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Policy shifts not knee-jerk or populist: Heng Swee Keat

Published on Aug 15, 2013 8:01 AM
 
Mr Heng Swee Keat gives his roundup after listening to the presentations at the first Our Singapore Conversation dialogue. -- ST FILE PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Now that a year-long national conversation involving some 50,000 Singaporeans has drawn to a close, the man in charge wants to dispel a few myths about the mass engagement exercise.

The first is that Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) dialogues were a "major meet-the-people session", with the Government collating a wish list and then giving people what they want, said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat in an interview this week.

Not so. The OSC-influenced policy shifts to be unveiled at Sunday's National Day Rally, he emphasised, will not sacrifice strategic thinking for the sake of showing empathy and responsiveness.

The Prime Minister is widely expected to announce more state support for health-care costs and housing affordability. Tweaks to the Primary School Leaving Examination will also be announced.

 
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Background story

CONCERNS UNDERSTANDABLE

When you think about how Singaporeans have had to adapt and adjust over the past 15 years, it is quite understandable why they feel that this has become a much more competitive, stressful world. And then when we juxtapose that against our ageing demographics, it is quite understandable the concerns about our elderly have also grown.

- Education Minister Heng Swee Keat

NO IDEOLOGICAL SHIFT

I would not characterise (the OSC-influenced policies) as an ideological shift. The founding generation of leaders has made it very clear that you need both growth and equity... We are probably one of the very few, if not the only, nation where (property) wealth is so widely shared among Singaporeans, and that's the reason why we have far fewer tycoons than many developing economies.

- Mr Heng

NOT ABOUT GRANTING WISHES

The OSC is not about collation of a wish list. And then the Government responding to each and every one, because it's a very long list of ideas which we collected. And some of these ideas contradict each other. It's a process for citizens to come together and appreciate each other's perspectives and then try and build that common space.

- Mr Heng

FINDING A BALANCE

I would not characterise it as the Government giving people what they want. I don't think the basic stance of the Government has changed, which is that leadership is about being strategic and forward-looking, and also being empathetic and responsive... That careful balancing must always be a feature of our leadership.

- Mr Heng


Heng Swee Keat on...

'JOBS I'VE NOT HEARD OF'

THE diversity of aspirations of young Singaporeans today both cheers and worries Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) chief Heng Swee Keat.

He recalls sessions where he asked students what they want to be when they grow up. Their answers involve "terms which I am completely unfamiliar with", he said.

They want to be sound artists, fashion photographers and animation character developers - a wide range of jobs reflecting the evolving nature of the Singapore economy and the exposure children now get, he said.

But while he feels cheered by the different pathways and passions on display, it worries him. "Unless we are able to create opportunities, many of our young people are going to be disappointed," he added.

This is not a challenge the Education Ministry can meet on its own, but will require a whole-of-government approach to building an economy that can accommodate the aspirations of the workforce of the future.

THE 40-YEAR GAP

  • THE OSC dialogues often reveal to Mr Heng gaps between what the Government thinks it is doing and what people perceive it to be doing.

In the education dialogues, he was struck by the wide gap between what schools think they are doing - to develop every child to the best of his ability - and what parents perceive to be going on in schools.

"Unless we bridge that gap, we will always have a problem in terms of how parents perceive education," he said. "And that's why we decided to expand quite significantly the engagement of parents."

Such a perception gap has been written about in Europe and the United States. It is known as the "40-year gap" because parents with children in primary school attended primary school 40 years ago.

"At the same time, our educators are trying to see how we can prepare the Primary 1 child for life, 40 years hence. So you actually have two 40-year gaps to cross," he said.

  • ANOTHER worrying gap is in health care. Participants at times decried the system as unaffordable, but when Mr Heng asked if they knew of schemes to defray costs, like the Community Health Assist Scheme (CHAS), they did not.

CHAS gives middle- and low-income Singaporeans subsidised treatment from private general practitioners and dentists, and access to some brand-name drugs for half the price. "Therefore, one big takeaway I have is that the same things have to be repeated over and over again and we really need to do a better job of reaching out to fellow Singaporeans whenever we have important policy changes," he said.