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

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
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.

These changes are not knee- jerk, populist policymaking, Mr Heng said. Rather, they stem from a recognition of the stress on Singaporeans arising from the rapidly changing external environment and ageing demographic.

Reflecting on the process in a final interview with The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao, the OSC chief also said participants in the more than 660 dialogues did not come with just complaints and demands for handouts.

Rather, they largely exhibited a sense of personal responsibility. An example was a suggestion for medical insurance to be "front- loaded" so people pay higher premiums when young for adequate coverage later. This came from a session with university students, he said, evincing forward-thinking and personal responsibility.

He said OSC participants' desire for more assurance in health care and housing was understandable, given global changes and the greying population. "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," he said.

Similarly, the ageing population has sharpened concerns over eldercare and health-care costs. This was why the Government decided the State must bear a bigger portion of health-care costs.

Mr Heng rejected suggestions that the OSC has influenced the Government to move leftward on the ideological spectrum towards accepting a far bigger role for the State in social assistance and levelling the playing field. He said the People's Action Party Government has always balanced growth with equity, as the founding leaders were determined to share the fruits of progress, especially through rising property wealth.

While acknowledging that it was inevitable that the OSC's policy outcomes would get the most attention, Mr Heng tried to direct attention to the broader, intangible impact of the exercise.

It has allowed citizens to appreciate one another's perspectives, put their own in a wider context, and "build a common space".

He added: "As our society becomes more diverse, it is even more important for us to create that common space." This space must rest on a thick layer of trust between the Government and the people, and between different groups of citizens, which can endure amid disagreement, he said.

Racial and religious differences among earlier Singaporeans were overcome because of "great pains and efforts to forge a common space and a common understanding", he noted. As a platform for "meaningful and respectful conversations", he said the OSC has tried to broaden that common space for a new generation.

rchang@sph.com.sg

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