Building trust, Singapore-style: Lim Boon Heng

It is encouraging to see youthful idealism reflected in a young person like Mr Ng Chia Wee. His piece, "How the 4G generation can build trust with my generation of youth" (The Straits Times, May 23), also reflects his concern for the future of the country. After all, the future belongs to his generation.

It is right to raise the issue of trust between leaders and our youth. It goes beyond our youth - it is the whole people. A new leadership benefits from the trust a past generation has forged. This trust, however, has to be forged anew - it cannot be inherited.

But how was trust forged in the past between leaders and people? It was through facing challenges and crises together. Confidence in the leadership was established when that leadership showed that it could deliver. Trust in the leadership was established when that leadership constantly delivered, and Singaporeans enjoyed a better life.

What did the past leadership deliver?

Independence - the right to govern ourselves. With that came also the responsibility for developing our ability to defend ourselves. That ability to defend ourselves is possible only when there is a common understanding between leaders and people that defence is everyone's responsibility.

First, the acceptance of national service (NS). Today, we accept NS as our duty. (At least most of us do). But it was not the case when it was introduced. Later, we embraced the concept of total defence - where everyone has a role, not just the men. When our youth own this responsibility, they, without prompting, will feel empowered to do what is necessary for our security.

The past leadership developed alternatives for us, so we are not held to ransom for our essential needs - be it water or food.


It also meant developing an economy that grows year after year, providing good jobs, so Singaporeans have the money to pay for the better life they aspire to. For that, workers and unions had to understand what is needed to make Singapore an attractive place for investments, because it is when there are investments that there are jobs. It meant developing a harmonious industrial relations climate.

What our past leaders asked of the workers and their unions ran counter to the thinking and practice elsewhere. But over time, our practice of tripartite collaboration has worked to the benefit of our workers.

For an economy to grow from strength to strength, our people needed to be better educated. So it meant developing an education system that will allow each person to reach his highest potential. The past leadership has delivered better housing, and a better healthcare system.

We should never be satisfied with what we have achieved. Our young must have the hunger to want to improve. An example of this hunger is cited by Mr Ng - that "91 per cent of respondents who were not already pursuing a degree wanted one to improve their salary prospects".

In 2012, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had announced that 40 per cent of the cohort would find university places by 2020.

Do our youth agree that those not among the 40 per cent of each cohort should also be enabled to pursue a degree? We should all cheer them for wanting to improve their earnings, but is pursuing a degree the only way? Or should we change our collective mindset that seems to undervalue skills obtained through other means?

In the course of Singapore's development, we have identified some foundational values and principles. A study of our short 50-plus years' history will show us that we have arrived at these values and principles from experience, some of which are bitter and painful. My generation hopes our youth will not have to relearn by similar bitter and painful experiences so as to reaffirm these foundational values and principles.

One set of experiences is racial and religious riots. Out of those incidents we established the values found in the National Pledge.

I do not want to dampen Mr Ng's sense of curiosity. If our youth lose the sense of curiosity we are born with, it will lower Singapore's ability to achieve its potential. So, our youth should continue to question. However, seek the counsel of those who have gone before. In this way, save yourselves from unnecessary painful experiences.

That is not to say there will be no painful experiences to come. There will be. Mr Ng refers to disruption.


Today, we are on the cusp of history. There is a crisis before our eyes. If we do not take action against climate change, and embrace sustainability in all that we do, the earth will be a much less hospitable place very soon. Youth elsewhere have risen to make their voices heard. They are fighting for their future. Our youth can work with our 4G leaders to do our part.

There are other disruptions too, for example, technological change. Many jobs as we know it will become obsolete. How do we enable our workers to reskill? The pain that some will experience can be acute. When our people work with the 4G leaders to overcome present and future problems, that shared experience will forge trust anew.

The relationship between elected 4G leaders and the people cannot be an equal one. The electorate gives them the mandate to govern, so they must lead. When they lead, they must make decisions on behalf of the people, and take responsibility for those decisions.

Not everyone will agree with all the decisions. It may not be possible to discuss until everyone agrees - action has to be taken. It is the leaders who make the call. Should those decisions be wrong, the electorate holds the power to vote them out.

Trust is essential, but fragile.

We need able people to step forward to lead, people who do so for the people, not for themselves. We also need to nurture a people who think about the collective good, not their own.

•Lim Boon Heng is a former secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). This article is adapted from a memo he wrote to NTUC staff.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 28, 2019, with the headline 'Building trust, S'pore-style'. Print Edition | Subscribe