DPM Heng: S'pore must adapt to change but stay true to its values

Singapore can survive and thrive despite the current global crisis if it embraces change with courage and confidence, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said yesterday during the debate on the President's Address. Here are excerpts from his speech to Parliament.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday said Singapore must take a more integrated approach to economic transformation, redouble efforts to develop every Singaporean to his fullest potential, boost pathfinding capacity to find new bright spots
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday said Singapore must take a more integrated approach to economic transformation, redouble efforts to develop every Singaporean to his fullest potential, boost pathfinding capacity to find new bright spots and seek new ways to be a vital node in the world.PHOTO: GOV.SG

In my maiden speech in Parliament in 2011, I said that all debates in this House will always be guided by one question: "How can we best ensure the survival and success of Singapore, and improve the lives of Singaporeans?"

We have over the years examined this question in different ways.

The question has now become more critical than ever. We began 2020 full of hope, having just commemorated our Bicentennial last year. None of us could have foreseen what was to come - the whole of humanity locked in by a virus; millions of people infected, and lives upended; the global economy plunged into the worst recession since the Great Depression; and the ways we earn a living, go about our lives, and interact with one another turned on their head.

In Singapore, we mounted a swift and robust response. To protect lives, we imposed the circuit breaker. To protect livelihoods, we are doing all that we can to keep our workers in jobs, preserve the core capabilities of our businesses and support households during this difficult period. We committed around $100 billion to fight the pandemic and safeguard our people and businesses from the fallout.

But as a small and open economy, we cannot defy the full force of this global crisis. We have to tackle these challenges amid the underlying shifts that predated Covid-19.

There is a backlash against free trade and sharpening nativist instincts, because the costs and benefits of globalisation have been unevenly distributed. Technology and innovation are reshaping the nature of work, disrupting jobs and businesses. These stresses have in turn caused societies to be polarised... The uncertainties created by Covid-19 have only accelerated these shifts.

To compound matters, governments around the world have financed massive stimulus packages through borrowing, putting an even greater burden on future generations.

It is against this sombre backdrop that we open our 14th Parliament. As the President said in her speech, we are at an inflection point in our history. Now, more than ever, we must ask: How can we best ensure the survival and success of Singapore, and improve the lives of Singaporeans in these unprecedented times?

We can answer this in one line: Adapt to change, but stay true to our values.

Change will leave us behind if we stand still. That we must adapt is a given.


Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat yesterday said Singapore must take a more integrated
approach to economic transformation, redouble efforts to develop every Singaporean to his
fullest potential, boost pathfinding capacity to find new bright spots and seek new ways to
be a vital node in the world. PHOTO: GOV.SG

What will define this term of Government is how we will adapt, that will build a better life for our people. Even as we keep pace with change, we must stay true to the values that have enabled us to progress all these years.

By embracing change with courage and confidence, we build our capacity to adapt. By staying true to our values, we strengthen our sense of common purpose. By working in close partnership, we advance as Singapore Together.

I will speak about how we need to adapt as an economy, a society and a people.

Adapting as an economy

Singapore's economic story over the decades has been one of constant adaptation, restructuring and transformation. Our latest refresh started in 2016, with Industry Transformation Maps to spur sector-specific adaptation throughout our economy.

The effort has borne fruit. Productivity and wages were going up before Covid-19 struck. Industry players have also found new ways of working together to raise the competitiveness of their industries.

Indeed, bearing fruit is not just a metaphor here. I met a fruit seller Jun Sheng, better known as "Ah Boy" at Block 58 Marketplace in Bedok. In addition to operating a physical stall, he sells fruits online and even takes orders via WhatsApp. Many hawkers and small businesses islandwide are also going digital. We must do what we can to support our workers and business, big and small, and make such innovation pervasive.

While we have made progress in industry transformation, we must look ahead and prepare ourselves for even faster and more disruptive change. To emerge stronger as an economy, we must strengthen our capacity in four areas.

First, we must take an even more integrated and coordinated approach to economic transformation.

The economy is very complex, with multiple stakeholders. In our system, tripartism - the Government, businesses and the labour movement working together - has been a tremendous source of strength.

Two years back, as chairman of the National Research Foundation, I visited the Netherlands to learn more about its "triple helix" model of innovation - where government, businesses and academia work together to build knowledge, test prototypes and scale innovation.

Like some research triangles in the United States, the Dutch have done well. This model is being expanded to incorporate other dimensions such as societal responsibility and environmental protection.

 
 
 

In essence, the economy is very complex in how it allocates resources, generates innovative ideas, and in how returns are distributed across multiple stakeholders. While there is a competitive element in this, there are also benefits to be gained from working together for shared prosperity.

Singapore can build on our tripartite partnership to be a test bed that creates deeper linkages with an expanded set of stakeholders - including our education and research institutions, our community groups, and interested partners from around the world. By doing so, we can create good jobs for our people and new opportunities for entrepreneurs.

