Seismic 2016: Singapore

A year of consultation, consolidation for Singapore

If 2015 was a year of celebration for Singapore as it marked its golden jubilee, 2016 has turned out to be a year of consultation and conversation on the nation's future.

The focus? How citizens, companies and government agencies can step up, pitch in and work together to steer Singapore in a more challenging environment. The long-term goal is a stronger Singapore when the city state marks SG100, come 2065.

A range of discussions took place throughout the year, some public, others in smaller groups.

The challenges too are varied. Domestically, low birth rates, an ageing population, middle-income earners feeling squeezed and the pangs of economic restructuring are some key challenges. Externally, the threat of terrorism and geopolitical tensions in the neighbourhood, with consequences for social harmony and stability.

ENGAGEMENT

The year kicked off with SGfuture engagement sessions. More than 8,300 people took part in 121 discussions over nine months, offering ideas and plans to build caring communities, do more for the disadvantaged, ensure a clean and green environment, and stay secure and resilient amid challenging global conditions. Some have found partners and initiated projects to benefit society.


Facilitator Tong Yee (standing) at an SGfuture dialogue on the Singaporean DNA in February. More than 8,300 people took part in discussions under the SGfuture series. ST FILE PHOTO

A $25 million Our Singapore Fund was also launched that people can tap for ground-up projects which help the community or strengthen a sense of national identity and unity.

At the same time, the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) held more than 80 discussions with more than 1,000 educators, union members, business leaders, academics and others. Its 30 members canvassed views widely and took part in events, reaching out to more than 6,000 people.

The committee is expected to put out its report in the coming weeks, and it will identify areas for growth where people and businesses can seize opportunities.

Both exercises are not new in themselves, but build on earlier iterations to solicit public ideas, like the extensive Our Singapore Conversation in 2012 and 2013.

Their takeaway is that the Government does not have and cannot have all the answers to take Singapore forward. Rather, the next chapter of the Singapore story has to be written and - to use a word popularised by officials - co-created by the people.

Indeed, some of the SGfuture sessions saw younger ministers drive home the message to participants that they have to initiate and see through ideas or projects, because they know best the aspirations, concerns and needs of those in their diverse groups and communities.

But observers note that after years of top-down education and a system where those at the top largely set the agenda and tone, it is no surprise that many people still expect the Government to come up with prescriptions and solutions - even as these individuals expect to be consulted on policy changes.

 

Thus it is timely that key changes to the education system like a revamp of the Primary School Leaving Examination were announced this year to signal a shift away from grades to mastery of skills throughout one's school and work years.

And while the task of solving major problems may be the job of the state, it does not have a monopoly on wisdom.

And there is often no one, or right, solution for a problem.

Instead, a range of approaches may be needed depending on the case at hand. Also, greater collaboration and cooperation - between citizens and agencies, between workers across companies - for the larger interest is likely to be needed.

SUCCESSION

Nowhere is this teamwork more important than in the case of leadership succession planning - an issue that hit home with health scares involving top leaders.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat suffered a stroke during a Cabinet meeting in May, and Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies Tharman Shanmugaratnam stepped in to cover his portfolio.

And in August, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took ill midway through his National Day Rally speech, and got the all-clear from doctors before returning onstage. Meanwhile, deputy prime ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman reassured an anxious audience that all was under control.

While these episodes drove home the urgency of succession planning, they also highlighted how depth as well as breadth is being built among the fourth-generation team.

After Mr Heng's stroke, Trade and Industry (Industry) Minister S. Iswaran, his deputy on the CFE, was named co-chair while Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing became deputy chair.

The SGfuture sessions were also led by younger ministers - Mr Chan and Culture, Community and Youth Minister Grace Fu chaired the effort - and several fourth-generation ministers played key roles, among them ministers Tan Chuan-Jin, Lawrence Wong, Masagos Zulkifli and Ong Ye Kung.

Their involvement helped them build political capital, and this team will soon have to convince and persuade voters that they have what it takes to lead the country.

The past year was also a reminder that politics is ever present.

Barely two months after the opening of Parliament following the September 2015 general election, Bukit Batok MP David Ong had to resign after an extramarital affair with a grassroots activist surfaced. Mr Ong's strong win was bound to see a slide in the May 2016 by-election, and the People's Action Party candidate Murali Pillai saw a 12 percentage point slide in votes.

Still, his 61 per cent against Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan was the first time the ruling party won a by-election in a single seat since 1979.

Meanwhile, the Workers' Party saw a challenge to secretary-general Low Thia Khiang's leadership at its party election in May when fellow Aljunied GRC MP Chen Show Mao staged a bid for the top job, in a sign that not all is smooth sailing at the largest opposition party.

However, some of the sharpest political discussions this year had to do with an institution unique to Singapore that was meant to be above politics - the elected presidency.

CONSOLIDATION

At the start of the year, PM Lee appointed a nine-member Constitutional Commission chaired by the Chief Justice to review selected aspects of the 25-year-old elected presidency.

Its remit was to bring the eligibility criteria for candidates up to date given the growth of the economy since the elected presidency with its custodial role over the reserves was introduced in 1991, strengthen the council of presidential advisers, and ensure minorities are represented in the office from time to time.

The commission made a call for written submissions, and got more than 100 from the public.

It also held four public hearings in April and May, and deliberated over its recommendations before submitting them to the Government.

These include updating the eligibility criteria for private sector candidates and reserving an election for candidates from a particular race if no one from that community has held the office for the past five terms - as it was important for the presidency to be a symbol of Singapore's multiracial society.

The release of the commission's report in September and the Government's White Paper in reply did not attract as much debate on the ground as some had expected. But it gained considerable traction in some quarters which saw it as a move aimed at preventing a repeat of the hotly contested 2011 presidential election.

The issue also attracted heated debate in Parliament. While PM Lee's announcement that the 2017 presidential election would be reserved for candidates from the Malay community was welcomed across the board, some felt it amounted to tokenism, while others were not sure it was the right step to take.

Amendments to the Constitution have been passed but the conversation on the elected presidency - including whether the president should remain elected - is one that looks set to continue, and may well resurface as the election nears. But the ground rules have shifted. The changes will make the elected presidency harder for a future government to do away with altogether, and serve as a reminder that multiracialism is a cardinal principle.

In this regard, the consultation and conversation that took place in 2016 boiled down to consolidation.

In other words, ensuring the system that has kept Singapore in good stead since 1965 - a strong executive, a dominant national party that seeks a wide range of views and renews itself, hardwired multiracialism - is updated, with room for further changes, so that the country has the best shot at succeeding in the next 50 years.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2016, with the headline 'A year of consultation, consolidation'. Print Edition | Subscribe