Clarity of values gives us a compass to navigate future

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat spoke on how Singapore can adapt and thrive at a time of great change, at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum yesterday. This is an edited excerpt.

We live in rapidly changing times.

Historically, changes in the global environment have brought new attitudes, jobs and new ways of life. Whether it's the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, or the end of the Cold War, or China's reform and opening up, these major changes affect all of us.

As a small state, Singapore has limited influence to shape the world to suit our own needs. To succeed, we must be pragmatic and have a strong sense of reality. But this does not mean that we stay passive. On the contrary, we must plan, adapt and make the best of the world. We need to act purposefully, guided by a set of ideals and values.

How do we prepare for the future, when there are so many unpredictable and complex changes ahead? Most of us care about whether we can make a good living, live a good life and make a difference to others. Changes around us will affect all these three goals.

If we project what matters to us at the national level, it can translate into three action areas. We develop an adaptable and innovative economy; we nurture a caring and strong society; and we build a secure and resilient Singapore.

ADAPTABLE ECONOMY

Developing an adaptable and innovative economy is what we are working on in the Future Economy Council. At the economy level, we are driving innovation, internationalisation and connectivity to keep our economy vibrant, open and connected to the world. We are strengthening our enterprises and industries through the Industry Transformation Maps. And we are enabling Singaporeans to stay relevant through SkillsFuture and make lifelong learning a way of life.

CARING SOCIETY

We envision a caring, cohesive, strong society, where we respect and care for one another, where we each play a role, and we all move forward together. This includes our seniors, who will form a large part of our society as our population ages. I hope we nurture a society where our seniors are valued, respected, engaged and happy.

For our seniors - we are strengthening retirement adequacy, improving healthcare access and affordability, and building strong social networks through efforts like Community Network for Seniors. We will continue to care for families by helping young Singaporeans own their first home and stepping up support for pre-schools. And Singaporeans must continue to partner one another, and contribute through philanthropy and active citizenry, to make Singapore a more caring and inclusive home. And on that note, I am very happy to see that ST has your Causes Week, profiling individuals and organisations for doing this good work.

SECURE SINGAPORE

On the security front, we will continue to invest in our security, and collaborate with our neighbours, to keep Singaporeans safe against both conventional and unconventional threats. Through SG Secure, we are training all Singaporeans to play a part in preventing and dealing with terrorist attacks. We will make better use of technologies to prevent, detect and manage security incidents. Perhaps our best defence will be our people, the strength of ties and kinship that make up our social fabric.

These are all major investments for the long term - in our people, and in our future. Whether we can do well will depend very much on: how well we understand our own identity and values; how faithful we are to our values as changes put us under stress; and how honestly and openly we as a people and a government converse with one other to figure out and act on the steps ahead together.

And it will depend on whether we have the means to put our visions and values into action.

This will require us to preserve fiscal sustainability. This is about staying responsible and spending within our means. As expenditure increases and revenue growth slows, we must think of ways to manage expenditures and raise revenues. Fiscal sustainability is also about preparing for revenue risks in the face of technological changes and evolving business models.

How do we do this for Singapore? Our system must remain pro-growth. Our overall system of taxes and transfers must remain fair and progressive. We must keep our revenue base diversified.

We need to appreciate that reality is complex, multifaceted and constantly changing. Dealing with such change can be difficult and disconcerting, as it requires us to constantly adapt and learn. We cannot approach it as a technical exercise, of checking off a list of steps in sequence.

This was a distinction made by Professor Ronald Heifetz at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He observed that technical problems can be solved by good analysis and having the right resources, but adaptive challenges require much more fundamental changes, in how we think and interact with others; and self-reflection, to clarify our own values and those around us.

How should we approach the future as an adaptive challenge? We need three critical ingredients.

CLARITY OF VALUES

First, we need to always be clear about our values, as they provide us with the compass to navigate an uncertain future. What do we stand for? What kind of society do we wish to build? We cannot answer any questions about how to respond to what's happening around us, unless we first know what we hold dear inside us. For us, it is to build a fair and just society, where all of us, regardless of race, religion or background, have the opportunities to realise our aspirations and be the best that we can be.

GOOD GOVERNANCE

Second, we need good governance and good leadership at all levels, in the private, public and people sectors. Our leaders must be guided by a mission - a mission to create opportunities and build a better future together, with our people and for our people. We need to maintain a high level of trust, and do so by communicating our considerations, our challenges and our plans frankly and honestly.

The consequences if we fail to do so are severe - loss of trust, a divided people, a society that turns inwards from the world and loses its ability to adapt and innovate.

As cautionary examples, we need look only at the backlash against globalisation and surge in support for extremist populist parties in some developed countries, as citizens feel that elites in society have creamed off their fair share of the fruits of growth.

BUILD TRUST

Third, in creating the future, we need to provide the foundation for good governance, we need to build a high level of trust, for social and cross-cultural capital.

Social capital involves the trust that the public has, in its leaders, as well as in each other - trust that as fellow Singaporeans, we will support one another as a community, and make personal sacrifices for the mutual good.

For Singapore, we should go beyond building domestic social capital. As a small nation, we have thrived on being an open and constructive player on the international stage. We must continue to stay open, and build the cross-cultural social capital and relationships that will allow us to harness the benefits of globalisation. We must encourage and support our young people, for them to learn more about the world.

As individuals, firms and the Government, we must continue to build strong ties with our overseas counterparts, seek opportunities in new markets, and encourage the exchange of ideas and innovations.

Only then can we create a better life for others and for ourselves.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 06, 2017, with the headline 'Clarity of values gives us a compass to navigate future'. Print Edition | Subscribe