

30. In governance, as a small country, we need to work doubly hard to stay decisive and nimble. One key factor is engagement with the people. We are probably the only country, where policy implementation goes right to the door step of households, through the relentless hard work of an extensive network of grassroots volunteers.

31. We have concluded that the only way to be able to act quickly and decisively in the long term, is to earn the trust of the people. To maintain the bond and trust with the people, we must avoid complacency, elitism, and corruption, keep our intentions pure, and always have the people’s interests first.

Conclusion – The Special Role of LKYSPP

32. In conclusion, as a city-state connected to the world, Singapore faces policy dilemmas earlier and more acutely than the rest of world. Global forces affect us like how the quiver of a wire affects a tightrope walker.

33. This makes Singapore a bellwether of public policy. We develop policies by examining what other countries and cities have done. We are like a space research centre – a frontier of knowhow, moving fast and decisively, but every rocket and space shuttle launch carries all our hopes and dreams for success.

34. That is why an institute like LKYSPP is so critical. Established in 2004, its role is to teach and research public policy. Over the years, it has built a strong reputation.

35. LKYSPP is not a champion of any particular school of thought, but a cornucopia of all good ideas in public policy and governance, and how they might be applied in an Asian context. The policy experiences of Singapore will be a key reference point.

36. LKYSPP, like all useful centres of learning, must be a magnet for great minds and big ideas which push the human race forward and upwards. It can be a valuable partner for governments, to help us better understand governance - and disseminate this knowledge to students, executives, and decision makers all around the world. Such work is a worthwhile mission - a uniquely Singaporean mission that can propel NUS and LKYSPP to even greater heights.

37. Thank you.

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