Speech of the day

Evolving to suit the times

A well-calibrated, greater exercise of judgment must permeate throughout our system, said Mr Ong in his speech yesterday.
A well-calibrated, greater exercise of judgment must permeate throughout our system, said Mr Ong in his speech yesterday.

Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung spoke about three aspects of governance that may have to evolve to suit new circumstances. Here is an edited extract:

No city stays successful by standing still. Animals develop sharper claws, longer beaks and harder shells in order to survive. The three aspects of evolution for Singapore I will talk about today are: faster legs, stronger hearts, and wiser minds.

First, faster legs, which means how we make a living. Our post-colonial strategy of attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) remains relevant, but not enough. FDI has many more places to go to.

Many Asian economies are facing headwinds not because there is slower growth in China, but that a new division of labour is emerging in the world, emerging in Asia, and each economy is finding its footing in this new configuration.

For Singapore, I think we must know the markets around us intimately - traditions, customs, taste, language, habits, psychology. It is now necessary to seek our fortunes in the region. This is why institutes of higher education are encouraging overseas internships for their students. We must be able to understand, bridge, operate across different cultures. We must have depth in our know-how and skills.

The next area of evolution - stronger hearts - refers to our resolve to define Singapore and our national identity.

Our identity is not merely derived by a legal fiat that pronounced everyone "Singaporean". There is richness in the identity, drawn from our diversity, our ancestry and cultural origins.

This is why it is critical we make - and continue to make - great effort in living together, side by side, to understand and appreciate each other, and build even larger common spaces. As MPs, we knocked on the doors of many HDB units. Just within one block, I stood before homes with Quran verses, crucifixes, joss stick urns, statues of Ganesh fixed around the front doors. Nowhere in the world can we find this.

Even as we continue to develop physically, we must take pride and care to preserve special buildings, our art pieces, historical artefacts, and our beautiful old trees that provide glimpses into our soul. More young Singaporeans are curious about the paths we have travelled, interested in our history, and proud of it. We should celebrate this because this is a new generation trying to discover its sense of self.

The third area of evolution is wiser minds: the way we make decisions. I have vivid memories of conversations in my family, when I was a child, when we were living in our little flat in Bukit Ho Swee. Getting demerit points for bad driving or a summons for late utilities payment were major family affairs involving family conferences. Inevitably, some auntie of mine would say there was no point in appealing because "the Government operate 'law by law' ". As a kid, I hardly knew any English, but even then I know that that made no grammatical sense. But gradually, I realised it means that rules are consistently applied, with no quarter given.

Similarly, throughout the government administrative system, decisions are often made by strict adherence to rules and criteria, or comparing scores and numbers. We allocate school places by PSLE T-scores and aggregate scores, and award tenders at the lowest price if we are buying - or highest price if we are selling.

At a time where our nation was nascent, certainty of rules and consistency in application were critical. It is an approach that leaves little or no room for personal favours, and hence no scope for corruption.

We must continue to emphasise integrity and stand firm against corruption. But we must also exercise judgment and discretion. This is because the world is now too complex to be reduced to rules and numbers. Rules are made for man, not man for rules. Abiding by rules is part of the standard operating procedure but so, too, must be the exercise of judgment.

There is also the risk that we excessively view ourselves in numerical terms - whether it is scores or rankings. What we need is a clear focus on what truly matters - the worth of an individual, the standing of institutions, of people, of country, which can be captured only in part by numbers.

We are already seeing greater exercise of judgment today.

One big caveat - judgment and discretion sounds good but can cause great discomfort because when there is no comfort in numbers, there is always the fear that the system is not transparent and, therefore, unfair. But relying on one number to make decisions when life is so complex cannot be fair, cannot be just. A well-calibrated, greater exercise of judgment must permeate throughout our system.

Exercising human judgment does not mean we simply use our gut, or bend rules willy-nilly. Good judgment is exercised through training, years of experience, and assumption of accountability. This is far more difficult - but far superior - than simply sticking to rules and numbers.

If we see the world as a living habitat, and Singapore as a living and dynamic creature, then we have to consider nation-building in evolutionary terms. Sometimes, what we need are not billion-dollar schemes but, perhaps, new survival traits to adapt to a more complex and competitive environment.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2016, with the headline 'Evolving to suit the times'. Print Edition | Subscribe