Slower pace of life comes with trade-off, says Shanmugam

Mr Shanmugam (right) at a forum at NUS last night. He painted a stark picture of the scale of the challenges facing Singapore.
Mr Shanmugam (right) at a forum at NUS last night. He painted a stark picture of the scale of the challenges facing Singapore.ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

IF SINGAPOREANS want a slower pace of life, they must also accept a trade-off in living standards, Law and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam said at a forum at the National University of Singapore (NUS) last night.

He painted a stark picture of the scale of the challenges facing the country, as pressures from an ageing society set in and the competition on its doorstep heats up.

There is also a fiscal challenge as public spending already outstrips revenue from taxes in this year's Budget, a situation that is likely to exacerbate in the coming decades. The only reason there is no actual deficit is the income stream from the reserves built up over many years.

Weighty realities like these "keep ministers up at night", he said, as they seek to maintain the focus on the long-term development of the country.

"Many people... assume that all other things will remain the same - I will have this lifestyle, I will have this job, I will have this quality of life, and I can afford to slow down," he said.

"But the real answer is: your lifestyle and quality of life and the state of society will be different. As long as we debate that and agree that that is an outcome that we are prepared to accept, yes, the answer is, we can afford to slow down."

Elaborating on Singapore's internal challenges, he cited population figures: Each retired person will be supported by just 2.1 working adults by 2030, down from the current 5.9, and 13.5 in 1970.

Furthermore, as the proportion of senior citizens grows, they will hold more votes and could potentially push politicians to spend more to benefit their age group - as is the case in Japan.

Such trends will affect the amount of taxes today's young will have to pay in future.

Turning his attention to Singapore's place in the world, the minister raised the possibility that making a living would become much harder for the country.

As Asian countries continue to rise economically, Singapore's status as an air, sea and financial hub, for instance, would come under threat if these functions were replicated in other cities in the region, he said.

He gave the example of how China was, for security reasons, developing a trade route that went through Myanmar, bypassing the narrow Strait of Malacca where its ships could be stopped by "a few submarines".

"And when China says it's going to do it, it will be done," he said, adding that this was a point of great concern for Singapore, since 150,000 jobs here depended on its sea hub status.

But beyond these threats and challenges to Singapore's prosperity, there were opportunities that could be seized, he contended.

He painted a vision of Singapore as the New York of Asean, a region with a combined economy larger than India's, he noted.

Already, through free trade negotiations, Asean countries have done away with three-quarters of tariffs on intra-Asean trade.

If Singapore maintained the rule of law, non-corruptibility and safety, it could become a services centre in the region, and reap enormous benefits, Mr Shanmugam said.

Asked about political competition, he said both one-party and multi-party systems can fail.

But Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and China, he noted, succeeded post-World War II because they had good leadership and political stability.