Rules are key, like at school: Ong Ye Kung

Singapore is determined to make itself relevant and important to the world despite its small size, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung.
Singapore is determined to make itself relevant and important to the world despite its small size, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Likening foreign affairs to a schoolyard, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said yesterday that small states - like young children - thrive best in an orderly environment with clear rules.

But the well-being of both states and students depends ultimately on the individual and is not a function of size, he added. "If you do your schoolwork well, you submit your homework on time and are helpful to the rest of your classmates, chances are, the teacher will know you... and your friends will watch your back," he said.

In the same vein, Singapore is determined to make itself relevant and important to the world despite its small size, said Mr Ong, adding that foreign policy begins at home.

"Ultimately, it is about how our country is run, how cohesive our society is and what value we can bring to the world."

Speaking at the annual conference of the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute, he also highlighted how technology has fundamentally changed politics around the world.

Now, politics is at risk of becoming a "round-the-clock competition in public relations as opposed to a contest of big ideas for the future... a divisive rather than unifying force". Voters are "bombarded with excessive information of varying accuracies" and may not be sure if they are getting the right information to make informed decisions.

The narrow interests of small groups "can somehow go viral and be amplified to dominate the national agenda", he said. And using big data, campaign managers can "slice and dice" their voter bases into tiny segments.

"The result is an explosion of issues, causes and interests," Mr Ong said. "When technology shrinks politics to that nano level or even smaller, we can imagine democracy starting to break down too."

He said he believes democracy is healthiest when it functions as a "contest of big ideas".


In the ideal democracy, voters pick the best leaders, the losers compromise and respect the results, and society unites and moves forward, he said.

The conference, which ends today, is on China's Belt and Road Initiative in the Middle East. It addresses topics such as China's policy towards Muslims and the broader geopolitical context.

Mr Ong also spoke on relations between China and the United States, and how the move from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources will impact the Middle East.

The US and China are not likely to go to war as there is an "unprecedented level of interdependency" between them, he said. And despite the intense competition, both countries may eventually find that they have no fundamentally irreconcilable conflict of interest.

"Technology may well be the centrepiece of the contest between the powers in years to come, and there has to be peaceful platforms for both sides to work out such issues," he said.

He also said there will be a long-term shift away from oil as an energy source and that many Middle Eastern countries are already trying to reduce economic dependence on oil and gas.

This shift will change the way the US engages with the Middle East, which will in turn affect US-China relations, he said.

Mr Ong also took part in a dialogue, during which he was asked questions such as how Singapore has handled the challenges that have come about from digital transformation.

In response, he underlined the importance of initiatives such as SkillsFuture to help people catch up with technology. "For you to move forward, leverage on this whole new technology, transform your economy, you've got to bring everyone along," he said. "Digital transformation and the digital revolution makes that a lot harder."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 12, 2019, with the headline 'Rules are key, like at school: Ong Ye Kung'. Print Edition | Subscribe