SINGAPORE - Singapore stands at a time of great change, and the country must rethink its problems and evolve its social models and policies to suit the new circumstances, President Halimah Yacob said on Monday (Aug 24).
This includes taking a fresh look at its crucial pillars of society, such as its concept of meritocracy, multiracialism, and the way Singapore conducts its politics, she said at the opening of the 14th Parliament, which for the first time took place at two locations - Parliament House and the Arts House - to ensure safe distancing due to Covid-19.
Sketching out the challenges facing Singapore in its new chapter and the need for a renewed consensus, the president noted that the new term of Government begins under the shadow of Covid-19, which has sharpened global fault lines and disrupted the stable international order under which Singapore has long thrived.
The pandemic has fuelled a new wave of protectionism and this is "especially challenging for Singapore, as we make our living by doing business with the world," she said in her speech outlining the Government's plans and policies in its new term.
At home, Singapore is also at an inflection point, as new generations come of age with their own aspirations, such as a desire for more diverse voices to be heard and stronger checks and balances. New leaders are also emerging to take the country forward, she noted.
"For Singapore to continue to succeed, we need to understand these changes in our external and domestic environments, rethink our problems and improve on our status quo," said Madam Halimah.
For instance, Singapore could not take its hub status for granted. There was an urgent need to transform the economy and push for sustainable growth and a greener future.
Securing jobs for Singaporeans will remain the Government's top priority for the next few years, but it must also ensure the benefits of progress are shared widely with all citizens, she said.
While meritocracy has served Singapore well for the past 55 years, the model has to evolve in tandem with the country's development, the same way social safety nets have been strengthened over the past decade.
As part of this shift in social policy, she said the Government will do more to support every Singaporean, at each stage of life - whether it meant helping them own homes, secure jobs or through their retirement years.
"More redistribution cannot be the only way to level up those who are doing less well," she said. "We also have to continue strengthening social mobility and broadening our conception of merit."
And while multiracialism has since independence been a core element of Singaporean identity, it remains a work in progress, said the president.
Younger Singaporeans wanted these issues discussed candidly, but it must be done with restraint, she added.
Singaporeans need to recognise that there are larger forces at play that will test the nation's solidarity and pull people in different directions, such as causes, attitudes and values from other societies that may not be relevant to the social context here, she said.
Urging against turning inward in the face of tough times, she said: "Our Singaporean identity has been formed and strengthened not by excluding those who arrive later, but by successive arrivals adding to the richness of our society."
On politics, the historic designation of a Leader of the Opposition reflects the larger number of opposition MPs in Parliament, and that both the Government and the Opposition have roles to play to build trust in Singapore's public institutions and achieve good outcomes for the country, the president said.
The Government will be open to constructive criticism, rational debate and a new way of doing things, while the Opposition should propose policy alternatives to be scrutinised and debated besides raising questions and criticisms, she said.
"The key question is how to forge a common cause together, regardless of our own political inclinations," she added. "We need to base our rhetoric on a responsible sense of the realities, and come to a shared understanding about our goals and constraints."
Madam Halimah pledged that the Government will evolve its policies, recognising that no solutions are right for all time, and will listen to new ideas objectively. But where staying the course remains the best way forward, it will convince Singaporeans to persevere.
The Government must not shy away from taking tough decisions in the national interest, or shirk the duty of winning support for such decisions, she added. "In all cases, we will seek to do what is best for Singapore and Singaporeans," she said.
From Tuesday to Friday, ministries will give details of their programmes. Parliament will then debate these plans and policies from next Monday.