To earn the trust of the people, each generation of Singapore's leaders needs to be upfront and accountable, as well as find new ways to communicate, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing said yesterday.
Only then can leadership teams make difficult but necessary decisions, while still keeping faith with the people, he added.
Mr Chan, tipped as one of the three front-runners to be Singapore's fourth prime minister, laid out his vision of how each generation of leaders should carry out their duties. He was speaking at the inaugural S R Nathan Hard Seats Lecture, inspired by Mr Nathan's remark that Singapore was built "because his generation did not believe in sitting on cushy seats, but on hard seats".
In a wide-ranging speech, the minister, an economics graduate of Cambridge University, described leadership as one of the things that Singapore needs to get right to continue to thrive. The others were geopolitics, economic survival and forging a sense of nationhood.
"Ultimately, people and government must work together to keep Singapore successful," he told the 90 people at the event organised by the Oxford and Cambridge Society of Singapore.
Mr Chan noted that "trust" was described by late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew as his team's "greatest asset". It allowed the pioneer generation of leaders to be effective and not shy away from making difficult but necessary decisions, such as introducing mandatory national service when the country needed to build a defence force.
Mr Chan listed three things that leaders must do to build trust with their people.
BE CONSULTATIVE AND NIMBLE
Some policies may take longer to bring forth results and the population might become impatient, but each generation of leaders would therefore need to be consultative yet nimble in meeting these needs while managing our finite resources responsibly. These are important so that we do not face a trust deficit or run the risk of citizens disconnecting with or being disenfranchised by the Government.
MINISTER IN THE PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE CHAN CHUN SING
First, they need to be upfront and help people understand the issues at stake and the trade-offs involved in policy considerations.
Second, they must keep finding new ways to communicate with people, especially in an age when "inaccurate or misleading information can 'go viral', possibly clouding a person's view on an issue".
Third, they must be accountable and responsible, he said, adding: "That means making good on our promises. And when there are problems, we work hard to put things right immediately."
It also entails being nimble and consultative in meeting people's needs, while making sure that finite resources are used wisely, he said.
"These are important so that we do not face a trust deficit and run the risk of citizens disconnecting with or being disenfranchised by the Government. We have seen this happen in other countries, and we can't take for granted that it won't happen in Singapore," he added.
On the other challenges, Mr Chan said that businesses, workers and the Government will need to band together to renew and transform the economy in this time of disruption and change, for instance.
While doing so, there is a need to guard against a widening gap between "winners" of the new economy and those who are lagging behind, he said.
Even as we seek to transform the economy, we must also guard against a widening gap between the 'winners' - those who are able to reap benefits from the new economy, and those who are lagging behind. We need to have a broad middle ground that enables us to stay cohesive.
Increasingly, Singapore will need targeted policies to ensure its systems are fair and equitable, he said, describing social mobility as "key to Singapore's social compact".
"We understand the realities of the world and the frailties of human nature, (when) left to themselves, will likely lead to a stratified and ossified society," he added.
With growing contest for influence among global powers, Singapore's leaders must also invest time and effort to help people understand the deeper geopolitical forces at play, he said. This is necessary to maintain unity in the face of "overt pressures and covert influences".
Keeping people united is another key task for each generation of leaders, Mr Chan said.
While some have lamented that this will be more difficult as younger Singaporeans have not faced the existential "life and death" struggles that older Singaporeans went through, Mr Chan did not agree.
He said each generation will have their own challenges and will bond through different circumstances.
"Our challenge is to defy the odds of history - that a small country with little common past, and no conventional hinterland, can survive and thrive with a common future and a set of common values," he said.
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