Chan Chun Sing: Situation in Hong Kong has reached breaking point, Singapore can draw four lessons from ongoing developments

SINGAPORE - The situation in Hong Kong has reached a breaking point, said Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing on Monday (Nov 18) as he warned that there would be grave doubts about the Chinese territory's future and the sustainability of its political system if calm is not restored through dialogue.

"We watch with concern, the deterioration of the situation in Hong Kong. This is especially so for those of us with relatives in Hong Kong," he told reporters following one of the most violent weeks of clashes between pro-democracy protesters and police that has left much of the city paralysed.

"Hong Kong's continued success as an economic and financial hub is important for the region and the world, including Singapore," Mr Chan said.

The months-long protests have entered a new phase with university campuses turning into the latest battlegrounds. On Monday, hundreds of protesters remained locked in a stand-off at Hong Kong Polytechnic University with the police. As protesters threw petrol bombs and catapulted bricks, riot police fired back with tear gas and water cannon.

Mr Chan, speaking to reporters at his office at The Treasury, said many Singaporeans have asked if the same could happen here. He added: "My intent today is not to pass judgment on others. But to draw lessons for ourselves. Now what has happened to Hong Kong can easily happen to Singapore if we are complacent or not careful."

Elaborating, he said developments in Hong Kong have highlighted the importance of a well-functioning political system and healthy political culture, as well as of long-term policies and social cohesion, and the need for small states to stay relevant.

Functioning political system

On political culture, Mr Chan said that while political systems need to represent the diverse interests of people, what is more important is to find ways for these different interests to co-exist.

He cautioned that contestation and debate in the absence of concrete and constructive actions will not deliver solutions.

Political systems dominated by parties that only champion narrow, sectoral interests without consideration for the greater good are also not sustainable, he added.

He emphasised the need for political leaders to work closely with the public service to ensure policies are executed properly, and the importance of feedback channels so governments can respond and adjust policies when necessary.

 
 
 
 

In Singapore, for instance, agencies and organisations such as the People's Association, NTUC and feedback unit Reach have helped the Government understand the fears, concerns and aspirations of the people, he said.

"Regardless of political systems and party interests, the exercise of leadership must be to put people's and countries' interest foremost, and in our case, what this government commits to it will deliver. It is our promise to our people in this generation, and the next," he added.

Policies for the long term

The situation in Hong Kong has also shown up the drawbacks of focusing too much on immediate issues instead of long-term policymaking, he said.

"All elections, cannot be just about the here and now, without consideration for the long term future of our people and country," added Mr Chan.

To illustrate his point, he cited the example of how the Government has prioritised national development, especially public housing.

Pointing to suggestions that the Government should use proceeds from land sales to finance its current spending, Mr Chan said: "We are careful to not distort incentives for government to use land sales to maximise profits. Otherwise, it is the public that will ultimately pay."

"We are also careful to not let private developers' interest override wider public interest. Revenue from long-term land sales goes into our reserves to benefit future generations. This is the discipline we adhere to. This is the promise we make to future generations."

All land sale proceeds in Singapore go to the national reserves. At the 2018 Budget debate, Workers' Party leader Pritam Singh had suggested that the Government could use a limited amount of the revenue from land sales to fund its current spending, instead of raising the Goods and Services Tax.

"The ability to access affordable housing and essential services is fundamental to keeping society stable. The transfer of land ownership and properties across generations cannot be at the expense of depriving future generation of opportunities to be rewarded based on hard work and capabilities. It cannot be that those who are rich first will be rich forever without due effort," said Mr Chan on Monday.

Preserving social cohesion

The minister also spoke about the importance of maintaining social cohesion while catering to the diverse needs and interests of different groups.

He urged all parties to think of the wider good of the country even as they champion the needs and wants of specific communities, and stressed that conflicts can only be resolved through dialogue and constructive actions and not violence.

"To insist on maximum individual gains at the expense of the common and collective good cannot be the Singapore way. The pursuit of such narrow interests will instead fracture the political centre for compromise and constructive solutioning," said Mr Chan.

"Conflict resolution is not about telling the government what we want, and have others solve the problem for us. It is about all of us coming together to tackle the issues together. This is the true meaning of the democracy of deeds," he added.

A "democracy of deeds" was Old Guard member S.Rajaratnam's vision for Singapore, where people step up to solve problems instead of opposing simply for the sake of opposing, and Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat recently cited the term in outlining the fourth-generation PAP leadership's approach to governing.

 
 
 
 

Ultimately, said Mr Chan, Singaporeans are responsible for the country's future.

"Regardless of what others say, we must bear the responsibilities and consequences of our own choices and actions. This is why we are against foreign interference in domestic politics," he added.

Small states must stay relevant

Lastly, he said, Hong Kong's experience also raises the issue of how small city-states must remain relevant in a turbulent world.

History has shown that city-states that could not provide oppotunities and hope for their people and did not remain relevant to the world have never lasted long, he said.

"Singapore will have to pick up the pieces ourselves should things go bad or go wrong," he added. "Singapore's continue relevance to the world is never a given. We must work hard, distinguish ourselves and stay exceptional amidst the global uncertainties."

This can be done by growing the opportunities for our enterprises and workers and maintaining a principled perspective on regional and global affairs, for instance, he said.

He called on Singaporeans to remain united and cohesive and adding that Singapore should chart its own path.

"This is the kind of Singapore that we want to have and this is the kind of Singapore we want to pass on to the next generation. Where everyone knows that so long as we work hard we will have the opportunities to succeed and our children will similarly, have such opportunities," he said.