Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Mr Heng Swee Keat shared his thoughts on Singapore’s past, present and future at a recent dialogue session on 30 September, as part of the Singapore Bicentennial Conference, organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKY School) at NUS.
Ambassador-at-Large with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Professor Chan Heng Chee chaired the session. Prof Chan, who is also a member of the NUS Board of Trustees, kicked off the dialogue with questions for Mr Heng: What areas of the British legacy were critical for Singapore, what were founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s most enduring contributions, and how Singapore can prevent its decline.
Mr Heng highlighted Mr Lee’s various contributions in building up the nation, including his focus on multi-culturalism and multi-racialism, and on governance. Mr Heng also highlighted Mr Lee’s concern of Singapore’s place in the world. “How does the little red dot survive in a world of nations and changing power relationships among major powers? What is our role?” asked Mr Heng. “Mr Lee put it very well when he said, ‘For Singapore to continue to survive and prosper, we need to be relevant and useful to the world,’” he continued, adding that this idea is vital in Singapore’s survival.
“Mr Lee’s insight on how we can make Singapore useful and relevant to the world remains the critical challenge. It is a world that is changing so rapidly that we will have to change and evolve many of our systems in order to make our contribution to the world, and if we can no longer make our contribution to the world and are no longer relevant then nobody will be interested in our survival or success. We live in a very interdependent world; we have to learn to do our part, and find systems and areas where we can contribute and build cooperative relationships with countries around the world,” he shared.
The audience was keen to pick Mr Heng’s brain, and questions on a range of topics were raised. These included Singapore’s role in the tension between US and China, how to deal with rising xenophobia, the resilience of Singapore’s multi-racialism to ethnic politics, as well as structural changes that can be made to address inequality.
Mr Heng emphasised the importance of togetherness within Singapore when looking forward. “The future of Singapore depends on the future of citizens, the value system that we have, the character of our people — this is what will hold Singapore together and allow us to go forward. It is this sense of being together and being part of a bigger team. That is why I have spoken so often about the importance of partnership and how different groups of people with different strengths can partner one another to achieve a common objective and a common purpose. If we lose this sense of common purpose and togetherness, whether among our people or around the world, we are in for a bad time, but if we have that sense of purpose and community then I think we can tackle many challenges ahead,” he said.
The Singapore Bicentennial Conference was designed to examine Singapore’s 200-year history since the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819, as well as Singapore’s older story — at least 500 years before Raffles, as a bustling emporium connected to regional trade networks. Through the analysis of Singapore’s history before, during and after the British colonialism, the conference aims to help the audience reflect on how this history can provide a guide to navigating the current uncertain age.
“I’m sure we will all draw lessons, insights and inspirations from our history. This in turn will guide us and give us confidence to navigate this future of change. There seems to be much for us to grapple with, individually and as a society in the face of technological disruption, climate change, identity politics, and the changing world order, amongst others. But as a small open island Singapore has never been immune to dark clouds, to global and regional developments, and to opportunities. History offers insights, and perspectives on decisions we have taken that have shaped our course and how we can remain relevant,” said NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye in his welcome remarks.
Prominent academics and thought leaders were featured at the event, including Professor Danny Quah, Dean of LKY School; Professor Wang Gungwu, University Professor; Professor Tan Tai Yong, Yale-NUS College President; Professor Vineeta Sinha, Head of NUS Sociology; and Professor Brenda Yeoh, Raffles Professor of Social Sciences, NUS Geography. They mused on the various aspects Singapore’s history from a range of themes such as the evolution of trade routes and global powers through the years, the separations and connections formed during Singapore’s colonisation, the period of choices and contestations during the decolonisation process, and managing the diversity and identity of the nation before and after colonisation.
With the understanding of important moments of Singapore’s past, the concluding plenary session featuring Professor of Law and Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Professor Tommy Koh looked ahead, contemplating the challenges of the future and the qualities of leadership that will be needed to address those challenges.