SP 2016: Panel on “The Future of ‘We’”Feb 16, 2016 at 11:22 am | Hits: 1927
By Tan Min-Wei and Nadzirah Samsudin
Mr Heng Swee Keat
Minister for Finance
Ms Debra Soon
Head of the Family and Premier Segment
MediaCorp TV Pte Ltd
Mr Ho Kwon Ping
Chairman of the Board of Trustees
Singapore Management University
Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan
2015/16 S R Nathan Fellow for the Study of Singapore
Ambassador Chan Heng Chee
Chairman of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities
Singapore University of Technology and Design
In the fourth and final panel of the Singapore Perspectives 2016 conference, panellists asked Minister Heng Swee Keat for his thoughts on how Singapore could move on from SG50 and the issues that could threaten or strengthen the future of the nation.
Minister Heng Swee Keat: What Will or Will Not Change in the Future
In his speech, Mr Heng noted the significance of Singaporeans speaking about what type of future they wanted, as opposed to whether Singapore had a future at all. He then went on to outline what he thought might change in the future, as well as what might not change.
He believed that the basic facts of Singapore’s existence would not change: Singapore would remain a small country with no resources but its people, located in a potentially volatile region, would be forced to abide by global forces which they had limited ability to shape. Despite this, he hoped that the spirit and the values of Singaporeans — such as resourcefulness, resilience, and responsibility — would not change.
As for what might change, he highlighted four things: Hopes, borders, kinship and dialogue. Interactions with his constituents had allowed him to understand that the hopes of each generation had changed, from simple survival to living a meaningful life and making a difference in the world. He expected that over time, such hopes would also continue to change.
Borders would change, as geopolitical boundaries are challenged by groups such as militant organisation ISIS trying to establish a caliphate in Southeast Asia. Borders would also change due to economic and technological forces. He used the example of foreign online stores such as Alibaba emerging as rivals to local retail stores, as well as China’s emerging central role in the global economy. These were almost unimaginable over a decade ago.
Ties of kinship amongst Singaporeans would also change as Singaporeans become more diverse, and it was important for Singaporeans to remember the initial founding ideals of the nation — a multiracial, multi-lingual and multi-cultural Singapore. While new ethnic groups, cultures and languages become part of the landscape of Singapore, he expressed hope that a similar sense of kinship would remain strong amongst Singaporeans.
Finally, he spoke about dialogue. He acknowledged that dialogue and debate were closely linked, but he preferred the consensual approach of dialogue as it allowed Singaporeans to get deeper into an issue, surfacing assumptions, enabling deep conversation, and ultimately trying to reach something positive. This would then allow Singaporeans to reach agreements on certain actions, and then allowing them to work together to achieve their hopes.
He ended by saying that he considered the future something for all Singaporeans to shape, together in a collective endeavour, fostered by common understanding and collective will.
Managing the “M”s: Multiracial, Multilingual, Multireligious, Multicultural
Ms Soon kick-started the discussion by asking Mr Heng how global forces, specifically the rise of religious conservatism, might affect the development of kinship in Singapore.
Mr Heng responded that the dialogue should move away from debating “whether your god is truer than my god” but to find common points of reference. There also has to be platforms where different religious groups can come together to work on issues that they can agree on and develop a degree of trust. However, Singaporeans would also have to be vigilant against subversive acts and ensure that they do not become points of conflict. Ambassador Chan added that though Singapore has done “reasonably well” in managing race, language, and religion, maintaining harmony still requires work. Ambassador Kausikan also said that it is vital to have a state which is strong enough to be a “neutral arbiter”.
A participant asked if Malay Muslims in Singapore were still seen as the weakest link, given the current challenges, such as ISIS (also known as Daesh) and race politics in neighbouring countries. Mr Heng answered that if pursued to its extreme, any belief system could become subverted. Thus, respect for different points of views is important, and so is the sense of kinship.
Tackling LGBT Issues
There were also questions to the Minister about LGBT rights in Singapore. Mr Ho asked if Section 377A would be decriminalised within the next 10 years, while a participant asked about the pressure faced by the government on this issue.
For the first question, Mr Heng said that he could not predict how things would change, but that at the moment, the government would leave it as it is. For the second, Mr Heng explained that the issue cut across generations, and society could benefit from serious dialogue to develop a better understanding of what was at stake. He also said that the government could not enact a law by fiat, and that those who disagreed would “come around to find other ways of either getting back, or find other ways to destroy the decision.”
Mr Ho asked the minister if the future included better access to information, as information was the “lifeblood” of dialogue and of civil society.
Mr Heng said that even as Finance Minister, he did not get all the information he wanted. This was because the data was either not collected, or was deemed to be irrelevant to the Ministry of Finance. He also said that society had to be better at using data, such as using data for more data-driven policymaking. Besides, it was not just the government that has all the data, but the private sector as well.
Good Politics and the Evolving Political Style and System
Both Ambassador Kausikan and Ambassador Chan asked Mr Heng questions relating to the future of politics in Singapore. Ambassador Kausikan asked the minister for his view on what makes good politics, while Ambassador Chan asked if there would be changes to political style and political system — specifically if there would be changes to constituencies, the GRCs or the elected Presidency.
Mr Heng said that good politics protects and advances the long-term interest of Singapore. Political leaders must also have good instincts to understand the world, and the changes happening around Singapore.
On political style, Mr Heng acknowledged that the leadership style has evolved to be more open and participatory. He also said that the government should be consultative, though it depended on the subject matter; for example, for issues relating to national security, expediency is key.
As for changes to the political system such as re-examining the elected presidency, the government will study this, and there will be a time to discuss the issue. A decision, if any, will have to be in the long-term interest of Singapore. In his personal opinion, the elected presidency stabilises the political system in Singapore.
Mr Heng also said that to take Singapore forward, it is important to maintain the seriousness of Singapore’s political culture and a clean and effective government.
There was a call, from both Ambassador Kausikan and Ambassador Chan, to improve how National Education and History were taught in schools, as Singaporeans often do not remember former leaders such as Mr S Rajaratnam and Dr Goh Keng Swee. Ambassador Chan said that the challenge was for academics and historians to write history objectively, and to write histories that would be interesting to read. Though there was a worry that emphasising Singapore’s history could be interpreted as propaganda, Mr Heng agreed that Singaporeans needed to understand the past in order to plan for the future.