Extracts from the Opening Address by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education at the Festival of Ideas at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

Published Date: 22 November 2019 12:00 AM

News Speeches

ESM Goh, Chairman of the LKYSPP Governing Board

Professor Danny Quah, Dean, LKYSPP

Faculty and students

Ladies and gentlemen

Governance from the Middle

1. I want to first congratulate the School for its 15th Anniversary. I first heard about the creation of the LKYSPP at the 80th birthday celebrations of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Mr Lee had allowed the occasion to be used to raise funds for the School. I recalled how ESM Goh went on stage and delivered a very straightforward pitch.

2. First, the School was to be named after Mr Lee Kuan Yew, because his name is synonymous with Singapore and with good governance. It would serve as a tribute to his deep insights on issues facing Singapore, the region and the world.

3. Second, with the School, we hoped to establish Singapore as a global point of reference for the study of public policy. This would be highly relevant to developing, transitional and newly industrialised economies, and especially those in Asia. We do not want LKYSPP to be parochial and only be concerned about Singapore. But as it studies the global issues of the day, it must also know Singapore deeply, and feature Singapore as a prominent reference point for the world. That is the original objective of the school, and that objective has not changed.

4. It is a unique position that I think Singapore can occupy. Singapore has to make up for our lack of size and resource endowment with good governance and agility. As a small city state connected to the world, we are a microcosm of the world economy and the bellwether of global trends and developments. Not only do we feel the impact of long term trends earlier than others, we should respond faster too.

Key Governance Issues of Our Time

5. Globally, governance is becoming more challenging. It may not be an exaggeration to say that we may well be in crisis mode.

6. First, it may be because incomes across the developed world have stagnated over a decade, profoundly affecting public sentiments. A second reason is that the middle class is shrinking. In the OECD group of advanced economies, the proportion of people in the middle class with incomes at 75%-200% of national median, has shrunk from 68% for baby boomers (born 1942-1964) to 60% for millennials (born 1983-2002). Third, social media is pushing Governments to become more short termist, and online falsehoods are undermining the foundation of trust that makes governance effective. Fourth, a new generation is coming of age, and Governments may have yet to fully connect with their hopes, fears and dreams.

7. Whatever the reasons may be, it has resulted in the political centre ceding ground to the extremes. Let's survey how this has impacted the discourse on key issues of the day.

8. Technology is disrupting industries, creating new jobs while displacing workers at the same time. We have technology companies painting a rosy outcome, where their services are 'Everywhere for Everyone', and that they are 'Earth's most customer-centric companies'. And to those who fear that 'robots are taking over our jobs', they have been referred to as 'modern day Luddites' who cannot embrace technology. On the other hand, there are calls to break up technology companies, put a tax on robots, and introduce universal basic income to cushion the lives of workers who are affected. The latter idea was put to a referendum in Switzerland, which was decisively turned down.

9. Or take the issue of inequality. In many societies, privilege and wealth are increasingly becoming more entrenched at the top. As a result, people are losing faith in meritocracy and capitalism. This fed the public anger and frustration behind movements such as 'Occupy Wall Street' that framed the issue as a war between the 99% and the 1%. Hence the calls for wealth taxes high enough to 'tax billionaires out of existence', nationalisation of private companies, and compulsory distribution of shares to workers.

10. The most emotionally charged aspect of globalisation is immigration. There is genuine fear about a loss of a nation's identity. And so we have witnessed the growth of protectionist and nativist sentiments around the world, with political leaders vowing to take back their countries, build walls, and put their own countries first.

11. Finally, climate change – an existential issue for all countries in the long term. We have prominent people denouncing global warming, despite all the scientific evidence before them. We also have activists admonishing world leaders to stop talking about 'money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth', and advocating global measures that can potentially deprive developing countries of a fair chance for economic growth.

12. I believe what I have mentioned are the common narratives that fill the headlines, and often come through our smart phone notifications. While they often resonate emotionally, they can also sound simplistic logically. The challenges and problems are real and complex, and the solutions cannot be too simple either. Most likely, I think the solutions to these vexing challenges lie not in the extremes, but somewhere along the middle path. And that there are no quick fixes, only long term and consistent strategies that will take time to show results.

