The President's Address at the opening of the 13th Parliament yesterday looked ahead at the strategies needed to overcome the challenges facing Singapore. A mature economy, increasing global competition, an ageing demography, greater social diversity and the continuing threat of terrorism add up to a sizeable portfolio of challenges for any state. They are formidable for a city-state without natural resources. Yet, as Singapore moves into the 51st year of its independence, the legacy of half a century of struggle and success must lie surely in recognising the capacity of Singaporeans to accept sobering truths and respond to them with confidence born of a track record of collaborative successes.
In his Address, the President highlighted five key aims to be achieved in this term of government. They are to keep Singapore safe and secure; to renew the economy; to foster a more caring society; to transform the urban landscape; and to engage and partner with Singaporeans in nation- building. The fulfilment of each aim contributes to a viable vision of Singapore in the coming years and decades.
Thus, Singaporeans who treat their sovereignty as a fact of life - as they should - must not forget that it is based on the hard truths of diplomacy, deterrence and defence. City-states are fragile creations of the international order, threatened with attrition and incorporation into larger entities should they lose the momentum of self-sustenance. Hence the need for a defence force that even other defence forces talk about. It is only in a context of external security that Singaporeans can concentrate on economic restructuring. This will need sharper focus on the links between education, skills, market needs and the longstanding push to step up productivity. Individuals, companies and even parts of economic sectors will feel the heat of ineluctable change.
What must go in tandem with wrenching economic change is a strengthening of social bonds. This must be done by expanding networks of support involving the Government, self-help groups, voluntary welfare organisations and civic-minded individuals. Partnering Singaporeans in nation-building will benefit from the sense of a collective enterprise that a caring society nurtures in its citizens. The transformation of the urban landscape will be a tangible manifestation of the attempt to create a new Singapore.
All this will require political imagination and creative policy-making. The challenge will lie in fine-tuning policies that seek to balance the interests of a society marked by economic diversity, competition between liberal aspirations and conservative beliefs, and the quest for more political space contending with a city-state's default need for decisive governance. Striking the right balance on these scores will be critical.