Politics took centre stage at this year’s Singapore Perspectives conference, organised by the Institute of Policy Studies at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS. Held on 20 January, the Institute’s flagship event aimed to reflect on the paths Singapore has taken over the years, the implications for the Republic’s political institutions and values, as well as emerging forms of citizenry. Over the one-day event, speakers mused on the forms that Singapore politics should or will take in the immediate and near future.
Mr Heng Swee Keat, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, opened the conference with a keynote speech. He highlighted the various forces such as nativism and populism that have fractured the political consensus of many countries across the world, and the internal diversification within Singapore in terms of needs, aspirations and views. Mr Heng emphasised the need for the country to maintain its sense of ‘we’ as a people, and work together to build a shared future.
“In the decades after Independence, our founding fathers fostered a sense of nationhood by introducing policies that gave people a stake in Singapore,” said Mr Heng. These policies included investment in education and housing policies.
“Together, these policies meant that every Singaporean, regardless of race, language or religion, had a chance to live well, age well, and a chance to make the future better for their children,” he said, adding that this created a reservoir of trust between the citizens and the government which led to a greater confidence to make sacrifices for the greater good and for future generations.
In the face of the divisive forces in action across the globe, Mr Heng believes that this trust needs to be maintained and strengthened, both between Singaporeans and the government, and between Singaporeans.
“We must find new ways to come together, reaffirm what we hold in common, and work collectively towards a shared future,” said Mr Heng, indicating the “Singapore Together” movement he launched in June this year with this objective.
“We want to mobilise the passion, creativity, and can-do spirit of Singaporeans, as we find common cause, experiment with new ideas and solutions, and beat the odds together.” Under the movement, Singaporeans are directly involved in designing policies, shaping the physical environment, as well as engaging with the Budget.
“Singapore Together will be our new cornerstone of nation building; a way of working that reflects and strengthens our shared ownership of Singapore’s future,” he said.
The importance of togetherness also marked Minister for Trade and Industry Mr Chan Chun Sing’s dialogue with the audience at the close of the event. Mr Chan offered up three hypotheses to ensure Singapore is able to build a political system and culture to “keep us going, growing and glowing”.
Acknowledging the need for plurality, debate and diversity of ideas in a country, he said that these have to finally lead to conversions and action — “the true test of democracy in action”.
“Today in many societies and democracies, we indeed see plurality, diversity and debate, but we have yet to see many societies where all these lead to convergence in action. Instead increasingly, we see compromises and consideration for the broader societal interests, giving way to narrow sectorial interests. The result is that the longer term interest of the future generations is often sacrificed,” said Mr Chan. He challenged the participants to think about the sort of politics they would want for Singapore, not just for the next four or five years, but forever.
Mr Chan also highlighted the need for gumption to evolve the political system to remain relevant with the changing needs of the time and to anticipate and pre-empt problems. He also stressed the importance of having the right ethos for a political leadership that is capable, committed and has conviction. “We need good and real political leaders, and not just politicians for the short haul,” he said.
During the question and answer segment part of the dialogue, Mr Chan took the opportunity to share his long term vision of the future for Singapore.
Musing on the past, he said, “The last 50 over years of our existence has been an aberration in the history of Singapore, and the history of this part of the world. If we go back a few hundred years, Singapore has never been independent and some would argue Singapore has never been allowed to be independent. Because as a small city state without the natural conventional hinterland, it is very difficult to survive without those external links for resources, supplies, markets, talents and so forth.”
Hence, looking forward, he hopes that Singapore will “defy the odds of history and show the world how a small city state without natural resources, without a common ancestry can come together, value add to the world, contribute to the world, and bring forth people with a common set of values and vision”.
“To survive and thrive, whereby it need not have a common ancestry race, language and religion, that we can define our identity based on the forward looking set of values of multiculturalism, meritocracy, and incorruptibility. That will define a future where the future is in our hands, that we are not beholden to others, nor held ransom by others,” he said.
“To make sure that there will be a Singapore that all our children, and future generations can be proud of.”
Singapore Perspectives 2020 also featured prominent speakers from NUS including NUS Middle East Institute Chairman Mr Bilahari Kausikan, NUS East Asian Institute Senior Research Fellow Dr Lam Peng Er, as well as representatives from the media, industry, and social service sector.
Some 1,120 participants attended the conference, including civil servants, academics, students, business leaders, and politicians. There were also representatives from foreign embassies, non-governmental organisations, voluntary welfare organisations, and civic groups.