Govt 'will address issues in national dialogue'

It will take steps to deal with concerns of various groups, says Shanmugam

THE Government will take steps to address concerns raised by various groups in the year-long national conversation, said Minister for Foreign Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam yesterday.

He fleshed out the issues raised by different age groups and the middle class during a Singapore International Chamber of Commerce lunch dialogue with diplomats, senior government officials and business leaders at Marina Bay Sands.

Our Singapore Conversation, as the national dialogue is known, winds up later this year.

Mr Shanmugam said: "We need to deal with those (concerns). We're thinking of a number of things, but I'm not in a position to tell you what we are going to do... We will do some things."

He noted that the national conversation has been a "serious engagement" with Singaporeans from all walks of life, and that they have offered "interesting insights".

On the younger generation, he said: "The younger people... are idealistic, they want to do things... We have got to find ways of tapping that. They are very bright, the (outcome) of the Singapore tertiary education system."

Older people are mainly concerned with retirement adequacy and health care, he noted.

As for the middle class, Mr Shanmugam said one concern flagged is this: "Is my life going to be better than my parents'? Is my child's life going to be better than mine?"

The "step-up ladder progress" here from small flat to condominium to private landed property is "not so easily available" any more, he said.

"At one time, 5 per cent went to university. So if you had a degree, you're guaranteed that you'll have a nice house, to put it in very simple terms.

"Today, 27 per cent go to university, and our landed stock is less than 5 per cent."

Mr Shanmugam also touched on a wide range of issues, including foreign workers, rising business costs and the US-China relationship.

One common bugbear among businesses here, most notably small and medium-sized enterprises, has been the labour market squeeze owing to the tightening of foreign worker quotas.

Mr Shanmugam said Singapore needs to raise productivity. The Government has given businesses time to adjust to cutbacks on foreign workers, having talked about reducing reliance on such labour since 2006, he said.

"It's not as if doors have been slammed shut," he said. "We have got to start looking at productivity... If we don't take these steps now, as an economy, we'll be left behind in the global competition."

On US-China ties, he said: "This is the most important relationship in the world. If it doesn't go right, the rest of us are in trouble."

He added that the US has to understand that China is unlike previous competitors it has faced.

He said: "Japan was a pure economic competitor. Russia was a pure military competitor. China has abilities in both."

alfoo@sph.com.sg