January 04, 2021

Speech by Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Education at NTU Singapore Technology Endowment Programme (STEP) Youth Regional Affairs Dialogue 2021, NTU Nanyang Auditorium

Deputy President and Provost, Professor Ling San

Distinguished Guests


Ladies and Gentlemen

1. I am very happy to join all of you for this second edition of the STEP Youth Regional Affairs Dialogue. I understand that this dialogue was first held back in 2019. The Dialogue was supposed to come back for a second run last year, but was delayed by COVID-19. But I am glad that that the organisers have been able to rally together to hold the Dialogue in this hybrid format at the start of this new year. So hopefully, this will be a good start to 2021.

2. 2020 has been an exceptional year for all of us. No words can fully describe or capture what we have been through. For possibly the first time in history, the world had literally shut down. Our lives were put on hold. Perhaps we did not experience a full lockdown here in Singapore, but if you looked at the media and what people in other parts of the world had gone through, you would know that this truly has been a major event in world history.

3. The fight against this invisible enemy, COVID-19, continues this year. It's not over, and we don't know what 2021 will be like. At some point in time, the virus will pass and all this will be over; but when this will happen, no one can really tell. Vaccines are on their way, but it will be some time before the vaccines will be distributed to everyone around the world. Until everyone is vaccinated, no one will truly be safe, and so, it will take time for COVID-19 to pass. Nevertheless, we have to start preparing for what lies ahead in a post-COVID world.

4. So, the question we should ask ourselves is, what will be the enduring impact of this pandemic? When this is over, will we go back to life before COVID-19? Will certain things change?

5. I believe one of the primary effects of COVID-19 is to accelerate the dynamics already present in society today. For example, at the broad macro level, even before COVID-19, we already had geopolitical tensions between the big powers of the world. COVID-19 will accelerate these tensions, and it will continue post COVID-19.

6. We also have seen technological advances before COVID-19 – we have talked about how e-commerce accelerated in a big way this year, and I am sure the trends for retail, e-commerce and digital penetration will accelerate post COVID-19. We've talked about tele-commuting, working from home, and learning from home – none of these are new trends and we were making incremental progress in these areas before COVID-19. But in one year alone, all of these things were accelerated. I am sure that post-COVID-19, when we have people back on campuses and in offices, we will evolve new hybrid ways of working and learning.

7. The acceleration of these trends will mean greater uncertainties and disruptions ahead. But there are also great opportunities. For example, we will see an acceleration in the trend of the shift in centre of gravity of the world economy towards Asia. If we talk about where the fastest growing region in the world will be, Asia will be the centre of gravity for the future economy. Thus, we must be ready to capture the opportunities and thrive in this new post-COVID world environment.

8. Let me suggest three broad areas where we can think about what this new post-COVID environment will be, and how we can seize some of these opportunities.

9. First, we must push for greener growth after the pandemic. The pandemic has been a major health crisis, and there will be future public health crises – people now worry about future pandemics, and the possibility of a "Disease X" that is more virulent and more infectious, down the road.

10. Besides dealing with future pandemics, there is another looming disaster: the climate disaster. We have to look at climate change and sustainability as the major existential issue of our time, and work very hard to avoid such a disaster from happening. Ironically, last year, when human activities came to a standstill, our carbon emissions dropped significantly. This gave the Earth some breathing room. When the world recovers from COVID and when economic activities pick up again, how can we do this without carbon emissions rising back to what they used to be? How can we achieve greener growth?

11. For Singapore, being green is not a new priority, but something that we have focused on for many years. Since independence, we have talked about being a Garden City, and then a City in a Garden. We are one of the few cities in the world that set aside large nature reserves, and nearly a third of our island is covered by trees. We are the only country in the world to freeze the growth of vehicle population. Car and vehicle populations are not growing, and no other country does that. We are also the only country to close our water loop and reuse every last drop of water endlessly.

12. We should be proud of our green credentials, but we should not be complacent. We must build on what we have done and embark on a sustainability movement for a better and greener future in Singapore, for the region, and for the world. This is our first priority.

13. Second, we must emerge as fairer and more equal societies.

14. If you look at the global trends, income inequalities around the world have already been rising before COVID-19. COVID-19 has accelerated these trends, and sharper inequality is one of them. Lockdowns have a disproportionate impact on the poor. In many countries, schools have been closed for months, even till today, and this has given rise to concerns about the lost generation in many parts of the world.

15. With COVID-19, those who are less digitally-savvy risk being excluded because of the acceleration of technology everywhere. If you are savvy and have access to the Internet and computers, you will be able to do well. But if you are in the disadvantaged group, where you are not so digitally-literate and do not have access to Internet connectivity, you may well be excluded. And this is how inequalities can sharpen.

