Parliament: More room for wiser minds in governing, says Ong Ye Kung

Acting Education Minister Ong Ye Kung spoke of three aspects of governance that may need to evolve because of changing domestic and external circumstances.
Acting Education Minister Ong Ye Kung spoke of three aspects of governance that may need to evolve because of changing domestic and external circumstances.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - There can be more room for the Government to exercise judgment and discretion because the world is now too complex to be reduced to rules, Acting Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said on Monday (Jan 25).

Mr Ong, in his maiden speech in Parliament, talked about three aspects of governance which may have to evolve because of changing domestic and external circumstances.

One aspect that has to evolve, he said, is the need for "wiser minds" - or judgment and discretion - when making decisions.

The society now tends to excessively view issues in numerical terms - whether it is scores or rankings - noted Mr Ong, who is MP for Sembawang GRC.

"We allocate school places by PSLE T-scores and aggregate scores, and award tenders by lowest bid if we are buying - or highest bid if we are selling," he said.


The Government used to operate "law by law" or by the book, he noted. While certainty of rules and consistency in application were critical in the early days of nation building, domestic as well as external circumstances are different now.

"What we need is a clear focus on what truly matters - the worth of an individual, the standing of institutions, people and country, which can only be captured in part by numbers," he said.

In fact, there has been greater exercise of judgment in some cases, Mr Ong noted.

Social assistance schemes are means-tested with criteria, but on the ground, lots of qualitative assessment and judgment are taking place, he pointed out.

"Who is to say a person earning $2,500 but supporting two handicapped parents is less deserving of help than someone living alone earning $1,500?"

Similar, in many public tenders now, price in no longer the only consideration.

But he stressed that exercising human judgment does not mean "we simply use our gut, or to bend rules willy-nilly".

Good judgment is exercised through training, years of experience, and assumption of accountability, he said. "This is far more difficult - but far superior - than simply sticking to rules and numbers."

In his speech, Mr Ong also talked two other aspects of governance which may have to evolve.

They are the need to have "faster legs" or how Singapore makes a living, and stronger hearts or strengthening Singapore's national identity.

On the economic front, China's economic transition will have a major impact even though the United States, Europe and Japan will continue to be major players with important investments in Singapore.

A global economic order is emerging, and "each economy is still finding its footing in the new configuration", he said.

A major change is how the Chinese economy will move up the value-added ladder. The trade surplus Asean experienced with China in the early 2000s has flipped into a big trade deficit because China now produces components, assembles them into final products, and ships them globally.

Singapore must look at China as a consumer base it can tap into, and Singaporeans must be able to seek fortunes overseas.

India and Africa's continued rise will also have global impact, he noted.

On building Singapore's national identity, he said it is critical that Singaporeans continue to make great effort in living together, side by side, to understand and appreciate each other and build larger common spaces.

Singapore should take pride in and preserve its heritage, but also modernise them, he said, citing the National Gallery and the Botanic Gardens as examples.

He concluded by saying that nation building is "evolutionary".

He said: "Sometimes what we need are not billion dollar schemes, but new survival traits to adapt to a more complex and competitive world."