'OUR SINGAPAORE CONVERSATION'

'Reaffirm, recalibrate and refresh'

Minister outlines guiding principle of national conversation on future

The national conversation on the future of Singapore will be first and foremost about putting Singaporeans at the heart of the country's concerns, said Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat.

It will be an opportunity for Singaporeans to come together and ask what matters most and where they want to go as a people, he added. In short, it will seek to "reaffirm, recalibrate and refresh", he said.

He set out on Sunday the guiding principle of the national conversation he has been tasked to lead, as chief of a committee to engage Singaporeans in taking a fresh look at policies and discuss the future Singapore they want.

The committee has yet to be formed. But in his first National Day Rally speech, ahead of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's address, Mr Heng urged all Singaporeans to get involved in the national effort, "including those who normally stay silent".

Mr Lee later painted in broad strokes the dramatic backdrop awaiting Singapore as countries change, technology advances and events within Singapore evolve.

While Singapore's economic leap from Third World to First World is well known, he asked: "What is the next chapter of this story? Where do we want Singapore to be 20 years from now?"

One major factor will be technological change. Casting his mind to 20 years ago, he noted that national service recruits used coins and phone cards to make calls home. Now, they use cellphones.

The Internet did not exist in Singapore in 1992. Today, Singapore is one of the most wired countries in the world.

"So just think back to those 20 years and ask yourself: 'How you can imagine what 20 years from now will be like?' Not just the technology, but what the technology has done to our lives?"

Entire industries will change, some jobs will disappear, others will be redesigned. The social norms of how people communicate and interact with one another will also evolve, he said.

He gave a glimpse of some technologies that he thinks will have a major impact: unmanned aerial vehicles that one day, may even be used by Singapore Airlines to fly passengers, and machines that can be controlled by brain waves.

Domestically, a more mature economy, an ageing society and a better educated population are already changing Singapore.

But whatever the global and domestic trends, the future of Singapore is not predetermined. "It depends on ourselves: what we make of our resources, our education, our people. What we hope Singapore will be and what we will Singapore to become.

"What we decide, we want to be there, let's get there. We have to set a clear direction, we cannot just be blown off course or drift with the tides onto the rocks."

On his decision to have three new office-holders speak at the Rally, Mr Lee said he wanted "fresh people, fresh voices and fresh ideas for Singapore". He indicated that others may be invited to speak at future Rallies.

Meanwhile, Mr Heng, in outlining what he hopes to achieve in the national conversation, stressed that it must reaffirm what is good and relevant about the fundamentals in Singapore.

But some strengths can be overdone, he warned, and added: "Extreme meritocracy and competition can lead to a winner-take-all-society, with the winners thinking little of others.

"We need to restore a balance to hard-nosed material pragmatism," he said.

Observers see the new format as a bid to make the national conversation open and inclusive.

Said Nominated MP Nicholas Fang: "Calling it a conversation suggests the emphasis is going to be on being more interactive, and a sincere reflection of what people are truly worried about."

Undergraduate Han Dong, 23, said the changes ahead will give young Singaporeans more options in their career, lifestyle and family choices: "So if people want their options to be taken into consideration, they need to take part in the conversation."

Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Inderjit Singh said that while Mr Lee had set broadly, a direction for the future Singapore, "it is still wide open for everyone to come in".

chanckr@sph.com.sg