Keynote Address by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), at NTU’s Nanyang Centre for Public Administration (Mayors’ Class) 25th Anniversary and Lien Ying Chow Legacy Fellowship 10th Anniversary Gala Dinner

Published Date: 26 October 2017 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Professor Liu Hong, Director, Nanyang Centre for Public Administration. Today is a big day for you, congratulations

Professor Bertil Andersson, President, Nanyang Technological University

Dr Han Fangming, Vice Chairman, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference National Committee

Mr Lu Ming, Deputy Director-General, State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs, People’s Republic of China

Mr Lim Chee Onn, Chairman, Lien Ying Chow Legacy Fellowship

Mr Wong Kan Seng,

Mr Mah Bow Tan,

Mr Laurence Lien, Chairman, Lien Foundation

Excellencies, distinguished guests, students, alumni, ladies and gentlemen

1. I am happy to join you this evening to celebrate this momentous occasion, the 25th anniversary of the Nanyang Centre for Public Administration (NCPA) and its programmes for training foreign officials, which we often endearingly call the Mayors’ Class or 市长班.

2. And today is a day of double happiness, or as the Chinese saying goes, 双喜临门, because we are also celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Lien Ying Chow Legacy Fellowship. I would like to thank and recognise the generous support from donors all these years. They include Temasek Foundation International, Lien Foundation, Tan Chin Tuan Foundation, Cargill Asia Pacific Holdings Pte Ltd., and Engro Corporation Ltd. I hope the Fellowship can continue to receive your strong support, and support from other donors too, so that the NCPA can engage more participants from China and ASEAN countries. Let us give a big round of applause to thank the donors.

Evolving Nature of Singapore-China Relations

3. NCPA conducted its first executive training programme for China officials in 1992, that was two years after Singapore and China established diplomatic relations, and shortly before both countries decided to embark on the development of the Suzhou Industrial Park as a flagship Government-to-Government project. At that time, China, under the leadership of Mr Deng Xiaoping, was writing a new chapter in its history, and embarking on a momentous move of pursuing economic liberalisation and reform, starting with the coastal cities.

4. Singapore, a young nation under the leadership of Mr Lee Kuan Yew then, had experienced a few decades of economic growth based on the same principles of economic liberalisation and market-based development, and we have not done too badly. Our experience, the dilemmas and challenges we had to wrestle with, the contradictions we had to tackle, and the policies we adopted to tackle these issues, were good references for China at that time. The NCPA and its programmes, provided an effective platform for us to learn from each other’s experiences, 互学互鉴. In the process, we also deepened the friendship between both countries. This is not just a matter of having healthy bilateral relations due to strategic congruence on many issues, but a relationship grounded on strong and warm people-to-people linkages, built upon the cultural affinities that both countries share.

5. Today, NCPA has trained more than 15,000 officials from all parts of China. In addition, the Mayors’ Class has graduated 1,400 graduate students over the years. The Mayors’ Class is an endearing name given to this apex programme. Some of the participants in this programme are already mayors, or about to be promoted to become Mayors, but many others went on to take on a wide range of senior appointments. Today, around a third of our Mayors’ Class alumni are currently in 司级/厅级 positions and above, meaning they helm bureaus. More than a dozen have already made it to 部级, meaning Ministerial-level.

6. The bilateral relationship between Singapore and China will continue to strengthen and to evolve, as we continue to transform and develop our countries. At the opening of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, President Xi Jinping spoke about Socialism with Chinese characteristics entering a new era. China is embarking on a historic mission, towards a great, modern, socialist country by 2049. In the process, it will require comprehensive reforms and the embrace of innovation.

7. President Xi also emphasised the importance of the centre, which provides leadership and governance in charting China’s path ahead. This is an emphasis that greatly resonates with Singapore. The state plays an important role, whether you are a big country like China or a small country like Singapore, because we need to tackle long term national challenges, such as ageing and demographic changes, preparing our people for technological disruptions and helping them acquire new skills. The state also leads the nation in resolving new contradictions as times evolve. In the 19th Party Congress Work Report, President Xi said that China’s principal contradiction has now evolved into the contradiction between “unbalanced and inadequate development, and the people’s ever-growing need for a better life”. It also sounds like Singapore’s challenges.

8. Given our common challenges, and our emphasis on good and effective, clean leadership, our sharing of best practices needs to be more, not less; our people-to-people linkages at the officials’ level need to intensify, not diminish. So NCPA needs to step up its activities and sharpen its relevance in this new era.

Singapore as a Bellwether of Emerging Trends

9. In this fast changing world and era of transformation for countries, the relevance of Singapore’s experiences to China, and to the world, depends largely on us being a bellwether of emerging trends.

10. Singapore is well positioned to be so. As a small country with an open economy, as a small country with an open economy, we rely heavily on trade and connectivity, and our survival depends on our ability to embrace the benefits and deal with the downsides of globalisation. Because of that, we feel the impact of global trends earlier and more acutely than other countries. There is a Chinese saying, that “one autumn leaf can predict the coming of autumn”, 一叶知秋. Singapore is that autumn leaf.