13. To cope with technology disruptions, perhaps what we need is an inclusive growth model that is productivity and innovation driven. It means every enterprise and company doing its part to upgrade and be more efficient. Process by process, we may need to make wise decisions on the tasks that technology can take over, where human interactions should remain, and where human involvement is non-negotiable because they represent the core aspects of humanity. To me, teaching is one such process.

14. We need to educate the young, and retrain the adult population. Focus on developing skills, because that makes workers more resilient in the face of disruption. It means having training programmes in the communities, and having the right incentives for workers to step forward and undergo training.

15. An ageing world, coupled with rising inequality, will likely mean the need for stronger social safety nets. But beyond that, perhaps what is more, or equally as important, is systemic intervention on the ground by dedicated social workers, to improve the conditions necessary for families to succeed and for children to break out of the poverty cycle. This may mean improving access to quality education and healthcare, overcoming obstacles to self-improvement, and demonstrating tough love and insisting on better parenting skills when the situation requires.

16. All these efforts will stress Government finances. Long term fiscal positions need to be re-evaluated to test for sustainability, and policies and tax rates adjusted if need be.

17. We need to embrace free trade, but at the same time upgrade the competitiveness and productivity of industries and workforce. We need a socially acceptable level of immigration, for local and foreign manpower to complement one another.

18. In climate change, we need to support the hopes and dreams of the developing world, while leveraging technology, green finance, and fiscal policies such as carbon taxes, to significantly reduce carbon emissions and prevent a devastating rise in sea levels.

19. I have asked more questions than I gave answers. But I do so in the spirit of academia, where asking the right questions is often the start of good research. I believe that the solutions to many problems of the day, lie in the middle.

20. But the middle is often boring and rarely appeals naturally to populism. It requires tedious explanation, balancing of trade-offs, and backbreaking implementation work. It is hard to boil down to a crisp rallying call, compared to the stirring rhetoric at the extremes.

21. This could partly explain the shrinking of the political middle that we are observing in the West especially. In the US, we know there is greater polarisation between Republicans and Democrats. In Germany, the centrist governing coalition parties, the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, have lost significant vote shares, including to the far right. In the UK, the weakening of the political centre led to Brexit, and the political divisiveness continues today as Britain heads into elections.

22. France seems to be the only exception, with President Macron's centrist party commanding a majority in Parliament. Recently, I asked my European friends why is that so? A senior French executive said it was because of demography, as France still has a large percentage of young people, and they still have a lot of hope for the future.

Singapore as a Reference Point for the World

23. If we still believe in the politics of the middle, then we need to give thought and voice to its rationality, its analysis of trade-offs and longer-term perspectives. LKYSPP can play a significant role in this by dedicating itself to research in public policy.

24. How well LKYSPP can do this, will in turn depend on the larger academic environment in Singapore. If young and talented Singaporeans who care about the challenges our country do not feel that their research work in academia would be valued, they won't want to join academia. We will lose a very valuable resource and LKYSPP's vision will be out of reach.

25. MOE and our university leaders recognise this, and we have been working together and taking steps to strengthen the interest in local research.

26. One key initiative is the Singapore Teaching and Academic Research Talent Scheme (START). It is for young academics. Recently, we enhanced START with a $200,000 Inauguration Grant, to attract young Singaporean researchers from overseas to take on assistant professorship positions in our local universities. We have dedicated resources to support local social science and humanities research, through the $350 million Social Science Research Council budget. Government agencies are starting to make anonymised administrative data available to local researchers through joint research projects in the social sciences. Universities are also evaluating their faculty using more varied yardsticks, beyond publication in top-tier journals.

27. Speaking to younger academics today, I sense a strong interest amongst them, both local and foreign academics, to conduct local research. They told me that the choice between doing local research versus publishing in top-tier journals is a false dilemma. The world is curious to know more about Singapore and our solutions to problems, and good local research will be well-sought after by top tier publications. But we must make an effort to extrapolate the lessons learnt locally to be relevant to the region and the world.

28. With their belief and our support, we can make local research vibrant, and Singapore a global reference point in the study of public policy. I look forward to the immense contributions of LKYSPP in this regard. Thank you.

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