16. Income inequality in Singapore is not something new. We have been dealing with this back in 1997, after the Asian Financial Crisis. After that happened, we saw incomes in Singapore starting to diverge, and have put in place programmes since then to strengthen social support. We have been steadily building up these programmes over the years. For example, we have put in place a system of universal healthcare insurance to protect everyone in Singapore from large hospital bills. For lower-income Singaporeans, we have provided them with what we call Workfare. This is a negative income tax, where there is an additional top-up in their salaries, to lift and raise incomes. We have a progressive system of taxes and transfers, so effectively, the rich who do well will pay more. From the tax revenues, we target our spending on the poor, so there is a system of taxes and transfers that allows us to redistribute income. So overall, in Singapore, income equality in Singapore – after taxes and transfers – has in fact been coming down in recent years because of this redistribution. We will continue to pursue this, as this is at the top of our agenda, and we will continue to ensure that income inequality comes down through these policies.

17. However, reducing inequalities can be done not just through redistribution, but also through pre-distribution as well. You do not need to wait for income to spread out, and then tax and redistribute, but you can start to do this at an early stage – for example, by levelling up opportunities, and uplifting people through education. This is a big part of the Singapore story – enabling everyone to move up through education. That is why we are also investing in pre-school because a lot of research shows that early intervention is critical, not just in pre-school but even in pre-natal care, before the baby is born, because not every parent can provide similar care as they are preparing for the delivery of their children. We want to do this to ensure that every child has the best possible start in life. We are also setting aside more resources to support schools with a higher proportion of students from lower-income and disadvantaged backgrounds, so that there is pre-distribution, in order to take care of these students.

18. We are also extending support to tertiary education, where we have enhanced bursaries and financial support for students from lower and lower-middle-income families. For tertiary education, we are focusing on our Institute of Technical Education (ITE) or vocational training, to enhance the pathways for these graduates, so they can get better jobs and higher pay. So these are some of the initiatives that we are doing – redistributing income, uplifting opportunities – in order to build fairer and more equal societies.

19. Thirdly, we must emerge as more giving societies.

20. One way to address inequality, besides government policies, is through philanthropic giving. Philanthropy is a mechanism to dismantle the accumulated wealth tied to the past, and to reinvest for the future. Through this recycling of wealth, philanthropy creates social stability and opportunity for those who have to be helped from the starting line. It is an important part of the implicit social contract that continuously nurtures and revitalises our society. In other words, individuals are free to generate and accumulate wealth, but that wealth that they generate must be recycled and invested back into society to expand opportunity for others, and not just for the rich to get richer.

21. Of course, we cannot think about a fair and just society purely in policy or monetary terms. It must involve the community – to engage the human spirit, to provide personal fulfilment, and to strengthen our collective wellbeing. That means strengthening the culture of responsibility for one another, so that we feel a sense of duty to each other.

22. I am glad that we see many examples of this sense of strong mutual support. Within Singapore, if you go around the universities, you would see many buildings named after major philanthropic donors. That is just one sign of philanthropic giving. We also see many young people giving back. If you are a university graduate, you may not have a huge level of wealth to make a donation and have a university building named after you, but that does not mean you should hold back on giving as anyone can give back. When you graduate and start working, you can commit some money from your salary to give back to your university. I am sure that universities will appreciate their alumni contributions to help students who are lower-income and struggling in university. You can also give back to community groups or any number of charitable causes. Over the past year, through the pandemic, we have seen many heartwarming examples of young people giving back – we have seen people distributing food to the elderly, particularly vulnerable ones living on their own; we have also seen many going out to the dormitories to show care and concern for the migrant workers. So, this idea of being a more giving society is an integral part of building a fair and just society.

23. In summary, I have highlighted three key areas that I hope we can aspire towards, for the region and for Singapore – being greener, being fairer and being more giving.

24. There are many ways to achieve these goals. If we all agree that we want to be greener, fairer and more giving, there are many things we can do: policy changes, attitude and mindset changes, and specific actions that we can all champion as well. Over the next few days during your programme, I hope all of you would make full use of the time to exchange your views and perspectives. But the learning should not stop at the end of the week. I would encourage all of you to continue to keep in touch with one another, to build bridges and enduring friendships.

25. The pandemic is far from over, and we have a long road ahead of us. But the road to rebuilding a new post-COVID world starts now. I encourage you to imagine the possibilities together because the future is truly yours to make. Thank you.