Second, we must redouble our efforts to develop everyone to his or her fullest potential. In this way, our people can take on new opportunities and flourish in their chosen pursuits. We need a holistic approach for this that spans the lifetime of individuals, from birth to pre-school to schools, all the way to lifelong learning as part of SkillsFuture. I am glad our workers are embracing upskilling, with about half a million taking part in SkillsFuture programmes last year.

And we have to explore new possibilities for developing our people fully.

Third, we must strengthen our pathfinding capacity to find new bright spots amid economic disruption.

Seeking new paths, new connections

Four months ago, we set up the Emerging Stronger Taskforce to identify and seize new opportunities in emerging trends. The task force has made good progress and commissioned seven Alliances for Action. These industry-led coalitions to pilot ideas quickly represent a new, action-oriented approach to pursue specific growth areas.

The ideas being explored are promising. They range from environmental sustainability to smart commerce, supply chain digitalisation and the use of robotics. These can create new growth markets for our businesses and good jobs for Singaporeans.

We will invest in incubating and accelerating start-ups, and supporting established companies to expand their R&D to build competitive strengths. Such a vibrant innovation ecosystem will build up our path-finding capabilities.

Fourth, we must find new ways to be a vital node, with rich and deep interconnections with the rest of the world.

As a small city-state, being open is our strength and opportunity. Unlike other major cities, we do not have domestic hinterlands that buffer us against shocks. We cannot take for granted that, in a post-Covid-19 world, we can continue to be the same kind of hub that we used to be.

We must therefore forge new forms of connections, such as digital economy agreements, while deepening our linkages with regional markets to ride on Asia's potential.

We must also remain open to investment and talent from around the world. In this economic climate, we understand that many Singaporeans are anxious about their livelihoods. Our starting point is that our economic strategies must serve the interests of Singaporeans. The foreign investments we attract must create meaningful jobs for our people and strengthen our corporate ecosystem. Singaporeans must receive fair consideration at the workplace.

We are therefore adapting our manpower policies, including our Employment Pass and S Pass policies, to the changing circumstances, to ensure that Singaporeans' interests are upheld. But to emerge stronger, we must resist any temptation to turn inwards. We cannot close ourselves to the world, or make foreigners unwelcome in our society.

We must always serve the interest of Singaporeans. The best way is to ensure that this little red dot - with no natural resources of any kind, but with a determined, hardworking, forward-looking people - is to remain useful and relevant to the world.

We do this by keeping our economy vibrant and competitive, so that Singaporeans and other people choose to be here, to invest and do business, thereby creating good jobs and opportunities for all of us. Mr Patrick Tay (a labour MP who is National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general) is right that we should create even stronger linkages in the form of skills maps, job redesign, and the retraining and reskilling of our workers, to take on new jobs.

In particular, we must also make a deliberate effort to develop Singaporeans for leadership roles in companies, so that they can take Singapore forward. Singapore, as a regional operational headquarters, has what it takes. Singaporeans, in a multiracial, multi-religious, multicultural environment, can connect with people all around us and build deep linkages with our friends in the region. This is something that we will pursue.

At the same time, we must not undermine the essence of what has made us successful. Even as we adapt to a changing world, we must stay true to our values - our sense of unity as a people, our composition as a multicultural society. We must stay true to our value to the world, as an oasis of harmony in this fractious world.

Adapting as a society

Even as we evolve our economic strategies, our society too is facing new challenges and needs to continue to adapt, to sustain the promise of progress for every Singaporean. We must not let change lead to polarisation.

In the early days of our development, our economy was growing strongly. A rising tide lifted all boats, and most Singaporeans saw their lives improve by leaps and bounds. We invested in our people so that they could adapt and grow with our economy.

As our economy matured, we also strengthened our social safety nets. For example, we improved healthcare affordability, through MediShield Life and Chas (Community Health Assist Scheme), and provided extra support for the Pioneer and Merdeka generations.

We uplifted the wages of our lower-wage workers through Workfare and the Progressive Wage Model. Our social spending has tripled over the last 15 years and this is set to rise further as our population ages.

Looking ahead, our economy will change at a much more rapid pace.

Disruption to jobs will be more common with the greater adoption of technology, such as automation and remote work. We must therefore take an integrated view of our economic and social policies. As our labour movement puts it, a job is the best form of welfare for our people. The Government will continue to invest in our people, match them to new opportunities and bring out the best in all Singaporeans. This way, we will keep social mobility alive.

At the same time, with major changes in the economy and labour market, we will need to adapt our social safety nets and keep inequality in check.

More workers will fall on hard times and we need to enable them to adjust and bounce back through this crisis and beyond. Some Singaporeans are also taking part in the "gig" economy, taking on a wide range of jobs, either part-time or full-time. So our support for self-employed persons will have to evolve accordingly. We must continue to uplift our lower-wage workers and enable our older workers to continue working, if they wish to.