11. To give you an example, around the world today, there is a growing weariness of trade, open trade, and foreign immigrants. The resulting tide of nationalism, and even nativism, has determined the outcomes of referendums and elections, and fuelled the rise of the far right in many western countries.

12. Singapore was sensitised to such sentiments almost a decade ago. At that time, we were making a fast recovery from the Global Financial Crisis, partly by consciously and actively seizing external growth opportunities. But as a result, we could see and feel the adverse impact of globalisation in our city – in terms of competition with foreigners for jobs, and the stress that the growing workforce placed on our infrastructure. And there was increasing unease amongst Singaporeans at that time.

13. But being small allows the Government to respond more quickly too, and be more nimble in addressing the concerns of our people. So, post 2011 General Elections, we made many policy adjustments – to tighten the foreign workforce, accelerate the building of new housing and transport infrastructure, drive productivity-led growth, and strengthen social safety nets for the elderly and vulnerable groups. These were solutions that suited Singapore’s context and circumstances.

14. Another discontent with globalisation and market liberalisation is the widening income inequality. In the early phase of growth, opportunities abound and many people benefit, and some more quickly than others because access to such opportunities may not be even. But in a more mature phase, we need to ensure growth is as inclusive as possible.

15. Again, Singapore had to deal with this much earlier than many other countries, and in fact, inclusive growth and social mobility have been a major pre-occupation of the Government since our independence. We need to help those left behind, and yet be careful not to tilt the balance such that we douse all motivation to work hard.

16. Whether it is reviewing existing policies or assessing individual hardship cases, what really helped us has been a community engagement system, run by community volunteers and coordinated by a government agency called the People’s Association. That gave us a good sense of the pulse on the ground, and knowing Singaporean families, down to the individual units.

17. Through our journey and experiences, we offer fresh perspectives on ways to tackle problems, often ahead of time. And over time, we create a new body of knowledge on governance that is grounded in realistic application, and enriched through the sharing of ideas through platforms such as the NCPA.

NCPA – New Initiatives

18. As circumstances change, as our countries enter new phases of growth and transformation, our needs change too. NCPA will have to work hard to keep up with the times, and refresh its programmes continuously. I am glad to see that in recognising the evolving needs of its participants, NCPA has over the years shifted the focus of its Mayors’ Class and other training programmes, from public administration to sustainable development, with an emphasis on urban planning and community engagement.

19. I have discussed with Professor Liu Hong on what else NCPA can do to improve its offering and sharpen their relevance. These are some of the ideas we discussed, and I hope the management of NTU will support them and guide their execution.

20. First, NCPA will need to continuously introduce new curriculum aligned with the priorities and preoccupations of countries around the world, especially China. This can include ways to foster innovation and encourage enterprise; approaches to cultivate the spirit of craftsmanship and mastery of skills among our people as a way to raise productivity and employability; urban planning to ensure sustainable development; and methods in community outreach to engage and solicit views of the people, and adopting them.

21. Second, there are also needs to be more modular and short-term programmes targeted at meeting the specific needs of foreign officials, many of whom have already attained their first degrees or post-graduate degrees, and might prefer shorter programmes to develop in-depth understanding of specific issues or subjects. Apart from classroom learning and project work, NCPA will have extensive curation and use of Singaporean case studies and policy-related research, to make learning more practical and applied.

22. Third, NCPA can enhance collaboration between Singapore and China in third countries, including in the area of human capital development. This can be especially relevant in the development and management of Belt and Road infrastructure projects. Today, Singapore accounts for about a third of China’s investments into Belt and Road countries, and 85% of Belt and Road countries’ investments into China. Programmes that cover the approaches and techniques to assessing project viability, raising capital, managing projects, and ensuring their long-term sustainability, can be useful to third party countries embarking on Belt and Road infrastructure projects.

23. Fourth, NCPA can make a concerted push to nurture more people who understand both Singapore and China, or what we call “中新通”. NCPA currently offers a Master of Arts in Contemporary China, which is open to Singaporeans and foreigners. It can take a step further, to work with Business China and other relevant organisations, to develop internships, attachments, or semester exchanges with Chinese Universities. At the same time, there are various programmes, such as the Masters of Science in Managerial Economics at NTU, targeted at younger participants, where they can gain a deep understanding of Singapore and our public policies. I welcome more participants from China to enrol in these programmes.


24. Today, I am especially happy to see the presence of many NCPA alumni members. Whenever I visit China, the alumni will actually e-mail me and reach out to me. They would try to organise a meeting so that members can gather to reminisce about their wonderful time in Singapore. I must confess I have not been able to meet up with them as much as I would like to because of my tight travelling schedule, but I shall do so in future.

25. Keeping in touch, and maintaining the people-to-people linkages, is the most valuable outcome of the NCPA. It is about mutual learning and sharing, but more importantly, growing our friendships and bonds. I wish the NCPA many more successful years ahead, and look forward to seeing it contribute meaningfully to the endearing friendship of Singapore and China in this new era. Thank you very much.

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