Government to ensure growth becomes more inclusive

Mr Heng signalled impending policy changes in his speech yesterday.
Mr Heng signalled impending policy changes in his speech yesterday.

But trust between Govt and citizens is critical ingredient, says Heng

EDUCATION Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday signalled impending policy changes on several fronts including housing, as he sketched out how the Government intends to ensure that growth becomes even more inclusive.

Underpinning the way forward, however, must be the "critical ingredient" of trust between the Government and citizens, he said in a speech at an Economic Society of Singapore function.

Speaking ahead of the Prime Minister's National Day Rally speech on Aug 18 - widely expected to contain policy shifts informed by the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) exercise which Mr Heng heads - he sketched out elements of a "fairer and more just society".

These include giving lower-income Singaporeans substantial benefits to own a home, something that would be a "tangible way to share the fruits of success".

Another way: taking "special care" of the health-care needs of the pioneer generation of Singaporeans, which Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam also mentioned on Sunday.

There must also be targeted assistance for the needy and a progressive tax system to avoid excessive inequality, Mr Heng said, noting that the Government intends to build on the current progressive system where the wealthy pay the bulk of taxes.

Turning to education, he said that his ministry is "looking at various ways to let off some of the pressure that has built up (in the education system) over the years".

But he added that it would not swing to the other extreme, and that "it must still be part of the Singaporean psyche to want to pursue excellence".

In the 35-minute speech that preceded a question-and-answer session at the event at Mandarin Orchard hotel, Mr Heng also summed up the main aim for the OSC exercise, which will release its final report this week.

This is to build "adaptive capacity" - which enables systems to survive and thrive when the environment they exist in changes.

The way Singaporeans have sat down in diverse groups to discuss their aspirations allows them to empathise with others, see how the perfect solution may not suit someone else, and learn to compromise, he said.

The OSC process is hence critical in building trust among Singaporeans and between the people and the Government, he added.

Referring to terms from the work of Harvard professor Ronald Heifetz, Mr Heng noted that Singapore is in a good position to solve its "technical problems", which require good analysis and the right resources.

But adaptive problems require the distillation of common values, the presence of "implicit mutual trust" between the public and its leaders, and the inclination to make personal sacrifices for the mutual good, he said.

Singapore's success, he said, requires building up the latter.

Mr Heng, a former Monetary Authority of Singapore managing director, also touched on how the global financial crisis has shown that the Government must play a multi-faceted role of "enabling, regulating and stabilising markets".

It must work proactively with businesses to restructure the economy before major weaknesses manifest; it must intervene in housing and health care to achieve socially desirable outcomes; and it must actively build and maintain strong macro-economic fundamentals, he said.

On the last point, he emphasised that Singapore is a price- taker in a tumultuous world buffered only by its reserves.

rchang@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Melissa Tan

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