SINGAPORE - Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong on Tuesday (June 28) called on Singaporeans to offer ideas to shape the future of Singapore, which he described as at a crossroads post-Covid-19.
Their contributions will be part of a Forward Singapore road map to be released in the middle of next year that will set out both policy recommendations and how various parts of society can better contribute to the nation's shared goals, based on its values of a united people and a society that is just and equal.
"I hope to see a society and system that benefits many, not a few; that rewards a wide variety of talents, not a conventional or narrow few; that values and celebrates all individuals for who they are and what they can achieve; and provides all with opportunities to do better throughout their lives," he said.
Mr Wong, who took on the role of deputy prime minister on June 13, was addressing unionists at a dialogue organised by the National Trades Union Congress at the NTUC Centre at One Marina Boulevard.
The year-long Forward Singapore exercise will be led by Mr Wong and will have six pillars headed by his fellow fourth-generation leaders, in areas such as jobs, housing and health.
This is Mr Wong's first major speech since becoming DPM and since being named leader of the ruling People's Action Party's 4G team in April, paving the way for him to be Singapore's next prime minister.
Mr Wong, who is also finance minister, said that it is important to refresh and update the social compact so that it remains fit for the changing circumstances.
"A social compact that is deemed fair by all segments of society strengthens social capital and fosters trust, and this is what enables us to progress together as a nation," added Mr Wong.
On the other hand, the fraying of such compacts across Europe and North America over the past decade as people felt left out of their countries' progress has fuelled the rise of extremist political parties and caused these societies to turn inward and xenophobic, unable to reach consensus on important national issues, he said.
Mr Wong said he understood the struggles that Singaporeans face - perhaps more so today than in the past - and added that he hopes to have honest conversations about these concerns and how to tackle them together.
Students, for instance, feel pigeon-holed in a system where stakes are high from very early in their lives, while graduates and workers are anxious about their careers and being priced out of the property market.
Older workers sometimes struggle to be considered for new jobs after being displaced or retrenched, he added.
"Sometimes, those who do not meet the traditional yardsticks of merit may find opportunities closed to them. They may feel beaten down by early failure, and feel discouraged from trying again," said Mr Wong.
As the world and society have changed and continue to change, it cannot be business-as-usual as today's stable state of affairs can be easily disrupted tomorrow, he said.
He added: "If our social compact fails, a large segment of Singaporeans will come to feel estranged from the rest of society, believing the system is not on their side.
"Trust in the Government and among various segments of society will plummet. Politics in Singapore will turn nasty and polarised and we will become a low trust society, like so many others in Asia and Europe.
"And Singapore, if this happens, will surely fracture."
"Fortunately, Singapore's situation is not as dire as in many of these countries," said Mr Wong.
The city-state is in better economic shape than most, and has shown a strong sense of social solidarity amid the pandemic.
But the country is now at a crossroads - the Russia-Ukraine war fuelling global inflation; rising geopolitical tensions; disrupted supply chains and a more bifurcated world.
Domestically, Singapore is dealing with a rapidly ageing population, a concern about slowing social mobility, and fears of not doing well enough or being left behind.
Strengthening the social compact means Singapore can turn each set of challenges into opportunities, which Mr Wong cited as a key reason for embarking on this exercise.
Mr Wong outlined four key areas where the social compact can evolve: the economy, meritocracy, social support and solidarity.
First, on how the economy is run, Singapore has always relied on open and free markets to grow, but if left unchecked, the workings of the free market can lead to excessive competition and rising inequalities, said Mr Wong.
"That's why we have always tempered extreme market outcomes and resisted a winner-takes-all economic regime," he added.
For example, staying open means accepting some degree of competition from foreign workers and professionals both here and overseas, which can cause anxiety.
Mr Wong said that Singaporeans are always at the centre of everything the Government does, pointing out heavy investments in skills retraining and upcoming legislation to ensure employers uphold fair employment practices.
In the same spirit, the Government will ensure public housing remains affordable, especially for the young and first-timers, and will continue to uplift vulnerable workers through schemes such as Workfare and the Progressive Wage Model.
The progressive system of taxes and transfers will be further strengthened, so that everyone contributes something but those with more give more to help those with less, said Mr Wong.
Second, on meritocracy, Mr Wong said it is still the best way to organise society, but acknowledged its downsides, such as the rich giving their children more opportunities and the risk of privilege being entrenched across generations.
"We cannot abandon meritocracy, but I believe we can improve it and make ours a more open and compassionate meritocracy," he said.
One way to do so is to do more early in the life of every child, especially those from less well-off families, so that the circumstances of their birth do not determine their future in life, said Mr Wong, who noted that the Government has already invested in pre-school education.
Another way is to broaden the conception of merit beyond academic credentials by recognising and developing talents in diverse fields and providing opportunities for people to advance at multiple stages of their lives.
"The most important change is not something that the Government can legislate into reality, because we must all, as a society, learn to value the contributions of every worker in every profession and every field," said Mr Wong.
Third, technological and economic disruptions call for a review of whether current social support is adequate, said Mr Wong.
The Government will study how it can do more to help workers tide over difficult times and how it can provide better care for the growing number of seniors.
But all this requires more resources, so society has to collectively determine how much more the government should spend, and on what, as well as how much more people are prepared to pay to fund this spending, said Mr Wong.
Lastly, on solidarity - Mr Wong said the evolving social compact should consider how to unite Singaporeans and provide for future generations.
"Some things should not, cannot, can never change - like our fundamental principle of multi-racialism," said Mr Wong.
Singapore's diversity is a source of strength, but it also requires constant adjustments to get the balance right - progressively expanding common space while allowing each community as much room as possible to go about its way of life, he added.
A strong social compact must provide not just for this generation but across generations, and "it is our sacred duty not to squander what we have inherited", said Mr Wong.
Mr Wong said he and his 4G team are sincere and committed to listening to and partnering Singaporeans, to build on momentum gained and to apply lessons learnt over the years.
He called on Singaporeans to participate in the exercise, and noted that the journey to take Singapore forward will not be easy.
"I hope we can all approach this with open minds and big hearts, be willing to give and take, as we negotiate difficult trade-offs, so we may arrive at where we want to be, stronger and more united than when we started."