Demands on social safety nets

Various ideas have been proposed on how we can do this, such as a minimum wage, universal basic income and unemployment insurance. The Government will keep an open mind to all these ideas. But we must also recognise there are no magic bullets. Each of these ideas has its merits as well as unintended effects. We have to consider the trade-offs and be clear about what works for our context and our times.

Demands on our social safety nets are increasing, at a time when our revenue base is growing more slowly and with sharper competition for tax revenue across countries. So I must caution against looking for what may appear to be "costless solutions" - somehow, someone else will have to pay for these schemes.

There are trade-offs. If we want higher social spending, taxes will have to go up. Or it will mean spending more at the expense of future generations, like what many countries are doing by raising debt. We must never forget that we have provided almost $100 billion of support for our people and businesses this year, without incurring a single cent of debt, because we were able to fund more than half of this using past reserves.

At the same time, while we must strengthen our social safety nets, we must do so in a way that reinforces, and not undermines, an individual's efforts. A strong compact maintains a balance between the roles of the individual, family, community and the Government, and helps us better cope with change together.

Indeed, a social safety net cannot become a set of shackles. It should not hold down those who started with less. It should not create dependency such that people who get fish for today never learn how to fish for food tomorrow. It should not breed an entitled class who asks: "What more can you do for me?"

A well-designed social safety net protects the vulnerable, invests in human and societal capital, and provides a means for those who fall down to bounce back. It gives hope and builds confidence. It believes in people and lifts the human spirit. It supports every generation to have aspirations and dreams, and for everyone to ask: "What more can we do for one another?"

As MPs debate how we can strengthen our support for Singaporeans, let's keep in mind how new enhancements can be funded equitably and sustainably over time, and strengthen our people's capacity to not only succeed throughout life, but also help others succeed too. These are the values we must strengthen even as we adapt.

Affirming our values as a people

How we can best ensure the survival and success of Singapore, and improve the lives of Singaporeans depends on how well we adapt to change. As we adapt, and in some cases make major adjustments because the circumstances we face have changed significantly, we must stay rooted to our values and identity, and above all, our unity as one people.

I have been encouraged to see how Covid-19 has strengthened our sense of common purpose and brought out the best in us. Many have stepped up to support others. One example is the Masks Sewn With Love project, a community effort that has sewn more than 250,000 masks for vulnerable families.

This sense of unity, through both good times and bad, is rooted in the values enshrined in our Pledge and the distinct Singaporean identity we have evolved through the years.

It will take more effort to maintain this sense of common purpose as our society becomes more diverse. Our society will face new differences along the lines of identity, socio-economic status and political beliefs. There will always be different perspectives on subjects like race, language and religion, and the rights and obligations of citizenship.

It is essential that we rise above our differences and find common ground.

Occasional setbacks need not trip us in our perseverence to continue to make progress. Harmony in diversity will always be a work in progress. We may not always agree, but we cannot afford to let our disagreement turn into division.

Otherwise, change will cause a rupture in society, as we have seen elsewhere. The better we adapt to change and stay true to our values, the stronger we can emerge from this and future crises. The stronger we are at home, the more confident we can be to stake our place in the world and create value with others. This has been our formula for survival and success.

We are determined to uphold a rules-based global order, which has taken us to where we are today. As a small nation that threatens no country, we want to be friends with all and to work with all.

We are both a city-state and a global metropolis. Maintaining this "dual identity" will not be easy. But as long as we are clear about our values and what holds us together, it will be a source of strength that opens up new opportunities. This is our Singapore premium. Let us continue to work with like-minded partners to build a better world, for Singaporeans, for people around the world and for our future generations.

Conclusion

Since our independence, we have weathered one crisis after another, from the withdrawal of British forces and the ensuing massive unemployment, to the 1973 oil crisis, Asian financial crisis, Sars, 2001 IT bubble collapse and the global financial crisis.

All of us in our 50s and older would have lived through these turbulent periods. Each time, Singaporeans would have been called upon to show fortitude and resilience, and work in unity with our fellow citizens. And each time, we have risen to the challenge, adapted and emerged stronger.

The Covid-19 pandemic could be our most severe test so far. To overcome this crisis, we will have to once again draw upon and build on this capacity to adapt and remain united and stand true to our values. We can navigate this period of great uncertainty and change, but our politics must set the right tone for the rest of society

This House must fulfil its duty to articulate and debate policy options, to build a better life for our people and to advance Singapore's place in the world. This is the mandate that has been entrusted to us by Singaporeans. I trust that all of us, whether in Government or the Opposition, will share this common sense of mission, to serve in the best interests of Singaporeans and Singapore.

My colleagues and I in Government have listened to the voices of our people. We have heard and share our peoples' anxieties. We acknowledge the concerns and unhappiness that some have voiced. As the world and our society changes, there will be a greater divergence of views. We will continue to understand your concerns and improve your lives. We will have to adapt to these changes but stay true to the values. The same values that have enabled us to stay united and succeed against the odds.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 01, 2020, with the headline 'DPM Heng: S'pore must adapt to change but stay true to its values'. Print Edition | Subscribe